Posts Tagged "labor"

Imagining the End of The Age of Labor

The tension between technology and work is at least as old as the economics profession itself. A question some people are asking now is: if computers run by artificial intelligence can do the job of humans, will work disappear someday?

Two economists are proposing a couple different scenarios in a new paper that is part science fiction and part mathematical models. In one scenario, lower-paid workers who are not highly valued by society – say, McDonald’s hamburger flippers – are more readily replaced by computers than a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This will drive down wages for a larger and larger segment of the lower-paid labor force.

In a second sci-fi scenario, machines run by artificial intelligence, or AI, will ultimately be able to do any worker’s job. In that world, work “would cease to play the central role that it currently plays in our society,” the researchers predict. A computer, they muse, could even stand in for a judge. Farfetched? An AI judge might be superior if it “make[s] more accurate and humane judgments than humans, leaving behind the noise, discrimination and biases that have plagued our justice system.”

There are a host of reasons to doubt work will disappear. The economists who reject this worst-case scenario argue that technology is not job-crushing but job-creating. Machines, they say, free up workers from one type of job but open up new opportunities. Only the nature of work changes. It does not disappear. After World War II, for example, new industrial technologies created jobs that lured farmers into the cities. Artificial intelligence shouldn’t be any different.

The authors of this new paper do concede that what they call the End of Labor is far in the future. Supercomputers capable of the most sophisticated AI are extraordinarily expensive. It seems more plausible that jobs involving simple, repetitive tasks will be the ones increasingly replaced by machines. This has already started happening as robots have moved onto factory floors.

But if workers of all types are eventually replaced by machines, how would they buy their groceries, cell phones, and shoes? Something would have to be done to replace their earnings and “avoid mass misery” and “political instability,” the researchers say. They propose a universal basic income. …Learn More

Hands fighting over a rope

Top Economists Seek Solutions to Inequality

Something remarkable is happening in the economics profession. Top researchers in the field have begun arguing for policies to alleviate growing U.S. income and wealth inequality.

For decades, inequality wasn’t taken very seriously by economists. But that view “has changed dramatically,” said James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin, who moderated a Zoom panel at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations last week.

Inequality, Galbraith said, has “become one of the most important questions economists face.”

And COVID-19, argued Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a panelist, “has brought out very forcefully the nature of the inequalities in our society” and has “exacerbated those inequalities.”

The pandemic’s effects include larger increases in unemployment for low-wage workers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino and often work for small businesses devastated by efforts to suppress the virus. In addition, front-line workers like home health aides and meat-packing workers are being exposed to the virus but don’t always have paid sick time. There are also growing concerns about the longevity gap and about a widening educational gap between students from poor and high-income neighborhoods resulting from online learning.

The economists, having agreed inequality is a problem, identified the myriad forces driving it. They range from the persistent segregation of Black and white neighborhoods to the ability of the wealthy to invest and accumulate more wealth, while wage workers can barely get by. In a cutthroat global economy, the decline of unions has also stripped workers of their ability to bargain with employers for higher wages, they said.

Another panelist, Teresa Ghilarducci, brought attention to the inequality that exists among retirees. This can be seen in the downward mobility many people experience after they retire and can no longer support the standard of living they had while they were working.

To address these complex problems, the economists said a comprehensive policy agenda is needed that includes beefing up Social Security benefits – the great equalizer – for disadvantaged retirees, more taxation of inheritances, educational equality at the preschool through college levels, sturdier social safety nets, and new labor rules that give workers back some of the power they have lost.

Another panelist, Jason Furman, former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, agrees that an array of policies will be required to combat inequality. But he also argued that the two major relief bills Congress passed last year – a total of $2.9 trillion – probably reduce inequality. …Learn More