5.23.2005

 

Jobs suck

The tag line for this video from Verizon is quite simple:And these three jobs do suck.

Jobs suck for two reasons. First, there are many jobs that need to be done in our economy that no one wants to do. No one says to himself or herself at age 9 or 10, "One day I hope to be scrubbing toilets at McDonald's", or emptying portable toilets or whatever. Tens of millions of jobs in the economy are like that -- no one would do them voluntarily.

So why do people fill those jobs? Because of the second reason why jobs suck: people have no choice. Once you turn 18, either you work or you become homeless. The equation is "work for the benefit of someone else, or starve to death." [yes, you do have the option of starting your own business, but not at age 18 -- you have to work for someone else to raise enough capital to start a business.]

So, for example, if you work for Wal-Mart, your efforts help fund nearly two billion dollars per year in dividends for shareholders (and nearly half of that $2B goes to a tiny handful of people). Your efforts help to buy Wal-Mart thousands of acres of real estate that is owned by shareholders. Your efforts fund incredible executive salaries and a fleet of executive jets. And so on. People, in general, do not work at Wal-Mart by choice. They work there because the equation is, "work, or starve to death" and no better job is available. Their work primarily benefits a tiny portion of the population that is concentrating wealth at a remarkable pace.

Now robots move in and take a majority of jobs. The Robotic Wal-Mart becomes a reality and displaces approximately ten million retail employees. Robotic fast food restaurants displace millions more. Robotic truck drivers eliminate a million human truck drivers. Robotic construction workers replace five million human construction workers. And so on. Robots compete with humans in every job category. What do these tens of millions of workers now do to make a living? Traditionally the economy creates new jobs, but never before have robots competed for jobs with humans in every job category.

The question we should be asking ourselves, as robots move in and take all these jobs, should be, "How do we eliminate the need for forced labor in our society?" How, in other words, do we eliminate the "work or starve" equation, so that humans have economic freedom? Robots give us the opportunity to consider this question seriously. See Robotic Freedom for details.

Comments:
I’m not sure I’d call your equation of labor fair. Just because having a job is the best choice around, this does NOT mean the choices are “starve or work”. Subsistence farmers across the globe don’t have even this choice, and are self-employed, but clearly not better.

Look at a recent editorial by The New York Time's Nicholas D. Kristof about workers in Cambodia, where menial jobs which robots will inevitably replace are in extremely high demand. This is because they are extremely good when compared to other available jobs, like searching through a rubbish pile for 10 hours daily in the hot sun, for things to eat or sell. These “sweat shop” jobs ironically involve a lot less sweating.

In the same way, losing the manufacturing basis for jobs in America is GOOD. It is progress to move to a service economy.


But back to the robots:

There are a few things about some basic economics that need to be reviewed before we worry about those who, by your account, will starve when the robots come.

Increased productivity.
Saving money on robots does not simply result in unemployment. There are other effects, the most substantial being an increase in productivity. Productivity is an excellent measure of the advancement of a society and any permanent rise in standard of living requires an increase in productivity. This is because such an increase means that the same number of people are producing more for less. Wealth is created.

Greater investment, by multiples.
The concentration of wealth through shareholding is a huge misnomer. After all, it isn’t like the heads of Wal-Mart have billions in cash stuck under their beds, where no one has access to it. That would be silly. The money is usually in the form of an investment in another company, meaning it is being used and leveraged for even more creation of wealth.

If Wal-Mart’s stock increases, and I trade a share to own a few shares of another company’s stock, that transaction is a loan to the companies whose stock I purchase. It means that I think they can use that money to create even more. For instance, I might choose a technology company, whose product might make things more efficient for a multitude of other companies. Not only is the original company’s product a benefit to society, but their profit is effectively the creation of wealth.

Finally, talk of stock ownership is perhaps the most misleading of all, because if there is any trend in this area in America, it is the democratization of investments. Not long ago, you wouldn’t say, in reference to Wal-Mart’s stock dividends, that “nearly half of which goes to a tiny handful of people”. You would say “basically all of which…”. The trend is that more people own stock, not the reverse.

The fundamental flaw in the concern about jobs could be called a “fixed quantity of wealth fallacy”.
 
"In the same way, losing the manufacturing basis for jobs in America is GOOD. It is progress to move to a service economy."

Yea, because we can all get rich mowing each other’s lawns. This movement to a "service economy" is currently the greatest threat to the US economy. Most services can't be exported and the ones that can (software development, tech support) are being outsourced. How are we (as a nation) supposed to buy all these imported manufactured goods if we don't make anything the rest of the world wants?

And the numbers back up this common sense. Our trade deficit is growing exponentially. That’s OK as long as the rest of the world likes us and needs someone to buy all their crap, but it can't go on forever.


So what's the solution?
We need to bring manufacturing back. We need to develop fully autonomous, highly configurable, factories that can produce goods of higher quality and cheaper price than their sweatshop siblings.
Luckily, as Brain details in his blog, this is the direction we are headed.


To end I will leave you with a thought:
Lets say Brain is right and we are headed into an automated future. We will live in a world where only a small percentage of the population is needed to produce all the wealth the country needs or could use.

No matter how smart or hard working the rest of the population is they can't generate much more wealth (compared to the legions of robots). Even now we don't want 10 ditch-diggers when one man and a trackhoe can do the job. In this future 90% of the population is simply not needed in the economy anymore (except for as consumers).

In this robotic nation does capitalism work?
Is there something better?

P.S.- Ivan, I suggest you stop parroting what your economic teachers are telling you and start thinking for yourself. There is much more I can say about your post. If you are interested in a debate I will be happy to continue...
 
"... when compared to other available jobs, like searching through a rubbish pile for 10 hours daily in the hot sun, for things to eat or sell." (Ivan)

What "jobs"? Is the word "job" synonymous with 'ice cream cone', 'flap-jack', or any other foolishness at hand? What you describe is called 'gleaning' or 'scavenging'. Your usage of the word 'job' is as indefensible as saying that animals have 'jobs'. Animals don't have 'jobs'; a 'job' implies at least some degree of volitional participation and specific, monetary remuneration -- 'job holders' get paid; 'work' animals simply perform according to training; gleaners and scavengers perform only according to their basic survival needs and produce no economic benefit except to themselves.

Fullest realization of robotics will (inevitably) lead to a universal dole system, with 'job holder' becoming the elitist badge of uniqueness in purely human talent and the ultimate criterion of personal social value, distinguishing the 'job holder' from the (great unwashed) 'hoi polloi'. - blzbob
 
“Most services can't be exported” – FALSE.

Corporate accounting, HR, PR, IT, design, branding, marketing, can all be “exported”, and such services make up the majority of economic activity in modern post-industrialized countries.

The use of “outsourcing” as a pejorative is ridiculous. In the same way we all love division of labor, and the production of my car and refrigerator have been “outsourced” to other firms, paying yourself, your employees, or someone else for a product or service is all about competitive advantage.

Further, the trade deficit is NOT bad. Worse come to worst, it means people are giving us goods for little green pieces of paper and decide not to use those. More likely, currencies pegged to the dollar will mature, be allowed to float, and those little green pieces of paper will be worth relatively less, and imports into America will decrease. Historically, large trade deficits are associated with periods of economic boom (like now), and trade surpluses are associated with periods of economic bust (one of the largest relative trade surpluses in history was the Great Depression).

“We need to bring manufacturing back. We need to develop fully autonomous, highly configurable, factories that can produce goods of higher quality and cheaper price than their sweatshop siblings.”

You have no idea where the majority of things you buy come from or how they are made. China is not a winner in manufacturing because of “sweat shops”, but because they have become extremely good at optimizing industrial processes. It is the same reason why Japanese auto makers succeeded over American dinosaurs. It is called competition, and it works wonders for everyone involved.

“We will live in a world where only a small percentage of the population is needed to produce all the wealth the country needs or could use.”

We already live in a world where a very small percentage of people are needed for very essential things like food. Equating the creation of physical products by non-sentient machines to all creation of wealth is inaccurate because, as already mentioned, the majority of economic activity is performed in the form of services. Until the robots are sentient, this will continue to be a human dominated activity, because new service industry creation (in my opinion) requires creativity associated with sentience. Individual sentient beings should be treated with equivalent dignity of humans, and will partake in economic exchange as responsible, autonomous parties.

Also, do not underestimate the ingenuity of intelligent beings. This book comes highly recommended.

Further, I predict creation of artificial sentience will be coupled with a greater integration between humans and machines, with both physical and mental enhancements. This means there will be no “us” and “them”. That adversarial mentality is understandable and flatly wrong. [Again, this is simply a prediction].

“In this robotic nation does capitalism work?
Is there something better? “


Capitalism works because voluntary exchange optimizes the movement of scarce resources. Just because some labor becomes only a semi-scarce resource once general-purpose robotics is achieved, does not mean the rules of the game are changed. There will always be scarcity, and the only alternative to voluntary exchange of scarce resources is coercive exchange, which violates individual freedom. Even when humans branch out and mine the enormity of space for raw materials, land, and energy, there is one scarce resource which will always exist: time.

By the way, I would highly recommend this book for those who either have probably never taken an economics class (but seem to think I’m parroting them) or have never been exposed to the true nature of capitalism.


As for talk of labels and “jobs”, might I suggest we consider subsistence farmers and scavengers self-employed? It sounds accurate to me. The rest of that comment is meaningless.
 
"As for talk of labels and “jobs”, might I suggest we consider subsistence farmers and scavengers self-employed? It sounds accurate to me." (Ivan)

Why not suggest 'entrepreneur' -- it would be even more absurdly pretentious and inaccurate.

"The rest of that comment is meaningless." (Ivan)

Oh dear! How precious! Is that part of the standard $1.95 package of sophomoric junior-college education-major sure-fire 'put-downs'? Or, is "meaningless" your synonym for 'I didn't get it'?

Please do now rant on about "the true nature of capitalism." - blzbob
 
"robotics will (inevitably) lead to a universal dole system"

I'm not really interested in a flame war (at least on a 3rd party site).

I just don't think your claim makes any sense, and isn't supported at all.

Question #1: who pays for the dole?
2: Who owns the robots that are creating all the wealth?

Check out the books I linked above. They're good...
 
"I just don't think your claim makes any sense, and isn't supported at all." (Ivan)

That statement is patent opinion, and, itself, supported by nothing. In what way does your dilettantish dismissal of other opinion differ from a 'flame'?

Ans. #1 What do you mean by "pay"? Do you think pharoah 'paid' by coin -- before it was invented? In short: by whomever runs the show.

Ans. #2 See Ans. #1 (or, maybe the robots 'own' themselves).

Have you read 'Manna'?
- blzbob
 
Actually, I was trying to demonstrate how it is unsupported by asking two glaring, unanswered questions.


Yes, I've read Manna. I deeply distrust some of the ideas.

For instance, that robots would automatically violate personal freedom for any number of reasons. I mean, if the evil, greedy politicians and corporate executives really disliked the masses enough to put them up in huge public housing projects, why bother doing anything for them?

Since when has welfare ever been forced, rather than an option, for responsible adults?

Also, the set-up with a guaranteed income in the Australia project washes over some very basic issues, like private property. There is an assumption of no-cost labor and goods, but I've already described how there is always cost, at the very least opportunity cost, in a scarce world.


"In short: by whomever runs the show."

So who controls them? The people? There is not nearly enough distrust of such power.

Brain tried to use a share-holder analogy to avoid communist terminology. That's fine. But his system has a single corporation running EVERYTHING. The track record for human actions under unchecked power isn't very good.

An alternative is keeping everything like it is now, and watching the trends as more people choose to invest in the system. Then you keep the millions of corporations, and limited government, and everyone is happy.

In the case where all human labor is apparently useless (though folks in Manna seem to find any number of jobs for themselves), the cost of basic necessities would have to be so low that providing for the unemployed's basic needs is trivial.

I don't see why you need a single monolithic corporation or an oppressive government for either. There are currently dozens of soup kitchens all over an area like Manhattan. They aren't controlled by a single firm. If the cost of such activities goes down significantly, do you really think the charity of many in dependent parties would decrease?

Many people assume that because a government doesn't do something, it won't happen. It simply isn't true.
 
hi Ivan, i liked your posts, but Capitalism is not perfect.

For example, how do you solve the poberty trap? do you think is fare that if you are born in a wealth familty you have a 'better' life? and if not you have to work as a mule to survive?

I don't like the idea of the big brother watching over me, but i don't see a better solution to those problems than Basic Income.
 
"Since when has welfare ever been forced, rather than an option, for responsible adults?" (Ivan)

When exigencies of life make the alternatives to that "option" homelessness, hunger, and other attendant ills. Do you think all those recently, and yet to become, unemployed are 'irresponsible'? Do you try to maintain even moderate currency with the news of the day?

"Also, the set-up with a guaranteed income in the Australia project washes over some very basic issues, like private property." (Ivan)

Are you unaware that the State of Alaska pays its citizens an annual 'dividend' based on that State's income?

"But his system has a single corporation running EVERYTHING." (Ivan)

Corporate mergers (tendency of business to coalesce to unity) continue to be lead items in business news.

"I mean, if the evil, greedy politicians and corporate executives really disliked the masses enough to put them up in huge public housing projects, why bother doing anything for them?" (Ivan)

Imperial Rome provided "bread and circuses" to keep the masses distracted from their 'karma' and inclination to riot. Do you think the 'politically rich' care about you now? You write "them" -- better start thinking 'me'.

"An alternative is keeping everything like it is now, and watching the trends ..." (Ivan)

"now" is a constantly moving point in time -- who is going to halt its progress? Do you think the America of today is the same as the America of Jefferson? Jeffersonian democracy (if it ever existed anywhere but in Jefferson's mind) has been dead for so long even the memory of it is distorted. No single politician, entrepreneur, party or social movement prevails indefinitely.

"(though folks in Manna seem to find any number of jobs for themselves)" (Ivan)

Perhaps you should give 'Manna' another read. Brain makes it very clear that the quest for jobs becomes increasingly more desperate -- at which point, he abandons the contemporary America scene to explore the (often 'over-the-top', Brain on a speculative rampage) wonders of the new Australia project.

As I read Brain, "watching the trends" is exactly what he's doing -- but, as someone far more experienced and successful in the contemporary business world (than, presumably, any on this blog), and more appreciative of advancements in science (and robotics, in particular), and with far more open, and practiced, eyes.

I read Brain more as a pragmatic 'prophet' (however 'nasty' that word) than as an advocate of any particular social experiment. Unlike you, he's saying 'Here's where I perceive it to be going', not 'Here's how I would like it to be.' Like it or not, some version of what he writes is not merely coming, but already on its way. - blzbob
 
Complaints about capitalism abound. There certainly can be failings, but the alternatives are far worse.

Read these two articles for an example dealing with global poverty.


"You write "them" -- better start thinking 'me'."(blzbob)

Actually, I'm a roboticist and starting my own business (I can only hope to be as successful as Brain). I'll be the last to lose my job :)

And my disagreements with Brain have nothing to do with technology. They have to do with a faith in the human spirit. He thinks all jobs are at risk. I think both that markets will develop for a human touch, and that there are professions yet undefined not at risk.

Further, his solution is government action. That would be my last solution.

He also seems to lack some basic sense for economics. For instance, the $25K stipend could never be supported. It’s like he has never even heard of tax arbitrage or an incentive, especially under his assumption that only a few people own all the means of wealth creation.

Further, the notion that robotics companies that tailor to consumer demands would set pricing such that all consumers would be both unemployed and unable to afford the goods tickles me as contradictory.

I should probably ask some economist friends of mine what they think.
 
"Actually, I'm a roboticist and starting my own business (I can only hope to be as successful as Brain). I'll be the last to lose my job :)" (Ivan)

Have you checked recently on the success rate of new business? Sure you can beat out the competition? Better have more in your knapsack than just "hope".

"They have to do with a faith in the human spirit." (Ivan)

As Count Volney expressed in 'The Ruins': "Faith and Hope may be called the virtues of dupes, for the benefit of knaves."

"I think both that markets will develop for a human touch, and that there are professions yet undefined not at risk." (Ivan)

Obviously, it's the too often incompetent or indifferent "human touch" (and cost) that is increasingly 'turning off' both the entrepreneur and the consumer -- the lines at the automatic check-out stations continue to lengthen -- and costing the US market position. The "professions yet undefined" murmur is just groping in the dark.

"He also seems to lack some basic sense for economics." (Ivan)

Yeah! I expect that, during all his years of continuing success, he's had very little exposure to real world economics -- probably spends his time talking with a bunch of 'wannabes' and the like.

Your presumption about "pricing" indicates you're still stuck thinking in the status quo.

I'd say the musing in your last sentence might provide your interpretation of the real world more secure grounding. Incidentally, when do you graduate? - blzbob
 
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I just quit my job and went into business for myself. When I was at these J-O-Bs I was working hard to make my boss and the CEO of that company rich. It seemed like a pyramid scheme (I worked at GNC at the mall). My senior store manager begged us to sell multivitamins keep our quota at 13% a day. Our prize? A pizza party (which never EVER happened BTW). When we did reach our quota we never got a pizza party (I later found out our SSM got a huge fat bonus for MY HARD WORK!!!). I decided I never want to work hard on something that I'll never own (a job). Now that I have my own business, I set my own hours, write my own paychecks, regulators come and audit me, and I also have the power to donate tons of money to give back to my community.
 
Yeah Jobs are stupid. When will these morons realize that you have to start your own business!!! With inflation growing @ 4% people today have to make at least $100,000 a year and be self employed (to get all the tax writeoffs). You know if we even mentioned having a credit card back in the 50's people would look at us funny!
 
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