Robots, Jobs, and the Liberal Arts

Why we worry about the wrong things.

July 15, 2015
Why is it that smart people have so much trouble thinking clearly about the future of robots and jobs? It has become intellectually fashionable to worry about our coming jobless future. A world where smart robots do the work that once delivered a paycheck.
Martin Ford’s, The Rise of the Robots, is a fine book about this topic. 
A much talked about article in the recent issue of the The Atlantic Magazine asked if technology is leading us to a World Without Work?
The evidence for a fundamental shift towards automation and away from labor seems to be all around us. Today’s labor force participation rate, hovering at around 63%, is the lowest it has been since 1978. The labor market seems to be hollowing out and bifurcating. The U.S. is creating lots of low-skill / low-wage jobs (retail employees, food service, etc.), and a few high-skill / high-wage jobs (programmers, engineers, etc.) - but very few medium-skill / medium-wage jobs. The worry is that the loss of medium-skill / medium-wage jobs will only accelerate as self-driving cars replacing truckers and cabbies, and robots replace store clerks and warehouse employees.
The problem is with all this well-informed and well-intentioned concern about automation and jobs is that the discussion technologically overdetermined. The real culprit is not advanced technology, but bad public policy. 
My recommendation is that we should worry less about technology taking jobs, and more about the systematic public disinvestments in higher education. 
Technological progress may displace work in the short run, but in the medium term technological progress drives productivity and hence wealth. In a wealthier society more people are free to do work that in prior generations was reserved for the few. 
Our society needs less truck drivers and more care givers. Our economy needs less retail clerks and more artists, writers, and musicians. 
What evidence exists for this assertion that we should worry less about technology, and more about policy? Look no further than agriculture.  In 1800 it took almost 7-in-10 people working in and around agricultural to feed us. Today, agriculture accounts for fewer than 2-in-100 people (and probably less) in the labor force. Did all those people who once worked the land end up unemployed? Of course not. Improvements in agricultural productivity opened up opportunities for people to find new types of work. Most of that work was better than what was left behind in the fields. Why should we think that the story of robots will be different from the story of tractors and combines?
We would do well to remember that in 1900, close to 1-in-5 workers in America were under 16. What ended child labor? The answer is a combination of new technologies (factory automation) and new social policies (child labor laws, mandatory education, etc.). Do we think that it is a bad thing that technology replaced child workers? Of course not. We take the move to universal schooling as a great advance.  Nobody would want to recreate a world where a 14 year old was as likely to be in a factory as a in school.
Unfortunately, the discussion about politics, technology, and jobs has focused mostly on questions of a guaranteed minimum income. The thought is that if robots take the jobs, then government can replace the income that normally would have come through wages.  This debate is unfortunate because it is a political nonstarter. 
A much more fruitful policy discussion would be about robots and education. The policy choice to set minimum floors on universal education is just that, a choice. We could decide that a postsecondary degree is as much a right as a high school diploma. In each era the cost of providing universal education seems exorbitant first, and then normal. Who balks now at finding some way to pay for a public secondary degree? Universal postsecondary public education in the 21st century will become as standard, and as widely acceptable, as universal secondary education in the 20th.
Anyone worried about a technologically driven decline of employment should spend their energy, and their political efforts, pushing for public support of postsecondary education.  
Anyone worried about the rise of the robots should be doing whatever it takes to extend a liberal arts education to anyone who wants one.
The fact that the states are running away from investing in the human capital of future residents will seem to future generations as shortsighted and misguided as Prohibition. 
Through higher education tomorrow’s citizens will gain the skills they need to create meaningful and socially valuable creative work. We don’t have too many college graduates, we have too few. We don’t have too many poets and playwrights, we have too few.  We don’t have too many philosophy and history and sociology majors, we have too few. We don’t have too many educators, we have too few.
The liberal arts graduates will create the good jobs of the future. The liberal arts graduates will create the companies of the future.  
The liberal arts graduates will create the wealth of the future. 


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