In Don’t Fear the Robots: Why Automation Doesn’t Mean the End of Work, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul challenges the narrative that large-scale automation will imminently lead to mass unemployment and economic insecurity. He debunks the idea that we are on the cusp of a major technological change that will drastically alter the nature of work, leave Americans unemployed, and exacerbate already high levels of economic inequality.
Paul argues that the way automation affects economic security is largely structured by the underlying rules of our economy. Workers are right to be concerned about the negative effects of technological change because the historical link between labor productivity and wages, which grew side-by-side for most of the 20th century, is broken. Paul draws on data to show that while some workers will face short-term job loss, there is nothing to indicate that automation will lead to the end of work. (Read the “Lump-of-Labor Fallacy” one-pager here.) However, we cannot trivialize the costs of this kind of economic transition for workers in the short term, nor can we ignore the structural disadvantages in today’s economy that define economic outcomes.
In order to fix this broken link, Paul proposes several policy changes that would ensure that the economic benefits from technological change are widespread:
- Full employment: The U.S. government should recommit to pursuing full employment. Implementing full employment would create a significantly tighter labor market, which would both encourage technological advance and nullify the potential negative effects of technology on workers.
- Revised intellectual property law: Intellectual property law is a primary reason why technological advances currently exacerbate inequality. While a first step would be reducing the lengths of patents and copyright protections, more substantial measures should also be pursued.
- Public guidance in technological development: Government has a sizeable role in leading the direction of innovation through funding research and establishing research agencies. The government should focus on tech innovations that complement workers.
- Work sharing: The U.S. should adopt work sharing in two ways. First, in reducing the overall hours typically worked by individuals; and second, by temporarily reducing working hours during economic downturns, rather than laying off workers.
- Free higher education and vocational training: Education and training are vital components in advancing society and maintaining a productive workforce. More accessible options should be made available to the public.
Evidence does not show that rapid automation is here, or even that it is just around the corner. But it is clear that technological advances in the past few decades have not lead to broad-based economic growth. To combat inequality and unemployment and rebuild an economy where productivity gains directly translate into higher living standards for all, Paul reiterates that the institutions currently governing our economy must be transformed.