Posts Tagged ‘technology’

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Chico Harlan [ht: ja] describes the arrival of the first robots at Tenere Inc. in Dresser, Wisconsin:

The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.”

“We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said.

They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor. The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and earplugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.

The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows. One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work. That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.

Tenere is just one of many factories and offices in which employers, in the United States and around the world, are installing robots and other forms of automation in order to boost their profits.

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They’re not doing it because there’s any kind of labor shortage. If there were, wages would be rising—and they’re not. Real weekly earnings for full-time workers (the blue line in the chart) increased only 2.3 percent on an annual basis in the most recent quarter. Sure, they complain about a shortage of skilled workers but employers clearly aren’t being compelled to raise wages to attract new workers. As a result, the wage share in the United States (the red line) continues to decline on a long-term basis, falling from 51.5 percent in 1970 to 43 percent last year (only slightly higher than it was, at 42.2 percent, in 2013).

No, they’re using robots in order to compete with other businesses in their industry, by boosting the productivity of their own workers to undercut their competition and capture additional surplus-value.

And they can do so because robots have become much more affordable:

No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate. As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of small- and medium-size companies that had previously depended only on the workers who lived just beyond their doors. Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker — humans and robots. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.

So, where does that leave us?

The prevalent response has been to worry about mass unemployment. However, as I explained a month ago, I don’t think that’s the issue, at least at the macro level.

If workers are displaced from their jobs in one plant or sector, they can’t just remain unemployed. They have to find jobs elsewhere, often at lower wages than their earned before. That’s how capitalism works.

Much the same holds for workers who don’t lose their jobs but who, as new technologies are adopted by their employers, are deskilled and otherwise become appendages of the new machines. They can’t just quit. They remain on the job, even as their working conditions deteriorate and the value of their ability to work falls—and their employers’ profits rise.

No, the real problem is how the gains from the introduction of robots and other new technologies are being unevenly distributed.

And that’s an old problem, which was confronted by forces as diverse as the Luddites and the John L. Lewis-led United Mineworkers of America, none of which was opposed to the use of new, labor-saving technologies.

In fact, Lewis’s argument was that machinery should replace hand work in the mines, which would serve to both ease the burden of miners’ work increase their wages—all under the watchful eye of their union. And mine-owners who attempted to pay workers less, without technological improvements, should be driven out of business.

Mr. Lewis called upon the miners to accept machinery, since they could not turn back the clock, but to demand a fair share of the benefits of mechanization in the form of shorter hours and increased compensation. He said that machines must be made the workingman’s ally, and that nothing was to be gained by fighting them.

The fact is, right now workers are not getting “a fair share of the benefits of mechanization,” whether in the form of shorter hours or increased compensation.

And if employers are not willing to provide those benefits, workers themselves should be given a say in what kinds of robots and other new technologies will be introduced, what their working hours will be, and how much they will be compensated.

Only then will workers be able to confidently say, “we’ve got the robots.”

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New technologies—automation, robotics, artificial intelligence—have created a specter of mass unemployment. But, as critical as I am of existing economic institutions, I don’t see that as the issue, at least at the macro level. The real problem is the distribution of the value that is produced with the assistance of the new technologies—in short, the specter of growing inequality.

David Autor and Anna Salomons (pdf) are the latest to attempt to answer the question about technology and employment in their contribution to the recent ECB Forum on Central Banking. Their empirical work leads to the conclusion that while “industry-level employment robustly falls as industry productivity rises. . .country-level employment generally grows as aggregate productivity rises.”

To me, their results make sense. But for a different reason.

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It is clear that, in many sectors—perhaps especially in manufacturing—the growth in output (the red line in the chart above) is due to the growth in labor productivity (the blue line) occasioned by the use of new technologies, which in turn has led to a decline in manufacturing employment (the green line).

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But for the U.S. economy as a whole, especially since the end of the Great Recession, the opposite is true: the growth in hours worked has played a much more important role in explaining the growth of output than has the growth in labor productivity.

The fact is, increases in labor productivity—which stem at least in part from labor-saving technologies—have not, at least in recent years, led to massive unemployment. (The losses in jobs that have occurred are much more a cyclical phenomenon, due to the crash of 2007-08 and the long, uneven recovery.)

But that’s not because, as Autor and Salomons (and mainstream economists generally) would have it, there are “positive spillovers” of technological change to the rest of the economy. It’s because, under capitalism, workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to employers. There’s no other choice. If workers are displaced from their jobs in one plant or sector, they can’t just remain unemployed. They have to find jobs elsewhere, often at lower wages than their earned before. That’s how capitalism works.

Much the same holds for workers who don’t lose their jobs but who, as new technologies are adopted by their employers, are deskilled and otherwise become appendages of the new machines. They can’t just quit. They remain on the job, even as their working conditions deteriorate and the value of their ability to work falls—and their employers’ profits rise.

What happens, in other words, is the gains from the new technologies that are adopted are distributed unevenly.

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This is clear if we look at labor productivity for the economy as a whole (the blue line in the chart above) since the end of the Great Recession, which has increased by 7.5 percent. However, the wage share (the green line) has barely budged and is actually now lower than it was in 2009.

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The results are even more dramatic over a long time frame—over periods when labor productivity was growing relatively quickly (from 1947 through the 1970s, and from 1980 until the most recent crash) and when productivity has been growing much more slowly (since 2009).

During the initial period (until 1980), labor productivity (the blue line in the chart) almost doubled while income shares—to the bottom 90 percent (the red line) and the top 1 percent (the green line)—remained relatively constant.

After 1980, however—during periods of first rapid and then slow growth in productivity—the situation changed dramatically: the share of income going to the bottom 90 percent declined, while the share captured by the top 1 percent soared. Even as new technologies were adopted across the economy, the vast majority of people were forced to find work, at stagnant or declining wages, while their employers and corporate executives captured a larger and larger share of the new value that was being created.

Autor and Salomons think they’ve arrived at a conclusion—concerning the “relative neutrality of productivity growth for aggregate labor demand”—that is optimistic.

The conclusions of my analysis are much more disconcerting. The broad sharing of the fruits of technological change, from the end of World War II to the late 1970s, was relatively short-lived. Since then, the conditions within which new technologies have been adopted have created a mass of increasingly desperate workers, who have either been forced to labor in more automated workplaces or have been displaced and thus forced to find employment elsewhere. In both cases, their share of income has declined while the share captured by a tiny group at the top has continued to rise. That’s the “new normal” (from 1980 onward) which looks a lot like the “old normal” of capitalist growth (prior to the first Great Depression), interrupted by a relatively short period (during the three postwar decades) that is becoming increasingly recognized as the exception.

Even more, I can make the case that things would be much better if the adoption of new technologies did in fact displace a large number of labor hours. Then, the decreasing amount of labor that needed to be performed could be spread among all workers, thus lessening the need for everyone to work as many hours as they do today.

But that would require a radically different set of economic institutions, one in which people were not forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else. However, that’s not a world Autor and Salomons—or mainstream economists generally—can ever imagine let alone work to create.

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Mark Tansey, “Duet” (2004)

There are plenty of reasons why contemporary libertarians might want to read Karl Marx—and at least one reason why they wouldn’t.

Chris Dillow suggests libertarians “would be surprised by a lot of Marx” and offers three reasons why they should read him.

One is that Marx saw economics as a historical process.

One implication of this for libertarians is that they must ask: what material economic basis would make our ideas more popular? I’d argue that one such basis is greater equality, as this would diminish demands for statist regulation.

A second is Marx’s view of the relationship between property rights and technical progress.

This might speak to our current secular stagnation. Why are productivity growth and capital spending so weak? Might one reason be that the fear of future losses from competition is deterring investment? Or that excessively tight intellectual property laws are restricting innovation? Marx poses the question: how should property rights alter to foster growth? This surely should interest libertarians.

The third reason lies in Marx’s attitudes about the expansion of the realm of freedom.

Marx’s main gripe with capitalism wasn’t so much that it was unfair but that it thwarted our freedom to develop our human potential. Work, instead of being a source of self-expression, is oppressive and alienating under capitalism.

According to Dillow, libertarians should read Marx because, in all three cases, he poses some questions to them that should sharpen their thinking.

I agree.* But, as I explained back in 2012, there’s at least one reason why Marx would infuriate libertarian readers—because of their sense of the right of private individuals to do what they like on and with their property.

Marx, in chapter 6 of volume 1 of Capital, presents an analysis of private power to which libertarians are—and, I suspect, always will be—blind:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

 

*Although I can’t agree with Dillow’s suggestion that readers should start volume 1 of Capital at chapter 10, and turn to the first nine chapters last. In my view, readers should begin with the first three chapters, on the commodity, where Marx presents the initial steps in his critique of political economy. In fact, every time I teach Capital, I run the risk of rushing through the remaining material precisely because I find so much to present to contemporary students about commodities and markets in that first section.

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Young Americans are caught between two contradictory messages. On one hand, they’re told to go to college, to maintain pace with new technologies and job requirements. On the other hand, they’re told to “get out”—because, for most, a college education is simply unaffordable.

The American Dream, for them, looks more and more like “the sunken place.”

The Institute for Higher Education Policy [ht: mfa] is the latest group to document the unaffordability of a college education. While students from the highest income quintile (from families earning around $160 thousand or more) can afford most of the more than 2,000 colleges studied, low- and moderate-income students (bringing in around $69 thousand or less) can only afford to attend a tiny percentage of those colleges.

The Institute bases its conclusion on an “affordability benchmark” (the so-called Rule of 10, the idea that 10-year savings plus part-time earnings should cover the entire cost of a four-year degree) compared to the net price of a college education (equal to the cost of attendance minus grant aid). They then illustrate their findings with ten student profiles: five dependent students representing a different income quintile, and possessing attributes based on national averages for students in their quintile (Sonja, Hakim, Ava, Sergio, and Maria), and five independent students characterizing the diverse array of personal and family circumstances among independent students (Anthony, Traval, Aneesa, Jon Sook, and Mohammed).

As readers can see from the figure at the top of the post, while the student from the highest income bracket could afford to attend 90 percent of colleges in the sample, the low- and moderate-income students with fewer financial resources could only afford 1 to 5 percent of colleges.

Colleges were most dramatically unaffordable for students near the bottom of the income distribution, including all five of the independent students. Out of more than 2,000 colleges, nearly half (48 percent) were affordable for only the wealthiest student (with a family income over $160,000) and more than one-third (35 percent) were affordable only for that student and the next wealthiest (with a family income over $100,000).

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Not only do working-class students face financial barriers in attempting to enroll in most colleges, which they can only afford by burying themselves and their families under mountains of debt. They’re also far less likely to complete their students, often because working long hours to finance their education gets in the way of their studies (not to mention all the other activities traditionally associated with being in college).

As the authors of the report conclude,

This inability for low-earners to afford an education or improve their station erodes belief in a nation founded on the rejection of entrenched social stratification.

The only question for the nation is, will this educational horror film have a happy ending?

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Both Peter Temin and I are concerned about the vanishing middle-class and the desperate plight of most American workers. We even use similar statistics, such as the growing gap between productivity and workers’ wages and the share of income captured by the top 1 percent.

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And, as it turns out, both of us have invoked Arthur Lewis’s “dual economy” model to make sense of that growing gap. However, we present very different interpretations of the Lewis model and how it might help to shed light on what is wrong in the U.S. economy—with, of course, radically different policy implications.

It is ironic that both Temin and I have turned to the Lewis model, which was originally intended to make sense of “dual economies” in the Third World, in which peasant workers trapped by “disguised unemployment” and receiving a “subsistence” wage (equal to the average product of labor) in the “backward,” noncapitalist rural/agricultural sector could be induced via a higher “industrial” wage rate (equal to the marginal product of labor) to move to the “modern,” capitalist urban/manufacturing sector, which would absorb them as long as capital accumulation increased the demand for labor.

That’s clearly not what we’re talking about today, certainly not in the United States and other advanced economies where agriculture employs a tiny fraction of the work force—and where much of agriculture, like the manufacturing and service sectors, is organized along capitalist lines. But Lewis, like Adam Smith before him, did worry about the parasitical role of the landlord class and the way it might serve, via increasing rents, to drag down the rest of the economy—much as today we refer to finance and the above-normal profits captured by oligopolies.

So, our returning to Lewis may not be so far-fetched. But there the similarity ends.

Temin (in a 2015 paper, before his current book was published) divided the economy into two sectors: a high-wage finance, technology, and electronics sector, which includes about thirty percent of the population, and a low-wage sector, which contains the other seventy percent. In his view, the only link between the two sectors is education, which “provides a possible path that the children of low-wage workers can take to move into the FTE sector.”

The reinterpretation of the Lewis model I presented back in 2014 is quite different:

What I have in mind is redefining the subsistence wage as the federally mandated minimum wage, which regulates compensation to workers in the so-called service sector (especially retail and food services). That low wage-rate serves a couple of different functions: it’s a condition of high profitability in the service sector while keeping service-sector prices low, thereby cheapening both the value of labor power (for all workers who rely on the consumption of those goods and services) and making it possible for those at the top of the distribution of income to engage in conspicuous consumption (in the restaurants where they dine as well as in their homes). In turn, the higher average wage-rate of nonsupervisory workers is regulated in part by the minimum wage and in part by the Reserve Army of unemployed and underemployed workers. The threat to currently employed workers is that they might find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or working at a minimum-wage job.

In addition, the profits captured from both groups of workers are distributed to a wide variety of other activities, not just capital accumulation as presumed by Lewis. These include high CEO salaries, stock buybacks, idle cash, and financial-sector profits (with a declining share going to taxes). And, if the remaining portion that does flow into capital accumulation takes the form of labor-saving investments, we can have an economic recovery based on private investment and production with high unemployment, stagnant wages, and rising corporate profits.

For Temin, the goal of economic policy is to reduce the barriers (conditioned and created by an increasingly segregated educational system) so that low-wage workers can adopt to the forces of technological change and globalization, which can eventually “reunify the American economy.”

My view is radically different: the “normal” operation of the contemporary version of the dual economy is precisely what is keeping workers’ wages low and profits high across the U.S. economy. The problem does not stem from the high educational barrier between the two sectors, as Temin would have it, but from the control exercised by the small group that appropriates and distributes the surplus within both sectors.

And the only way to solve that problem is by eliminating the barriers that prevent workers as a class—both black and white, in finance, technology, and electronics as well as retail and food services, regardless of educational level—from participating in the appropriation and distribution of the surplus they create.

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It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the numbers that the wage share of national income is historically low. And it’s been falling for decades now, since 1970.

Before that, during the short Golden Age of U.S. capitalism, the presumption was that the share of national income going to labor was and would remain relatively stable, hovering around 50 percent. But then it started to fall, and now (as of 2015) stands at 43 percent.

That’s a precipitous drop for a supposedly stable share of the total amount produced by workers, especially as productivity rose dramatically during that same period.

The question is, what has caused that decline in the labor share?

The latest story proffered by mainstream economists (such as David Autor and his coauthors) has to do with “superstar” firms:

From manufacturing to retailing, giant companies have managed to gobble up a larger and larger share of the market.

While such concentration has resulted in enormous profits for investors and owners of behemoths like Facebook, Google and Amazon, this type of “winner take most” competition may not be so good for workers as a whole. Over the last 30 years, their share of the total income kitty has been eroding. And the industries where concentration is the greatest is where labor’s share has dropped the most. . .

Think about the retail sector, where mom-and-pop stores once crowded the landscape. Now it is dominated by a handful of giants like Walmart, Target and Costco.

It is true, industry concentration has increased dramatically in recent decades (as I explain here). And the wage share has declined (as illustrated in the chart above).

Here’s the problem: exactly the opposite argument is the one that prevailed in the United States for the earlier period. Economists at the time argued that American workers earned a relatively high share of national income because they worked in concentrated industries, such as cars and steel. Thus, their collectively bargained wages included a portion of the “monopoly rents” captured by the firms within those industries.

Now that the wage share has clearly fallen, and shows no signs of returning to its previous levels, economists have changed their story. In their view, market concentration leads to a lower, not higher, wage share.

Why has there been such an about-face in economists’ story about the causes of the declining wage share?

What all the existing stories share is that they avoid identifying anything that has been done to workers as a class. Whether the story is about technological change, globalization, or now superstar firms, the idea is that there are larger forces that unwittingly have created winners and losers—and the losers, if they want, need to acquire the education and skills to join the winners. But don’t touch the basic elements of the economic system that has created such disparate and divergent outcomes.

As it turns out, the presumed rule of a stable wage share turns out to have been an illusion, an exceptional period of relatively short duration during which workers’ wages did in fact rise along with productivity. That wasn’t the case before, and it hasn’t been true since.

The actual rule, as it turns out, is that the wage share falls, as the rate of exploitation increases. That’s how capitalism works, at least much of the time—through periods of faster and slower technological change, higher or lower levels of globalization, more or less concentrated industries.

Sure, under a particular set of postwar conditions in the United States, for two and a half decades or so, the wage share remained relatively stable (and not without pitched battles between capital and labor, as Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard have shown). But that ended decades ago, and since then workers have been forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work under conditions that, even as productivity continued to grow, the wage share itself declined.

Mainstream economists have finally recognized the fact that workers’ share of national income has been failing. But they continue to formulate stories that deflect attention from the real problem, the relative immiseration of workers that has them falling further and further behind.

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Millions of workers have been displaced by robots. Or, if they have managed to keep their jobs, they’re being deskilled and transformed into appendages of automated machines. We also know that millions more workers and their jobs are threatened by much-anticipated future waves of robotics and other forms of automation.

But mainstream economists don’t want us to touch those robots. Just ask Larry Summers.

Summers is particularly incensed by Bill Gates’s suggestion that we begin taxing robots. So, he trots out all the usual arguments, hoping that at least one of them will stick. It’s hard to distinguish between robots and other forms of automation. Robots and other forms of automation produce better goods and services. And, of course, automation enhances productivity and leads to more wealth. So, we shouldn’t do anything to shrink the size of the economic pie.

This last point has long been standard in international trade theory. Indeed, it is common to point out that opening a country up to international trade is just like giving it access to a technology for transforming one good into another. The argument, then, is that since one surely would not regard such a technical change as bad, neither is trade, and so protectionism is bad. Mr Gates’ robot tax risks essentially being protectionism against progress.

Progress, indeed.

What mainstream economists like Summers fail to understand is that not touching the robots—or, for that matter, international trade—means keeping things just as they are. It means keeping the decisions about jobs, just like the patterns of international trade, in the hands of a small group of employers. They’re the ones who, under current circumstances, appropriate the surplus and decide where and how jobs will be created—and, of course, where they will be destroyed. Which, as I explained last year, is exactly how international trade takes place.

And because employers, now and as Summers would like to see the world, are the ones who are allowed to retain a monopoly over jobs and trade, they also decide how the economic pie is distributed and redistributed. Tinkering around the edges—with the usual liberal shibboleths about the need for “education and retraining”—doesn’t fundamentally alter the fact that workers remain subject to decisions about technology and trade in which they have no say. Workers are thus forced to have the freedom to adjust, with more or less government assistance, to decisions taken by their employers.

And to sit back and admire, but not touch, the growth in productivity.*

 

*And that’s pretty much what Brad DeLong also recommends in making, for the umpteenth time, the argument that today, the world’s population is, on average, many times richer than it was during the long preceding age—because both average wealth and consumer choice have increased. Delong, like Summers, doesn’t want us to touch the “innovations that have fundamentally transformed human civilization.”