Lose your job to automation: Mourn or celebrate?

The three links below of several hundreds that can be found on the internet news sources these days indicate clearly the rapidly accelerating advance of automated technology moving towards the elimination of jobs.

Walmart

Australia

Japan

So far, the action seems to be very widespread but is moving especially rapidly in retail as is clear from the evidence in Australia, Japan and the US. The rationale used to justify automation by Walmart management in the US is creative and ridiculous at the same time. Nobody in management wants to say that their companies are trying to reduce or eliminate their workforces altogether. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Karl Marx predicted this very outcome in the mid-19th Century arguing that in their efforts to control or reduce their costs of production, businesses, after overproducing in the search for profits, turn to automation to control their labour force and return to profitability. The process has been going on for a long time.

It seems perfectly reasonable for businesses to try to become more ‘efficient’ by automating jobs that are tedious and repetitive, often dangerous. For individual businesses this seems like an effective strategy to control their costs and their processes. The problem is that there is anarchy in the business world, no coordination, and competition prevents cooperation between businesses in the same field of operations. The result is that there is a reduction in the aggregate number of workers in any given area and the reality is that bots don’t buy anything. Workers are also consumers so doing away with workers is doing away with your very own customers. Nobody I know in business is worried about taking customers away from their competitors, but if Walmart eliminates much of its labour force by automation that will inevitably also reduce its customer base.

So, the question is should you mourn or celebrate the loss of your job through automation? The answer is yes and no. The actual issue is not jobs, but income. You should definitely mourn loss of income. The loss of a job not so much. Jobs, i.e, employment, are not really in sync with the human capacity to work. Humans, as Veblen is quick to point out, are programmed to work, but if they are presented with meaningless, repetitive, boring work that is really to make someone else look good or get rich, they balk. So doing away with boring, stupid, meaningless jobs is a good thing in my mind. Several countries are now toying with a guaranteed basic income. It will take some time yet for the importance of this strategy to become more widespread.

We’re at a real crossroads at the moment. With the advent of advanced robotics, automation, and especially artificial intelligence, work will be required of fewer and fewer people for shorter and shorter lengths of time. There will be, in a very short period of time, a huge surplus of people as workers and a shortage of people as consumers. The elimination of tedious labour could result in an explosion of creative energy as people are freed to think for themselves and act according to their talents and abilities. However, they will need income to be able to do that.

One thing for sure, there will have to be a greater distribution of wealth because it does no one any good to hoard cash and take money out of circulation. It sure doesn’t help corporations involved in the sale of consumer goods. From this perspective, banks and financial institutions are at loggerheads with consumer driven businesses. There will have to evolve a very different ethic, one at odds with the current capitalist Neo-liberal one that I wrote about in my last blog post.

The stupidity of the jobs argument.

This is not an example of Godwin’s Law. I’m not comparing Hitler to any current politicians and there has been no discussion I know of on the internet about the topic of this blog, at least not in the way I’m approaching it.

So, the jobs argument is beginning to seriously piss me off. Whenever there is controversy over whether a mega-dam, pipeline or mining project is being sold to the public by some politician or other, they often throw out the jobs argument. It’s a simple argument. It just states that we need the jobs, therefore we need this project.

Simply, that’s a stupid, ignorant argument but compelling to a lot of people it seems. There are jobs and then there are jobs. Not all jobs are created equal. Have you noticed that? Working at a fast food ‘restaurant’ is not quite on the same plane as working as the CEO of a large corporation. Both are jobs. Both are work, but they are so different in their importance and impact that any comparison is laughable.

More importantly, there are jobs that need to go. They need to be eliminated. They are not on the public interest. They need to go. For example, what if after WWII the people who worked at concentration camps and operated the ovens that killed millions of Jews and others argued that it was not acceptable to eliminate their jobs. After all, the economy was at stake and they needed to feed their families. Who would have the temerity to give such an argument any credence whatsoever? Those were jobs that needed to be eliminated and they obviously were. Unfortunately, we are now into the age of the cult of the job. But that’s the topic of another blog post. Back to my point.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the car was rapidly replacing the horse and buggy as the main form of personal transportation. Horse breeders were being put out of business everywhere. Buggy whip producers the same. Poor horse breeders, poor buggy makers, poor buggy whip makers. All out of work…except the buggy makers that transformed themselves into car makers. There weren’t many of them, but there were some.

I think that petroleum producers today are in the same situation as horse breeders and buggy makers were in the early nineteen hundreds. The ones who can make the transformation to producers of alternate sources of energy will survive, the others will die.  The people who work for them are in the same boat. Change or suck air.