Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Skidelsky goes Luddite

Yikes. Not a good read.

People who are allowed to complain about robots:

- Displaced workers in automating industries in the short to medium run
- John Connor and others in the Resistance

The semi-respectable way to argue that a decline in employment is coming is Keynes's way - on the demand side. We're just going to not want any more and sit around and enjoy the good life. That is semi-respectable, but it's wrong and we should all get a sense of that by now. The Luddite argument is not respectable.

Could it happen? Well sure - anything "could" happen. But I genuinely think a machine war (not now - but down the line) is more likely than long run mass unemployment due to automation.


  1. Yes. I don't know why Skidelsky thinks it'll require a "revolution in social thinking" for people to work less. Since the industrial revolution work hours have already declined enormously, especially when non-market work is taken into account.

  2. Considering the social pressure is for intense periods of overwork interspersed with periods of possibly lengthy unemployment, I an not so sure it won't take a revolution or at least laws that shift our social signaling to align more with our desires. I don't think the market will allow displacement of our search for status on its own.

    1. I don't agree. A hundred years ago there weren't really weekends, full-time workers generally worked on Saturday. My father worked on Saturday mornings for most of his life. In addition to that most people (male and female) had to do a lot of non-market work outside of their jobs. Today working on saturday in full-time jobs is unheard of. There are now many more part-time jobs and jobs with flexi-time and flexible shifts. Hours worked per person has only increased in the last 60 years because of women's entry into the workforce.

      But, 9-to-5 jobs have persisted for a long time, so I see what you mean. I'm not sure that the persistence of these jobs has that much to do with social signalling though. I don't think workers demand such jobs because they can obtain income to make displays of conspicuous consumption. I think it's more that employers prefer long-hours in certain areas. I think that's because having fewer long-hours employees rather than many short-hours employees leads to lower overhead costs, such as lower management and admin costs. I'd like to know what labour economists think causes this.

      I don't think that in the future work time will necessarily reduce by a simple reduction in the average number of hours worked per week. What just as likely to happen is that people start taking long periods off, such as the sabbaticals that many companies offer these days. I think shorter hours will happen because there are so many different ways that they can happen. People can move to jobs with longer holidays or shorter hours. They can move to other countries with shorter work hours. They can move to companies that have sabbaticals. They can switch to part-time jobs or jobs with flexible shifts. Of course, many people don't have any of these choices. These things happen on the margin where people have choices like these. But, over time marginal changes add up. It's like technological change, which is very gradual at the small scale, but adds up overall.

  3. Hmmm. Not the clearest article but like Lord I think he's worried about two things: the "non economic" value of work, ie the way it establishes personal worth and the right to seen as a stakeholder, and the concentration of power or moral authority in the few who are the real producers. I don't think he is being Luddite quite.

    I am not endorsing Sidelsky here, just noting what I think his real worry is: not jobs but the non economic roles jobs play in our culture.


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