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January 23, 2014

Don't Blame the Robots for our Wage or Job Problems

I'm a bit more sympathetic to the skill based technical change causing wage inequality arguments than Larry Mishel, technological change is at least part of the story in my view (but, importantly, not the whole story, unionization and relative bargaining power between workers and firms, political forces, etc. are also at work), but his arguments are certainly worth noting (and this extract may not fully reflect his views):
The Robots Are Here and More Are Coming: Do Not Blame Them for our Wage or Job Problems, , by Lawrence Mishel: The “robots are coming” narrative dominating discussions of the economy  was popularized by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their 2011 book, Race Against the Machine. They have built on that theme in the richer, deeper The Second Machine Age (W.W. Norton, 2014). The first half of the book provides a valuable window, at least for a non-technologist like me, into past developments and the future trajectory of digitization. Their claim is that digitization will do for mental power what the steam engine did for muscle power—that is, quite a bit, transforming our lives at work and play.
The remainder of the book dwells on the role of digitization in generating both bounty (more consumer choice and greater output, wealth, and income) and spread (greater inequalities of wages, income, and wealth). In treating these topics, they heavily rely on the work of others. As in their last book, they do not provide much direct evidence of the connection between technological change and wage inequality. I study these issues and believe they are wrong to tightly link digitization and robots to wage inequality and the slow job growth of the 2000s. Although the authors claim “technology is certainly not the only force causing this rise in spreads, but it is one of the main ones” my fear is that this book, like their last one, will fuel the mistaken narrative that technology is responsible for our job and wage problems and that we are powerless to obtain more equitable growth. ...
On wage inequality, the authors offer “skill-biased technical change” or SBTC as the explanation. In fact, they offer two distinct SBTC narratives, both of which cannot be simultaneously true and neither of which aptly explains wage trends.
In general, SBTC narratives are weak because they cannot explain one of the key inequality trends, the remarkable wage and income growth of the top 1.0 and 0.1 percent. ...
Specifically, the authors’ first SBTC narrative, the “race between technology and skills,” falls short because it doesn’t square with recent trends. Under this narrative, technological change makes employers value education more, and the more education or skills one has, the better one fares. Despite the absence of prima facie evidence for this popular narrative for two decades, it barrels along anyway. For instance, the wage gap between middle and low-wage workers has been stable or falling since 1987 or so, meaning that those with the least skills have done at least as well or better than those in the middle. ...
The second narrative is that technology is eroding jobs and wages in middle-wage occupations but expanding opportunities and wages among low- and high-wage occupations. This “job polarization” narrative, which emerged around 2006, was designed to overcome the flaw in the education narrative’s explanation of wage trends in the 1990s, when low-wage workers fared as well or better than middle-wage workers. The accumulating evidence now shows that job polarization has not occurred in the entire 2000s...
So, again, these two SBTC narratives can’t both be true—either middle-wage workers are doing better than low-wage workers or they’re not. And neither one can explain the trends of the 2000s, the period where one would expect digitization’s impact to be most evident. The robots are here and more will be coming but they are not responsible for our employment or our wage problems. Read the first half of the book to learn about technology but take the second half with a grain of salt. For understanding wage inequality you should look elsewhere.

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