Where Are All the Robots?

Lots of people think that the robots are coming to steal everybody’s jobs. I even wrote a whole thing about what would happen if they did.

But another story is emerging from several recent papers and columns by economists and economic writers. Instead of a world without work, they say, there is currently more evidence for a world with too much work—and not enough humans to do it all. Rather than high-flying investment in machines and similarly high unemployment, there is strangely low investment and happily low joblessness. How can anybody say robots are killing jobs when the killer is nowhere to be seen and the supposed victim isn’t even dead?

Economists and writers aren’t just pushing back against the robots-taking-jobs story. Some of them are downright begging for more robots to descend on the economy and bring with them the gift of productivity. (As a side note: When economists and economic writers say “robots” they rarely mean actual anthropomorphic machines like C3PO; it’s more of a catch-all for new technology that replaces work previously done by people.) Here are the four main parts of the case for embracing robots without fear.

1. The U.S. economy is in a productivity recession. Most people agree that if automation were replacing workers, there would be an enormous productivity boom coinciding with massive job losses or a long period of miserably low wage-growth. Instead, the modern economy is showing the exact opposite of that. Unemployment is low. Wages are rising even faster than productivity—an extraordinarily rare occurrence in the last four decades. This isn’t what the end of work was ever supposed to look like.

2. Companies don’t seem to be investing in technology nearly as much as they used to. The growth in capital investment—one measure of how much companies spend on new equipment and technology—is at its lowest rate in 60 years. “Capital investment in the workplace has grown more slowly since…

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