Here’s the Difference Between Repeating Slogans and Understanding a Concept

If you want to see the difference between sophisticated and unsophisticated thinking and writing about technology’s effects on the workforce, look no further than two recent posts, both from the conservative side of the house.

First is a March 25 piece by  called “Steve Kroft: Philistine,” the main points of which are all stated pretty clearly in the second paragraph

Behold Steve Kroft, longtime CBS newsman. Last night, to my horror, I discovered that on January 13th he broadcast a story asking, “Are robots hurting job growth?” This question has badly tested my Lenten resolution against profanity. The short answer is, “No.” The slightly longer answer is, “No, you idiot.”

Gattoni-Celli brings up the fact that Erik Brynjolfsson and I are interviewed in the piece. He calls us “Messrs. Malthusian” and describes Race Against the Machine as “emphasiz[ing] a narrative worthy of Ned Ludd.” So he clearly hasn’t read it very carefully, if at all. Because in it, we wrote

…we still firmly believe in the promise of the digital frontier. Technology has already opened up a huge amount of rich new territory and will keep doing so. Around the world, economies, societies, and people’s lives have been improved by digital goods and high-tech products; these happy trends will continue, and likely accelerate.

My main point here, though, is not to defend us against silly and inaccurate name-calling. It’s to highlight the difference between a simplistic understanding and a more advanced one. Gattoni-Celli nicely summarizes the simplistic take on technology and employment

technology increases productivity, and thus wages, but also creates new opportunities and industries that ultimately dwarf the short-term losses of creative destruction.

So (the argument goes) there’s no problem here, or at least no lasting one. Technology is a rising tide that will eventually lift all boats. Holding any other point of view makes you a Luddite, a Philistine, or a Malthusian.

If you want to understand the situation a bit more deeply and don’t have the time to read our short ebook (or the willingness to plunk down $3.99 for it), just check out this March 17 post by Richard Posner over at the Becker-Posner blog. Posner begins by presenting a version of the ‘no problem here’ argument, and then elegantly demolishes it

there is nothing inevitable about the virtuous process whereby automation and related negative effects on particular jobs merely shift workers to other jobs that are equally or more desirable…

there is no guaranty that labor markets as a whole will adjust smoothly to changes in demand in particular labor markets. That depends on the size and rapidity of those changes, and in turn on the size and rapidity of changes in automation, outsourcing, and management practices, all linked to technology in a narrow or broad sense…

If technological advance is very rapid, causing in turn a large and very rapid drop in demand in a large labor market, the economy may not be able to absorb the sudden surplus of labor in a short period of time. The result will be soaring unemployment that will retard normal market processes by reducing incomes and in turn production and therefore in the demand for workers…

By reducing demand for workers, and therefore employment and wages, in many labor markets, the same technological advances may be creating a second dependent population, consisting of people of working age and their children who cannot support themselves without public assistance that will either replace or augment wages.

Please, go read those four paragraphs again; they distill most of what you need to know about the challenges of the time we’re in. “Technological progress always benefits workers” belongs in the same category as “more financial derivates mean less risk.” They’re both examples of how right Mencken was when he observed that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”