16 Jun

Washington’s Dirtiest Secret

Posted By polity_admin_user

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Technology really is going to roil labor markets. Even if there’s a happy ending. And there may not be.

I sat through every one of the presidential debates last fall, and failed to hear a single word on what is certainly among the top three issues facing the nation, and just may be the biggest.

Bigger than climate, for policymakers and citizens – if, that is, you accept the standard climate analysis. Course climate commands, quite literally, 100x more attention than this one.

Like climate, it’s best understood as an issue of risk. We really don’t know how the Moore’s-Law-driven exponential impact of AI and robotics will finally affect the norm of “full employment” that for many years has characterized the experience of the leading industrial economies – and been the dream of developing nations. We really don’t know, but to say that is not to suggest we have no idea.

On the one hand, the conventional wisdom is clear: all industrial revolutions cause upheaval, but everything all turns out right in the end. This nostrum is reiterated by populists on right and left as a kind of security blanket in which they seek to wrap the impact of the technological explosion taking place around us. And some of them combine it with a warning. Raise problems, they say, and you will slow it all down. And in the process damage innovation – and damage America. Then they add their coup de grace: Raise problems, they say, and you’re a Luddite. Luddite (a bit like Fundamentalist) is a four-letter word that can be used with devastating effect in a controversy like this one. It seeks to undermine whatever argument is being made by suggesting that the arguer is not to be taken seriously. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers summed that up neatly when he said recently in a lecture setting out how he had come to doubt the conventional wisdom that when he was a student at MIT there were two groups discussing this issue. The smart kids, and the “stupid Luddite people.”

Point is, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. But we do know two things.

First, there is going to be huge upheaval in labor markets. Whether in 15 or 20 or 25 years, report after report has suggested that between one-third and one-half of the jobs we have now in the developed economies will be lost. It’s hard to believe (especially if you have actually read the history of the Industrial Revolution proper – or ever visited Gary, Indiana, or Detroit, Michigan) that new jobs will just glide into place for the truckers and bank clerks and paralegals whose careers are over. They may emerge, but the lesson of history is not that it will be easy, but that it will be hard. And remember, this is assuming the optimistic view. (It may be especially troubling that one major report suggests, counter-intuitively, a significantly bigger threat to jobs in developing economies.) This is pretty clear.

Second, we also know that there may be a net loss of job opportunities over time. That is, there may be an end to “full employment,” and the emergence of an economy in which a radical dislocation emerges that requires entirely fresh policy approaches. What are the chances? Well, economists from Ricardo to Keynes foresaw it, and now leaders on left and right (Summers and Charles Murray – writing in the WSJ – being cases in point) and even Bill Gates are sounding the alarm. Let’s say there’s a 25% chance they are right. Let’s approach this in risk terms. The implications are enormous.

Some of us are scared of being labeled Luddites, and others of us are far too ready to use that cheap insult in a naive attempt to discredit a vital argument. We need to future-proof our economy by taking risk seriously, and not one leader in Washington is bothering even to raise the discussion.

NIgel M. de S. Cameron is President and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington, DC, and Fulbright Visiting Chair in Science and Society at the University of Ottawa (2015-16). His book Will Robots Take Your Job?: A Plea for Consensus is available from Polity.