Friday, August 14, 2015

The Future of Work and the Demise of Scholarship

I've pointed out before that the future of work has a chequered past. Evidently it also has a questionable present and future.

Paul Saffo teaches forecasting at Stanford University and chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University. In his contribution to the "Future of Work" project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Saffo wrote:
"In 1930, Keynes observed that technological unemployment was a self-solving problem. On balance new technologies create more jobs than they destroy."
Sandwichman call bullshit. Saffo's claim couldn't be further from the truth. In 1934, Keynes gave a BBC radio address titled "Is the Economic System Self-Adjusting?" His answer was "No." The "create more jobs than they destroy" refrain is a version of what is otherwise known as Say's Law, which Keynes paraphrase in his General Theory as "Supply creates its own demand." Keynes's general theory was a debunking of Say's Law.


Nathan Tankus said...

I thought from this vision there were two types of unemployment- those types of unemployment from technological change and types of unemployment resulting from insufficient effective demand? There's a long history of people who argue that there is gross technological unemployment but not or little "net" technological unemployment. ie there are people hired to manage new infrastructures (like computer programmers and many other types of workers) when others are thrown out of work by changing technology.Car mechanics replace those who tend to horses etc. This may or may not be true but it seems consistent with "keynesian" unemployment ie unemployment from a lack of demand for labor resulting from a lack of demand for goods and services.

Sandwichman said...

To make a long story short, Nathan, there IS technological unemployment, not much of it but the relationship between tech ue and wages & working conditions is not "linear." The "technology creates more jobs than it destroys" platitude is a red herring.

Unknown said...

Also, isn't it the churning of jobs, raised by technological change, as well as the threat effect of such chang, that are important. For example, when I was about 12, the PPG company, producer of plate glass, wanted to introduce a new process for making plate glass. It used the threat of the new system as both carrot and stick. The plant would stay open, and maybe with more jobs as demand grew,if the union would give up hard won work rules. The union refused and a long strike ensued (my dad had to move to Cleveland to work for his brother's art glass business to keep us fed. Dad helped his brother collect money owed by customers as my uncle was a notoriously bad businessman, though a good artist). The strike ended in stalemate, but the company began a long campaign to end run the union by locating plants in rural areas north and south, utilizing the new process there. I don't know the net effect on jobs, but over the long haul, my guess is that there has been less employment for any given level of demand, because new technologies almost always intensify work effort and enhance the capacity of the employer to monitor workers and thereby increase its control of the labor process. So I agree with Sandwichman in that the issue of more versus fewer jobs from technology is a red herring and misses the key points of technology's introduction under capitalist relations of production.

Unknown said...

PS. The factory in my hometown is now long closed. The town is more or less a wasteland, with drugs now a major source of income, along with subsidies from parents'and even grandparents' pensions and social security. The land on which the plant was located is so laced with poisonous chemicals that the company won't even give it to the town, no doubt because it would have to clean it up first. Chemicals from waste ponds leach into the nearby river. Many still blame the union for failing to give in to the company's demands 57 years ago. But I think that the company would have closed the plant in any event. It had a "no union" strategy and it has worked, over and over again. Workers learn about the closed plants and are taught that unions cause unemployment by their greedy demands and failure to see the benefits of hewing to the corporate line.

Nathan Tankus said...

@Sandwichman I would never claim the relationship is linear or that it technological change can't create "net" unemployment or even if it didn't, the people thrown out of work and who can't find a job aren't helped by some thirty something having a "new" technology job. My point was merely that you can not believe in say's law because of a shortage of effective demand and believe that there is little "net" technological unemployment

Jack said...

Is it of any value to "investigate" and argue the net effect of technology on employment numbers? Is technology going to suddenly go away and be ignored if it can be proven that jobs are being lost to technology? I think not.

More important is the issue of industrial flight, especially when it can be shown that such movement of the locations of production occur with the intention of seeking out the lowest cost of labor. The political class seems to be hand maiden to such efforts. So too local land owners and professional class. Seeking out the lowest cost of labor and blaming unions for the need for that search is old hat, but seems to work every time. The only likely solution for workers is to understand the realities of their predicament. Stop electing representatives of wealth, whether it be great wealth or only local wealth seeking greatness.