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Is the future of jobs over?

Should people be paid to let machines do the work?

The question is asked in a review of two new books at The New Republic: “Many jobs are pointless. Others are being automated away. In the future, who will still work for a paycheck?”:

The idea of being paid to do nothing is difficult to adjust to in a society that places a high value on work. Yet this idea has lately gained serious attention amid projections that the progress of globalization and technology will lead to a “jobless” future. The underlying worry goes something like this: If machines do the work for us, wage labor will disappear, so workers won’t have money to buy things. If people can’t or don’t buy things, no one will be able to sell things, either, which means less commerce, a withering private sector, and even fewer jobs. Our value system based on the sanctity of toil will be exposed as hollow; we won’t be able to speak about workers as a class at all, let alone discuss “the labor market” as we now know it. This will require not just economic adjustments but moral and political ones, too.

One obvious solution would be to separate income from labor altogether, a possibility that two recent books tackle from radically different angles. Give People Money, by journalist Annie Lowrey, offers a measured, centrist endorsement of Universal Basic Income—the idea that governments should give everyone a certain amount of cash each month, no questions asked. The anthropologist David Graeber posits that the link between salaried positions and real work has long been tenuous in any case, since many highly paid jobs serve little purpose at all. In Bullshit Jobs, he tries to make sense of the peculiar yet all-too-common situations in which people are hired, after much fanfare, to do a job, then find themselves not doing much—or worse, performing a task so utterly pointless that they might as well not be doing it.
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, “Money for Nothing” at Digg.com

Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, a “New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice,” suggests transforming existing programs to help the poor into a simple cash transfer. According to a former US labor secretary reviewing her book,

But there’s a logical flaw in her argument. Once a U.B.I. is no longer universal or even basic (what if the poor are worse off when other forms of assistance are stripped away?), it’s hard to see the point of having it in the first place. More troubling is Lowrey’s blurring of the distinction between a U.B.I. that redistributes resources from the superrich to the growing number of vulnerable lower-income Americans and one that merely turns programs for the poor into cash assistance. The latter may be warranted, but it wouldn’t touch America’s growing scourge of inequality and economic insecurity, which will be made worse as robots take over good jobs.  Robert B. Reich, “What if the Government Gave Everyone a Paycheck?” at The New York Times

David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, is quite popular but a little harder to fathom:

Which jobs are bullshit? “A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.” He concedes that some might argue that his own work is meaningless. “There can be no objective measure of social value,” he says emolliently.

If there is no objective measure, who is to say that there is a problem? How can we discuss it intelligibly?

One approach he has tried is radical acting out:

In 2011, at New York’s Zuccotti Park, he became involved in Occupy Wall Street, which he describes as an “experiment in a post-bureaucratic society”. He was responsible for the slogan “We are the 99%”. “We wanted to demonstrate we could do all the services that social service providers do without endless bureaucracy. In fact at one point at Zuccotti Park there was a giant plastic garbage bag that had $800,000 in it. People kept giving us money but we weren’t going to put it in the bank. You have all these rules and regulations. And Occupy Wall Street can’t have a bank account. I always say the principle of direct action is the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” Stuart Jeffries, “David Graeber interview: ‘So many people spend their working lives doing jobs they think are unnecessary’” at The Guardian

But, consistent with the lack of objective measures Graeber admits to, it is unclear what Occupy Wall Street accomplished in the long run.

The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines by [Richards, Jay W.]Lowrey’s and Graeber’s approaches seem to take several things for granted. One of them is that jobs are a sort of product, manufactured by government or industry. That is just not so. At one time, most North Americans lived in rural areas and worked in agriculture, producing basic foods and clothing materials. Did industrialization mean that these people’s children were thrown out of work or that farming disappeared?

The children, of course, moved into the industrial economy and then, more recently, as Jay Richards tells us in The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines,

What no one expected is that as the price of food dropped, the desire for organic, locally grown products would reemerge, first as niche luxury items and then as more widely enjoyed indulgences. Necessity no longer compels most of us to engage in farm labor, the backbone of the first American Dream. Yet these endeavors have reemerged for moral and aesthetic reasons. Whatever the merits of this, the market for such farm goods will surely grow rather than shrink for two reasons. First, some folks will pay a lot of money for it. And second, technology makes it easier to match sellers to buyers. The burgeoning market for micro-brewed beers, grass-fed beef, pampered pork, free-range chickens, specialty cheeses, small-batch whiskey, urban gardens, and locavore farmers’ markets is proof. (p. 137)

Probably, no one will invent robots to replace these craft businesses because the values they embody and emphasize do not prioritize speed and cost-cutting over everything else. They don’t need to.

Richards argues that doomsaying about the End of Jobs frequently results in the adoption of bad policies. About a universal basic income, he notes, it’s been advocated for decades by figures as disparate as Jeremy Rifkin and Charles Murray. Recently, there have been short-term limited experiments but it’s hard to evaluate a transformative social policy with such limited and cherry-picked data. And paying people not to work would simply slow their move into the job markets of the digital age.

In any event, this year was a milestone, according to Bloomberg: “For the first time in decades, there are more job openings in the United States than unemployed Americans who could fill them.” So, maybe it’s a good thing that those robots are doing at least some of the jobs out there after all. Here’s an idea: Let’s postpone the Singularity till the rush is over.

See also: AI That Can Read Minds? Deconstructing AI Hype The source for the claims seems to be a 2018 journal paper, “Real-time classification of auditory sentences using evoked cortical activity in humans.” The carefully described results are indeed significant but what the Daily Mail article didn’t tell you sheds a rather different light on the AI mind reader. (Robert J. Marks)

Is the future of jobs over?