Why Would We Need Robots?

A columnist for the Canadian Broadcast Company is saying that in order to “decouple” from China, America will need an army of robots.

This is actually the diametric opposite of the truth.

It’s fascinating that people live in this reverse reality.

Dan Pittis writes for CBC:

As North America goes through its biggest recession and loss of jobs in decades, U.S. President Donald Trump is offering a job creation solution.

In a Labour Day election address to the media, the Republican candidate declared that a move toward “decoupling” from China would transform the U.S. economy and bring manufacturing jobs home.

“We will make America into the manufacturing superpower of the world and we’ll end reliance on China once and for all,” Trump said in a White House speech to reporters.

“I don’t think it’s wild,” said Joel Blit, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation, an economist and engineer who teaches at Ontario’s University of Waterloo.

Fresh research by the Waterloo professor shows that what he calls in his paper published last month in Canadian Public Policy, “the biggest human and economic catastrophe in recent history” may have a positive outcome — if it is well managed.

Essentially, what Blit’s research shows is that in Canada, following the three recessions since the dawn of the computer age that he examined, some jobs disappeared, never to return.

“We’ve seen a very large decrease in routine jobs, whereas non-routine jobs basically weren’t hit at all,” Blit said in a phone interview. He says that’s not what used to happen before the 1980s, according to U.S. data, when both kinds of jobs were similarly affected by recessions.

The non-routine jobs — jobs that required creativity or could not easily be automated — that were lost bounced back quickly after each recession ended. That was not so for the relatively routine jobs. Blit’s research shows that once gone, they were gone for good.

Besides automation, of course, as labour activists and anti-globalizationists have complained, many good factory jobs disappeared as U.S. manufacturers sought cheaper labour in places like China.

How does any of this even merit being talked about, following the decision to completely collapse the economy with a virus hoax?

When jobs disappeared, some traditional blue-collar workers were unable to find well-paying jobs to support their families, leading to what U.S. scholars have called “deaths of despair.” But as rock-bottom unemployment rates before the coronavirus struck demonstrate, eventually the economy did put people back to work, and was beginning to push wages higher.

When routine jobs disappeared many of those left unemployed went to non-routine jobs, some of them in sectors such as retail, warehousing or entertainment services that were difficult to automate.

Blit’s ominous projection is that in the current deep recession, when the loss of routine jobs happens again, many of those sectors such as retail and food services will go through the same process of automation because robots have gotten so much better. Not only that, but he expects COVID-19 will lead to even more job losses.

“Added on top of the usual forces we see in recessions, this time around there is also a health incentive to automate,” he said.

The most obvious examples have been the growth in online shopping favouring companies like Shopify or Amazon, and food delivery services. But in manufacturing, human-to-human contact is being replaced by human-to-machine contact that blocks disease transmission, he said.

Automating medicine and universities

Blit points to other examples, such as Walmart’s cashierless store experiment, that, if it works, could save the company money and wipe out hundreds of thousands more routine jobs. Not only that, but the medical field itself, which has so far resisted automation, will be forced to discover new ways to eliminate routine tasks that involve face-to-face contact, thus increasing productivity. He foresees something similar happening in the education sector that until now has been resistant to automation.

Those that fail to automate may find themselves losing out to others that have — what he calls the “reallocation” of market share, of capital and of workers to successful automators.

For employees who don’t find work with the winners, eventually the economy will create new jobs to put those people back to work. But if history repeats, the process of re-employment will take years, which is why Blit supports some sort of minimum income support guarantee from governments for what he fears will be a worse dislocation than in the past.

Whether Trump has a real plan to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing or whether it is just short-term electioneering, Joel Blit believes a push for North American manufacturers to make better use of advances in robotics really could begin to bring production home.

He calls the push for automation caused by recessions a “silver lining.” But unless a robot revolution brings a bigger share of global manufacturing back to the U.S. and Canada, there is a danger that the job losses due to greater efficiency will merely make the lives of the poorest even harder.

“It’s going to be great because we’re going to be a lot more productive, we’re going to be richer as a country,” said Blit. “But I am concerned that the benefits are only going to go to a few.”

There is some kernel of truth here: automation was stifled by cheap third world labor.

If we would have prevented these companies from moving offshore, most of the jobs lost to China would have been lost to robots on the same time scale.

It’s all slightly complicated – not because of the actual facts involved, but because all of these weird narratives that exist. But the good news is: it’s now totally irrelevant.

Even if you believed it wasn’t on purpose, the coronavirus lockdown has sentenced at least two generations to poverty.