Tag Archives: jobs

Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

One short term approach is moving people into jobs that are just ahead of replacement. This is rather like running ahead of an inextinguishable fire in a burning building—it merely postpones the inevitable. A longer-term approach is to add to the building so that you can keep on running as long as you can build faster than the fire can advance. This has been the usual approach to staying ahead of the fire of technology. An even better and rather obvious solution is to get out of the building and into one that will not catch on fire. Moving away from the metaphor, this would involve creating jobs that are technology proof.

If technology cannot fully replicate (or exceed) human capabilities, then there could be some jobs that are technology proof. To get a bit metaphysical, Descartes argued that merely physical systems would not be able to do all that an immaterial mind can do. For example, Descartes claimed that the ability to use true language required an immaterial mind—although he acknowledged that very impressive machines could be constructed that would have the appearance of thought. If he is right, then there could be a sort of metaphysical job security. Moving away from metaphysics, there could be limits on our technological abilities that preclude being able to build our true replacements. But, if technology can build entities that can do all that we can do, then no job would be safe—something could be made to take that job from a human. To gamble on either our special nature or the limits of technology is rather risky, so it would make more sense to take a more dependable approach.

One approach is creating job preserves (like game preserves, only for humans)—that is, deciding to protect certain jobs from technological change. This approach is nothing new. According to some accounts, one reason that Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was not utilized in the ancient world was because it would have displaced the slaves who provided the bulk of the labor. While this option does have the advantage of preserving jobs, there are some clear and obvious problems with creating such an economic preserve. As two examples, there are the practical matters of sustaining such jobs and competing against other countries who are not engaged in such job protection.

Another approach is to intentionally create jobs that are not really needed and thus can be maintained even in the face of technological advancement. After all, if there is really no reason to have the job at all, there is no reason to replace it with a technological solution. While this might seem to be a stupid idea (and it is), it is not a new idea. There are numerous jobs that are not really needed that are still maintained. Some even pay extremely well. One general category of such jobs are administrative jobs. I will illustrate with my own area of experience, academics.

When I began my career in academics, the academy was already thick with administrators. However, many of them did things that were necessary, such as handling finances and organizing departments. As the years went on, I noticed that the academy was becoming infested with administrators. While this could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence on my part, it is supported by the data—the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees in the academics has doubled in the past quarter century. This is, it must be noted, in the face of technological advance and automation which should have reduced the number of such jobs.

These jobs take many forms. As one example, in place of the traditional single dean, a college will have multiple deans of various ranks and the corresponding supporting staff. As another example, assessment has transformed from an academic fad to a permanent parasite (or symbiote, in cases where the assessment is worthwhile) that has grown fat upon the academic body. There has also been a blight of various vice presidents of this and that; many of which are often linked to what some call “political correctness.” Despite being, at best, useless, these jobs continue to exist and are even added to. While a sane person might see this as a problem to be addressed, a person with a somewhat different perspective would be inspired to make an immodest proposal: why not apply this model across the whole economy? To be specific, a partial solution to the problem of technology eliminating jobs is to create new administrative positions for those who lose their jobs. For example, if construction jobs were lost to constructicons, then they could be replaced with such jobs as “vice president of constructicon assessment”, ‘constructicon resource officer”, “constructicon gender identity consultant” and supporting staff.

It might be objected that it would be wrong, foolish and wasteful to create such jobs merely to keep people employed as jobs are consumed by technology. The easy and obvious reply is that if useless jobs are going to flourish anyway, they might as well serve a better purpose.



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Stealing Jobs

One stock talking point is that illegal immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans. This point is then used as part of the justification for “building the wall” and escalating the enforcement of immigration laws. As with any talking point, it is reasonable to ask whether it is true.

One approach to this question is to consider what it would mean for immigrants to steal jobs. To facilitate the discussion, I’ll offer an analogy to another type of alleged theft, that of stealing someone’s girlfriend (or boyfriend).

While I will change the names to protect the innocent and not innocent, when I was in school Dick was dating Jane.  Jane was at my school and Dick was attending a school in a different state. Jane started spending a lot of time with John, and eventually John was dating Jane. An angry Dick showed up to confront John about “stealing his woman.” Jane’s response that she was not stolen because she was not anyone’s property—she chose who she wanted to be with. In this case, it was John. For those who are wondering, I am not John. And definitely not Jane, but thanks for asking. While there were certainly some moral concerns about how Jane and John had done things, Jane was right: she was not anyone’s property and could not be stolen. So, Dick’s charge of theft did not apply. If John had kidnapped Jane, then that would have been another matter entirely—but still not theft.

Turning back to jobs, a job is also not something that can be stolen. Yes, I can imagine scenarios where someone steals a person’s identity and thus steals their job, but I am focusing on the normal course of employment. Like affection, a job is something that is provided by someone else and hence is not something that can (typically) be stolen. So, when an illegal immigrant is hired by an American employer, the immigrant is not stealing the job. The American employer is choosing to hire the illegal immigrant rather than hiring an American (or a legal immigrant). Going back to the girlfriend analogy, the American worker would be like Dick—he thinks the job is rightfully his. But, the employer is like Jane—she is the one deciding who gets her affection (in the case of the employer, the job). So, the American did not have their job stolen; the American employer decided to give it to someone else. The job, after all, belongs to the employer.

This argument could be countered by going back to the girlfriend analogy. Suppose that Dick and Jane are engaged and are committed, but smooth John is willing to do so much more for Jane and ask far less in return, so he is much more appealing. It could be claimed that John is not playing fair—he should respect the special relationship between Dick and Jane and not outcompete poor Dick.

The easy and obvious reply that it would be morally problematic for John to intentionally move in on Jane when she is in a committed relationship.  However, it is still Jane’s choice whether to stay with Dick or move on to John. As such, most the responsibility would rest on Jane. It is fair to note that John did outcompete Dick, but Dick could have stepped up to compete if he really wanted Jane to stick with him.

In the case of the job, it is clearly morally problematic for illegal immigrants to seek jobs in America. However, most the responsibility lies with the employers. While illegals tempt them by being willing to work for less, it is up to them to stick to their commitment to the law or to break it. As such, it is not illegal immigrants that are stealing jobs. Rather, employers are choosing to hire illegal immigrants and if any wrong is being done, the majority of it lies on the employers.

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Minimum Wage VI: Subsidizing


McDonalds-Brentwood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common way to argue against not raising (or even just eliminating) the minimum wage is to build a case based on claims about those who work such jobs. For example, one approach is to argue that the people on minimum wage are mainly high school and college kids who are just earning spending money. As another example, it is often claimed that minimum wage jobs are temporary jobs for most workers—they will spend a little while at minimum wage and move up to better pay. While these claims are true in some cases, the reality is rather different in general. For example, the average age of fast food workers is almost thirty—they are not just school kids. Also, a significant number of people get stuck in minimum wage jobs because there is nothing else available.

As an aside, even if it were true that all those working such jobs were just earning spending money or were going to move on up, it would not follow that the minimum wage should be lower or eliminated. After all, the fairness of a wage is distinct from the motive of the person working for the job or what they might be doing next. For example, if I am selling my books to get money to buy running shoes rather than on survival necessities, it would seem odd to claim that I am thus obligated to lower my prices. Likewise, even if a kid is earning money to spend on video games rather than for putting food on the table, it would seem odd to say that she is thus entitled to less pay for the work she does.

Getting back to the main focus of this essay, the reality is that many of the folks who work minimum wage jobs are working the jobs primarily to pay for necessities and that many of them are stuck in such jobs (in large part to the current economic situation).  The reality also is that a minimum wage job will typically not provide adequate income to pay for the necessities. Interestingly, some corporations recognize this. McDonald’s, for example, generated a brief bit of controversy with its helpful guide for employees: the corporation advised employees in minimum wage jobs to have another job.

Given the gap between the actual cost of living and the pay of a minimum wage job, it is not surprising that quite a few of the folks who work for minimum wage avail themselves of state support programs, such as food stamps (which now goes by other names) and Medicaid. After all, they cannot earn enough to pay for necessities and certainly prefer not to starve or end up on the streets (although some are malnourished and struggling with housing). While one narrative about such people is that they are living easy on federal support, the reality is rather different—most especially for the working poor who have families, for those who are endeavoring to attend college or who hope to start a business.

Obviously enough, one large source for the funds for these programs is the taxpayer. That is, those who pay taxes are helping to subsidize those who received state support while working minimum wage jobs. However, there seems to be another equally plausible way of looking at the matter: the taxpayers are subsidizing those who pay minimum wage to their employees. That is, these employers can pay their employees less than what they need to survive because other people pick up the tab for this, thus allowing the employers to increase profits. If this is correct, those of us who pay taxes are involved in corporate socialism.

It could be countered that the taxpayers are not subsidizing the employers, such as McDonald’s. After all, the money for Medicaid and such are not going to the corporation, but to the workers. The obvious counter is that while this is technically true, the taxpayers are still contributing to sustaining the work forces for these employers, thus subsidizing them and allowing them to page sub-survival wages.

It could also be contended that the employer has no obligation to pay workers enough to survive on without the addition of state support. After all, there are plenty of poor people and if some cannot survive on minimum wage, then economic selection will weed them out so that those who can survive on less will take their place in the economic ecosystem. This, of course, seems rather harsh and morally dubious, at best.

Another counter is that the poor are to blame for their wages. If they had better skills, more talent, better connections and so on, then they would not be receiving that minimum wage but a better salary. As such, while it might be unfortunate that the poor are so badly paid, it is their own fault and hence their employers owe them nothing more. If the state wishes to help them out, that is hardly subsidizing the companies—they would, or so they might say, pay more for a better class of worker.

This has, obviously enough, all the moral appeal of a robber saying that it is the fault of her victims that they were not able to resist her crimes.

Overall, it does appear to be clear that the taxpayers are helping to subsidize those on minimum wage. While we could decide to let the poor slip deeper into poverty that would seem to be a wicked thing to do. It does seem to be reasonable to shift more of the cost to the employers who benefit from the work of the employees. After all, many corporations that are based on minimum wage workers have been making excellent profits—at the expense of the workers and the tax-payers.

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Gender & The Economy

As the economy continues to spiral down, the percentage of workers who are women continues to rise. Unfortunately, this is not due to an increase in the hiring of women. Rather, it is due to the fact that the majority of jobs being lost are held by men. As such, as the number of employed men drops, the percentage of the work force composed of women will increase.

Somewhat ironically, the jobs that are being lost have often tended to be jobs that pay relatively well. Meanwhile, certain lower paying jobs remain. This helps explain the gender shift: men generally have the better paying jobs and women tend to have the lower paying jobs. Further, the jobs that are being lost have tended to be in fields that are male dominated (finance, manufacturing, etc.).

While the majority of people losing their jobs have been men, this has obviously not been a good time for women. Women are not moving into better jobs-they are mainly just keeping the same jobs. Further, in most families the main income provider is still the man. Thus, the reduction in male employment is hurting women indirectly.

Interestingly, I have heard some arguments to the effect that this change can be advantageous to women by shifting the balance of power in the family. After all, power goes with income and if the woman becomes the main provider, then her power will increase. However, this shift in power obviously comes at a cost: while some women might benefit from this shift, the family as a whole will be worse off financially. Also, as noted above, this situation is not a case in which women are making gains in the workplace. They are, rather, not losing as badly. At least for now.

One point of concern is the impact that this shift will have on the family. On one hand, families sometimes grow closer and stronger in times of crisis and stress. On the other hand, families sometimes shatter under such stress. Given that one major factor in marital problems is money, it is not unreasonable to worry that the gender shift could lead to an increase in divorces.

Historically, gender shifts in employment have occurred in times of crisis (mostly wars) and have lead to lasting effects. For example, the entry of women into the workforce during WWII (to replace the males who were off in the war) changed how women and work were viewed. While the 1950s saw a return to more “traditional” roles, the impact of the shift remained. The same will probably be true of the latest gender shift. It will remain to see what sort of impact it will have.