The Machine Breakers We Have Always With Us

BY Paul Solman  February 18, 2011 at 9:28 AM EDT

Paul Solman answers questions from NewsHour viewers and web users on business and economic news most days on his Making Sen$e page. Here’s today’s query:

Making Sense

A long and interesting email arrived recently from one Jean Maier. I’ve been responding to its various points, a post at a time. Today, it’s time for item three. Here is the relevant excerpt from Ms. Maier’s massive missive:

I also wonder about this economy of labor. We seem to talk about outsourcing jobs to foreign countries; but should we not consider how many jobs are outsourced to machines (or technology)? We replace people with robotics for all kinds of work – in manufacturing like the auto industry as well as elsewhere. Rarely do I speak with a person on the phone without a mechanized voice being my first “human” contact. We say this is less expensive. But machines and technology are expensive to buy and maintain too; and they need energy resources of some type. So what does that do to the ledger sheet of costs, the environment and our energy dependence? In addition, replacing human labor also creates costs, human and financial, for the unemployed and their communities.

Somewhere in the history of the economy, didn’t we think machines were going to be labor-saving, i.e. so we could work less and have more leisure time? In a sense many do, but not without threatening a standard of living for those in the unemployment lines. In addition, many workers have shifted from manual work to desk work which contributes to all kinds of health problems and higher costs of health insurance.

Okay, here goes. The worry about machines replacing people? It’s been a concern pretty much throughout the course of recorded history. The historian Arnold Toynbee writes of the Roman emperor to whom it had been reported, “as a piece of good news, that one of his subjects had invented a process for manufacturing unbreakable glass. The emperor gave orders that the inventor should be put to death and that the records of his invention should be destroyed. If the invention had been put on the market, the manufacturers of ordinary glass would have been put out of business; there would have been unemployment that would have caused political unrest, and perhaps revolution.”

The Roman historian Suetonius writes, of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD), that someone came to him with a new, cheaper technology for transporting heavy columns to Rome. The emperor rewarded the inventor but quashed the device on the grounds of displacing manual labor. Suetonius quotes Vespasian: “How will it be possible for me to feed the populace?”

More familiar are the self-designated “Luddites” of early 19th century England who broke textile machines in order to preserve their jobs.

And here’s the great Harvard sociologist, Daniel Bell, in 1965:

In the past year there has arisen a new ‘school,’ the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, which has argued three propositions: 1) That automation — or, to use Donald Michael’s phrase, Cybernation [ie, computerization] — represents a radical break from previous kinds of mechanization in its economic effects; 2) That the pace of technological change in recent years has been accelerating; and 3) That the immediate, visible consequences of the first two propositions are demonstrated by the continuing high level of unemployment which, this year for the first time since 1957, has dipped below the 5 per cent mark.

I shall argue that the first proposition is false; that the second proposition is unprovable and, if one narrows the idea of technological change to the specific measure of an increase in the rate of productivity, probably false as well; and that unemployment is and remains a serious problem, but not because of automation.

But just because serious people have been worrying about this problem for millennia and they’ve been wrong in the long run doesn’t mean your fears are unwarranted, Ms. Maier. The adjustment from one set of jobs to another — from manufacturing to services, say — can be wrenching to impossible. I’ve noted before that if every American would buy one hour massage per week (who’d argue with that?) and no massage therapist administered more than six massages a day, we could just about halve our unemployment rate overnight. Except it’ll take an awful lot longer than a night to change our habits and skills to that extent, if we ever could.

Long-run, there’s probably less cause for consternation. What do most people do for a living in an “advanced” economy like ours? Provide services — more than 80 percent of us.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics goes into more detail. A few highlights:

-17.5 percent of us work in government (federal, state, or local), doing all sort of things for each other;

-15 percent in “education and health services,” teaching and caring for each other;

-12.5 percent in “professional and business services,” consulting to, designing for, accounting for and advising each other;

-11 percent in retail, selling things to each other;

-10 percent in “leisure and hospitality,” entertaining each other;

-3 percent in “transportation and warehousing,” moving things (and ourselves) to each other;

-2 percent in “information,” (including me), telling things to each other;

-4 percent+ in “financial activities” (don’t ask).

That’s three-quarters of us in just those categories. Granted, there are also off-the-books workers who may not tell the BLS that they’re working, or may duck the BLS survey folks entirely. But the off-the-books folks I’ve known are also pretty impervious to mechanization: gardeners, nannies, restaurant workers, construction folks, drug dealers.

Are these jobs increasingly hazardous to our health? Given the fact that we’re adding 3 months a year to our longevity, and have been doing so for 160 years now, I doubt it.