Labor versus Capital

Our upcoming Labor Secretary and other fast-food execs are considering replacing humans with machines. “If you’re making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science.” I’d expect any businessman to react so, especially if others in the industries are doing it. I also think it should be illegal, so that the industry competition pressures that drive that move to machines are reduced dramatically.

Allow me to be an early advocate of legislation against automation that systematically destroys massive numbers of low-paying jobs, depended on so completely by the poor and the young. This is a terrible solution, really, but the problem it’s trying to address is much bigger than the market system that we depend on.

It’s a terrible situation because bureaucrats are forced to come in and select specific automations that aren’t ideal for society for elimination. That’s one of the slipperiest sentences I’ve ever written: “ideal for society”? Determined by who? How?

Yet, here we are, with many millions of jobs on the line, and, as usual, the jobs in question are those of the poor and the young. I’m not a fan of assumptive market manipulation, but machines and man will be doing a dance for the rest of our history, and narrow-minded libertarian ideas and invisible hands have a place at the table, but not at the head. Markets are blind: they serve their masters. Heretofore, its masters were arguably a large swath of the people, but it’s increasingly in the business of providing for the wealthy minority of Americans.

I don’t know where we draw the line on automation, which will be a nightmare- have no idea– but labor is on the run in the world, having largely lost the battle to capital. That’s what all this inequality really is: a grinding, worsening shift between the importance of labor and capital in the global economy.

Yet another policy front where the conservative shrug is wholly inadequate as a solution, and where the left is asleep. It’s really another face of the same pressures that have kept the minimum wage going down in real terms for decades, but this is the larger issue in the long run. Who gets to hold a job in America? How sacred is the current absolute right to automate away jobs whenever we like? When machines eliminate low-skill jobs, how will we ensure adequate economic health, training and education to avoid an America of haves and have-nots?

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