The Only Thing Difficult to Predict

Jill Lapore does a brilliant take-down of a flurry of recent literature themed “The Robots are Coming!” in her recent (March 4, 2019) New Yorker piece The Robot Caravan. Lapore’s acerbic and erudite wit skewers the doomsayers and technophobes who see the apocalypse coming.

Her argument could be summed up in one paragraph from the middle of her essay.

Fear of a robot invasion is the obverse of fear of an immigrant invasion, a partisan coin: heads, you’re worried about robots; tails, you’re worried about immigrants. There’s just the one coin. Both fears have to do with jobs, whose loss produces suffering, want, and despair, and whose future scarcity represents a terrifying prospect. Misery likes a scapegoat: heads, blame machines; tails, foreigners. But is the present alarm warranted? Panic is not evidence of danger; it’s evidence of panic. Stoking fear of invading robots and of invading immigrants has been going on for a long time, and the predictions of disaster have, generally, been bananas. Oh, but this time it’s different, the robotomizers insist.

As she says, such worries and fears are far from new. A little over 200 years ago, the Luddites came to prominence, by smashing looms and setting fires to factories.

Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked particularly new. Moreover, the idea of smashing machines as a form of industrial protest did not begin or end with them. In truth, the secret of their enduring reputation depends less on what they did than on the name under which they did it. You could say they were good at branding.

One of the subtexts Lapore mentions is that of outsourcing. The upshot is the same; American jobs are being taken away by foreigners. It strikes me as odd that this drumbeat continues even in times like the present, in which the American job market is so tight that employers are complaining about not being able to find enough workers. I guess it’s not the only the present that people are worried about — it’s the future as well.

[Author Martin] Ford, an advocate of universal basic income, is neither a historian nor an economist. He is a futurist, a modern-day shaman, with an M.B.A. Everybody thinks about the future; futurists do it for a living. Policymakers make plans; futurists read omens. The robots-are-coming omen-reading borrows as much from the conventions of science fiction as from those of historical analysis.

There was even a small blurb within Lapore’s essay that made me smile for personal reasons.

In 1983, [a Mexican woman] crossed into the United States, illegally, to work at Kaypro, the maker of the Kaypro II, a personal computer that briefly rivalled the Apple II.

Just this past weekend, my friend Brooke (who now lives on the West Coast) and I were in a New York City taxicab discussing our days of using the Kaypro II.

My own take on the jobs discussion, as an erstwhile economist and as an amateur historian and all-around dilettante, is that it’s all a bunch of nonsense. In some circle, wealthy business-owners are touted as “job creators” as though they are performing some sort of grand philanthropic gesture to the poor unfortunate slobs who would otherwise not be able to work for a living. Of course they are doing no such thing, but are employing people when it is to their financial advantage.

There is also the argument that government stimulates (or should stimulate) the economy through its fiscal and monetary policies to create demand for goods and services, thus allowing businesses to hire more workers. There is undoubtedly some truth to this argument, to the extent that our collective action (also know as government) creates or subsidizes the infrastructure necessary for businesses to form and perform their job-creating miracle.

But in the end, my vote goes to the workers themselves. Jobs exist because people want them and are willing to work. Take, for example, the millions of people in this country who slipped across the border or who overstayed their tourist visas to find work. They may have started out by picking apples or mowing lawns or changing sheets in a motel, because they could find someone willing to pay them for things they were willing and able to do. Many of these people have gone on to higher-skilled jobs, and they are here because we need them; they are now an integral part of our economy.

Over tens or hundreds of thousands of years (or longer) of evolution, homo sapiens have risen to world dominance by being a cooperative species. In pre-agricultural times, human society probably consisted of bands of 100 to 150 individuals. Although there was probably some tolerance for non-working adults who were disabled or had special powers, for the most part each member of the clan had to pitch in if the group were to survive.

I suspect idleness has been bred out of our gene pool. Work, in our modern world, does not necessarily mean paid employment; it can be volunteer work, or hobbies, or helping out with the family. But I know very few people who just sit around and do nothing. And if people need money, they will find a way to earn it. When a worker accepts a job, who has “created” that job? My vote, as I’ve said, goes to the worker.

Yes, yes, I know this is all a great oversimplification. What about the Great Depression? Why didn’t all those people go out and create jobs? My argument is a philosophical one, and an appeal to look at cause and effect a bit differently. Robots are not to be feared. In aggregate, if people are replaced by technology, they will find other things to do that they can get paid for. Always have. Always will.

That said, I’m very well aware of the folk saying, “The only thing difficult to predict is the future!”

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