In part one of this series, I weighed the risk of a coming wave of techno-funemployment. In this installment, I’ll look at possible policy responses, with the word “possible” interpreted broadly.
I argued previously that there is a big risk that technology will disrupt our economy in ways that we cannot predict and that our current job system cannot handle.
In February Marchant, Stevens and Hennessy published an article looking at the policy options, creating six categories of government response:
- Protecting employment: laws mandating some level of human employment.
- Sharing work: spreading the same amount of work out over more people.
- Making new work: government funded work programs.
- Redistribution: moving wealth between unequal groups, either through social programs or guaranteed income and a progressive tax.
- Education: educational programs or curricula that promote lifelong learning and help increase the flexibility of all levels of the labor market.
- Fostering a new social contract: basically, redefining the relationship between living and work.
With these options we have our choice between the foolish, the impossible, or the unproven.
The simplest approach to mitigating human obsolescence is to make it illegal for machines to do everything. On the upper-income side, there could be regulations on the number of human doctors or accountants per operation or audit. Oregon and New Jersey mandate that gas stations have attendants to pump your gas, and a similar restriction could be applied to manufacturing or self-service automation. The downside: command and control regulations are a pretty blunt instrument to promote anything beyond crappy, anachronistic jobs. Like gas station attendants.
The government could mandate a shorter workweek, greater vacation time, or earlier retirement, ostensibly making it necessary to hire more workers to get “everything done”. Similarly, the government could create incentives for more flexible, shared work schedules an interesting approach practiced in countries like Germany with significant crossover into approach #6. The downside: this approach is pushing against several headwinds in the economy. Wages are stagnant and, as more jobs become automated, the overall number of hours might decrease. If poorly designed, these programs would incentivize the sharing of benefitless or extremely low paying jobs (can you imagine trying to feed a family on a shared McDonald’s job?). This approach also squeezes business, especially in a world where employers are responsible for benefits and could counter-productively cause employers to outsource to reduce costs. Overall, this strategy isn’t the worst, but shifting current employment patterns will require either a good chunk of government or private spending, neither of which is forthcoming.
Making New Work
Like the New Deal’s employment programs, which worked on a vast number of construction as well as cultural and artistic projects around the US (Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright worked on the Federal Writers’ Project) “Making New Work” would depend on the government funding and organizing employment programs. You could also view service organization like Americorps as an initiative to make new work: government funding of social projects that are unmet by the private and nonprofit sector. The downside: Despite occasional liberal calls for a “New New Deal,” this is a dead letter politically. If it somehow did get passed, the program would probably be either of limited duration (which the overall problem of automation is not) or too small to actually move the employment needle (like Americorps). Americorps has been criticized for being too small, hampered by political opposition, and underfunded – this for a program with an extremely modest pay scale. It’s essentially impossible to support a family, for example, on an Americorps stipend.
Instead of increasing the demand for current workers, a redistributive approach would try to soften the impact on people who lose their jobs due to automation. Social programs, spending, or progressive taxation would make the difference between the tech executive making a killing in the new economy and the rust belt worker who is structurally unemployed less severe. The downside: to say that this is politically difficult is an understatement. Whether redistribution is a worthy goal is a highly charged political issue, but in this context it seems to sidestep the question: greater redistribution on its face wouldn’t do anything to either train workers in new skills or change the stigma of joblessness.
Dozens of programs and institutions in every state aim to educate young people and retool the skills of those out of work. Whether the answer is in a better K-12 curriculum or an adult training program that modernizes work skills, it is difficult to see a future where the employment problem is solved without substantial change in the educational system. The downside: sounds great – who’s not in favor of people learning and being able to pursue their dreams? This is basically the status quo, though: piecemeal approaches to changing existing education structures haven’t done much to change the flexibility of the American workforce broadly. Look at the pushback to the Common Core, which is supposed to educate kids in a way that will create a more flexible workforce. The reforms needed would be much more radical.
Fostering a New Social Contract
It’s almost inconceivable to imagine a collective deliberation on an important public issue that doesn’t end in screaming these days, but that’s exactly what this approach would require. Whether through a narrow means like decoupling health insurance from employment, or a broader approach such as a systemic rethinking of how work operates in our lives and livelihoods, the basic idea would be to shift the norms, incentives and culture surrounding work. The downside: Any change on this front would require a groundswell of support in our collective consciousness: these ideas do not just happen. Dell may experiment with providing their employees with standing desks, but it’s not going to disconnect salary from work performed just to see what happens. (Sometime in the near future I’m going to write a post looking specifically at the ways that point 6 could be pursued. I want to grapple with some of the ideas presented by Frithjof Bergmann’s writing on “New Work,” an idea I found totally fascinating. If you’d like an introduction, download the Partially Examined Life podcast interviews with Bergmann: an interview with the author on his work and a follow up Q&A.)
None of these approaches is perfect, but the alternative is simply to wait and see what happens. In fact, I would submit that some of these things are happening in the world of work already – we just aren’t ready to recognize what’s happening or admit that the current system fails for so many.