More thoughts on robots and the future

Robot

I wrote last week about the fact that the lapdog media is finally catching up with Obama’s claim that the problem with America’s economy is that ATMs are job destroyers, and that’s why our economy is a mess.  Many of you commented that, in your own industries, you’ve seen automation chip away at jobs so that a handful of people are doing what it once took dozens or even hundreds of people to do.  I agree completely.  Technology definitely destroys jobs.

What I was trying to say, though, is something different.  What’s unique about this ongoing recession/depression, is that the government has been working overtime to depress the new jobs that usually arise as a result of technology.  Absent government intervention, our transitions in the wake of a major technological change have usually been beneficial to the majority, even though there’s no doubt that a minority saw itself lost to history’s backwash.  For the first time, though, we’ve got a government so busy grieving for the minority who are becoming obsolete, that it’s enacted policies to ensure that the majority will suffer too.

I speak quite personally about this, because I’m a perfect example of someone who took modern technologies and spun off a new career.  My new career has been less profitable than my old one, but infinitely more enjoyable, not to mention a better match with parenting.

My graduating year from law school was one of the last years that saw new associates arrive at law firms that didn’t have desktop computers.  We had Word Processing departments, which would use primitive word processing machines (who else remembers old Wang systems?) to finalize briefs or, if they were particularly sophisticated, they had primitive software to do the same task.  To get a brief done, the attorney would hand write or dictate a brief, and then walk it over to a secretary, who would transcribe it.  It was a very time-consuming process.

Law books

Legal research was also done the old-fashioned way, which meant surrounding oneself with heavy books.  To research a legal question, you’d go to the Westlaw Digests.  You’d start by perusing the Decennial Digests (massive volumes that broke the law down into categories).  These were good, because you could do ten years worth of research in a single category.  If it had been nine years since the last Decennial Digest, though, you’d then have to go through nine years worth of annual digests, including the pocket updates stuffed in the back.  Once you had hand written a long list of potential cases, you’d head for the stacks and pull out volume after volume of case reporter.  You’d page through to your cases, and hope that at least some of them were on point.  Once you found them, you’d either write notes by hand, or you’d spend hours (and dollars) photocopying.

Both Westlaw and Nexis did have computer research available, but it had to be done on dedicated machines and it cost a small fortune.  It was much cheaper to pay an associate to do fifty or even one hundred hours of research, than to go onto Westlaw and spend a couple of hours writing and printing.  (Keep in mind that, back in those days, all connections were dial-up and were incredibly slow.)

Old desktop computers

Within a few years of my starting to practice law, the world turned upside down.  Lawyers got desktops and dedicated word processors became obsolete.  That’s when I fell in love with Word Perfect, which is still my favorite word processing software because you have the best control over the look of the final product.

In the beginning, those desktop computers were stand-alones, so you still had to walk to your secretary’s desk, only this time you’d hand over a floppy, rather than a sheaf of yellow paper or a little tape recording.  Just a year or so later, with the firm’s four walls, those floppies were obsolete, as the firms had become networked.  Suddenly, you didn’t even need to stand up to send your secretary that pleading that needed to be finalized.  Instead, you just pushed a button.

Online legal research continued to be expensive, but Lexis and Westlaw now had software that enabled you to use your laptop to connect directly to those services.  This was another technological advance that meant you didn’t need to get up from your chair.  (Right now, I’m seeing, not only a technological trend, but a trend in lawyers getting flabby and gaining weight!)

Woman at computer

One day, I sat at my desk and realized that I was totally self-sufficient. I didn’t need a secretary, since I’ve always been a better typist and word processor than any secretary I ever had, and I didn’t need access to a law library, since my desktop had become a law library.  I also realized that home computer prices were dropping and that the case-reporting services were dropping their prices in response to the increased competition that accompanied increased demand.  Since I hated going to court, and loved doing research and writing, I quit my job and set up a home practice.

Floppies

As the years went by, having a home office became easier and easier.  In the old days, I still had to put my documents on floppies, or print them up, and then hand-deliver them to my clients.  Within a short time, however, either my clients got email, so I could just send an attachment, or they upgraded their network services so that I could connect from home and simply upload my work onto their systems.

The new systems made hoards of young lawyers unnecessary.  While it had once been cheaper to give a second or third year associate a fifty hour research job, it was now much cheaper to contract the work out to me.  With my on-line research, home computer and printer, and network or email connections, I was not only faster and better than a young associate, I didn’t force the firm to carry me during the dead times, nor did it have to pay any benefits to me.  Technology would have destroyed my old job, but instead it created a new job for me, and one that I liked much better.

In the Obama economy, though, I have no work.  If I were a young lawyer done out of a job by new research and writing technology, it would be impossible for me to set up my own thriving business (and it did thrive for many years), because there is no work to be had for anyone, whether in a firm or outside of it.  The old jobs are dying, but the economy is too regulated, taxed, and constrained to create new niches.

And that’s what I meant when I said only Progressives believe that robots are job killers.  Their belief is true only to the extent they’ve made it so.  I fervently believe that, in the normal, non-Obama world, even as technology kills many jobs, a free market, coupled with human initiative, can create many more (better ones too).

Only Progressives could believe that robots will destroy the economy

ATM

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.”

Robot

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.)