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 "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle