The Economist takes on the problem of mechanization and enormous inequality, by @DavidOAtkins

The Economist takes on the problem of mechanization and enormous inequality

by David Atkins

I've written frequently about the impact of mechanization on the labor market and its dramatic implications for 21st century economics, particularly as technology eliminates many white collar jobs in addition to blue collar ones. But who am I, right? Just some lefty blogger spouting off. "Serious" people don't give credence to these ideas, right?

Well, there's the Economist, I guess:

The prosperity unleashed by the digital revolution has gone overwhelmingly to the owners of capital and the highest-skilled workers. Over the past three decades, labour’s share of output has shrunk globally from 64% to 59%. Meanwhile, the share of income going to the top 1% in America has risen from around 9% in the 1970s to 22% today. Unemployment is at alarming levels in much of the rich world, and not just for cyclical reasons. In 2000, 65% of working-age Americans were in work; since then the proportion has fallen, during good years as well as bad, to the current level of 59%.

Worse, it seems likely that this wave of technological disruption to the job market has only just started. From driverless cars to clever household gadgets (see article), innovations that already exist could destroy swathes of jobs that have hitherto been untouched. The public sector is one obvious target: it has proved singularly resistant to tech-driven reinvention. But the step change in what computers can do will have a powerful effect on middle-class jobs in the private sector too.

Until now the jobs most vulnerable to machines were those that involved routine, repetitive tasks. But thanks to the exponential rise in processing power and the ubiquity of digitised information (“big data”), computers are increasingly able to perform complicated tasks more cheaply and effectively than people. Clever industrial robots can quickly “learn” a set of human actions. Services may be even more vulnerable. Computers can already detect intruders in a closed-circuit camera picture more reliably than a human can. By comparing reams of financial or biometric data, they can often diagnose fraud or illness more accurately than any number of accountants or doctors. One recent study by academics at Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades.
If your jaw didn't drop at the last sentence, you probably aren't thinking about all of its implications. But it's OK, right? New industries will pop up to replace all the old jobs, right?

Short answer: no.

At the same time, the digital revolution is transforming the process of innovation itself, as our special report explains. Thanks to off-the-shelf code from the internet and platforms that host services (such as Amazon’s cloud computing), provide distribution (Apple’s app store) and offer marketing (Facebook), the number of digital startups has exploded. Just as computer-games designers invented a product that humanity never knew it needed but now cannot do without, so these firms will no doubt dream up new goods and services to employ millions. But for now they are singularly light on workers. When Instagram, a popular photo-sharing site, was sold to Facebook for about $1 billion in 2012, it had 30m customers and employed 13 people. Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy a few months earlier, employed 145,000 people in its heyday.

The problem is one of timing as much as anything. Google now employs 46,000 people. But it takes years for new industries to grow, whereas the disruption a startup causes to incumbents is felt sooner. Airbnb may turn homeowners with spare rooms into entrepreneurs, but it poses a direct threat to the lower end of the hotel business—a massive employer.
That in turn is going to mean extraordinary social and political impacts.

If this analysis is halfway correct, the social effects will be huge. Many of the jobs most at risk are lower down the ladder (logistics, haulage), whereas the skills that are least vulnerable to automation (creativity, managerial expertise) tend to be higher up, so median wages are likely to remain stagnant for some time and income gaps are likely to widen.

Anger about rising inequality is bound to grow, but politicians will find it hard to address the problem. Shunning progress would be as futile now as the Luddites’ protests against mechanised looms were in the 1810s, because any country that tried to stop would be left behind by competitors eager to embrace new technology. The freedom to raise taxes on the rich to punitive levels will be similarly constrained by the mobility of capital and highly skilled labour.
The Economist, unsurprisingly, sees this situation and tries to advocate for neoliberal solutions: more education and tax credits. But even the writers acknowledge that their answers won't really begin to address the problem.

And that's OK for now. The first step in gaining traction for more radical solutions is for everyone to acknowledge the severity of the problem. The Economist may not yet be willing to accept answers like guaranteed income and jobs programs, or global treaties to limit global tax evasion and shifting capital. The fact that they're only seriously concerned when the problem starts to hit higher-income white collar workers is annoying. But the reality that we're having this conversation at all in the mainstream is significant progress.