Watson, Robobuses, and the Division of Labor

22 05 2014

I hate to seem like a Luddite, particularly one who defends professional cartels. It’s not a good look. But I once had a back-and-forth with a popular neoliberal type about robot buses. He was arguing that even though introducing robot-driven buses would lead to massive layoffs of bus drivers, it would be a net gain because it would mean cheaper public transit–and thus more efficient and swifter public transit. His point was that supporters of public sector unions like those of transit workers often defend wasteful cartels that work a net negative on society. This is a pretty thought provoking point.

But as with much of the current economic consensus, it breaks down once you stop thinking about it in the abstract. In reality, cheap buses are meaningless if you have a largely under- and unemployed population with nowhere to go and no cash even for the bus. If the fired bus drivers were able to get comparably paid work to build the buses–if they weren’t built with parts manufactured using quasi-prison labor in third world countries–bring on the robots.

Similarly, you have futurists cheering on the development of advanced Watson-like computers as replacements for a good portion of the legal and medical profession, since it has shown a proficiency in diagnostics and even legal rule synthesis.

More and more, the professions that once required expertise and discretion are finding themselves replaced by algorithms, or being sub-specialized such that non-professionals and non-experts can perform this work.

If something can make access to health care and law cheaper, that’s good; but at the same time, if those professions, and the satellite professions that rely on them, are automated, and not replaced with comparable work, it’s the guy who invests in and owns the automatons that will reap the rewards; the distributed benefit of marginally cheaper services is good, but you still have an aggregating under- and unemployment.

This is one of those phenomenon that is worrisome because even though it looks new–LawBot!–it also seems to be eerily forecast by ol’ doom-and-gloom himself, Karl Marx.

*Bzzt* LawyerBot Is Here To Write Your Writs

*Bzzt* LawyerBot Is Here To Write Your Writs

In Wage Labour and Capital, Marx predicted that the relation between capital and labor would require relentless division and redivision of labor, such that more work could be done by fewer people, creating downward pressure on wages; that specialized skills are broken into component parts, making work monotonous and alienating each worker from the fruit of their labor; and, most relevantly here, pulling autonomous economic actors–professionals and small business owners, often the same people–into the sphere of wage labor, so that “the forest of uplifted arms becomes ever thicker, while the arms themselves become thinner.” Marx attributed this to capital over time seeking increased productivity in a constant pressure to continue growing.

It would be one thing if automating services and de-professionalizing professions (consider teachers’ objections to Common Core on the grounds that it amounts to little more than reading a script) occurred through a process that ensured a net gain–in other words, if the autonomy and income of workers was preserved to a degree comparable to the net gains in affordability. But if all that happens is that services become cheaper in reliance on cheap foreign labor, and buying power is just buoyed by consumer credit, then the benefit accrues to those who own the capital (consider for example that since the passage of NAFTA and the explosion of the Internet, the ratio of total household debt outstanding versus disposable income increased from 80 percent to 130 percent).

I see some connection to a shift in policy (and legal) focus on the consumer beginning in the 1970s. Academics like Robert Bork and Richard Posner recentered anti-trust as being meant to benefit consumers; if economies of scale accomplished this, all the better. So if one firm can dominate a labor market to work downward pressure on wages, consumers nevertheless benefit. The abstraction of consumers as a discrete class makes NAFTA and robobuses and LawyerBot look like great ideas. But an economy where more and more insecure workers are dependent on fewer and fewer firms is unlikely to produce a stable or free society.


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