Can innovation and progress really hurt large numbers of workers, maybe even workers in general? I often encounter assertions that this can’t happen. But the truth is that it can, and serious economists have been aware of this possibility for almost two centuries. The early-19th-century economist David Ricardo is best known for the theory of comparative advantage, which makes the case for free trade; but the same 1817 book in which he presented that theory also included a chapter on how the new, capital-intensive technologies of the Industrial Revolution could actually make workers worse off, at least for a while — which modern scholarship suggests may indeed have happened for several decades.
What about robber barons? We don’t talk much about monopoly power these days; antitrust enforcement largely collapsed during the Reagan years and has never really recovered. Yet Barry Lynn and Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation argue, persuasively in my view, that increasing business concentration could be an important factor in stagnating demand for labor, as corporations use their growing monopoly power to raise prices without passing the gains on to their employees.
I don’t know how much of the devaluation of labor either technology or monopoly explains, in part because there has been so little discussion of what’s going on. I think it’s fair to say that the shift of income from labor to capital has not yet made it into our national discourse.
Yet that shift is happening — and it has major implications. For example, there is a big, lavishly financed push to reduce corporate tax rates; is this really what we want to be doing at a time when profits are surging at workers’ expense? Or what about the push to reduce or eliminate inheritance taxes; if we’re moving back to a world in which financial capital, not skill or education, determines income, do we really want to make it even easier to inherit wealth?
Pauk Krugman, Robots and Robber Barons
Krugman is making the economic argument for society demanding more from the corporations on behalf of people. He refers back to this post in his piece today, Sympathy for the Luddites, in which he takes this several steps farther, arguing that more education may not be the answer for the work force being pushed from highly skilled jobs.
A much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.
I’ve noted before that the nature of rising inequality in America changed around 2000. Until then, it was all about worker versus worker; the distribution of income between labor and capital — between wages and profits, if you like — had been stable for decades. Since then, however, labor’s share of the pie has fallen sharply. As it turns out, this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. A new report from the International Labor Organization points out that the same thing has been happening in many other countries, which is what you’d expect to see if global technological trends were turning against workers.
And some of those turns may well be sudden. The McKinsey Global Institute recently released a report on a dozen major new technologies that it considers likely to be “disruptive,” upsetting existing market and social arrangements. Even a quick scan of the report’s list suggests that some of the victims of disruption will be workers who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills. For example, the report suggests that we’re going to be seeing a lot of “automation of knowledge work,” with software doing things that used to require college graduates. Advanced robotics could further diminish employment in manufacturing, but it could also replace some medical professionals.
So should workers simply be prepared to acquire new skills? The woolworkers of 18th-century Leeds addressed this issue back in 1786: “Who will maintain our families, whilst we undertake the arduous task” of learning a new trade? Also, they asked, what will happen if the new trade, in turn, gets devalued by further technological advance?
And the modern counterparts of those woolworkers might well ask further, what will happen to us if, like so many students, we go deep into debt to acquire the skills we’re told we need, only to learn that the economy no longer wants those skills?
Education, then, is no longer the answer to rising inequality, if it ever was (which I doubt).
So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?
They won’t propose something new: they will — through their actions — set the stage for neo-feudalism, in which the dispossessed become the wards of the nation state, and treated like the mentally-ill or refugees. Meanwhile, corporations will seek to become extranational, outside of national obligations to be taxed or otherwise support any non-globalist economic system. And, or course, they will publicly argue that they aren’t actively doing anything to carve the world into corporate spoils, but if they were such as system is inexorable, beneficial, and inescapable. And in private, they will advance social Darwinist arguments that explicitly state that the elite deserve the status they have earned, and that those dispossessed by this transition deserve their fate.
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