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Posted at 5:47 PM ET, 03/ 8/2011

Have we already survived the rise of the robots?

By Ezra Klein

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.

By Ezra Klein  | March 8, 2011; 5:47 PM ET
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I think of this often when I think about having kids (and then grandkids and such). The classic example of technological innovation being bad for humanity is the invention of agriculture. Humans got shorter and lived shorter lives, and it allowed the creation of hierarchical societies in which the vast majority of people lost freedoms and society in general was much much less egalitarian. And that wasn't even really a short or medium term problem. We didn't regain the pre-agricultural levels of health and height and longevity and such until relatively recently, given agriculture was invented 10-12k years ago!

Posted by: goodepicwashpost | March 8, 2011 6:42 PM | Report abuse

"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."

Well spoken by someone young who has a job. From my perspective (64 and unemployed) the future holds the prospect of decidedly less.

The more management outsources American jobs to machines or other countries in the name of economy and productivity, the more the Boomer Generation will find that its future will be decidedly less as well.

Just what will that management do when its turn comes? When the gods of economy and productivity say it is they who be outsourced?

Posted by: tomcammarata | March 8, 2011 7:01 PM | Report abuse

For the confused part of the graph, I'd recommend David Hackett Fischer's The Great Wave. The progress (from 1250 to sometime around 1700) would be mostly political, (safe to travel; charity to the poor) and roads. Prerequisites to industrial progress. While industrialism isn't done progressing, there's no reason to believe that post-industrial progress will resemble industrial progress or can be measured in the same way.

Perhaps once you're beyond some reasonable definition of sufficiency (ie, decently fed, housed, clothed plus a bit extra, and reasonable expectations that the preceding are stable), economic measurements of value are actually psychological (ie obsolete as social measures)?

Posted by: GBMcM | March 8, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

It's always bothered me that Malthus got such a bad reputation. His analysis accurately described the 30 centuries before he wrote his book, he just happened to be wrong about the two centuries that came afterward. I, for one, am not entirely convinced that we've permanently broken away from the trend. It's still possible that the time since the industrial revolution has been an aberration.

Posted by: akyser | March 8, 2011 7:55 PM | Report abuse

"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"

Ezra, you're becoming the Microsoft of bloggers. The rest of us reached that conclusion a long time ago.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 8, 2011 8:38 PM | Report abuse

So any innovations that result in less people being able to do more work is now a bad thing? Phones take away the job of a courier, backhoes take away the jobs of ditch diggers, tractors take away the job of field hands, looms take away the jobs of seamstresses.


People now have jobs as entertainers or chefs or authors or bloggers because of the productivity gains that put farmers out of work.

We, as a society, certainly need to do better in sharing the gains of higher productivity among everyone. But saying that people being more productive is a bad thing is ridiculous. We wouldn't have any of our society without those disruptive changes.

Posted by: tito1 | March 8, 2011 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, check out what Ray Kurzweil has to say, if you haven't already (I believe others have already referenced Kurzweil in previous comments).

His point of view is that technological progress in nanotechnology, genetics, and AI will cause a technological revolution with far greater impact than the industrial revolution within the next half century.

If he's anywhere close to correct (and that's admittedly a big if), the most disruptive changes are yet to come.

Posted by: justin84 | March 8, 2011 10:41 PM | Report abuse

Only looking at the number of direct employees of a company doesn't really tell you what the overall impact to the economy is.

How many other jobs have been created to build applications on top of Facebook? How many have been created in marketing companies to take advantage of the new social networking outlets? How many jobs have been created by better social connections?

The 2,000 direct Facebook employees are just a small part of the overall impact.

Posted by: flamingpenguin | March 8, 2011 11:39 PM | Report abuse

Technology isn't supposed to create jobs. Quite the opposite in fact: technology-driven improvements in productivity by definition reduce the amount of labor needed for a given level of output. So we can be more prosperous with full employment, or as prosperous with a labor surplus - it's all a matter of demand for goods and services versus leisure time.

...and macroeconomic side effects. The stigma of unemployment is just a distributional artifact of surplus labor. Nobody complains about economic development enabling youth to study longer, elderly to retire earlier, parents to stay at home with their kids, and workers to take weekends off. The trouble arises when people willing to sell their labor can't find buyers, and especially when they are forced into poverty through involuntary assignment to "leisure time".

But that's a malfunction of political economy, not technology. When our robot overlords truly take over, there will be plenty of prosperity to go around, and most people won't have to work very much of the time to provide it. Look far enough into the future (or the past - when it was a given that everybody toiled from cradle to grave) and the notion of job creation becomes quaint.

Posted by: mpbowlr | March 8, 2011 11:40 PM | Report abuse

Four questions from an old-timer:

1. On a planet where interconnections increasingly span the globe, shouldn't these large economic questions be posed with a broader sense of the word "we"?

2. How did dire warnings in the '60s and '70s about the baleful effects of "automation" on the workforce pan out?

3. Are we genetically inclined to worry about changes 50, 60, 70 years from now and are authors simply cashing in on this human trait?

4. Given the lopsided distribution of the enormous wealth in this country isn't the principal issue facing the U.S. not whether it can create more wealth at a faster pace but whether it can distribute it more evenly?

Posted by: fredbrack | March 9, 2011 4:00 AM | Report abuse

Syntelligent systems that can pass the Turing Test must diverge qualitatively from mere enabling tek, as per 1785 - present...they could gain authority android identical to ourselves in measured talent, sensitivity & character might pursue civil rights, like the franchise or inter-species marriage...and/or, we could upgrade ourselves in foresight & behavior, enhancing prospects for survival of the human genome in restored environs [if it's not already too late].

Posted by: greenchoyss | March 9, 2011 8:43 AM | Report abuse

My own post, "Where Have the Jobs Gone?" addresses the same issue. The thing is that job-replacing machines are good for companies - not workers. How could it be good that a machine replaces ten workers? As these machines replace jobs in more and more sectors of the economy, how will the majority of us make a living?

Posted by: thrustblog | March 9, 2011 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Ezra -

Maybe you and MattY and the rest of the JournoCabalist can start a new party . . .

Progressives Against Progress

Posted by: seanla | March 9, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse

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