Robobacklash: do we even need to worry about automation in the workplace?

Where there's a popular view, there's always a backlash.

The trendy view that robots — or the ever increasing automation of human labour, at least — are going to cause major economic problems in the near future has started getting its backlash.

The argument is that we are entering a period when automation will very quickly replace huge numbers of jobs — some estimates say up to 70 per cent of existing American jobs won't exist by 2100 — and that that shift has already begun, explaining a number of concerning economic phenomena over the last 30 or so years, including the declining labour share of income, increasing inequality, and the decoupling of the median wage from GDP.

That analysis has led to some strange contortions from mainstream economists trying to conceive of capitalism in a world in which work was not necessary, leading some, myself included, to suggest that in that extreme example, it might be worth re-examining the basic tenets of economics.

But once the robots problem hit the mainstream, as evidenced by the Financial Times' Edward Luce writing that Obama must face the rise of the robots, it started being re-examined with a more critical eye. 

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson argues that our problem now is "a deficit of demand", and our problem in the future can be dealt with in the future.

Matthew O'Brien, writing for the same publication, points out that what that deficit of demand means is that in the near term, automation won't lead to job losses, but it will keep pay well below where we'd like it. He concludes that "globalization, mechanization, and the decline of unions have all helped capital and hurt labor, but so has inadequate demand the past decade."

The TUC's Duncan Weldon has addressed the case of robots in the present day, and came to much the same conclusion. He writes that the rising profit share of income is concentrated almost entirely in the finance sector, and argues the likely cause is that that sector managed to ensure that the distribution of risk in innovation was spread widely, while the distribution of the the rewards was increasingly narrow.

Wheldon's conclusion is that the problem in the present day is less of a problem than it seems: with well-targeted redistribution of wealth, the benefits of productivity growth in the sectors where innovation has been successful can be used to pay for decent services everywhere else. What we're seeing is not, then, a crisis in automation, but a simpler crisis in distribution.

I am inclined to agree with Weldon when it comes to the present day. The effect of automation today isn't categorically different from from the effect thirty years ago, but it combines with the receding desire for redistribution and the slack demand stemming from the financial crisis with pernicious results.

But when it comes to the effects of future automation, no-one the attitude that "we'll deal with it when we come to it" strikes me as dangerous. We don't know a huge amount about what the effects will be, but it's clear they'll happen gradually, over the next century; there's the very real risk of a "boiled frog" problem, where we don't realise that the entire system is in crisis until its too late.

At best, if the predictions are accurate, we've got an upheaval of similar magnitude to the Industrial Revolution. That resulted in massive gains the world over, but only after well over a century of struggle. Life for the average factory worker in the 1800s was hardly better than it was for the average agricultural labourer in the 1750s, though you can be certain that the merchant class saw a hefty improvement. It took world wars, nationalised industries, continued worker's struggle and massive redistribution of wealth to temper the distortions down to a level which could be described as sustainable.

Ideally, we should be planning to achieve the gains of the Industrial Revolution without the 18-hour days, sundering of families and massive environmental upheaval that came alongside it. Burying our heads in the sand until the 21st century's dark satanic mills have already arisen is not the best way to bring that about.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.