Brocker.Org: Robots are going to take a lot of jobs — here’s what we could do about it


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WASHINGTON — For all the talk of robots replacing humans
on the job
in schools

even in bed
, students
at Everett Community College in Washington State are preparing
for a robot future.

A steady stream of laid-off workers have come to the college for
retraining, says Ryan Davis, the college’s dean since 2013.
 Many are in the school’s technology and robotics programs,
and the school’s proximity to a large Boeing facility makes the
aerospace program a popular one.

Many of them, particularly those who had worked in manufacturing
or clerical positions, are in school because their jobs had been
automated or computerized. Some of their employers even went
bankrupt, he says. And now, looking to make themselves viable,
the employees are trying to learn how to work alongside the
robots that had replaced them.

“Folks that are retraining are the hardest [to place] across the
board,” he said, adding that recent high school graduates often
fare much better. “Those students
really struggle the most and we try to give them the most

The notion that workers’ skills can suddenly become obsolete
highlights a lively debate over how much and how fast technology
will take over the workplace. And there’s concern about whether
the US’s institutions and social safety nets are equipped. It is
also a microcosm for a widespread problem in the United States: a
deep lack of preparation and few policy options to help workers
absorb economic shocks like automation, productivity gains,
geographic shifts and, perhaps most importantly, deep economic

It is this void, and the anger within it, that helped elect
Donald Trump to the presidency.

The impact of automation on work

is most salient in manufacturing

but is increasingly
affecting traditionally white-collar, services jobs
, Davis

Long-term unemployment and
underemployment have been particularly acute in the wake of the
Great Recession, and
have not returned to pre-crisis norms
alongside the overall
jobless rate, now down to just 4.5% from a 2009 peak of

while not a primary source of job loss, plays a role in the
phenomenon because workers’ skills tend to become obsolete more
quickly, making it tougher to re-enter the job market after
longer spells of joblessness.

Against that backdrop, a number
of policy solutions, many still controversial, have begun to
circulate. They’re aimed at dealing with the kind of chronic
joblessness the rise of automation could usher in. Here is a
review of some, including their pros and cons.

Universal Basic Income

Perhaps the most well-known concept, currently being tested
on a small scale
in places like Canada
, is universal basic income. It’s a simple idea
really: every citizen, regardless of employment or income,
receives a periodic check from the government, enough to survive
on, but nothing to write home about. The premise is that by
giving the entire society a financial cushion without strings
attached, governments could save money by eliminating costly
social programs like welfare and unemployment benefits, in
addition to creating incentives for individuals to take risks,
start businesses, change jobs, return to school or try a new

Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian and basic income advocate, gave
a talk on the subject at this year’s TED Talks conference and
received a standing ovation.

“Poverty is not a lack of
Poverty is a lack of cash,” he told
the crowd.

People in poverty tend to
eat less healthfully, save less money and do drugs more often
because they don’t have their basic needs met.”

Davis, of Washington’s Everett
Community College, is also a big proponent: “Most people would
benefit,” he said, arguing it could spur entrepreneurship by
giving middle-class households some financial breathing room to
take risks they would otherwise spurn.

Still, critics of basic income
point out that getting a check from the government may help, but
it doesn’t come close to the sort of fulfillment that comes with
having a job that allows individuals to fulfill their

“Discussions about a guaranteed
minimum wage are interesting and might work in some cases. But
they are like giving the hungry food relief,” says
Calestous Juma
, a professor of international development at
Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“Humans don’t exist to shop. They aspire to have purpose in life,
to enhance their competence or mastery and express their
individuality through autonomy and creativity. This suggests to
me that broader access to emerging technologies would benefit
society more than palliative guaranteed minimum wages.”

Here’s another sticking point for
universal basic income: Why not give money to everyone, even the
wealthy, and not just to those who need it? Advocates argue, not
without reason given widespread support for universal programs
like Medicare and Social Security, that targeted programs are
easy targets for future elimination, exactly because they lack a
broad-based backing. The other issue is that means-testing incurs
a whole set of costs and social judgments that cloud the
simplicity basic income is trying to avoid.

The negative income tax

The notion of a guaranteed
minimum income, which sounds pretty liberal by today’s political
metrics, is actually closely related to the idea of a very
conservative economist, University of Chicago professor and Nobel
laureate Milton Friedman: a negative income

“The proposal for a
negative income tax
is a proposal to help poor people by
giving them money, which is what they need, rather than as now,
by requiring them to go before a governmental official, detail
all their assets and their liabilities and be told that you may
spend X dollars on rent, Y dollars on food and then be given a
handout,” Friedman said during a 1968 interview. “The idea of a
negative income tax is to treat people who are poor in the same
way we treat people who are rich. Both groups would have to file
tax returns and both groups would be treated in a parallel

The concept is basically the
same, of creating a social safety net of wages below which no
worker shall fall. However, in this case, the program would work
like an expanded version of the
Earned Income Tax Credit

, and therefore only target those who need
the money rather than the entire population. His idea was that it
would simplify a larger social welfare bureaucracy while
ensuring a modicum of equal opportunity for

And by being
targeted, the price tag would probably be a
whole lot lower than UBI.

The government jobs guarantee

Another way to deal with sudden
unexpected layoffs — “dislocations” to use the economist’s
preferred euphemism — caused by factors ranging from automation
to foreign competition is to directly tackle the underlying
problem itself: Creating jobs.

This is a much more progressive proposal that would involve the
government actually making jobs, primarily in sectors not
adequately served by the private sector like elderly and
childcare, health, education and the arts, that are sufficiently
well paid to sustain a decent living but not so high as to “crowd
out” activity in the private sector. The proposal —
 also known as
“employer of last resort
” in a nod to the Federal
Reserve’s role as lender of last resort during financial crises —
has little political traction and is championed primarily by
leftist academic economists. Still, policymakers stumped by the
problem of persistent unemployment may be dusting off those
textbooks and policy briefs sooner rather than

fdr dogAP

A broader social safety net

A recent high profile economics paper highlighted a
worrisome trend of
“deaths of despair” among white American workers
who had lost
all hope. 

What the paper failed to mention was that America’s social safety
net is much weaker than those of other rich countries, making the
comparison a difficult one. Think universal healthcare,
affordable education, accessible childcare options — all
hallmarks of the European welfare state, for better or worse.
While some economists have argued such programs have actually
been growth retardants in the long-run, it’s hard to dispute they
make it easier to get through a recession. Germany, for instance,
used its more constructive relationship between businesses and
unions to work out job-sharing schemes during the recession that
allowed workers to keep their jobs while reducing their hours
temporarily. Germany’s jobless rate, unlike the US’s 10% peak,
maxed out at 6.6% in 2008. Germany also
offers ample lessons for other countries in terms of its renowned
apprenticeship programs, credited with sustaining high levels of
manufacturing employment despite increased mechanization.

The robot tax

A more recent idea that’s popped
into the radar screen of automation-watchers is that of
a tax on robots
. Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of
Microsoft (whose computers were not taxed as robots), first
floated the notion, which has since become widely

Stephen Hawking is even more apocalyptic,
calling for a “world government” to stop a potential takeover of
human society
by artificial intelligence.


Larry Summers, former Treasury
Secretary, Harvard economist and financial industry consultant,
thinks taxing productivity-enhancing tools like robots or
machines makes no economic sense. “Staving off progress is a poor
strategy for helping less fortunate workers,”
he wrote in a recent op-ed in the Financial Times.
usually agree with Bill Gates on matters of public policy and
admire his emphasis on the combined power of markets and
technology. But I think he went seriously astray.”

Productivity conundrum

“The fact that we’ve got a lot of
jobs is a good thing — we wanted that. But the fact that you
could create that many jobs in the context of growth that is so
low points to a significant problem, and the problem is
productivity growth is very low,”
Fed Chair Janet Yellen said on April 11.

Juma of Harvard says automation,
while generally beneficial, has always imposed some costs.

“The difference is
that the pace and scale of change is likely to be highly
disruptive and so the growing anxiety cannot be wished away.
Musical innovation did not create fully mechanized orchestras but
fully robotized factories will be a common industrial sight in
the near future,” Juma said.

Robots are no different than prior technologies in that
they are a resource that enriches those who control it. The issue
is, therefore, one of distribution, not automation, he

“Robots will never be our
masters, but those who own them will be.”