Andrew Yang and Automation

Rome fell in 476 AD, according to the high school and World History 101 shorthand we are used to. You can prefer a date in the 370’s instead, or 410, or the Vandals taking Carthage in 439 AD, which broke the tax spine of the Western Empire for good.  Going in the other direction, you can choose the collapse of the reconquest by Justinian in the late 6th C, or even later.  If one wants to be really technical, Constantinople, the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire for a thousand years after Rome itself fell to Ostrogoths, did not fall until 1453. Few would pick that date, but you could, and make an argument with at least some facts to buttress it.

But let’s focus on 476 and let that hover in the background as we look at the collapse.  In 440AD all looked bleak for the empire, though those in the central cities did not perceive it.  Britain and Northern Gaul had fallen out of the empire. Northern Africa was a trading partner, not part of the empire. The influence over Persia, Syria, and the easternmost sections of empire was waning. Yet by 450, trading was bustling again.  Some researchers would claim that this was actually the height of trade throughout the Mediterranean, unmatched for more than a thousand years. There was recovery! Despite all the dark portents, Rome reached its height.  Arguably.  Some would pick 150, 350, or other dates. Still, a case could be made.

If you were living at the time, those naysayers who pointed to the loss of tax revenue from across the Mediterranean, or the growing power of the Goths, who had an internal kingdom in Gaul, or the slow loss of border provinces and increase in cross-border raiding would be laughed off.  However plausible their arguments might sound that the empire was in decline, the objective evidence was that things were fine.

Just ten years later. 440AD to 450AD. They didn’t know it, but the collapse was indeed near, because long-term secular trends were overwhelming short-term local ones.

I think of this when I read Andrew Yang’s worries about the coming jobs catastrophe. He believes that automation is going to destroy more jobs than it creates.  Note that he is not a typical doomsayer.  He does understand that jobs will be created as well as destroyed.  He thinks the latter will be greater.* Truck drivers and cashiers are on the near horizon of disappearing jobs. There are millions of those.  The jobs created in a new economy will have to be very impressive to keep up with that over the next three decades.

He was honest with Democrats that job retraining mostly doesn’t work.  Republicans didn’t notice this courage, Democrats generally just whistled past the graveyard.

The traditional argument against this is powerful.  I have seen Texan99 over at GRim’s Hall make it several times. Despite the impression we always have on this side of the divide that more jobs will be lost, the consistent experience of humankind is that there are actually more jobs when we get there.  There are fewer jobs for buggy-whip makers and manure-shovelers, but lots and lots of automotive jobs. That might be the way to bet.  However, I am reminded of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s description of the Lebanese who believed that after a thousand years of Christians and Muslims living together, the 20th C difficulties would end the same way.  So they moved to Cyprus decades ago to wait out the temporary antagonism, staying in hotels there.

They are still in hotels in Cyprus.

I don’t take on faith that there are other jobs that will show up as Amazon automates delivery, both in the warehouse and on the highways.  I’d like to think there are other jobs for the low-skilled working at $ in convenience stores.  Such jobs have appeared before. Yet I don’t see any guarantee of that. The past is the best predictor of the future, but it is not an infallible predictor of the future.

Things look great at the moment, and in the short term I think that can hold.  Will it hold two more decades?  Four?  What will we do with decent people who would absolutely show up on time and work hard, but there are now ten of them for every four jobs?

*Relatedly, when he touts Universal Basic Income, he does not pretend that there is no risk and no loss of productivity, as most hemp-headed advocates do.  He believes that it is a 70-30, or perhaps only 60-40 tradeoff to give more freedom to the poor. If you dig deeper, he believes that some percentage (I conclude from his comments about 50%) of the poor are generally hardworking Americans, who don’t have a lot of skills or whose industries collapsed or had bad luck, who would do fine with a minimal safety net. Those, he thinks will muddle through with just a little help.  He hints that there may be a lot of minorities in this group, who would be better served by supplement rather than rescue, and would generally not take advantage.

25 thoughts on “Andrew Yang and Automation”

  1. The concept of “jobs” as something someone else “gives” you is an extremely recent one, no? Complete automation seems to be the natural apotheosis of industrialization.
    When I first heard of UBI several years ago, it was pitched as an improvement over welfare programs because it would eliminate all the bureaucracy that is in place to make sure you are eligible for the programs. The idea was we’d save money by eliminating all that and just giving everybody a set amount. That idea seems to have been lost, my guess is that advocates thought it would be too hard to make people accept that concept that overturns how we think about welfare as being only for the needy.
    The left for some reason hates work requirements for welfare, but I’d expect them to perhaps try to roll them up with UBI at some point in the near future. If automation really does lead to massive persistent unemployment you could see broad support for that sort of approach.

  2. Posting here the comment I just made at AVI’s site:

    In the actual productivity numbers, though, we’re just not seeing the kind of step change that would be expected if robotics/AI were really having the kind of impact advertised by many.

    I understand the argument that the big impact hasn’t shown up *yet* but is in the pipeline, or just over the horizon…but consider what’s already been broadly implemented: there are self-checkout stations in stores of all kinds, and they are being used. They are also showing up in restaurants. Parking garages now rarely have a separate cashier in each lane, it is now automated, with one person supervising multiple lanes (sometimes on different sites). Mail-order transactions that once required talking to a human are now done directly on the Internet. All this and lots more, and productivity growth is still lame.

    If you consider the impact of past waves of automation…textile machinery circa 1800…railroads replacing thousands of men with mules and carts…steamships replacing sailing ships and then oil-burners replacing the need for human stokers…tractors replacing mules on the farm…mainframe computers replacing rooms full of human bookkeepers…it’s hard to believe that what is going on now will be so much overwhelmingly greater in its impact.

    I think the problem is most likely not that labor productivity increase is too *high*, but rather that it is too *low*. Higher productivity is the only way to have some chance of digging ourselves out of debt…on-the-books debt and off-the-books debt…while generally improving standards of living.

  3. There is an argument that we actually passed “Peak Productive Jobs” (at least on a per million citizens basis) sometime in the 1960s. Number of people in employment has increased since then, but the nature of that employment has changed. Instead of workers producing goods and services, an increasing number of people have found employment as “overhead” — either working directly for the government, or working as contractors for the government, or working in largely unproductive roles such as lawyers or university administrators. It is self-evident that the great job growth of the last half century in the West has been government-related, whereas the job growth in Asia has been in productive work offshored from the West.

    As a society, we have soaked up the people displaced from productive work since the 1960s through automation & offshoring by turning them into non-productive overhead. That is why average productivity is not going up. Worse, many of the people hired as overhead actually reduce the productivity of others — think about all the people working for the EPA, or laboring in attorneys offices.

    In principle, there could be many good ways forward. For starters, we could ignore the misguided “Free Trade” crowd and eliminate the Balance of Trade deficit. Then, just as putting machines at farmers’ disposal freed up many people to leave the land and find other work, we could use the time freed up by automation to — for example — let mothers look after their children, instead of having to spend their days in cubicle farms while the children are stacked in day care. We could increase vacation time, or sponsor former government workers to get out the way and write Great American Novels. But all of that would require a measure of maturity & sense of shared citizenship in our politics which is currently absent.

  4. Instead of workers producing goods and services, an increasing number of people have found employment as “overhead” — either working directly for the government, or working as contractors for the government, or working in largely unproductive roles such as lawyers or university administrators.

    Excellent point. The other change we have seen is the appropriation of low skill jobs by illegal aliens. I had jobs from the time I was 12. Newspaper routes and caddying in summer. In high school I was a soda jerk in Kennedy’s drugstore and was the only Kennedy associated with it. Summers I worked in a warehouse or as a helper on a Coke truck. I was a member of the Teamsters Union for a while and attended a strike vote, which was an education.

    Now, kids don’t work at part time jobs or summer jobs because so many are taken by immigrants who work cheap or off the books. Closing the borders is more important as we get to increased automation.

    One issue that no one talks about is how much of the black middle class is made up of government jobs.

  5. 90 percent of millions farming jobs have been displaced by automation since the 19th century. 90 percent of millions of file clerk jobs have been displaced by automation since the 1950s. I could go on and on. This idea that Automation will have a terrible impact on society has been around since the Luddites. Yang and other Socialists are using this to scare people into voting for them. Any reasonably presentable and honest person will always be able to get a good paying job. Unfortunately we have politicians catering to the idea that people do not need to better themselves, that society at large is at fault for people’s failures. A permanent underclass would be the ironic result of letting the Left get it’s way. Look at California.

  6. The problem with the argument is “peak jobs” is that it sorely under-estimates demand. Or, more specifically, unrealized demand.

    What do I mean by “unrealized demand.” I mean the demand for a good or service that has not yet been met, in some cases, not even fully comprehended by the person who wants the good/service, because their means are, by necessity of circumstance, directed at other demands.

    How many people in the early 1800s had a demand for restaurants? People ate at home – the very production of food itself (not preparation and service to others) took up the bulk of food related resources. And yet, as more food was produced, even as more leisure time was created (time that could potentially be spent cooking)… suddenly there was more and more demand to have food cooked and served by others.

    Meanwhile, even right now, you see unfilled demand (because it is too costly for the benefit) for child-care, elder-care, pet-care (note the exploding “dog walker” demand — where did that come from), tutoring/education, litter clean up, etc., etc.

    Not to mention the demands prodded by new technologies.

    So here is the bottom line. “Demand” is endless. Which means the sources of jobs are endless. The limit of demand is basically the wealth of the populace… which is, in large part, merely “supply” (to include supply of labor). As automation reduces the need (and compensability) of labor for “task x,” it opens up the possibility of labor in “task y.”

  7. Meanwhile, even right now, you see unfilled demand (because it is too costly for the benefit) for child-care, elder-care,

    My sister, who is going to be 79 this spring, is caring for her husband who has been largely crippled for years. He had a stroke about 20 years ago that left him with residual disability but has been really crippled by a series of problems the past year, aggravated by what I consider poor care in Chicago. He is a big guy, still around 200 pounds after losing a lot of weight and strength. She needs more help at home than she can get and the situation is a constant worry.

    It is my impression that these advertised agencies for home care are quite expensive.

  8. re overhead…not all overhead is unproductive. An industrial engineer working on process improvement is productive, as is a lawyer helping with the drafting and negotiation of sourcing contracts as is an HR person helping to defuse an ugly employee conflict as is a finance person working to establish a useful and usable analysis of costs.

    The problem is that it is much harder to identify which overhead is productive and which is not than is the case with direct labor jobs. Also, an increasing % of overhead is driven by external mandates, and a lot of that is unproductive or positively harmful from the standpoint not only of the company in question but also of the larger society.

  9. People don’t want to watch other people’s kids or parents. And people who need that service want to pay next to nothing for it. The day care “industry” is about to be abolished by “universal pre-K” in many places because the current economics of it are so broken.

  10. Either everything becomes free due to automation or there is still enormous demand to be met. Work is always, ALWAYS, available. If you want it. For example, any “problem” you see with automation is an opportunity for you to work to solve that problem, improving other people’s lives and making money for yourself. That’s all jobs are: people working to solve problems in other people’s lives.

  11. I’ve got a suspicion that we’re already in unexplored economic territory, in terms of all this–And, that the adaptation to it has lagged, drastically.

    Scarcity economics is where we were; where we are is somewhere in between the bad old days of a poor harvest equaling out to disaster across the board, and an entirely notional post-scarcity situation where such a thing as a poor harvest somewhere in the world is mere fodder for speculative investment by the interested.

    The other issue here is that what we’re really talking about is mechanization, not automation. The only real difference is that where mechanization had limited impact on white-collar jobs, automation has a lot more potential for disruption. Nobody misses the jobs like stoker, where some poor bastard spent his days shoveling coal into the boilers of the world, but we are somehow less sanguine about the low-level clerk losing his job collating data that is now gathered by remote sensors and recorded by office computers. Somehow, we’ve survived the loss of all such jobs, and will continue to do so.

    Where the problem comes in is that we’ve failed to adapt quickly enough to the new realities taking form around us–And, a large part of that is because we refuse to recognize the facts on the ground. Sure, there’s not a lot of work out there for buggy-whip manufacturers, but there are still people making a living fabricating both buggies and the whips that go with them. You don’t want to price what those bastards cost, either…

    I think the real problem here is that we’ve allowed an inflexible attitude towards career and job to grow up. Sure, you may start out as one thing, but the entire industry you worked in as a young adult may be gone or warped out of recognition by the time you hit even the half-way mark on your career. And, most of that is going to be due to the fact that much of the drudgery has gone out of it–Don’t even ask about how many mid-level distribution jobs have slid out from under us, as the Internet takes over much of that role.

    The path to the future is adaptability and being able to discern where the opportunities are–Sure, maybe the damn burgers are being made by machine, these days, but there’s an equal number of openings for people to deliver them–If you’re willing to see the opportunity and have the initiative. And, when they get robots and drones to the point where your local Mickie-D’s has a fleet of them hangered on the roof, well… There will be jobs maintaining the damn things, and probably recovering them, as well.

  12. My hypothesis:
    At every step, if you had estimated possible jobs to be filled from a displacement, you would have fallen short of predicting the actual new economic activity made possible by the displacement.

    If we have more manpower available, we can do work that is a) more difficult to automate b) previously would not have been worth doing, because of the more desperate need for hands elsewhere.

    Look, lots of unemployed blue collar workers could mean shutting down public education, and doing a bunch of classrooms with small numbers of students, working on something with the displaced worker. Might not be as bad as the education status quo. Not perfectly desirable, because the rigid mindset of ‘do bluecollar work your life, that has been handed to you’ is not much more desirable than ‘do whitecollar work your life, that has been handed to you’.

    I like anime, but the economics of creating it aren’t great, and anime and manga make it a bit unpleasant to learn how the sausage is made. So, there is definitely unmet demand in that sector. Even if we can’t automate away some of the current jobs in media, greater unemployment means more manpower to throw at creating duplicate media organizations, and stressing the media status quo. Which is corrupt, run by power that want to use it as a means to state power, and needs disrupting.

    One of the basic and fundamental problems here is, as a young person, how do I become able to participate in the economy? Our current system is very much centrally planned job preparation, centrally planned regulation, and centrally planned welfare to adjust to the impact that central planning forecasts. Our current system of central control isn’t quite up to killing unplanned economic activity, but it will never correctly forecast the impact of that unplanned economic activity.

    Homeschooling for all would have the benefit in not being quite so doctrinaire to any central party line. But it still tends to rely on books, and many books are based on analysis decades old. The actual thinkers working from modern observations are all over the place, and the collected work is not very accessible to anyone working at the primary, secondary, maybe even tertiary level. So, homeschooling for all doesn’t really prepare someone who might be perfect for some economic activity that is wildly different from anything their parents did, and from anything in the books. On the other hand, the really new economic activity may well come from people who already have economic experience, and rely on their ability to train new hires, or apprentices.

    On the other hand, apparent new economic activities means a certain about to new or seemingly new scams.

    The big deal breaker from Yang’s proposal goes as follows. Welfare for being alive, with no tests, creates free riders. Folks who, with no incentives, do nothing. That acts as a control on the system of the economy, and will eventually slow the economy so that tax receipts are not adequate to fund all programs, whose requirements are based on people being alive. As a bureaucrat overseeing those welfare programs, you have two options. a) Trimming benefits ever more, eventually going well below what supports life. b) Identifying and murdering the net costs, hence euthanizing downies and the like. So there is an inevitable progression from implementing these programs to mass murder, unless you give the programs up, or unless a significant technological disruption upends the economy, and gives more time before the perverse incentives run the welfare programs out of money.

    So we have people who see parts of that proposing to use central planning to generate technological disruption on demand. That doesn’t work well, but if parts of the world are outside the control of totalitarian governments, you can still get more disruption than you forecast and plan.

    May be personal bias, but my answer is that trying to do so much central planning is a mistake. Better to eat the costs in suffering from not having a plan for the human costs, than the unforeseen costs of the central plan for addressing the forecast human costs.

  13. I will feed the flames a bit by noting that many of the comments disagreeing with my concern are of a “but there has always been more jobs before.” I had already acknowledged that, and the power of it. I gave the counterexamples of the Fall of the Roman Empire (not the same thing as jobs, but the same thing as “looks impossible and ridiculous”), and Taleb’s example from The Black Swan of the Lebanese still in Cyprus.

    Virginia Postrel, in The Future and Its Enemies suggested that value-added jobs in design and specialisation would be the new source. Well, maybe. That we are already successfully providing “overhead” jobs – at least some of which are useless – in government and some uselessness in all large bureaucracy strikes me as a negative rather than a positive. What are the limits to that? We have enormous surplus and thus can entertain each other, but what is the outer limit of that? We can’t all give each other haircuts.

    Or can we? Our ancestors from 200 years ago might think we are pretty much just giving each other haircuts now.

  14. First off: there’s already a GBI, it’s called SSI and disability. I don’t know the proportion that is spent on drugs and booze but I bet it’s substantial. I don’t know about being a coal miner or auto worker, I do know that I moved three time because I decided it was becoming too hard to make a living where I was.

    What also isn’t addressed is that probably a majority of High School “Graduates” are objectively unemployable at anything above the most menial level and a lot of the ones that aren’t are in the military. I have largely been spared from dealing with “Studies” majors but the engineering graduates I’ve dealt with have serious holes in their knowledge.

    How many of the beneficiaries of the GBI would do anything but drink and drug into an early grave from shear boredom? I doubt many will fill their days with experimental rep theater. The marijuana legalization shows that it won’t make a suitable substitute for Soma. Too much paranoia.

    On any other thread here, the notion of a government planed economy would be met with open derision. What will happen for better or worse is what has been happening for the last 10,000 years. Individuals will observe and react as they see fit, responding to the rewards and penalties that they perceive.

    Yang’s reward for candor is perfectly aligned with the left’s goals and intentions. The only real question is why someone capable of doing what he has done even bothered.

  15. Several news stories this month mention, incidentally in passing, that YouTube (of Google) and Facebook have added thousands of new jobs. Not just more of the old kinds of jobs. A “NEW” job.


    Both internet content distributors are now employing loads of people to review content and rate it, mark it, and if (in their opinion, deem it) necessary, delete it.

    If you’d told me anytime in the last 55 years that the United States would have a boom in the employment of censors I’d have laughed. But here we are.

  16. “But there have always been more jobs before” is not something to trust.

    The notions that we can predict job loss or that we can predict insufficient replacement economic activity are also ones we should distrust.

    The replacement economic activity is probably a function of culture and values, and evaluating that for the present is ultimately aggregate measurement of innermost heart.

    So, we need a language of what distrust we should have for estimates to really unpack this question. I recall esr talking about a Schilling point, which I recall as being related to some of what I intuit about the unpredictability of human systems under certain loading conditions.

    We definitely should not automatically trust my conviction that we need to be killing off recreational substance abusers in order to preserve functioning of US society. But if my conviction is true, the direction we should be going is less public welfare, not more. There’s a point where government aid to the poor is sufficiently cut off that may reduce drug users through natural deaths, and hence might prevent the need for the costs of a mass killing.

    The best policy at the federal levels is acknowledging the untrustworthy uncertainties, and deliberately not make central policies based on them.

  17. I said ” If you’d told me anytime in the last 55 years that the United States would have a boom in the employment of censors I’d have laughed. But here we are.”

    David links back to his own post right on this site dated 2017 predicting this boom. And I have the first comment. Where I, essentially, laughed and made a joke.

    David, I apologize. You were right, and I was wrong.

    Although we all need a better word for “predicting” — recognizing a weed that has already taken root and started to sprout but before everyone else identifies that sprout as a weed.

  18. @MCS – Most SSI and SSDI goes to rent and food. Living on $783/month isn’t easy, even when you share living quarters, get food stamps, and have Medicaid. It is not easy to get disability, despite conservative rhetoric to the contrary.

    I do this for a living, working with acute psychiatric patients for 40 years. Many do not qualify for disability and have to reapply with additional supporting evidence. It takes a long time. They mostly live off their families in the interim. There are places where gaming the system is more common, I hear, where you can find doctors to write you up as disabled. I haven’t seen many who I felt didn’t deserve it in my tenure. There are people who spend some of it on drugs and alcohol, yes. I imagine many of us would if our lives sucked that much.

    Also, high school graduates are no worse than previous eras. That is another myth conservatives love, but is not supported by the data. I graduated high school in 1971, and there were plenty of idiots and ill-informed people then as well. Their parents were worse. The basic fact to keep in mind is that people who read about education and educational policy in 2020 and take the trouble to comment on a blog site are not a representative sample, nor are their memories of their friends and teachers, nor their sainted grandfather’s friends and teachers, at all reliable. It’s all mostly genetics and the schools mostly only change things for the worst students. Everyone else, it’s mostly a wash.

    @ David Foster. Correct, you did not say that. You did point out the possible greater difficulties previous mechanisations presented. Yet I will say again: truck drivers and retail clerks. There are a lot of those, and they might be obsolete soon. The new economic order is ggoing to have to be powerful to overcome that.

  19. AVI,
    Have you tried looking in homeless encampments? I didn’t say that they weren’t disabled, long term substance abuse leaves a mark. Most have made a long term commitment to the life style. More than long enough to work through a miserable, byzantine system that would discourage anyone not so committed or with the slightest alternative, I suspect that we agree on some things. I also didn’t mention rent subsidies and medicaid. I am blessed with reasonably decent insurance yet calling an ambulance might cost me $10,000 or more depending on the whims of said insurance. Medicaid clients on the other hand can and will call for little more than a diversion from the humdrum with no consequence; it’s not like they’re paying for anything.

    I led a rather sheltered life until I started a small business. This was when I first ran up against high school graduates that were essentially illiterate. This was nearly 40 years ago, so you are right that it isn’t new. I see no evidence that it isn’t worse. One of the first things I learned was that hiring someone straight out of prison was much better than hiring someone straight out of high school. Most wised up after they’d been fired a few times and were then worth giving a shot. Some never learned.

    I lack the imagination to see alcohol and drugs as a solution to poverty. When fiscally challenged, it never made sense to me to spend what money I had that way. Apparently that’s a blind spot that many don’t share.

    My point was that eliminating the need to stay sober enough to go to work in the morning wasn’t going to lead to anything good. If automation leads to that, it won’t be pretty.

  20. AVI: “Yet I will say again: truck drivers and retail clerks. There are a lot of those, and they might be obsolete soon. The new economic order is ggoing to have to be powerful to overcome that.”

    Post WWII, huge numbers of women in the US were employed as telephone switchboard operators, as shorthand-typists, as seamstresses. Most of those jobs have gone now, some replaced by technology and some offshored. Yet there are more women in the workplace today.

    On the face of it, that looks like a success story — many jobs for women were destroyed, but many more were created. However, it is less clear if the net value added by the new jobs is equal to that created by the old. Rosie the Riveter built something; Brenda the Bureaucrat may be providing an important service, or may simply be impeding other people from doing productive work. To be clear, that problem does not lie with Brenda, it lies with all of us who have allowed the explosive growth of the regulatory state.

    The intriguing question is — what would have happened to female employment if government had not stepped in as a giant pink-collar job creator? With fewer new female bureaucrats, would the Invisible Hand have created enough non-government jobs to employ the rest? Most importantly, is there anything we can learn from the history of female employment to guide our future actions?

  21. }}} Truck drivers and cashiers

    Cashiers, yes… mainly because too many of the idiots are attempting to demand an unsupportable minwage.

    But truck drivers?

    I will believe that shit when they manage to get a single year with no obviously boneheaded auto accidents that are not entirely the fault of the driver “trusting” the stupid auto-drive features. We are still probably two decades or more away from self-driving cars. And self-driving TRUCK are their own problem… because the problems of truckers are not the same as problems of cars, so the two Augments will only have partial overlap.

    I just noticed an interesting video on FB, for example, of a truck which had overheated its brakes and lost them on a way down a major grade, and had to use an overshot ramp to stop the runaway truck as it approached the curve… The event, I gather, was actually a couple years old, but still, it speaks to the fact that trucker problems are not even close to 50-50 with driver problems. So even if Tesla works out the kinks quickly, it won’t mean driverless trucks.

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