Have we already survived the rise of the robots?
Brad DeLong has a good post suggesting that the rise of the robots won’t be as bad as some fear. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but you can get a good sense of the argument from the conclusion, in which DeLong says that “the creation of food, clothing, and shelter that would have taken up more than 70% of work value now . . . takes up less than 2%. But the overwhelming automation of the business of providing us with calories, warmth, and dryness has not left us short of things to do, and not feeling as though we have suffered status degradation.”
One of the things that DeLong’s economic history lectures -- and this graph -- have convinced me of is that progress is not the natural way of all economic things. The past 200 years have been very good to Western economies -- but the 2,000 before that were rather more checkered. The question we’re asking, I think, is what the next 200 years will look like.
The most persuasive part of Tyler Cowen’s “The Great Stagnation” was his argument that the Internet, despite being an instance of major technological progress, hasn’t proved to be a driver of major economic progress — and that that makes it different than many of the major innovations we saw in the 20th century. Annie Lowrey* has much more on why that is here. But the short version is that it just hasn’t created many jobs. The Internet is an example of very few people being able to change very many lives. There might be 500 million Facebook profiles out there, but Facebook itself only recently passed 2,000 employees. The same goes for some of the other fields we’re looking toward for salvation, such as the pharmaceutical industry. Add in the increased labor market competition from developing nations and the forward march of human-displacing technology, and it’s easy to tell a story in which the American labor market struggles more in the 21st century than it did in the 20th.
Now, perhaps the Internet will end up making us a lot richer, and the future will be niche jobs in the service sector as we plow our enhanced incomes into more reiki lessons and fine meals. Or perhaps we’ll just start having recessions where the job market never quite recovers because employers find they can be similarly productive with fewer workers. Recent history suggests the case for economic optimism is strong. A longer look suggests it’s considerably weaker. I don’t really know which is right, though I know which one I want to be right.
| March 8, 2011; 5:47 PM ET
Save & Share: Previous: Reid supports using 1099 repeal to undermine health-care reform
Next: How much did Don Berwick get done?
Posted by: goodepicwashpost | March 8, 2011 6:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: tomcammarata | March 8, 2011 7:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: GBMcM | March 8, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: akyser | March 8, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 8, 2011 8:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: tito1 | March 8, 2011 10:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: justin84 | March 8, 2011 10:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: flamingpenguin | March 8, 2011 11:39 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mpbowlr | March 8, 2011 11:40 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: fredbrack | March 9, 2011 4:00 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: greenchoyss | March 9, 2011 8:43 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: thrustblog | March 9, 2011 12:06 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: seanla | March 9, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse