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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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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Robert Reich Nails It

Book reviews

saving capitalism

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015)

I’ve read tons of books on politics and the economy over the last thirty years, and this is the easily one of best of the lot. Not only is it clear enough to recommend to lay people, finally I’ve found a book I fully agree with. (What higher endorsement is there than that?)

The author, Robert Reich, was Labor Secretary during the first Clinton administration, only to see the “Putting People First” agenda he signed on for being cast overboard to please bond traders. He left before the second Clinton term and has continued to write and speak out on economic issues since then, recently endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders for President.

Reich’s view on the declining fortunes of most Americans and the rising fortunes of the wealthiest fraction of them can be simply stated: globalization and technological change have destroyed jobs even as political decisions have shifted the rewards of economic growth more and more toward the wealthy. I concur.

His view on contemporary political debates can also be stated succinctly: the government vs. market debate is totally beside the point, because the real issue is the fundamental political structure of the economy. He hammers home the reality that there is no such thing as a “natural” market economy, because a market is the creation of laws. I emphatically concur.

The underlying structure of our market economy is where the most consequential political decisions have been made since the 1980s. Reich identifies five key arenas: Continue Reading

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How Not To Mobilize People

Book reviews

ameican insecurity

American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction (2015)

It may be a jarring question to ask amidst Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Presidency, but why haven’t people been more politically active on issues of economic insecurity? After all, the public’s sense of economic insecurity has been growing at least since the 1980s, yet has rarely provoked mass political action like this. (I’ll return to Sanders in a moment.)

Adam Seth Levine, a professor at Cornell University, has published a solid work of political science addressing this question in “American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction.” His thesis is one of those ideas that is so compelling that as soon as you read it, you start to believe you already must have known this. But you didn’t.

Levine first demonstrates that people are less likely to donate money or time to causes related to economic insecurity issues (unemployment, retirement security, health care costs, rising college tuitions) than to other issues (such as gun control, abortion, or the federal deficit).

That’s the gist of the mystery, although it’s a little more complex than that. For one thing, and counter-intuitively, those whose personal lives are affected by the issue are less likely to act on it than those whose personal lives are not affected. For another, those who are part of the labor force (working or seeking work) are less likely to act than those who are outside of it (the retired, the disabled, students). Continue Reading

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My Mojo Ain’t Working

Book reviews

american mojo

American Mojo: Lost and Found (2015)

Why is the U.S. middle class in economic decline and what can be done about it? These questions are given the attention they demand by Peter D. Kiernan in “American Mojo: Lost and Found,” but unfortunately the book is frustratingly incoherent.

Kiernan writes in an engaging, reportorial style and amasses lots of pertinent information from a multiplicity of sources. But I had the sense that he got lost in this sea of information and failed to find a compass to guide him through it. I did learn a few things, but came away without feeling any more illuminated on the problem than I had been before.

Part I, comprised of the first eight chapters, retells yet again the oft-told story of the rise of the U.S. middle class in the two decades following World War II and its decline from the 1970s into the present. In essence, the middle class rose because the U.S. was in a favorable economic position vis-à-vis other countries and declined as other countries became serious competitors.

That seems to be his central theme, or at least he says so in his introduction. But he also says the middle class rose due to “government interventions,” “a harmonic convergence of world events,” “a nationwide unity of vision,” “the driving force of its ambition and aspiration,” and “hard work.” Certainly there were multiple causes, but how are we to sort out the more important of these from the less important? (Or the outright spurious—“a nationwide unity of vision”?) Continue Reading

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