The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Book Review Roundup: Will The ‘Rise Of The Robots’ Kill Human Jobs?

Historically, business leaders and technologists have portrayed new technology as a way to boost labor productivity, exports, and society’s wealth. This has long been considered part of the inevitable and necessary “creative destruction” of capitalist production that, while disruptive in the short term, is beneficial over time. Anyone who opposes this mantra is portrayed as a hopeless Luddite.

But over the last couple of decades, the economy has been restructured so that the wealth gains from higher productivity and new technology have flowed into the pockets of an ever smaller minority of 1-percenters. Now, the “rise of the robots” threatens to exacerbate these trends to an alarming degree never before imagined. However, the “robots” in question are not simply the assembly-line robots of Japanese automakers, but include so-called “smart” machines, artificial intelligence, software automation, networked communication, big data, and faster computer processing that are slowly being injected into just about everything at home or the office.

It has generally been assumed that automation is primarily a threat to workers who have little education and lower skill levels. But as software automation and sophisticated algorithms advance rapidly in capability, experts now predict that many college-educated, white-collar workers are going to discover that their jobs are also going to be “robotized” as computers take on jobs and tasks with significant intellectual content.

By all accounts, this “robotizing” of the economy is proceeding at a galloping pace. An Oxford University study of over 700 occupations estimates that 47 percent of existing U.S. jobs are at risk from computerization; that’s over 60 million jobs threatened by “technological unemployment.” As machines increasingly take on routine, predictable tasks in virtually every industry and employment sector, human jobs will inevitably decline and workers will face an unprecedented challenge as they try to adapt. What will be the impact of these technologies on individual workers, on the quality of jobs, on the labor force, and on the economy as a whole? Will the robots replace the humans?

Recently, a flurry of best-selling “technology books” have plumbed these issues and their consequences. These books have been snapped up by a public charmed by the crystal ball aspects of predicting the future. The most successful and highly cited of these, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (W.W. Norton, 2014) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, has become the standard since its publication in 2014. It is a riveting account of how “smart” machines, robotics, automation, faster computer processing, and artificial intelligence will shape our collective future. The strength of the authors’ book is how it weaves an intriguing macro- and microeconomics vision, especially as they assert that the global economy is on the cusp of a dramatic growth spurt driven by the combination and recombination of these powerful technologies.

While the authors look critically at some of the broader economic implications of this Machine Age world, mostly their book maintains a posture of wide-eyed boosterism. It shies away from addressing many long-term consequences and challenges, particularly for the labor market and people’s jobs. For example, Kodak, which at one time ruled the world of photography and film, and at its peak employed 145,000 in mostly middle-class jobs, recently declared bankruptcy. Kodak has been replaced by Facebook, or rather by the recent Facebook acquisition Instagram, the Kodak of the digital age. Facebook employs a mere 8,000 people — where are the other 137,000 former Kodak employees supposed to find jobs?

Brynjolfsson and McAfee maintain that as the robots and smart machines take over certain occupations, these technologies will allow a shift in demand to other kinds of work, so in the longer term most displaced workers will find new work and the impact will be positive. That has been the impact of technology in the past, they reason, and it will be again. But their arguments are unconvincing, and rely more on wishful conjecture than hardheaded analysis. A lot is at stake for American workers, and Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s book, as well as most others of this genre, don’t really address the brave new world of this central dilemma, which can be illustrated by a simple thought experiment: What if the smart machines and robots could perform every single job there is to do, so that no human had to work anymore? Who would reap the benefit of this huge productivity increase? Would it be a handful of “Masters of the Universe,” i.e. the chief entrepreneurs and investors? Or would the gains be distributed to the general public?

Their book would have benefited greatly if they had taken the time to more thoroughly analyze the ongoing transition from the New Deal society to what I call a “freelance society.” Millions of American workers are losing the “good” jobs that provided a measure of job security, decent wages, and a safety net, and are becoming freelancers and independent contractors. Best estimates say that by 2020 – a mere five years away — a majority of the 130 million employed Americans– approximately 60-70 million workers – will be “independent workers,” tantamount to being freelancers and day laborers during at least part of their work week. Even many full-time and professional jobs will experience this precarious shift. Yet The Second Machine Age never really delves into the onset of this freelance society and its chilling consequences.

Another bestseller of this genre is Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster) by Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a longtime Silicon Valley insider, and his provocative book reads like a somewhat meandering private conversation between him and his insider friends. Lanier takes some of his colleagues to task, especially those techie utopians who obsess over a sci-fi movie-type future steeped in a post-Singularity matrix (the hypothetical imminent merger of human biology and technology), as well as those seeking “methusalization” (i.e., immortality), and other fantastic futurist scenarios. Nevertheless, the book does attempt to look more deeply into the impacts that digital technologies and the Internet will have on jobs, the middle class, and inequality. Lanier suggests that it could very well result in widespread unemployment and be a threat to the middle class and to the broader economy (Lanier also touched on some of these issues in his previous book, You Are Not a Gadget, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). But Lanier’s proposed solution is to make corporations like Google, Facebook and others pay consumers for any personal data they collect, providing a revenue source to average people. While that is an interesting idea with merit, it really does not go to the core of the challenges that our democratic society faces, in which the overwhelming economics are subsuming our politics and directly threatening the middle-class society and social contract.

Indeed, Lanier’s frame as a Silicon Valley insider is ultimately disappointing since he seems to accept that there is little that public policy can do, and so jobs are going to disappear, and it’s a matter of figuring out how to squeeze some lemonade from the lemons. Still, Lanier’s cautionary note in Who Owns the Future? provides a valuable counterpoint to all the starry-eyed tech boosters, even while it lacks in important detail or an understanding of what solutions are necessary to alter the course of these developments.

The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives (Knopf) by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, published after Lanier’s book, took issue with some of Lanier’s cautionary tone, specifically concerning the impact on the middle class and employment. Schmidt acknowledges that inequality is growing and calls it the “number one issue” for democracies. He also admits that technological change is the most important driver of this explosion in inequality. Yet where Lanier saw the glass partially empty, Schmidt sees it more full.

For example, Schmidt says that self-driving vehicles will ease the strain on Teamster drivers, while Lanier writes of “Napstering the Teamsters” out of work, and of how such technology could go horribly wrong. Their two books also disagree on whether various occupations will be enhanced or diminished by robotics. A radiologist, for example, is likely to become obsolete since computers are rapidly getting better at analyzing images. Forbes magazine currently uses the services of a company called Narrative Science that “employs” computers to generate news stories containing financial data and other content without the need for human journalists. Other publications have begun doing this for sports reporting, using computers that are capable of taking a pile of statistics and cranking out a news story. Jobs for other skilled professionals, including lawyers, scientists and pharmacists, already are being filled by advancing information technology.

Schmidt’s solutions to the challenges he identifies are limited in their ambition and scope. Like President Barack Obama, he has pushed for more education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to prepare the workforce for the future. But he predicts that many jobs ultimately will be eliminated by robots that increasingly can automate practically any repetitive task, and at the same time that there are upper limits to the number of people who can hold advanced STEM jobs.

What about those who lose out in this winner-take-all society?, Schmidt looks to the government to ameliorate their situation, arguing that society needs a “safety net” for those who lose their jobs so they can “at least live somewhere and have health care.” While his compassion is noteworthy, even Schmidt’s fundamental optimism paints a rather dismal picture for society’s castaways, who for one reason or another will face a meager life on government assistance. But they are a mere boulder in the road of the Indy 500-speed bulldozer, with Schmidt prognosticating that change is coming and “the longer-term solution is to recognize that you can’t hold back technology progress.”

Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism (Palgrave Macmillan) contains the author’s usual blend of “gee whiz” futurism with a provocative discussion of the impending age of robots, smart machines, increased connectivity, and digital information in service to a hyper-efficient economy. Some of the ground covered in this book is similar to what Rifkin covered in his 1994 book, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. Rifkin recognizes a paradox at the heart of capitalism: that the dynamism of competitive markets drives productivity up and costs down – yet the benefits of that productivity increase has not flowed into the pockets of average workers, since wages have remained flat. Instead they have gone into the pockets of a decreasing number of extremely wealthy people.

Despite that troubling reality, Rifkin remains fairly upbeat about the future, and he portrays a “Collaborative Commons” – which shares a great deal with what has been called the “sharing economy” – as the reason why. He says “hundreds of millions of people are already transferring parts of their economic lives to the global Collaborative Commons…making and sharing their own information, entertainment, green energy…They are also sharing cars, homes, clothes and other items via social media sites, rentals, redistribution clubs, and cooperatives at low or near zero marginal cost.” We are, says Rifkin, entering an increasingly interdependent world beyond markets.

Unfortunately, Rifkin never really grapples with the political ramifications of who exactly will control this “collaborative commons.” He seems to assume that these trends have a power and momentum all their own that will iron out any inequalities. That kind of optimism is classic Rifkin-ism, but I think it’s hopelessly naïve. Without a clear blueprint of what kind of public policy needs to be legislated in the near future, instead of in the distant future in which Rifkin often specializes, there’s little reason to hope that these trends will translate automatically into a bright future for the middle class. While Rifkin’s book is one of the few to really think out loud about the new economy and its consequences, ultimately he is blinded by a dead-end optimism that is misplaced as long as certain policy changes are not enacted that are capable of solidifying the wobbly ground beneath American workers.

The clear lesson of our recent economic history is that the general public is not certain to benefit from technological innovation or increases in labor productivity. As robotics and automation become more comprehensive and integrated into the economy, it’s very possible that the built-in inequalities of the U.S. political economy will render these technologies into ones that threaten the future of workers by reducing the number of human-occupied jobs, and further increasing inequality.

And that poses additional dilemmas because robots and machines don’t spend money, and they don’t add to consumer demand. So the decline in the number of human jobs would inevitably lead to a decline in aggregate consumer demand and spending, which in turn would reduce the capacity to buy up the goods and services produced by the economy, and would therefore unleash chronic recessionary pressures, precipitating a further loss of jobs for humans (what technologist Martin Ford has called “technological unemployment”).

It seems certain that the battles over who gets to control the benefits of these technologies is going to increase in intensity. If the “rise of the robots” is not accompanied by an adequate policy response, pursued during this interregnum before our society begins edging closer to that machine-age moment, then most human workers will end up being squeezed from multiple sides. The onset of that brave new world is coming sooner than the general public or policymakers realize. Are we ready?  Judging by the shortcomings and omissions contained in these four leading technology books, the answer is “definitely not.”

Photo: Spencer Cooper via Flickr

Book Review: ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, is a call to arms in the global fight to reduce carbon emissions. Her manifesto appeared only days before hundreds of thousands marched in New York City to press for more resolute action by political leaders. But for Klein, the crisis is more centrally about the rapacity of capitalism itself. She dramatically calls for a reset to the modern way of life, not only in our political economy, but also in our “extractive” mindset that plunders nature and spoils the environment. Failing that, eco-disaster awaits. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

This Changes Everything offers ample scientific evidence about a potentially bleak, carbon-choked future; Klein is a skilled journalist and knows how to marshal facts and stories for maximum effect. But while the flagging carbon reduction movement certainly needs a boost, her book suffers from several critical shortcomings that cause her to ignore potential solutions and undermine the usefulness of her work.

First, Klein’s indictment of capitalism is too sweeping. It’s not at all clear that the problem is capitalism writ large, but rather America’s “Wall Street”-style capitalism. In several short passages, Klein praises Germany, Sweden, and Denmark for their leadership in reducing carbon emissions. Yet these are capitalist countries which, as I point out in my book Europe’s Promise, practice a “social capitalism” that is quite different from the U.S. version. They have done far more to figure out how to harness the powerful economic engine of capitalism to create a broad prosperity while reducing the negative effects on the environment. These nations have their share of challenges, but if the goal is carbon reduction, environmental protection, and reducing economic inequality, they are beacons. Klein doesn’t explore this potential nearly enough.

And if capitalism is the problem, how then does she account for the environmental catastrophes under the centrally planned economies of Mao’s China and the Soviet Union?  She doesn’t. This failure to discriminate among capitalisms is a mistake Klein also made in her book The Shock Doctrine. Books like The Seven Cultures of Capitalism are illuminating in that regard, but Klein has never shown much patience for such nuance and complexity.

Klein hedges her anti-capitalist critique by changing the culprit to “extractive economies” and multinational corporations that plunder the Earth to line the pockets of a global elite. But what about modern consumers who have benefited from these extractive economies? There are 7 billion people on the planet, heading toward 8 billion. Many developing nations have managed to reduce poverty dramatically and create a rising standard of living by copying the developed (yes, capitalist) world. India’s environment minister says bluntly, “India’s first task is eradication of poverty. Twenty percent of our population doesn’t have access to electricity.” He insists that the United States, the world’s largest historic carbon polluter, and other developed countries need to take the lead on cutting emissions.  How many of the developing world’s multitudes would Klein sacrifice?

It would be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and the limits of a finite world. To be sure, many elites hog scarce resources and create outrageous political obstacles to boost their profits. But carbon pollution and other eco-challenges are the result of too many people — not only global elites — consuming too much. From a climate change perspective, we have met the enemy, and it is us.

Having misidentified capitalism as the primary climate culprit, Klein does not attempt to outline anything like an alternative economic system. Instead she puts her hopes in three major strategies for reining in fossil fuel production and consumption: a small but (she hopes) growing protest movement; a campaign to support native treaty rights, which are often located in some of the rural areas where the extraction is occurring; and a movement to encourage or force institutions and wealthy individuals to divest from fossil fuel investment and reinvest in alternative energies and other pro-environment initiatives. Klein is at her most original and moving when she writes about the native peoples she has met on the front lines of defending their villages, homes, and lands from the greedy corporations and complicit government regulators. Klein combines these relatively small, disparate movements and gives that resistance a name: Blockadia. She holds out hope that Blockadia activists can make climate change a moral issue, much as abolitionists did for slavery.

It makes for a lovely picture of the people rising up, yet one can’t help but think that Klein is exaggerating the potential of this grassroots movement. As someone who has organized numerous protests as well as civil disobedience actions, I fully understand their tactical importance. At some point, however, the protests must translate into policy and laws, if only because protesters eventually go home and get on with their lives. The opposition knows this and often waits out the protests.

Case in point: Klein’s first bestselling book, No Logo, appeared after the huge WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. The protests were exciting and riveted the nation. But the impact was short-lived and resulted in very little policy or regulation change; within ten years the United States suffered the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression because of poor economic policies. Likewise, the inspiring Occupy movement failed to articulate any core demands that could translate into ongoing organized activism and policy changes. Protest that fails to result at some point in better policy or laws becomes a missed opportunity.

Klein writes that native treaty rights “may now represent the most powerful barriers protecting all of us from a future of climate chaos,” since treaty rights potentially can tie up matters in court and halt the drilling rigs. Supporting native treaty rights is long overdue from an economic justice perspective and already has led to small victories. Yet there is nothing in the long, sad history of broken and ignored native treaty rights that inspires confidence that this will be a powerful weapon against the greedy extractors, or against all those in the middle class who cherish their fossil fuel-based standard of living. While this movement should be supported, I fear it will remain a fairly limited tool.

Klein herself occasionally seems to realize the limitation of these methods. She notes that they are stand-ins “until a shift in the political tides” makes more powerful policies a reality. Which brings me to the largest omission of Klein’s well-researched work. If the goal is carbon reduction, the primary culprit is the United States. While China emits as much total carbon, the United States is by far the largest per capita emitter of CO2 in the world. The average American emits twice as much carbon as the average European or Japanese for the same standard of living, and many times more than the average Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, or Russian. The average American uses twice as much electricity as the average European and our cars use 40 percent more fuel to go the same distance.

Back in 2008, when President Barack Obama was first elected, the nation seemed ready to shift its environmental policy. But Obama largely failed to deliver due to a filibuster-gone-wild Senate, which forced him to line up 60 votes (out of 100) to pass climate bills. When he arrived at the United Nation’s 2009 Copenhagen Summit without a mandate, China, India, and other developing countries had an excuse to do nothing, and the Europeans were jilted at the altar. But it’s not only the filibuster that paralyzed the U.S. government. In the 2012 elections, due to the archaic nature of our electoral system used to elect the U.S. House of Representatives, the Democrats won a majority of the nationwide vote yet the Republicans won a majority of House seats. Add to that a presidential election system in which close races are decided by a few battleground states, most notably Florida and Ohio, which are not the most carbon-friendly states, and the overriding importance of political reform in the United States becomes immediately apparent. Tragically, even when the national consensus is for lower carbon emissions, the political system has failed again and again to translate that sentiment into national policy.

Yet Klein has little to say about this breakdown of the U.S. political system. Perhaps one can excuse the Canadian Klein for misunderstanding the central role of U.S. political institutions, but Klein herself points out that even in her native Canada, the conservative, pro-tar sands government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a majority of winner-take-all seats with a mere 39.6 percent of the popular vote. The breakdown of political systems and democratic elections presents the gravest of situations, yet Klein never connects these dots to the need for political reform except in the most superficial way.

Indeed, Klein mostly downplays the importance of government policy altogether and so misses real opportunities. For example, we know that approximately 70 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from urban areas. And urban areas are “blue” politically, where liberals and progressives tend to dominate on city councils and regulatory bodies. Just by enacting legislation from liberal city councils for comprehensive conservation and renewable energy, enormous strides can be made to rein in carbon. Unfortunately, the national environmental movement has failed to focus on cities, and so has Klein. Local efforts like Sonoma Clean Power and similar projects in nearly a dozen California cities, or the Seattle-based Climate Solutions’ “New Energy Cities” project, don’t rate a mention alongside the protestors she valorizes.

To her credit, Klein considers Germany’s remarkable shift to wind and solar power, but more details would have been helpful, particularly on the political factors within Germany that enabled that rapid transformation. If Klein had followed that trail, she would have discovered the importance of Germany’s political system. The use of proportional representation rather than the winner-take-all electoral system, public financing of campaigns, and universal voter registration allowed a vibrant Green Party to win representation in national and regional parliaments, become junior coalition partners in government, and exert an influence that the environmental movement in the United States has not been able to muster.

Klein believes we are running out of time (a view I tend to share), and she has little patience for the slow, incremental work of lobbying, lawmaking, and the like. She wants to reduce the supply of fossil fuels and shut down the greedy extractors but has little to say about the demand side of the equation, especially conservation, and what governments can or should do. Her rhetoric is that of the pamphleteer, which can be an important catalyst, but at 525 pages (including endnotes) her book is no pamphlet. While at times inspiring, most of the book treads over familiar ground that anyone who has read Bill McKibben, NASA’s James Hansen, the various Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, or has seen Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth already has heard. Klein herself seems to recognize this, writing in her acknowledgments that Bill McKibben “wrote most of this years ago.”

Still, the state of the carbon-reduction movement is so lacking in recent victories that even a flawed book with glaring omissions like this one might re-energize it. Because at the end of the day, our troubling climate future really does “change everything.” Which makes it even more of a pity that Klein’s book isn’t more focused and useful in this fight.

Steven Hill is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age ( and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy ( Follow him on Twitter @StevenHill1776