Automation will undoubtedly transform the workforce, the economy, and society as a whole. Robotics, sophisticated "AI" software, and other technologies will cause lasting and profound changes in the future. But that's no reason to ignore the problems we're facing right now.
In fact, the best way to ensure that we have a more equitable economy tomorrow is by fighting for one today.
Two recent commentaries addressed the "robot question." One, by Don Lee, ran in the Los Angeles Times under the headline "Reality check: Manufacturers returning to US may mean jobs for robots, not people."
Lee cites two companies that are using highly automated new technologies to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. from China. Because of that technology, far fewer jobs were created by their return than had been lost when they first moved their manufacturing overseas.
Lee summarizes one such story by saying that "what (it) actually shows is not how easy it would be to bring back manufacturing jobs, but how small the results can be, thanks largely to the very thing that made the return possible: automation."
But these companies seem to have brought their manufacturing back to the US because of automation, which is not equally as advanced in all areas. They do not seem representative of industry overall.
Automation is likely to become a major job-killer. But these two anecdotes aren't the "reality check" that Lee suggests. Robots aren't taking over, at least not yet. That can be seen in the data. As economist Dean Baker has pointed out, the rate of productivity growth has slowed in recent years. That's the opposite of what we would expect to see if automation was already transforming the workplace.
We shouldn't use tomorrow's threats to avoid solving today's problems.
Brave new rant
David Ignatius takes a deeper look in a column headed "The brave new world of robots and lost jobs," writing:
"The political debate needs to engage the taboo topic of guaranteeing economic security to families -- through a universal basic income, or a greatly expanded earned-income tax credit, or a 1930s-style plan for public-works employment."
That's exactly right. But Ignatius is also overly dismissive of today's workforce challenges when he argues that "economic security won't come from renegotiating trade deals" or "rebuilding infrastructure."
"These are palliatives," says Ignatius. "Ranting about bad trade deals won't begin to address the problem."
But which problem? "Ranting" about trade (if you accept the negative characterization; I don't) may not solve the problem of future workers displaced by automation. But a smarter trade policy could bring jobs back to the US in the interim. More could be protected by rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
And millions of additional jobs could be created -- here and now -- by fixing our crumbling infrastructure, an effort that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates would cost $3.6 trillion between now and 2020. That would strengthen the economy's foundations before the robot apocalypse arrives.
And why do we assume it will be an apocalypse, anyway? We didn't always.
Waiting for George Jetson
People believed that radical new forms of automation were imminent in the 1950s and 1960s. But, back in those post-war boom years, people wondered how everyone would cope with their newfound prosperity. Sociologist Ikutaro Shimizu predicted "the coming of the leisure-age." Walter Cronkite told listeners in 1967:
"Technology is opening a new world of leisure time. One government report projects that by the year 2000, the United States will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations as the rule."
Some researchers predicted a 16-hour workweek. That's only one hour more per week than George Jetson, the dad on popular cartoon The Jetsons, spent at his futuristic (but familiar-looking) job. The burning question of that era was, How will middle-class Americans live meaningful lives when they no longer have to do much work?
Now the robot revolution brings fear, not hope. What changed?
Those predictions were made in an era when productivity gains were shared more or less equally between wage earners and business owners. Since the end of the 1970s, workers have largely been excluded from productivity gains.
In the 1960s, people assumed that increases in our national wealth would always be shared by everyone. Today we assume those gains will only go to the powerful few, because that's what has happened in recent decades.
A more equal future
But that's not an immutable law of economics. It can be changed by reducing the undue influence of the powerful few on elections, regulatory agencies, and law enforcement. It can be changed by leveling the playing field for economic interactions that range from mega-merger approvals to product liability issues, and from bank regulation to cable-TV customer service agreements. It can be changed by increasing the bargaining power of workers.
We don't know what work will look like in the coming decades. For some people, it may not be called "work" at all. But the struggles of the future are likely to resemble those of the past in many ways. A short- and medium-term agenda of job creation and wage growth will increase the economic and political power of the middle class in preparation for that future.
In the end it's about power. Power isn't won by waiting for tomorrow. It's won by challenging entrenched interests, here and now. Without organized resistance on issues like trade, infrastructure, and wages, there will be no political space to debate the kinds of innovative solutions cited by Ignatius.
We need to prepare for a future in which advances in productivity -- from technology or other sources -- are shared more equally than they are today. To do that, we must build a more equitable economy today.