A while back I was having a discussion with a friend about the economy. He complained that robots and mechanization was stealing jobs. I disagreed. Then just last week Dylan Ratigan had a segment on his MSNBC cable show where he talked about how robots are stealing jobs. While I love Dylan and love his holistic viewpoint of the organism that we are, and think he is usually right on, in this case he was dead wrong.
Robots don’t steal jobs, people do.
Let’s imagine a simple work scenario. Let’s say you have a small company; a cooperative with 5 employees, each working 5 eight hour days per week. That is a total of 200 hours of work per week. Now lets say one of the group walks in one morning and says, “hey guys, check it out. I did a little hunting and found this robot which is perfectly suited to do some of the work we do to produce our product.”
Should you be freaked out because your job could be threatened? No. You should be glad that your life just became a little easier.
So, lets say, for the sake of argument, that this robot can be paid for with only a small investment and once up and running it requires very little maintenance. So it turns out that this particular robot can do about 40 hours a week of work that the 5 employees have previously been doing. This is great. In a sane world this is what would happen: The workers, as a group, now only need to do 160 hours of work. 160/5=32. Voila. Everyone gets a day off. You have just entered the world of the 4 day workweek. It really is that simple.
So why don’t we see this. Two reasons pop out to me right now. First and foremost, it’s because most companies aren’t collectives. Let’s say in a similar company to the one above, there are 5 workers and a boss; a boss who prioritizes his or herself over the employees with little concern for their welfare. For that boss the decision is simple. Fire one of the 5 workers, the robot replacing one of them, and all the profit from that robot goes right into his or her pocket.
The second reason is that even in that collective, the workers may choose to continue working 40 hour weeks and with the robot, each would make more money. Now this is their choice. Yes and no. Part of the reason that workers would make that choice is because of the state of the economy and the fact that it is getting harder and harder to make it on the same amount of income. The reasons for this are far outside the scope of this writing but it is essentially because of the same thing. The whole system is topsy turvy and completely out of balance because of the inequities created by those who do not have the welfare of the community at heart.
(see the end of this article for a reference to some information about the disparity between the bosses and the workers and between the wealthy and the rest of us)
I was a teenager in the 60’s. Back then the transistor was just coming into its own. Travel to the moon was a reality. Suddenly color tv was common. Recording devices were improving rapidly. It was a time of innovation. And much of it was available for the consumer to outfit their home or increase their ease of living. I can’t remember now exactly where I remember this from but there was this idea then that in the not too distant future we would no longer need to work 40 hour weeks; less work and more liesure.
We were dreamers. We overlooked one basic human quality. Greed. The bad apples. And that expression, one bad apple spoils the barrel, has never been truer. It only takes a very few people to ruin the game. Money provides tremendous leverage. Just as noise and silence can never co-exist, greedy people, although a minority, with the leverage of money, have the power to really fuck things up for the rest of us.
Robots don’t steal jobs. People do. And if you are tempted to say, “yeah, but the way it is now we all need to work as much as possible and that’s a reality”, well that’s ok. I won’t fault anyone for doing what they need to do to get by, but we can’t get it right if we put the blame in the wrong place.
One last thing. It’s an entirely different thing if you really like to work. And I don’t say that facetiously. I am a champion for peaceful handwork done in a mellow environment at a relaxed pace. It can be very good for the soul and contribute to a good life. I should also say that this article doesn’t address the possible quality differential between robot made products and handmade or closer to handmade work. But, these days most of us enjoy products that need to be made in ways that don’t involve truly pleasant work.
So, in those cases, I make the case. The dreams of the sixties are possible.
The following quote is from an article in the Huffington Post by Bill Quigley.
“In 1973, the average US CEO was paid $27 for every dollar paid to a typical worker; by 2007 that ratio had grown to $275 to $1.”
I’ll bet if we’d heard in 1973 that the CEOs were making 27 times as much as the workers we would have been shocked. The idea of them making 275 times as much is…. is….. – You provide the adjective.
(The picture at the start of this article is from the cover illustration from Tom Swift and His Giant Robot, volume 4 of the Tom Swift, Jr. Series, rendered by Graham Kaye, (c) 1954.)