I Don’t Think Automation is Taking (many) Jobs Soon

The automation debate is flaring up again! Having a candidate like Bernie Sanders talking about labor in ways that have been neglected for years has put globalization back in the forefront. And it seems that those who work on AI risk are looking at the problem closely again. In line with the tradition of Malthus, Keynes, and many others, I’m seeing predictions that robots will steal our jobs. Or work for us, if you’re an optimist.

Here’s the thing. We already had an automation revolution. It was in the 1800s. Machines took human jobs. People jammed their wooden shoes into the machines. Machines still took their jobs.

And then they got other jobs.

In the jargon of economists, automation puts deflationary pressure on consumer prices. The only reason to automate is to make production cheaper because if you have to pay more for automation than you are for labor* you will stick with labor. This means that in a reasonably competitive environment, workers (and everyone else) end up paying less because of automation.

Workers end up needing less in wages—in such an economy, keeping the amount you are paid in wages constant is actually like a raise since things are getting cheaper. In Great Britain, between 1800 and 1900 prices fell so that a pound of goods was worth .68 pounds. Part of this** was the industrial revolution making production cheaper. That wages rose during this time is a testament to the relationship between capital and labor being linked, not antagonistic.

This means that robots work themselves out of jobs. By putting downward pressure on prices, they make it less attractive to hire robots and stick with inferior meat-humans. The very thing that makes automation attractive limits itself.

Now, here comes some important qualifiers.

First, this can be hugely disruptive. “Oh, yeah, things got cheaper during the 1800s” smooths over the century that eroded the peerage and European social order, set the stage for WWI, saw colonialism peak, was riddled with socialist and anarchist agitation, and saw abject poverty move from the country to arguably worse slums. While I stand by my sanguine analysis that automation is probably going to continue to be self-limiting overall, we will need policies designed to smooth the waters.

Second, this assumes that the cost of capital will remain high. I do not believe that AI advances are the main threat to labor. Software will plausibly chip away at some margins, but it is the hardware that is likely to be the limiting factor. Durable materials—plastic, metal, silicone, etc.—are probably going to increase in price as demand for them continues to rise. There is a scarcity of raw material and they are relatively difficult to work with. Innovations on that front, I believe, would do more to make capital attractive and squeeze out labor. We’ve seen a lot of progress, but things like Moore’s “Law” are breaking down. At any rate, this would not completely overcome the benefits of downward pressure on prices.

The history of labor and capital so far has not suggested that capital is especially detrimental to labor. The age of capital accumulation—the 17th century to present—have seen labor’s general improvement. (Those who would point to the faltering middle class in America miss the larger picture; Americans have lost at the margins to labor else where. See the first qualification above.)

I boldly predict that centuries of precedent will largely hold.

*Provided you get the same output. I mean, obviously, it can make sense to move to machines if they do better, and even worse, but that just adds qualifications without clarity.

**Here there be dragons. There is wide consensus what I wrote is true. There is no consensus on what fraction of that decline was from capital. It’s complicated.

Safe Space Objectors Are Destroying the Liberal Tradition!!!

edinburgh university

Okay, that’s an exaggeration.

But take a look at this piece about Imogen Wilson, who was “slapped with a ‘safe space complaint’ after raising her hand during discussion”.

Details in the piece are scant, but the headline is misleading in at least one way. They were not having a “discussion” in the normal sense that people use that word. They were having a debate. And while another speaker was talking she raised her hands. There are rules about this is formal, moderated debate about what you can do when someone else is speaking. These are from Robert’s, which probably serve as the model:

In Order When Another Has the Floor. After a member has been assigned the floor he cannot be interrupted by a member or the chairman, except by (a) a motion to reconsider; (b) a point of order; (c) an objection to the consideration of the question; (d) a call for the orders of the day when they are not being conformed to; (e) a question of privilege; (f) a request or demand that the question be divided when it consists of more than one independent resolution on different subjects; or (g) a parliamentary inquiry or a request for information that requires immediate answer; and these cannot interrupt him after he has actually commenced speaking unless the urgency is so great as to justify it….

It is generally understood that gestures are included in “interrupt”. But just in case it is not generally understood, The Washington Times points out that the published rules for the Edinburgh University Student Assembly do not allow gesturing during debate. This is to prevent people from flailing around silently to distract the speaker and audience and, sit down for this, protect discourse.

To be fair, if the Washington Times’ reporting on this is completely accurate, then Wilson is probably the victim of the zealous application of the rule. Indeed, this does not strain credulity because the Israel/Palestine conflict was on the docket and goodness knows that inspires pettiness. But it is quite damning (for the Washinton Times) that they did not secure a quote from the chair or anyone else present. Such an omission should be noted, not papered over with a quote from the handbook. I would be curious to know if the chair felt her interruption was as isolated as Wilson’s account implies. But we must also consider the very real possibility that it was.

The Telegraph has more lucid reporting on the matter, and draws out the narrative that the application of the rule was politically motivated and enforced unevenly. That more than implies that the problem is not safe spaces, but rather with the chair. That a chairperson might abuse their power is hardly a revelation if you’ve ever considered formal, liberal debate for like even ten seconds.

Why precisely these are called “safe space” rules rather than “rules of order” is a mystery to me. But I suspect that if you replaced the headlines with “rules of order”, people would not find this nearly so shocking. “Student accused of violating university ‘rules of order’ by raising her hands”. It was not Wilson’s turn to communicate with the chamber and so the question of her communication with it is (at face) a legitimate one.

In fact, it is Wilson herself who has done an admirable job putting this in perspective:

“I totally do believe in safe space and the principles behind it,” she told the Telegraph. “It’s supposed to enhance free speech and not shut it down, and give everyone a chance to feel like they can contribute.

“Safe space is essential for us to have a debate where everyone can speak, but it can’t become a tool for the hard left to use when they disagree with people.”

She said: “At that meeting we were discussing BDS, the movement to boycott Israel. I made a long and passionate speech against us subscribing to this, on the basis it encourages anti-Semitism on campus. It was only after I made that speech that someone made a safe space complaint. I can’t help but think it was a political move against me.

“Later on in the meeting, someone threatened me with a second complaint because I was shaking my head – but when I was addressing the room about my worries about Jewish students, there were plenty of people shaking their heads and nothing happened.”

According to EUSA safe space rules, only gestures that indicate agreement are “permissible”, and then only as long as “these gestures are generally understood and not used in an intimidating manner”.

Compare this with the hysterical rhetoric of the student who started a petition to repeal the rules of order (!!!):

One Edinburgh university student, Charlie Peters, complained it was “pathetic” that hand gestures were “censored” and has started a petition calling on the student union to “reinstate and defend free speech”.

Wilson, unlike Peters and many commentators, understands that the issue here is how the rules where used, not the rules themselves. Moderated debate is necessary to prevent people from using tactics of disruption and intimidation cloaked as “free speech”, and that certainly includes silent gestures. Wilson’s particular case is a cautionary tale about responsibly chairing debate, not about having rules against interrupting.

This is very typical of the safe-space debate. Opponents of safe spaces seize on a messy example, and one that is reported in a lopsided way. They then throw out the entire history of liberal discourse and worry that liberal discourse is being eroded. The fact is that banning disrupting gestures has been matter of course in meetings since…forever. Failing to moderate forums—be they chambers, internet comment sections, or classroom discussions—hurts, not helps, discourse. In this way, the rush to “counteract” this “new” moderation is actually eroding the historical safeguards on free speech.

Whether or not that moderation was good judgement in Wilson’s case is an important and separate issue.