Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Nuance Eludes the Technology and Employment Story

David Autor replied to my earlier critique. Here is my response:

Dear David Autor,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and prompt reply. I appreciate your purpose to, as you say, "give a more nuanced interpretation of the legitimate concerns surrounding the impact of rapid technological [change] on job opportunities." My point was actually that invoking the lump-of-labor canard poses a hindrance rather than a help to achieving that laudable objective, which I share. As I wrote, my intention was not so much to dispute your arguments about technology and employment or even about the lump-of-labor notion itself as to bring to your attention the positive contribution that could be made by giving a fair hearing to the actual views of those who are worried about technological unemployment.

I didn't "miss" your point at all, instead I chose to avoid piling a gratuitous critique of your conclusion on top of my main criticism of your premise. But since you asked... I would characterize your outlook and prediction as fitting neatly into Keynes's category of "too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they [economists] can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again." Your "too easy, too useless" outlook and prediction flows seamlessly from the unexamined premise of viewing labor as a commodity. Karl Polanyi argued that such a description of labor is "entirely fictitious" yet actual markets are based on this fiction.

An alternative description of labor is as a commons, or to use the late Elinor Ostrom's term, a "common-pool resource." The words and actions of ordinary workers, trade unions and even machine-breakers make a great deal more sense from the perspective of treating labor as a common-pool resource rather than as a commodity. By contrast, the inane assumption attributed to workers by their detractors is itself predicated on the unstated assumption of the unquestionable commodity status of labor. Profoundly different policy implications flow from the two contrasting assumptions, as do fundamentally different predictions about the future. It seems to me that a "more nuanced interpretation of the legitimate concerns..." would seek to include both the common-pool resource and the commodity interpretations of labor rather than to exclusively feature the latter while inadvertently disparaging the former by attributing it to a belief in a spurious fallacy.

I'm only scratching the surface here. I could go into much more detail and provide extensive reference on the question of viewing labor as a commodity versus viewing it as a common pool resource but life is short and I don't want to annoy you with unsolicited "singing lessons."


Tom Walker

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