Robots Want Your Job

Book review

rise of the robots

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015)

Until recently it was an article of faith among economists that even as technology destroyed jobs in some sectors, it created new ones in other sectors. Is this belief still true?

Emphatically no, say Martin Ford, author of the best-selling “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.” Ford is a software engineer with decades of experience in computer design and in following technology developments. Robots and AI (artificial intelligence), he says, are moving up the job ladder from production workers to professionals.

Data analysis, medical diagnostics, language translation, news article and business report writing, legal research, scientific investigation, engineering and design, financial trading and even music composition are among the seemingly human-centric jobs that are being tackled by machines. And the capabilities of AI are continually accelerating.

The upshot is while jobs are being destroyed, a lot of the new jobs are now those that are too low-paid to bother automating (not yet, anyway). And the competition for the remaining professional jobs is fierce and going to get fiercer. The political nostrum of giving displaced workers more education and training is a strategy with diminishing returns.

This might be okay if efficiency gains due to technology were driving the cost of living down, but that’s not the case. Essentials like housing, insurance, health care and education are rising instead. Plus if you have no job and no alternative income, lower prices are not much of a consolation.

Ford counters the usual explanations of the long-term trends of stagnant wages, underemployment and increased economic inequality, such as globalization, financialization and conservative politics. His case is that automation is the prime mover. Continue Reading

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An Even Better Idea for Reforming Presidential Elections

Research report

ballot

Imagine if there was no possibility of being a “spoiler” in the general election for President. Bernie Sanders could run as an independent, as he has for most of his career. Donald Trump also may have run as an independent, allowing the Republicans to choose a candidate more acceptable to the majority of the party.

Then in November you could choose from Sanders, Clinton, Trump, a Republican Party candidate and third party candidates, free of worry about “spoilers,” “wasting your vote,” voting for the “lesser of two evils,” or any of the other problems that saddle us every four years with only two realistic choices.

Two choices. That’s just one more than you would have had in the Soviet Union or some dictatorship somewhere. Shouldn’t we do better than that?

Last month I offered a proposal to use ranked choice voting in the general election for the President, greatly reducing the possibility that any candidate would become a spoiler. Since then I’ve had an even better idea. Using the Bucklin system, an alternative form of ranked choice voting, would address the spoiler problem, is easy to understand, and is feasible with current voting technology. Continue Reading

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Understanding This Political Moment

Book review

postcapitalism

Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015)

 This valuable book has already become one of a handful to mark my view of the world with a “before” and “after,” helping me connect some puzzling dots into a coherent cognitive map.

Paul Mason, whose writing has impressed me in the past with its insight, has done a terrific job pulling together various strands of information and ideas to make sense of our present historical moment. But I’ll warn you it is not a quick and breezy read. Some familiarity with history and economic philosophy (both classical and socialist) is almost a prerequisite.

I say “almost” because Mason is such a good writer that a lay reader should be able to follow the argument with a little effort. His real achievement is not in coming up with an original idea, but in putting lots of old ideas together in an original way.

A central question of the book is how to make sense of the economic crisis of 2008. Clearly the political world has been shaken off its axis by this question, in part by the unexpected rebirth of socialism as a live topic. Suddenly, a mere twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people began re-reading Karl Marx in earnest.

The answer to the question implicates the main argument between old-line socialists and practically everyone else across the political spectrum: does capitalism tend toward crisis and eventual collapse, or does it tend toward equilibrium? Or to put it another way, is capitalism the end result of humanity’s economic development or is there a further stage? Continue Reading

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Green Jobs to the Rescue

Book reviews

greening economy

Greening the Global Economy (2015)

What a relief to read a well-grounded book arguing that we can still do something about climate change! According to the author this is completely feasible from a technological and economic standpoint. It’s just the politics that gets in the way. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.)

Robert Pollin is a distinguished economist at the University of Massachusetts. His book, “Greening the Global Economy,” is published by MIT Press. So when he says that doing what it takes to stop climate change will not suppress economic growth but actually increase employment, I feel hope. That should be a political winner, right?

About 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to burning coal, oil, and natural gas for energy production. Pollin starts with the assessment that global emissions will need to fall 40% from present levels within 20 years, and 80% by mid-century.

He says this can be achieved without reducing living standards for most people in the developed nations (some rich people should give up living in their McMansions to help out) or foregoing improvement of living standards in the developing nations.

How? He first considers and rejects some prominent proposals: Continue Reading

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Ranked Choice Voting Initiative Launched in Oregon

News report

rcv ballot 2

An initiative campaign has been launched in Benton County, Oregon, to elect the County Commissioners and Sheriff by ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting.

RCV allows voters to rank the candidates for an office in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of the first place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are transferred to each voter’s next choice. This process is repeated until a candidate gets a majority.

RCV frees voters to vote for their true first choice without the fear of “wasting” their vote. Benton County Commissioners are elected on a partisan ballot, unlike most elected county officials in Oregon. If the initiative passes, this will provide an opportunity to see whether the number votes for third party and independent candidates is affected by the changed voting format.

The chief petitioners are Dan Rayfield, State Representative for House District 16, and Blair Bobier, a Corvallis lawyer and long-time electoral reform activist. The initiative is intended as part of a long-term strategy to bring RCV to other Oregon elections and eventually institute it statewide. A Political Action Committee has been formed, an initiative petition filed, and a website is up (Better Ballot Benton).

The sponsors have endorsements from local elected officials and have consulted with the county clerk to verify that the county’s vote tabulation machines can handle RCV. About 3,000 valid signatures from Benton County registered voters will be needed by August to put the initiative on the November 2016 ballot. Continue Reading

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