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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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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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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