Home > Paul Krugman > The March of the Machines

The March of the Machines

Every morning that I wake up worried that I might end up in too positive a frame of mind to properly mope through my day, I make sure to read a Paul Krugman column. Today he further crushes my optimism for the future by explaining why increased innovation is reducing the demand for educated workers.

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.

[…]

[T]he notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

As computers and other technologies get better at preforming more complex tasks the more our labor markets will dramatically change. From reading this you might come away awash in despair at the prospect of the inevitable march of robots taking your good jobs away. But hold on a nanosecond. (I was so tempted I was to write an updated Candlemakers’ petition.) This march isn’t inevitable; we could become luddites and stop innovating – problem solved, right? Framing it that way concentrates the mind a bit: I’m not saying better technology and innovation don’t pose any problems for us, but those problems come linked to massive gains in productivity and material wealth. That we don’t need “armies of lawyers” to analyze legal documents is a good thing. When was the last time you thought, “man, getting good legal help was just too damn inexpensive!”? Yes, many jobs in the medical field may soon be obsolete; but, if our country’s finances face any problem right now it’s not cheaper medical costs.

These same “problems” also come with free trade and immigration. Policymakers need to help transition workers displaced by trade, technology, and immigration, but we can’t forget that these things bring enormous benefits. We could all go back to hiring lamplighters, typists, and switchboard operators yet somehow I think most people realize we’re better off because we don’t have to.

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  1. Bill
    March 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Dan-

    Read this today as well. Glad you commented on it. I found it a little disturbing and it led me to think a little more about the future. Not only the idea of less jobs, but along with a concurrent rise in population, society as we know it may need to re-shape. I think the way we look at work, at life, at success, and at happiness will have to change. It will also necessitate the provision of a strengthened socialized healthcare system, social security, and education- if we are to secure a society that remains appeased. If our current capitalistic society continues unfettered, without these things, and without jobs, I would imagine that we would begin to see much unrest. Not meaning to sound apocalyptic, but when I think it through, we can’t go on living like we are forever without some fundamental changes.

  2. Thomas Iodine
    March 14, 2011 at 2:37 am

    Sounds like someone should read The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.

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