Robots and Jobs: Freud and Tenure?

I normally like Catherine Rampell’s economics reporting and blogging at the New York Times a lot, but I had a problem with her article in last week’s Sunday Review. It was called “Raging (Again) Against the Robots,” and it made the accurate point that concerns about technological unemployment are nothing new.

Where Rampell lost me was when she mused about what’s behind this latest round of worrying. She writes:

There is something almost Freudian in these robot takeover terrors, which foretell that the technology we fathered will rise up against us, rendering us obsolete or even extinct.

It’s not exactly clear, though, what triggers these fears, which seem to come in both good economic times and bad. It might be actual accelerations in technical change. But Andreas Bauer, an official with the International Federation of Robotics and a German robotics company executive, says that such fears are unheard-of in the equally mechanized economies of contemporary Japan and Europe.

Excuse me, but that’s an entirely inadequate refutation of the idea that things might actually be different now. For a better discussion, watch this interview of Paul Krugman by Joe Weisenthal over at Business Insider.

Krugman now takes the idea of technological unemployment seriously for the right reason — because the data tell him to (sorry for any flaws in my hasty transcription):

Something is going on..  this is a different story. The inequality story of the 21st century  is very different from the inequality story of the last two decades of the 20th century…
Everyone who’s still out there talking about “well, it’s inadequate college education or skill-biased technological change” hasn’t looked at the data since 2000, ’cause it’s a different story now…
Now one obvious possibilty… is that technology has shifted in a way that really favors capital over labor… that makes it possible to replace people with machines, but with a lot of machines so that the amount you’re willing to pay workers falls because you want to spend your money on buying more machines, loosely speaking…
If this is in fact going on, how worried should we be? Not very, according to Rampell: “That’s not to say there will be no new jobs to fill the void: we can scarcely imagine the industries and occupations that will flower as the economy adjusts, just as prior deep thinkers could not have conceived of today’s nanophysicists or social media consultants. The challenge, of course, is training or retraining workers quickly enough to take on new, higher-skilled roles.” In other words, she’s saying that today’s labor force woes are the result of skill-biased technological change; this is exactly the argument Krugman dismissed as being inconsistent with recent data.

He offers a caution:

On the hundred year horizon maybe we can be sure that everybody will benefit… but maybe not. Because part of what’s happening here is that we are seeing machines doing things that we thought, and just a few years ago, we thought had to be done by human intelligence.

Another academic quoted by Rampell (in addition to my Race Against the Machine co-author Erik Brynjolfsson) is Northwestern’s Joel Mokyr, who isn’t that worried. “I can be displaced by technology, but they still can’t fire me. I have tenure.”

I’m sorry, but reporting on issues as important as technological unemployment should be a lot better than musings about Freudian fears and blithe comments from entrenched elites.