Rise of the Job Scarcity Meme
By Staff News & Analysis - March 27, 2013

The Rise of Robots – and Decline of Jobs – Is Here … Last night, 60 Minutes aired an interesting report on the rise of robots in the workforce – a subject we've covered extensively. What they concluded was the robots we're seeing aren't necessarily the R2-D2's and Short Circuits of science fiction – the ones that become so self-aware that they challenge our authority, or in the worst-case scenarios (think Will Smith's I, Robot or 2001 A Space Odyssey), stage a coup and take over. − The Fiscal Times

Dominant Social Theme: Robots are going to ruin the economy.

Free-Market Analysis: We've written about this before – the idea that robots are going to deprive people of jobs − and pointed out that it is basically another economically illiterate dominant social theme.

The larger mainstream media sells news based on these kinds of scare tactics. And there are larger reasons to promote them as well. But bottom line, if it is new and newsworthy someone somewhere will figure out a way to frighten people with a gloomy and even catastrophic analysis.

This article in The Fiscal Times is only one of a number that are emerging in what could certainly be seen as the establishment of a kind of "robot meme."

Fear the robots! Here's more from the article:

They're taking our jobs. Lots of them – and it's already begun … "There are lots of examples of routine, middle-skilled jobs that involve relatively structured tasks and those are the jobs that are being eliminated the fastest," Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of information technology at MIT, [explains]. "Technology is always creating jobs. It's always destroying jobs. But right now the pace is accelerating. It's faster we think than ever before in history…and we're not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to."

The percentage of Americans with jobs is at a 20-year low, according to the 60 Minutes report, and the largest, most influential companies that in the old days would have hired many thousands of employees, simply don't need as many people. In 1979, for example, General Motors employed 853,000 worldwide. Today, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google have something close to $1 trillion in market capitalization. But together, they employ fewer than 150,000 people– less than the number of new entrants into the American workforce every month.

Robotics expert Martin Ford, author of The Lights In the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, has been warning economists of this phenomenon for years – and has analyzed what the future could look like if the current pace of robotic advancement continues.

The Fiscal Times ran an interview with Ford back in July 2011. In it, Ford warns about the scary economic consequences that could take place if we sit back and do nothing.

TFT: The common argument is that technology advances society and creates jobs. Are you saying it no longer will?

MF: So far, advances in technology have allowed us to become more prosperous and push economic growth, but the reason it's made workers more productive is because machines and computers have been tools. At some point, we're going to get to where machines stop being tools to be used by workers and they become workers in their own right. Without an income, people can't participate in the economy. Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton, has been talking about how productivity increases in the economy are no longer transmitted to workers in the form of wages. Nowadays when we see productivity increases, [the financial benefit] ends up at the top; it goes to the CEO, to the shareholders, but workers don't get any of it. It's hard to have more prosperity under this system because as workers start to lose jobs and see lower wages, they can't participate in the economy as consumers.

This sort of response is really incredible. Once additional workers in the guise of robots flood the economy they will push out regular workers. It never occurs to Ford, apparently, that he could make the same argument regarding human babies, as babies grow up and "flood the market."

It is the rankest kind of nonsense. For one thing, if robots do prove as effective as Ford believes they will be, then people may gain more free time as a result. If you don't accept this argument, and it is not a mainstream Austrian one, then certainly there is the argument that increased efficiency creates increased wealth.

This is a straightforward concept. If industry is more efficient then more developments will provide more jobs with ever higher degrees of sophistication. Even if robots will have to be created to support these new developments, there will be plenty of employment.

What saps employment from an economy is monetary inflation and subsequent busts. Concentrate on reforming the banking system rather than worrying about machinery taking over. Robotics advances technology. The Luddite mentality that advances are destructive and job sapping should have been discarded a century ago.

Of course, we notice the solution being advocated by people such as Martin Ford is redistributive. He wants government to get involved in subsidies that support displaced workers. Create a problem and then advocate for a government solution. The equation never seems to vary.

After Thoughts

Don't be fooled. The market works. Robots won't steal your job. The Industrial Revolution didn't, either.

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