Canada Post has announced it will phase out delivery to urban homes over the next five years, cutting as many as 8,000 jobs in the process. People seem to acknowledge that some such move is inevitable now that most written communications move electronically, but a lot of the public reaction has been some variant of “there goes another decent, high-paying job.”
Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos scored a publicity coup by announcing that the company has (very vague) plans to develop half-hour delivery by quadcopter drone. “I don’t want anybody to think this is just around the corner,” Bezos cautioned. But that did not stop Andrew Leonard, one of Salon.com’s resident doom cultists, from writing a breathless article entitled “Amazon, Applebee’s and Google’s job-crushing drones and robot armies: They’re coming for your job next.” Ye gods! Where is John Connor when we need him?
But Leonard is serious. Amazon’s announcement of a vaporware drone fleet is a grim sign of “the ongoing technologically mediated evisceration of labor.” A “technology reporter” whose theme is The Machine Menace, Leonard likes his histrionic metaphors: robots are “crushing” jobs; shopping via mobile devices is a “juggernaut”; Google, having already “crushed” authors by digitizing their books, has set its sight on advertisers.
It must be terrible to live in this dystopian hell where robots and computers crush and eviscerate workers while their corporate enablers point and laugh, where we are apparently mere days away from a “scary, anarchic future in which Amazon and UPS drones battle for control of the neighborhood skies.”
But we don’t live there. A friend suggested to me that a simple antidote to this kind of apocalyptic fiction is to imagine a 1930s Andrew Leonard raving about electromechanical controls crushing the jobs of elevator and telephone operators.
And indeed, as long as there have been mechanical improvements to workers’ productivity, there have been those who interpret those improvements as the “technologically mediated evisceration of labor” or, less bombastically, “job killers.” This is the myth of Technological Unemployment, a.k.a. the Luddite Fallacy, the idea that unemployment is largely due to technological progress.
“Luddite” has come to mean anybody who grumbles about new technologies or refuses to adopt some popular new thing like tablets or texting, but the original Luddites were not just “late adopters”; they were machine-wreckers responding violently to the power-looms that crushed their jobs. Latter-day defenders of their vandalism like to point out that they were not motivated by a generalized primitive hatred of machines, but by putatively higher feelings about the elimination of the fine products of skilled artisans and their replacement by crude machine-made clothes.
That’s nice, but of course the crude machine-made clothes were cheaper and therefore easier for people to buy and left the same people more money to spend on other things, thus ultimately creating more employment in other places. But the displaced workers did not see it that way, and their inheritors still do not to this day. Hence the Luddite Fallacy, the exact inversion of the mainstream economic story that improvements in productivity lead to increased employment and higher wages.
History is one long story of jobs being eliminated. How many family names derive from vanished professions? Cooper, Chandler, Cartwright, Brodeur, Cloutier… And with all these jobs crushed by the technological juggernaut, an explosive growth in human population and human employment. Is it a willful ignorance of history that makes the Luddite prophet of doom predict that the next change spells the “end of work” altogether?
It’s that, and at the same time it’s yet another case of “What is seen and what is not seen.” Henry Hazlitt was right to take Bastiat’s classic essay as the jumping-off point for his aptly-titled Economics in One Lesson. That one trick of learning to appreciate that money spent replacing a broken window or employing an unproductive worker is money not spent on wealth-producing, worker-employing alternatives is arguably the one that would do most to improve public policy if more people got the hang of it.
For people like Leonard and Olivia Chow, it’s too late. For them, every job is sacred. In his article about the job-crushing robot armies, Leonard quotes a research scientist who thinks the opportunities for automation are enormous because “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.” Leonard is beside himself: “There are still people employed to pick things up and move them around! Can you even imagine?! It’s almost 2014, people!”
Would Leonard go for one of those awesome warehouse jobs if Salon.com didn’t pay him to play Chicken Little? Probably not, but he can relax: Shit jobs will always be available for the people whose interests he has in his heart.
Thankfully, more and better jobs will also be available as resources currently used to employ deadweight are diverted to productive purposes and human beings get down to the business of doing things like health care and other services that they still do better than machines.
* Larry Deck is a librarian who lives in Montreal.