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Democrats, Avoid the Robot Rabbit Hole

Summary:
One of the less discussed parts of Tuesday’s Democratic debate was the exchange that took place over automation and how to deal with it. But it’s worth focusing on that exchange, because it was interesting — by which I mean depressing. CNN’s Erin Burnett, one of the moderators, asked a bad question, and the debaters by and large — with the perhaps surprising exception of Bernie Sanders — gave pretty bad answers.So let me make a plea to the Democrats: Please don’t go down the robot rabbit hole.Burnett declared that a recent study shows that “about a quarter of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation in just the next 10 years.” What the study actually says is less alarming: It finds that a quarter of U.S. jobs will face “high exposure to automation over the next several decades.”But if you

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One of the less discussed parts of Tuesday’s Democratic debate was the exchange that took place over automation and how to deal with it. But it’s worth focusing on that exchange, because it was interesting — by which I mean depressing. CNN’s Erin Burnett, one of the moderators, asked a bad question, and the debaters by and large — with the perhaps surprising exception of Bernie Sanders — gave pretty bad answers.

So let me make a plea to the Democrats: Please don’t go down the robot rabbit hole.

Burnett declared that a recent study shows that “about a quarter of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation in just the next 10 years.” What the study actually says is less alarming: It finds that a quarter of U.S. jobs will face “high exposure to automation over the next several decades.”

But if you think even that sounds bad, ask yourself the following question: When, in modern history, has something like that statement not been true?

After all, in the late 1940s America had about seven million farmers and around 12 million production workers in manufacturing. Machinery could and did take over much of the work those Americans were doing — and people at the time wondered where the new jobs would come from. If you think that concerns about automation are somehow new, bear in mind that Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Player Piano,” envisioning a dystopian future in which machines have taken away all the jobs, was published in … 1952.

Yet the generation that followed was a golden age for American workers, who saw dramatic increases in their income, with many entering a rapidly growing middle class.

You might say that this time is different, because the pace of technological change is so much faster. But that’s not what the data say. On the contrary, worker productivity — which is how we measure the extent to which workers are being replaced by machines — has lately been growing much more slowly than in the past; it rose less than half as much from 2007 to 2018 as it did over the previous 11 years.

Which makes you wonder what Andrew Yang is talking about. Yang has based his whole campaign on the premise that automation is destroying jobs en masse and that the answer is to give everyone a stipend — one that would fall far short of what decent jobs pay. As far as I can tell, he’s offering an inadequate solution to an imaginary problem, which is in a way kind of impressive.

Let me also give a shout-out to Joe Biden, who echoed Yang’s talk about a “fourth industrial revolution.” More on that in a minute.

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Elizabeth Warren questioned Burnett’s premise, saying that the principal reason we’re losing jobs is trade policy that has encouraged jobs to move overseas. This claim was slammed by the fact-checkers at The Associated Press, who declared that automation was the “primary culprit” in manufacturing job loss between 2000 and 2010. As it happens, Warren was more right than the supposed fact-checkers; reasonable estimates say that trade was responsible for a large share of manufacturing job loss in the decade before the Great Recession.

Warren was surely wrong to suggest, however, that changing trade policy would do much to bring good jobs back. She got onto much sounder footing when she moved on to her wider agenda of tackling inequality and the power of the wealthy.

The best answer, as I said, came from Sanders. No, I don’t support his proposed job guarantee, which probably isn’t workable. But he was right to say that there’s plenty of work to do in America, and right to call for large-scale public investment, which even mainstream economists have been advocating as a response to persistent economic weakness.

Why? Because the persistent weakness — yes, we have low unemployment at the moment, but thanks only to extremely low interest rates, and we’re very poorly prepared for the next recession — isn’t about automation; it’s about inadequate private spending.

So what’s with the fixation on automation? It may be inevitable that many tech guys like Yang believe that what they and their friends are doing is epochal, unprecedented and changes everything, even if history begs to differ. But more broadly, as I’ve argued in the past, for a significant part of the political and media establishment, robot-talk — i.e., technological determinism — is in effect a diversionary tactic.

That is, blaming robots for our problems is both an easy way to sound trendy and forward-looking (hence Biden talking about the fourth industrial revolution) and an excuse for not supporting policies that would address the real causes of weak growth and soaring inequality.

So harping on the dangers of automation, while it may sound tough-minded, is in practice a sort of escapist fantasy for centrists who don’t want to confront truly hard questions. And progressives like Warren and Sanders who reject technological determinism and face up to the political roots of our problems are, on this issue at least, the actual hardheaded realists in the room.

Other Democrats should follow their lead. They should focus on the real issues, and not get sidetracked by the pseudo-issue of automation.

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Paul Krugman
Paul Robin Krugman (born February 28, 1953) is an American economist, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. In 2008, Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.

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