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Point-Counterpoint – Is Tech Killing Jobs? Part I

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Point-Counterpoint, where Liberty Nation writers face off in an intellectual debate about issues affecting everyday Americans. This week, our managing editor Mark Angelides goes head-to-head against economics correspondent Andrew Moran.

Andrew Moran: Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson recently sat down with Ben Shapiro to discuss a wide range of issues, including technology and its overall impact on the economy. While Carlson said he is in favor of capitalism and machines, he conceded that he would ban trucking companies from adopting autonomous vehicles because the shift would produce a “social cost.” Carlson appears to favor government intervention to save jobs of high school-educated young men. For all the flak he gives social justice warriors and central planners, this is a strange position to take.

First, the idea of a social cost is based on capital sending costs to society to boost profits. As Austrian Theory tells us, all costs are subjective to the individual, meaning that it cannot be quantified by society. Second, why should we minimize any social cost? If the market suggests that businesses and consumers are demanding self-driving vehicles, then why should the government have to prohibit it from happening? Third, how is autonomous trucking even a social cost if it improves productivity and efficiency, creates new jobs, and enables the formation of new goods and services?

Mark Angelides: Some good arguments there, Andrew. Let’s go one by one. The first point is about government intervention, and while I’m sure we can both agree that the answer to a problem is almost never government intervention, in this case, it seems irresponsible to let companies lead the way. Sure, from a business perspective, anything that keeps costs down and potentially improves efficiency is in the long run good for the consumer, but in this instance, the innovation poses an actual danger … and the last thing anyone wants is public safety taking second place to company profits. We’ve seen already driverless cars causing accidents and resulting in several deaths; with a truck over a long distance, this danger is magnified.

We may not think philosophical arguments are relevant in this area, but they are. Driverless cars need a base form of artificial intelligence (AI) to function; they have to be able to make split-second decisions. Consider this: a child steps into the road, there is a small group of people on the sidewalk, the car has to decide what to do. This is an almost impossible choice for a human to make, and there are scores of factors to take into account; how would an AI vehicle react? There is a lot of talk about how smart AI is, but compared to a human brain, it is just a pocket calculator that can perform functions based on data sets. What we have here is a data set that has been decided upon by a corporation. Are companies the best arbiters of moral decision making?

And this isn’t a hypothetical for Arthur C. Clarke’s three rules of robotics; this is a question presently being debated in British Parliament.

Moran: When Luddites say that a certain piece of technology costs jobs, this is the lump of labor fallacy – the idea that there is a fixed number of jobs and amount of work in the economy. Carlson and others who share his economic viewpoints contend that if some jobs are eliminated, then there will not be any work for others. Or, if there is work, then compensation would be lower. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”24″]The idea that technology kills jobs is unfounded.[/perfectpullquote]

If a trucker is substituted with automation, then there are a couple of things that will occur: He will be transferred to another division of the company, which has been common in the financial services industry throughout the rise of ATMs and other tech innovations. Moreover, since automation would fill previous jobs, allowing the creation of new goods and services, the trucker with his impeccable human capital is free to fill other jobs that are in demand in the labor market.

The idea that technology kills jobs is unfounded. When electricity was invented, candle makers didn’t die on the street. When the automobile was created, horse and buggy experts weren’t left to rot away. When the refrigerator was sold on the open market, icemen were not sent to early graves. When the computer became ubiquitous, a wave of new opportunities and industries happened.

In the end, trucking companies may realize that automation has not improved marginal productivity. Businesses will always employ whatever is best for productivity levels. So, it may turn out that humans are better for trucking firms than the HAL 9000. The market can send us a lot of signals.

Angelides: The second point about jobs is worth exploring a little deeper. While you are absolutely correct that new industries breed new jobs, and that there are pretty much always jobs available, it fails to take into account the human cost. You say that the horse and buggy drivers didn’t fail to get work when cars became popular and that icemen didn’t become unemployable when refrigerators were invented, and this is true. But the buggy drivers did not necessarily become the car mechanics, and the icemen did not necessarily become refrigeration engineers.

When tech advances a field, it creates new jobs to replace the old ones lost, but who is left on the scrap heap? The men and women who have spent their adult life in an industry, too old to be fully retrained, end up taking entry-level jobs in other areas. Those entry-level jobs that would have been taken by the computer science grad just out of school – while applying for other work – are now taken by the guy with three kids and a mortgage. Retraining rarely works, why? Well, from a business standpoint, they have to consider the cost of training someone up to a high level who may only have an effective work life of another ten years … as you say, it’s market driven.

You say that the worker will be transferred to another division, but this is unrealistic. What skills does a person who has spent his adult life driving an enormous truck across country have that are transferable to this new sector?

NEXT: In Part II, the long-term view of robot and human employees. CONTINUE to Part Two

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