an unanticipated consequence of
Jack M. Balkin
Jack Balkin: jackbalkin at yahoo.com
Bruce Ackerman bruce.ackerman at yale.edu
Ian Ayres ian.ayres at yale.edu
Mary Dudziak mary.l.dudziak at emory.edu
Joey Fishkin joey.fishkin at gmail.com
Heather Gerken heather.gerken at yale.edu
Mark Graber mgraber at law.umaryland.edu
Stephen Griffin sgriffin at tulane.edu
Bernard Harcourt harcourt at uchicago.edu
Scott Horton shorto at law.columbia.edu
Andrew Koppelman akoppelman at law.northwestern.edu
Marty Lederman marty.lederman at comcast.net
Sanford Levinson slevinson at law.utexas.edu
David Luban david.luban at gmail.com
Gerard Magliocca gmaglioc at iupui.edu
Jason Mazzone mazzonej at illinois.edu
Linda McClain lmcclain at bu.edu
John Mikhail mikhail at law.georgetown.edu
Frank Pasquale pasquale.frank at gmail.com
Nate Persily npersily at gmail.com
Michael Stokes Paulsen michaelstokespaulsen at gmail.com
Deborah Pearlstein dpearlst at princeton.edu
Rick Pildes rick.pildes at nyu.edu
Alice Ristroph alice.ristroph at shu.edu
Brian Tamanaha btamanaha at wulaw.wustl.edu
Mark Tushnet mtushnet at law.harvard.edu
Adam Winkler winkler at ucla.edu
Economists have long advised workers that education is the key to prosperity. Many believe that a "skills gap" has left much of America's workforce unable to compete globally. But then it turned out that college graduates were suffering, too. The solution: more education. But what about unemployed grad students? They needed more of the right type of education. Science was the golden ticket. As Thomas Friedman never tires of opining, the geeks will inherit the earth.
“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . .robust job growth,” said Jim Austin, editor of the online magazine ScienceCareers. “And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job. Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.” . . . Since 2000, U.S. drug firms have slashed 300,000 jobs. . . . [According to one laid-off drug developer,] “Very good chemists with PhDs from Stanford can’t find jobs.”
Perhaps labor economists like Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz will reassure us that Stanford chemists simply need to learn another skill, like end-to-end supply chain management or ventriloquism. Who knows what the magical market will need tomorrow? From Economism to Futurism
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford has another take on the jobs front. His book The Lights in the Tunnel predicts a relentless replacement of what are now "highly-skilled" jobs with robots.* As I've noted in a prior post on automation, that technological process does not need to be disastrous for the average citizen. Its consequences depend on the larger political and economic environment we live in.
What are the most salient features of that environment? What social equality was to Tocqueville's age, economic inequality is to ours: a "storm of progress" driving events with more force and ferocity than any rival. I've written tens of thousands of words on this inequality, but I'm beginning to think that the verbal itself is powerless in the face of the numbers and force behind inequality. As artist Alex Rivera puts it, in an interview with The New Inquiry:
I don’t think we even have the vocabulary to talk about what we lose as contemporary virtualized capitalism produces these new disembodied labor relations. . . . The broad, hegemonic clarity is the knowledge that a capitalist enterprise has the right to seek out the cheapest wage and the right to configure itself globally to find it. I believe that there has been for the past maybe 40 years a continual march in which capital, confronting a labor movement that, with all its flaws, was somewhat successful in lifting wages and creating space for a middle class in this country, has been relocating the nodes of production outside of the legal space — the nation — in which the labor movement has been operating, organizing, and imagining itself.
The next stage in this process, and I’ve been told by roboticists at M.I.T. that this prediction (which started as satire) is true and in progress, is for capital to configure itself to enable every single job to be put on the global market through the network and its increasingly sophisticated physical outputs.
Amazon's "Mechanical Turk" has begun that process, supplying "turkers" to perform tasks at a penny a pop. Micro-labor is on the rise, leaving micro-wages in its wake. The median worker is shifting from paid vacation to stay-cation to "nano-cation" to "paid time off" to hoarding hours to cover the dry spells when work disappears. These developments are all predictable consequences of a globalization premised on maximizing finance rents, top manager compensation, and returns to the shareholder class.
As long as a capital-driven globalization picks off a few classes of workers at a time, there is little chance for an effective political response to develop. Migrant labor will increase, as the desperate seek out whatever jobs are available. Consider the steady stream of South Asian migrants to the petro-states of the Gulf:
For most privileged professional people, the experience of being forcibly confined for long periods of time is unthinkable. So it is very difficult to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped in the desert, prohibited from bathing, washing after defecating, or drinking water more than thrice a day. Or what it is to live in perpetual fear of a captor who can mete out lashes, further confinement, and even death, at will.
Things won't get that bad in the US any time soon, but employees without union protection should expect shrinking wages and ever-greater infringements on their freedom. Consider this list of what's already allowed:
Not content merely to squeeze workers, elites now demand "soft skills" to make the process non-confrontational. Sometimes these include real protocols for making service work a better experience for both workers and customers. But they also include meek submission to all the indignities above, a cowed deference to virtually any legal demand a boss may make, and internalizing mantras like "if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean."
Workers with virtually any level of education are vulnerable to unemployment, putting in hours off the clock, and enduring a high-stress, precarious workplace. The answer to these problems is not to tell them to get more skills. Given advances in automation, it is hard to imagine a future where more than 10% of workers are in a position to simply walk away from declining wages or working conditions without serious consequences. If there is an answer to the "jobless futures" so many are facing, or the feudal workplaces so many already endure, it will need to come from a collective vision of common future. The "skills solution" is simply another way for "a structural problem of capitalism [to be] dumped into the lives of young people as their personal problem."
Unfortunately, modern Keynesians are far more likely to advocate his view on infrastructure spending than they are to situate it in a larger vision of economic possibility or achievable aims. They will need to do so soon. Median wealth has declined by 39% from 2007 to 2011, even as GDP continues to grow (and that growth primarily benefits those at the top.) The US economy's long stall will continue to confound establishment economists. Many jobs aren't coming back. Whether the automation that led to their disappearance leads to better distributed leisure and opportunities--or more desperation and penury---is an open question.
* I put the skill term in quotes both to reflect our ever-changing perception of "skill" and to underline the bizarre normative heft of the term. As Ha Joon Chang argues, an impoverished rickshaw operator probably demonstrates far more "skills" in a day than a Swedish taxi driver--but the latter is paid far more. Is the driver more skilled or productive? Or simply blessed by his location and place of birth? Note also that, according to Chris Hayes and Glenn Greenwald, the primary "skill" of our political and economic elite appears to be avoiding accountability.