Don’t Fear the “Robot Apocalypse.” Instead, Focus on What We Need to Fix Right Now

Our friends at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) are out with a new report looking at the ongoing discussion about automation and employment.

You’ve heard the narrative before: The robots are coming, and they’re taking our jobs.

EPI’s conclusion? Enough already.

“What is remarkable about this media narrative is that there is a strong desire to believe it despite so little evidence to support these claims,” authors Lawrence Mishel and Josh Bivens argue. “There clearly are serious problems in the labor market that have suppressed job and wage growth for far too long; but these problems have their roots in intentional policy decisions regarding globalization, collective bargaining, labor standards, and unemployment levels, not technology.”

Mishel and Bivens specifically target a March 2017 report that found that “robots are winning the race for American jobs,” as The New York Times put it. But EPI concludes that “there is no basis for claiming that automation has led — or will lead — to increased joblessness, unemployment, or wage stagnation overall.”

Instead, the authors argue that the “excessive media attention to robots and automation destroying the jobs of the past and leaving us jobless in the future is a distraction from the main issues that need to be addressed.” They continue:

“Rather than debating possible outcomes that are more than a decade [away], policymakers need to focus on addressing the decades-long crisis of wage stagnation by creating good jobs and supporting wage growth. And as it turns out, policies to expand good jobs and increase wages are the same measures needed to ensure that workers potentially displaced by automation have good jobs to transition to.”

As we’ve noted before, there’s no doubt that advances in technology have displaced some jobs; after all, the days of Henry Ford’s moving assembly line are long gone. That’s no reason to give up on manufacturing job creation, however, as so many have argued.

Manufacturing accounts for 90 percent of new patents and 70 percent of private-sector research and development. We should focus on connecting workers with new opportunities instead of dismissing the potential for job growth outright.

Some companies already are finding that technology is a job creator, including 3-D printing company Voodoo Manufacturing, which is based in New York. The company uses 3-D printers to create a variety of products, from key chains to shower heads.

Automation is allowing Voodoo to create jobs, Voodoo's Jim Allen told NBC News earlier this week:

“Because of automation, we’re increasing our productivity. We’re able to get more products out there at a lower cost at higher quality. Being able to do that increases demand, increased demand creates more jobs — it’s a self-fulfilling cycle of creating more jobs. We have to be competitive with the other processes and other countries. And that enables us to create more jobs.”

If policymakers are serious about growing the middle-class and addressing issues like inequality, they’ll get serious about manufacturing job creation. They have the support of the American people, as Gallup found in a poll released this week.

So what can policymakers do? Well, it bears repeating that trade is by far a bigger job killer than automation. Estimated job losses from trade with China “are roughly four times as large” as job losses stemming from competition from robots in the 2000s, EPI reports.

Taking on issues like China’s massive industrial overcapacity and other instances of unfair trade must be a top priority. But it’s not the only thing. Investing in our nation’s infrastructure (with Buy America preferences, of course), and enacting tax reform that promotes exports are all positive steps.

Workforce development will also help prepare Americans for the jobs of the future, and supporting innovation will help ensure America remains at the forefront of new technological advancements.

And above all, we should stop worrying so much about the robots.


Reposted from AAM.