The Future Of Work

Much has been made of leaning about computers and interfacing with them.  Of course the cheapen version is more about learning about how to use applications and not programming or computer architecture.  I doubt that the likes of Zuckerberg have any knowledge on that subject.  Most of these people have never heard of machine language or assembler programming, that language that tells the computer each and every step to take in order to process data according to a program that was designed to process that data.  In fact, most people do not understand why in the ALU, arithmetic logic unit, used to use one’s complement but now uses two’s compliment.  Why is that so?  Because, if you want to do the math you would realize that the ALU would not know how to treat a negative zero.  But all that aside.  One economics professor at George Mason University has stated that only those who can interface with computers will have employment, the rest of us will have, at most, unskilled employment waiting for us assuming there are enough positions to go round.

The future of work is simple enough.  Robots will gradually take over much of the work that can be automated simply because it will be cheaper in terms of productivity and costs.  We see more and more robots on the assembly lines.  In China there is an electric shaver manufacturer that has two assembly plants.  The first employs approximately one hundred and twenty workers who use a variety of tools to assemble electric shavers.  The second plant uses robots to do the same work and needs only eleven employees to oversee the work, including management.  That means that sometime in the short future one hundred and nine people will be redundant or laid off.  The automobile companies of Honda and Toyota use about one third of the employees that GM or Ford uses on their assembly lines.  And those same employees can change the line configuration in a matter of several hours to produce a different set of automobiles.  The Detroit changeover takes considerably more time.  And those UAW members make a third or more of the salaries of the Honda and Toyota employees.  What is the future of the Detroit auto makers?  Obviously more robots.  The quality of their cars has declined enormously and the only real fix is more robots and fewer union employees.  Of course it doesn’t help when the engineering staff specify poor quality parts.

Fortunately there are quite a few jobs that cannot be automated.  Many of these are what one might call irregular type of work.  Not all storm drains are uniform in size or distribution.  Not all robots can fit through the small openings to clean oily tanks or other places.  If one looks at the television series, “Dirty Job”, one can see that there are jobs that computers and robots will not be able to perform economically.  Another area that robots will not take over soon are many personal services.  A robot would have a difficult time being a butler or valet.  True, one can envision robots that will be able to take over the job of parlor maid or footman, but the butler and valet require human qualities.  There will be a great many positions of service where human servants will be superior to robots, but not enough to employ greater numbers of the unemployed.  Just as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we saw the decrease in farm labor as farm machinery took hold and its productivity decrease the need for farm labor which then pushed the displaced labor into industrial production only to be pushed out as automation and machinery reduced the need for unskilled and semiskilled labor, so we are faced today with similar tendencies.  Professional lawn and garden services depends on a rising economy and the need of those with higher incomes to spend more time upon their business pursuits or careers.  But as the need for professional  employees decrease so then does the economic necessity for lawn and garden services.

Hence, we are approaching a point of no return.  The number of jobs or labor positions will constantly decrease and the need of the many businesses will increase on the remaining group of employed for their business.  Our economy is based on consumption and with fewer consumers there will be fewer goods and services sold.  That will mean that there will be a spiraling effect that only those with income will be able to consume what they produce.  Economics is a zero sum game and those who have labor in demand will be able to consume what is produced.  No matter the productivity of the producers, consumption is a matter of what one can afford to consume unless credit is extended to a point where it cannot be repaid.  Then the whole game falls apart and loses are tallied up.  True, we may increase the number of teachers, the number of lower level healthcare professionals, the number of nannies and child care professionals, but someone must pay and that is the problem.  If one has a high paying position then in order for a consumer economy to work one must support a great many individuals who consume considerably less.  It is a diminishing returns dilemma.  It is sort of like a value added tax where we constantly tax consumption.  The raw materials are consumed and a tax upon them are paid by the manufacturer, then the wholesaler must pay the consumption tax when the retailer buys the goods.  Finally, the consumer pays all the taxes due through higher prices.  It is not so much a consumption tax as it is an inflated price tax.  The price of goods are inflated by the taxes to the point where consumption is deferred or denied.  It means that the wage earner must earn more in order to buy goods with a value added tax and that increase in wage means an increase in cost which means an increase in price which means an increase in wage to cover the increase in tax.  This is an inflationary pull on price and wages.

But let us consider that if we had robots and automated assembly lines we could manufacturer all basic good and some luxury goods very cheaply.  But that is a relative term.  That is, if robots can produce goods and services very cheaply it is because they are cheaper to use than human labor.  But if human labor becomes so idle that there is no income to buy such goods and services then we must shift the incomes, profits, or if you will redistribute wealth  so that those who have none will have the means of consumption.  But in doing so, we cause the have nots to become very dependent on the haves.  This is not a good thing in the long run.  It means that those who have and own the means of production will live in fear and terror of those who have not.  But if those who have not lose the ability to control those processes which enable the haves to produce, then the whole of industrial production breaks down.  It is not only a question of wealth transfer but of technology transfer.  If technology transfer cannot happen then any attempt to control industry will result in the cascading failure of the entire industrial system.

So what to do?  Perhaps a reduction of population due to extensive war would provide some answer.  After all, one cannot sell to those who cannot afford to pay for the product or service.  And perhaps a rearrangement of raw materials and industry would allow enough employment to keep the system going.  A few thoughts to ponder.

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