Originally published November 6, 2016

The Obsolescence of Labor

A few years ago I wrote about how artificial intelligence is going to make it impossible to plan any long-term career because there’s no safe way to pick a job skill that won’t become obsolete. A few weeks ago I wrote about how Trump took over the Republican party, and may end up leaving it in ruins. These two topics may not seem related, but they are. They’re both about the value of labor.

Three days before the election, I was in an argument with a left wing Trump supporter — yes, they exist — and we disagreed about many things, such as whether Trump is a racist, but we totally agreed that the major split in this election — at least among swing voters — is about class. Hillary represents white collar voters and Trump represents blue collar workers. We agreed that the interests of the latter are largely unrepresented by either political party nowadays. But I’m not here today to write about electoral politics. Today I’m taking a much longer term view.

It may seem odd to refer to people as being in different classes just because they have different kinds of jobs. This is not the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie anymore. White collar workers are in many ways in the same position as blue collar ones: often stuck in jobs with little prospect for advancement, working for employers who view them as disposable, facing an uncertain and unstable financial future, and sometimes having to meekly submit to demeaning crap for fear of the consequences if they protest. Both are often seeing their prospects of having as good a life as their parents had dwindle away. The overall experience of working for a living is similar, and you’d think the two groups would have a lot more common ground than differences. But despite that, the classes are quite distinct in practice, with some dramatic differences in culture and values.

The main influence on this differing outlook is probably college education. But just as important is the attitude toward learning and intellectualism that one grew up with. I personally never attended a real college, and spent a fairly large part of my working life doing the kind of semiskilled outdoor work that needs no such education. Nevertheless, culturally I am 100% a member of the white collar class, because of how I grew up. Similarly, there are those who can be educated yet remain members of the blue collar class. (The guy I was arguing with has also lived both sides: he does have a degree, but due to personal issues is now stuck in the crappiest of jobs.)

Politically, the first obvious thing you notice about blue collar America nowadays is how angry it has become, and how under the anger it’s not hard to find despair. And it’s very clear why that is: for the last fifty years, their economic condition has gotten steadily weaker, until nowadays many of them are being ground into outright poverty. Though exacerbated by many factors, such as union-busting and trickle-down tax policies, and all the other regressive abuses that come from special interest corruption, the inexorable underlying force is one that I am not hearing people discuss: that increasing mechanization and automation are steadily reducing the economic value of their labor.

Though ruling classes and employers throughout history have usually been quite good at keeping workers in line so their work can be had cheaply, for most of history the real value of that labor was high — it was essential and there was no substitute for it. This is why labor unions were able to succeed, once they finally got organized. (One further distinction between the blue collar and white collar classes is how the latter never managed to organize this way.) Early mechanization reduced the value of the crudest forms of muscular labor, but balanced that by increasing the economic output of other kinds. Automation and basic computerization continued that trend, trading worthlessness in some skill areas for higher productivity in others. This tradeoff mostly works fine, as long as human hands remain essential to the overall process.

But every time we make such a trade, the skills required by the human worker get a little more difficult and demanding, and move a little bit more into the realm of specialists and experts, away from the range of tasks that an ordinary person can learn to do in reasonable time. And this means that at each step, there are a few more people who no longer have any good path to learning an economically valuable skill. The more skill we require, the larger the percentage of people who fall short in some way, and who therefore have economic value only to the degree that they can work more cheaply than what it would cost to automate their jobs — a cost which keeps moving downward.

As automation advances and begins to approach artificial intelligence, it becomes less and less an essential necessity to include human work. A little more every year, employing human beings becomes an optional choice for soneone developing a business. Human labor, which used to be (despite how poorly it might be paid) an absolute requirement for production, is now useful but not always mandatory. As Bill Maher said to Trump voters, the worker who’s going to take your job isn’t growing up in China or Mexico, it’s being built in Palo Alto. Quite a few of those Chinese and Mexican workers are themselves in the situation I mentioned, of being employed only while their cost stays below that of automation to replace them. Protectionist measures to block overseas competition will not stop the ongoing erosion — it will at best just delay it.

That is a big part of why rural and blue collar America feels desperate enough to elect a Trump, above and beyond shorter term abuses from the likes of Wall Street pirates and crooked lobbyists and anti-union ideologues: because their labor is losing its value. They have to compete with workers poorer than themselves, who in turn have to compete with robots, which get more capable every year.

And to the extent that members of the blue collar and white collar classes think about this problem, they tacitly agree on one thing: they see it as a blue collar issue. For semiskilled workers, the loss of labor value is an immediate personal threat, but in the white collar world it’s usually seen as a distant tragedy, like a famine on the far side of the world.

Most people who consider this issue do so with a strong unstated assumption: that there’s a separation between jobs vulnerable to automation — essentially, those that involve manual tasks — and those that are generally safe, which depend on verbal or intellectual skills. In other words, they are assuming that some jobs are too tricky and subtle to mechanize, or require too much human judgment. They are assuming that there is an upper limit on the level of complexity, skill, and knowledge which can be automated.

I am here today to tell my readers, particularly those in the white collar class, a single awful truth: there is no such upper limit. We are limited in how much we can automate so far, but there is nothing to stop that limit from continuing to rise beyond anything we can imagine today. The falling value of labor is not a blue collar issue — before the robots finish taking over the blue collar jobs, they’re going to start in on the white collar jobs, including mine. Once AI starts to develop seriously, there is not a single white-collar job anywhere, from customer service to CEO, which will be immune from automation. All human labor is losing its economic value! Some types are losing it quickly and others much more slowly, but it’s disappearing for everyone in the end. Each of us has abilities of which we can say “I can _____ better than any machine”, but the list gets shorter and shorter, until it’s down to skills no one pays money for.

We have built our whole way of life around trading labor for sustenance. We are approaching a time when such trades will no longer function. Society will need a new basis. When the goods we depend on remain abundant, but job skills no longer suffice to buy a share of them, we’ll need to start allocating the necessities of life in some other way.

And that means we face a tremendous choice. We are coming to a time when we’ll be redesigning our whole way of life, and as yet we have no way to know what the available options will even be. We’ll have to get creative and think them up, once we see what we’ve got. We can’t really preplan it now — we know too little in advance.

Of course, for a long time the most popular answer will be to try to cling to the old way. Free-market believers will be especially insistent. But as the erosion continues, taking away the economic value not just of particular job skills, but of human work in general, free-market thinking would demand that those with little or no economic value should receive little or no economic benefit. And as that group becomes an increasing majority of the population, the only endpoint such a path can have would be for the whole species to be reduced to poverty and slavery, accepting scraps from an ever-shrinking class of privileged owners, until finally the owners themselves are replaced, because there is no need for human beings to fill their roles either. Such a course would be suicide, and we will not follow it, no matter how many ideologues might insist (as long as they have not yet succumbed themselves) that we have to. We can and will choose a better path — any path we like.

My pro-Trump acquaintance fully expects this dire capitalist outcome if labor in general is lost to automation, opining that “the idea of a leisure society is bullshit.” But I say that it (or some similarly implausible new way of life) can happen, simply because it must. This doomed type of capitalism will end. What will replace it, no one can yet say.

What I can say, today, is that if letting insufficiently valuable workers starve is going to be wrong then, it’s also wrong now. In addition to the clear need to support fairer wages and more financial security for those who are working today (instead of our current policy of seeing how much we can fatten up Wall Street speculators before they burst), we also need to start thinking of options for supporting some kind of decent and dignified path of life for those among us who have limited employability. And we need those ideas now, not in another generation. The severe economic shock of mass unemployability may be decades away, but the pain it will bring has already begun.

What you are willing to do for your impoverished fellow citizens today, you will quite literally be doing for yourself later.

homeback to The Future!

homefurther back to my home page

mailboxsend mail to Paul Kienitz