Only Progressives could believe that robots will destroy the economy


The newest Ivy Tower Leftist explanation for the economy’s disastrous jobless recovery riffs off of Obama’s remark a couple of years ago about the disastrous effect of ATMs.  You remember that, don’t you?

President Obama explained to NBC News that the reason companies aren’t hiring is not because of his policies, it’s because the economy is so automated. … “There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.”


It took a little while for Obama’s minions to catch up with his genius, but catch up they have.  First, 60 Minutes ran a segment in which two MIT thinkers earnestly explain that Americans are going to be increasingly jobless as robots take on more and more of the jobs laborers used to do.  (I didn’t despair when I watched this.  Instead, I was absolutely fascinated by the way warehouse robots save human backs and feet.) AP then got in on the act, explaining with equal earnestness that technology is killing jobs and therefore keeping the economy stagnant.  Typically for the Left, these great thinkers are conflating two actually unrelated things:  the first thing is jobs that are replaced by technology; the second thing is a weak economy that stubbornly refuses to grow.

1912 Model T Ford

In times past, the innovation and a stagnant economy were not related.  Yes, the wheelwrights vanished when cars came along, but cars were part of America’s stunning early 20th-century leap into the modern era.  The economy went crazy, not just because the car industry itself created new jobs, but because the ability to travel speedily and with almost no limits on distance created other opportunities.  People could now travel to jobs that would have been unavailable to them before.  Factories previously powered by steam or water (or humans), suddenly had the internal combustion engine.

1920s tractor

Cars also brought about mechanized farm work and agricultural transport.  These not only made it possible for American farmers to feed a growing, mobile, vastly dispersed nation, but they also improved the nation’s overall health.

Keypunching computer data in the 1950s

In our own lifetimes, computers didn’t do away with jobs.  Instead, they changed old jobs and created new ones.  Between 1960 and 2008, computers also helped supercharge the economy, especially when it came to the advent of personal computers and, later, the internet.  It’s absolutely true that people got left by the wayside; that economic bubbles grew and burst; and that start-ups broke down — but overall, these amazing technological advancements created a bigger economic pie, not just at home, but abroad too.

The carpet beater

Another way of thinking about this is to look at changes in the domestic sphere.  Women used to boil water to do their laundry, wring it out by hand, and then hang it on lines.  To clean their carpets, they’d have to roll them up, drag them out, hang them on a line, and beat them.  Every dish needed to be hand washed and, if there was no counter space, hand dried.  Before flush toilets, someone had to empty those chamber pots and before modern plumbing, servants drew baths by hand.

Victorian house servants

In a pre-modern age, these tasks required massive human labor.  It wasn’t that middle class Victorians didn’t do laundry, clean carpets, wash dishes, or carry water.  They did those tasks; or more accurately, a phalanx of servants did those laborious tasks.  Even a young middle-class couple, just starting out, would have a cook and a housemaid.  And then on laundry day, a laundry woman would come in to help out too.

The world economy did not collapse when labor-saving appliances destroyed the necessity for these domestic jobs.  Instead, the same economy that produced labor-saving devices required people to make, deliver, and market these devices.  The economy shifted and opened ever further.  That’s why I’m writing on a computer, rather than sitting in a darkened room dipping a quill pen in ink.

Bankrupt Solyndra

Why is this changing economy different?  Simple:  in other times, when the jobs shifted, the government didn’t put into place policies that deliberately destroyed economic alternatives that would create employment for those whose jobs become obsolete.  In today’s America, though, the avenues for new forms of commerce and employment are closing, thanks to ever-increasing taxes, regulations, hostility to corporations and industry, and an obsessive government focus on a green energy sector that does not have the chops to grow on its own.

In other words, the Left is only able to conflate obsolete jobs and permanent unemployment because it’s looking at a particular moment in time, one in which the remnants of our once-thriving private sector are still introducing labor-saving devices, even as the Progressive government’s heavy hand is simultaneously suppressing that start-ups that would have piggy-backed on this new technology and provided different (and often better) employment opportunities.

Segregated drinking fountain sign

Ultimately, Progressives, despite their forward-looking label and their “Forward” slogans, are relentlessly reactionary and regressive.  They live in a finite economic world, blind to history’s ever-repeating lesson that, when there is individual freedom, the economy always expands.  Still fighting the battles of the 1960s, they believe Jim Crow is America’s default racial setting, that Muslims are picturesque people on Cook’s tours, and that unwed mothers’ only choices are using coat hangers or becoming social outcasts.

Oh!  I almost forgot.  They also think that, when it comes to aging and medicine, Americans die young, after the hoary old doctor with his stethoscope has done what he could.  As to this last delusion about our modern world, Charles Krauthammer, in summarizing Barack Obama’s historically polarizing, blatantly statist inaugural address, says it best:

At its heart was Obama’s pledge to (1) defend unyieldingly the 20th-century welfare state and (2) expand it unrelentingly for the 21st.

The first part of that agenda — clinging zealously to the increasingly obsolete structures of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — is the very definition of reactionary liberalism. Social Security was created when life expectancy was 62. Medicare was created when modern medical technology was in its infancy. Today’s radically different demographics and technology have rendered these programs, as structured, unsustainable. Everyone knows that, unless reformed, they will swallow up the rest of the budget.

(Credit for some of the ideas in this post has to go to a delightful book I’m reading: Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home. It is a charmingly written reminder that the world is not static, and that fighting yesterday’s battles without an eye to today’s knowledge is a fool’s game. The Left is certainly masterful at the fight, but its ultimate aims are hopelessly and dangerously retrograde.)

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  • David Foster

    “changes in the domestic sphere”
    Owen Young, who ran GE from 1922-1939, grew up on a farm. He described to his biographer what Monday–“wash day”–was like on the farm:
    “He drew from his memory a vivid picture of its miseries: the milk coming into the house from the barn; the skimming to be done; the pans and buckets to be washed; the churn waiting attention; the wash boiler on the stove while the wash tub and its back-breaking device, the washboard, stood by; the kitchen full of steam; hungry men at the door anxious to get at the day’s work and one pale, tired, and discouraged woman in the midst of this confusion.”

  • JKB

    I’ll have to admit I never acknowledged it until the other day when I read Walter Russell Mead’s post, Futuristic Blues.  But he really gets it right:
    Industrial society saw the workers as a rising irresistible force whose interests could not be ignored; post-industrial liberals seem to see the common folk as a collection of sad and weak losers whom the strong must protect.
    It is why liberals seem unable to comprehend the need to free people from failing schools, realign regulation to facilitate business formation, why they freak completely out if you suggest people, all people, need to opportunity to find their own way.
    The Progs accuse others of wanting ill for the “downtrodden” but it is the Progs who view them as incapable, as needing, I just got it, helicopter bureaucrats.  Fine government bureaucrats to buck up their self esteem, smooth every bump and that they are taken care of.

  • David Foster

    JKB…”industrial society saw the workers as a rising irresistible force whose interests could not be ignored; post-industrial liberals seem to see the common folk as a collection of sad and weak losers whom the strong must protect.”
    Much truth in this. Also, earlier Leftists generally valued economic growth and technologies that enabled it. Here are those Fabian socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, reflecting circa 1928 on history and on the contributions of what they call the Machine Age:
    The manual-working population of the cities was, in fact, mainly composed of laborers who were lifelong hewers of wood and drawers of water whilst that of the vast stretches of farmland and forest outside the cities was as devoid of art as of letters. And the proportion of merely mechanical work in the world s production has, taken as a whole, lessened, not increased. What a multitude of laborers quarried the stones, dragged and carried the stones and lifted the stones of the cathedral walls on which half a dozen skilled and artistic masons carved gargoyles? From the building of the Pyramids down to the present day, the proportion of the world’s work of the nature of mere physical digging, pushing, carrying, lifting* and hammering, by the exertion of muscular force, has almost continuously diminished…. And it must not be forgotten that, in “Western civilization to-day, the actual numbers of men and women engaged in daily work of distinctly intellectual character, which is thus not necessarily devoid of art, are positively greater than at any previous time. There are, of course, many more such workers of superior education, artistic capacity, and interesting daily tasks in Henry Ford’s factories at Detroit than there were in the whole city of Detroit fifty years ago! Along side of these successors of the equally exceptional skilled handicraftsmen of the Middle Ages there has come to be a vast multitude of other workers with less interesting tasks, who could not other wise have come into existence, and who represent the laborers of the cities and the semi-servile rural population of past times, and who certainly would not themselves dream of wishing to revert to the conditions of those times. It may be granted, that, in much of their daily tasks (as has always been the case) the workers of to-day can find no joy, and take the very minimum of interest. But there is one all important difference in their lot. Unlike their predecessors, these men spend only half their waking hours at the task by which they gain their bread. In the other half of their day they are, for the first time in history, free (and, in great measure, able) to give themselves to other interests, which in an ever- increasing proportion of cases lead to an intellectual development heretofore unknown among the typical manual workers. It is, in fact, arguable that it is among the lower half of the manual workers of Western civilization rather than among the upper half, that there has been the greatest relative advance during the past couple of centuries. It is, indeed, to the so-called unskilled workers of London and Berlin and Paris, badly off in many respects as they still are and notably to their wives and children that the Machine Age has incidentally brought the greatest advance in freedom and in civilization.

  • David Foster

    The following kind of thinking is seen often in discussions of the JobKillerRobots:
    “For more than three decades, technology has reduced the number of jobs in manufacturing. Robots and other machines controlled by computer programs work faster and make fewer mistakes than humans. Now, that same efficiency is being unleashed in the service economy, which employs more than two-thirds of the workforce in developed countries. Technology is eliminating jobs in office buildings, retail establishments and other businesses consumers deal with every day.”
    (AP article)
    Actually, many of the earliest business applications of computers were in the services sector…policy billing and actuarial work for insurance companies, for example, starting in the early 1950s. The first business computer in the UK was actually developed specifically for the needs of a chain of tea shops…again in the early 1950s. Automated check sorters/processors for banks were developed in the late 50s and in common use by the mid-to-late 1960s. Electronic ordering by retailers (electronic data interchange) predates the commercial Internet and was in use by major retailers by the late 1980s.
    The AP’s assertion that the trend of automations is first manufacturing, then services…is simplistic.

  • jj

    I have to confess to being of two minds about this one.  (And I said it well before Obama did, maybe even here.)
    But it is a fact that when I began at the network, you needed 15 people in master control, and when I left you needed two.  80% of one of them’s job was to keep the other one awake.  The fact is that a dozen people were gone.  I don’t know where they went, but they weren’t needed where they had been any more.
    And a good friend in the auto industry – such as it remains – has watched them go from requiring 25 guys to lay hands on a passing chassis on the line to get it turned into a car, to nowadays  three guys and a bunch of robots.
    When my father was young, and on the farm, there were a bunch of guys who worked around the place.  By the time he was nearing 20, his baby brother could do more plowing (harrowing) in a single afternoon on a tractor than ten grown men could have done in a week when he was young, walking behind horses.  When I was a little kid, driving a tractor, he’d occasionally get a faraway look in his eyes and laugh, and tell me at dinner: “you, at the age of eight, accomplished more today then the entire place could have accomplished in a week when I was your age.”
    I don’t know where or how this comes out.  I know everyone says that the jobs don’t go away, they just change, and morph into something else, and the technological revolution spawns a need for more people, not fewer.  My own evidence (if it qualifies as ‘evidence’) is purely anecdotal, but I’m uncertain if I believe this.  In my own lifetime I have seen everything I know of manage to do it with fewer and fewer and fewer people.  What once took twenty people – in my lifetime, and I’m not that old! – now takes two.  Getting the fields ready for spring took a mob of guys and a bunch of horses for the first two thousand years of agriculture, then all of a sudden in the early twentieth century it turned out an eight year-old kid could do as much – could do more – to get those fields ready in a day than all the guys and horses could in a week.  (What a profound revolution the tractor was, and it’s one no one ever talks about.)
    As I say: I don’t know.  But I’ve seen a lot of people wave good-bye, and it must mean something.

  • Earl

    Not to be pedantic, but we are going to look foolish if we keep saying “Social Security was created when life expectancy was 62.”
    It’s true….but it’s not the crucial figure.  Because the “life expectancy” includes babies and children dying, and that has exactly nothing to do with the viability of Social Security. 
    Someone needs to find out how many years the average person reaching 65 lived when Social Security was created, and compare THAT to how many years such a person lives today. 
    Along with the number of people working for each person on S.S., that figure would be a realistic picture of the manure pit we’re in……..

  • Danny Lemieux

    I agree with JJ on this.
    I, too, have seen the industry within which I work automate heavily, resulting in far fewer jobs in manufacturing. This has had two consequences: one is the disappearance of relatively unskilled labor jobs and two is the increased requirement of STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math) to qualify for increasingly highly skilled and well-paid jobs.
    This is one reason why so many people and political demagogues erroneously claim that we have been shipping manufacturing “jobs” overseas at a time when U.S. industrial manufacturing production has increased.
    I also suspect that a big part of the problem that we have today is this has left a vacuum in the jobs market and the creation of so-many B.S. jobs (“environmental engineer”, “diversity management”, “colon flushing” etc.) and the unfettered expansion of a non-productive, rent-seeking constituency for the Democrat party.

  • Caped Crusader

    As a kid growing up in the 30’s and 40’s, I remember the oft told family story of how Great Uncle Walter, the owner of a thriving buggy whip business, after failing to diversify into something such as the S&M industry, was economically decimated by the introduction of the horseless carriage!

  • Mike Devx

    I see jj’s point, too, and agree with both him and DannyL.  Technological advancement directly and immediately eliminates jobs.  It also opens up the opportunity for new jobs to appear or be created to satisfy new needs.  
    But the elimination of jobs is immediate and direct; the creation of new jobs takes time.  The new jobs also require new skills, and that also takes time.  Human nature: old dogs don’t easily learn new tricks.  The people losing jobs to technology have a tougher time.
    As usual, I don’t have all the answers for the problem; I’m just discussing the problem.  If I thought I had all the answers, I’d be a Social Democrat liberal, embedded in the government, writing a thousand new regulations each day for the HHS, and a happy member of the Obama Administration!
    I’d also add that technological advancement also transforms some jobs into robot-like jobs.  Start with Henry Ford’s assembly line, which speeded up the production and assembly of parts and standardized those created “parts”.  But it also turned the workers into virtual robots – making those jobs eventually, by their robotic nature, prime candidates for elimination by robot-machinery in our current day.
    Every time technology is used to replace manual labor, it does so because it’s more cost-effective.  And whenever it *is* more cost-effective, it’s going to happen, period.  That genie is not going back into the bottle.  You don’t ban the cotton gin.  You don’t ban robotic assembly of auto parts.  Our imaging technology now is such that a system of robots can now often unload and transport cartons and boxes from the backs of delivery trucks and route them to the proper location on warehouse shelves.

  • David Foster

    An interesting book, and one I’ve been meaning to write a review of, is “Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?” by Amy Sue Bix. She discusses media and public perceptions of the effects of mechanization on the job market over the last century or so.
    One example she mentions is the replacement of live music…for example, in movie theaters…by recorded music, and consequent unemployment of musicians.
    No doubt, for a typical town musician with decent but not stellar talents, the “automation” of music meant that he or she would have to find another career. But for those with the talent and drive (and/or luck!) it gave them the opportunity to exercise their talents on a nationwide or worldwide stage and to be compensated accordingly.
    On the subject of using or not using the *brains* of one’s employees, manufacturing executive Kevin Meyer has a good post.

  • Charles Martel

    Gratitude is more often felt in situations of scarcity than it is in abundance. The lord who can give a serf a loaf of bread will earn far more gratitude, even loyalty, than he will from a serf who toils to make his own bread. Such a serf is to be looked at warily as a possible political rival or—far worse—a man who neither needs nor honors the lord.
    The lord’s solution is to cripple the self-sufficient serf’s ability to provide for himself by expropriating his means of production. This serves the allied purposes of taking away his potential political power as well as giving the lord booty he can use to bribe the serfs who no longer know how or desire to provide for themselves.
    Best of all, by removing the threat posed by the self-sufficient man, the lord can institutionalize a low level of affluence. (You can see the Whore Media already leading the charge with articles on how we have to start getting used to a [permanent] era of lowered expectation.)
    Strangling and crippling the means of abundance as a way of creating gratitude and dependence works better than Orwell’s solution in 1984 where the Party drained excess production by engaging in endless, inconclusive wars and constructing steel and resource-consuming floating fortresses and mega-skyscrapers expressing the Party’s power. In the kinder, gentler modern version, the Party will make sure we all have adequate heat, veterinary-level healthcare, condoms, abortion on demand, mass transit, decent (though tasteless and expensive) food, free “education” (we’re all Communications Majors now!), and other accoutrements of the Flukian utopia.
    The excess will accrue, of course, to the Streisands, Springsteen, Clintons, Gores, Pelosis, Obamas, professors, and crony capitalists who really, really, really care for the rest of us.
    But what the Caring Party will never do is permit the unleashing of the entrepreneurial risk taking and creative skills that lead to both massive abundance and political freedom. To do so would be to invite the Party’s end and the rise of independent, self-governing communities worldwide that would simply bypass the power and envy-driven, self-anointed saviors of mankind.

  • David Foster

    CM…”The excess will accrue, of course, to the Streisands, Springsteen, Clintons, Gores, Pelosis, Obamas, professors, and crony capitalists who really, really, really care for the rest of us.”
    This point needs to be emphasized again and again. Too many fairly intelligent people (like Larry Kudlow the other night) keep talking about how the Obamaites are advocates of “equal outcomes.”
    They are really, of course, advocates of no such thing. The leading Obamites intend to monopolize power and influence among their own sort…and power and influence can of course always be converted to wealth or wealth-equivalent on demand.
    The “equality” thing is simply a phrase to detract from the REAL class warfare…horizontal rather than vertical…that is going on.

  • Ymarsakar

    When slavery is the ultimate Utopian goal of the Left, it doesn’t particularly matter whether anyone thinks their goals are progressive or not. Whether  one progresses towards evil or regresses towards cruelty and despair, the end destination is the same.

  • Texan99

    When a robot replaces a worker on the factory line, what about the workers who designed and built the robot?  What about the cheaper car that comes off the line, that enables another worker to find work that requires a car?  It’s a mistake to look only at the effect on the production line, or to think of jobs as lifetime sinecures.  Even the most menial worker has to change his task over his lifetime.
    I think what worries us sometime is the knowledge that some workers are much more adaptable than others.  We don’t like to think of the losers in that competition.  But it’s just a new kind of competition:  the job conditions change, and with them the sorting devices that separate the winners from the losers.  Thank Heaven it changes, so that there are no permanent losers, only people shifting around being luckier or unluckier at different times of their lives.

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