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Thinking Twice About Automation: May Day 2017

Automation is now the main reason for the loss of jobs in the US, yet no one, either on the right or the left, is critical of it.  President Trump and his supporters are vocal about wanting to deport illegal immigrants and engage in trade wars, but about automation they are silent. The sociologist Herbert Gans has called for ameliorating the effect of automation by shortening the workweek to 30 hours and by economic stimuli for labor-intensive industries, but the value of automation itself he doesn’t question.

Automation is an old sacred cow. The term for a small-minded person who opposes progress is “Luddite,” a member of the band of early nineteenth century English workers who destroyed machinery – machinery they thought was destroying their jobs. Although Marx recorded in great detail the misery and starvation that automation inflicted on workers, he nevertheless saw the Luddites as misguided.  He thought automation was a good thing, so long as the method of its control passed from bosses to workers.

But in fact a lot of automation is harmful, and its blanket endorsement is dangerous.  Automation is harmful when it pollutes the air and soil and it is also harmful when, in order to facilitate it, the products it creates must be altered in undesirable ways.  Cases of harmful automation are all around us.

The bar-code sticker that is glued to every tomato, apple or pear we buy is perhaps the most visible case.  This sticker is made of paper and ink and glue, and all three must of course be first produced, polluting the air, and then be disposed of in landfills, polluting the soil.  Then still more pollution is produced by the machines that affix the stickers to the fruit.  Finally, to prevent the fruit packers from using cheaper but potentially toxic glues, the government must spend resources to regulate them.  And on the bright side? With these stickers grocery-store-owners can employ untrained and inexperienced clerks who need not know the difference between a Bosc and a D’Anjou pear, and even if they do, are unlikely to know their numerical codes.

In agriculture, the poster child for polluting, wasteful automation must surely be the tomato harvester, along with the square tomato that it begat.  Pre-harvester tomatoes, today’s heirlooms, get squashed by it, so researchers at the University of California at Davis, the same state school where the harvester itself was invented, bred a tough tomato that can survive the rough handling. The lack of taste posed a problem, but it was solved by adding sufficient quantities of salt and sugar to the tomatoes when they were canned.  For the tastelessness of fresh tomatoes there is no cure, so the habit of eating whole fresh tomatoes has largely disappeared.

Of course, the replacement of agricultural workers by polluting machines did not start with the tomato harvester; the cotton picker is one of the main reasons for the Great Migration to the North through much of the twentieth century, and finding work for workers who would have otherwise been picking cotton remains, to this day, a major social issue. Both tomato and cotton picking are, no doubt, back breaking jobs, but pollution and, as in the case of the tomato harvester, a bad product, are not the only cure.   A high minimum wage, for instance, would alleviate the back problem because it would make it possible for laborers to work shorter hours.  To cite hard labor as the excuse for destroying labor is deeply cynical.

To be sure, not all automation is polluting.   The treadle sewing machine is perhaps the best-known example of automation in manufacturing, and this technology does not trade labor for pollution.  But the electricity-driven sewing machine is a different matter altogether.  China, the world’s biggest manufacturer of textiles in the world, is choking from pollution, and this pollution is caused by its power plants.   Bringing back the treadle would instantly save lives, while maintaining most of the enormous productivity gains automation brought.

There is also no doubt that some automation is worthwhile even though it is polluting.  In bad weather, a traffic light is probably better at directing traffic than a living person would be.  The MRI scanner saves lives, and it couldn’t operate without electricity.

The question about any automation or machine, be it a traffic light, an MRI, the bar-code scanner or the tomato harvester should, therefore, be this:  Putting benefits on one side and costs in terms of pollution and the quality of the product that the automation would produce on the other, would we be better off with it?  Embracing machines and automation — no questions asked — is an act of blind faith that is unwarranted.

Automation must be carefully evaluated not because we are small-minded Luddites who are against progress but because while some automation is worthwhile, some of it is harmful and should be banned.  Regulated automation would be better for workers and better for the world.

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Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010),  which is available in paperback and as an e-book and in Chinese (2013) and Korean (2015) editions.

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