On Saturday, The New York Times’ Opinionator published an excellent piece titled, “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class.” It is co-authored by David Autor, an MIT economist who, among other things, specializes in “income inequality,” “impacts of technological change,” and “employment protection.” The article represents a slight pushback against the extreme pessimism that some economists and scholars have advanced as a response to mechanization and computerization, which seem to be bringing us “the end of labor.”
There will be no end of labor, of course. But we are watching what may be the end of the plethora of middle class jobs that once made America widely—as opposed to narrowly—prosperous and made us the envy of the world. As the Times article explains:
Computers excel at “routine” tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes. These tasks are most pervasive in middle-skill jobs like bookkeeping, clerical work and repetitive production and quality-assurance jobs.
Logically, computerization has reduced the demand for these jobs, but it has boosted demand for workers who perform “nonroutine” tasks that complement the automated activities. Those tasks happen to lie on opposite ends of the occupational skill distribution.
On one end are the “so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity,” which “are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design.” On the other end are “so-called manual tasks” like cooks, truck drivers, and hotel maids, which because “their skills are not scarce,” cannot command high wages. Thus, the conclusion:
Computerization has therefore fostered a polarization of employment, with job growth concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations, while jobs in the middle have declined.
Timothy Noah, who has written about America’s “growing inequality crisis,” was on MSNBC this morning to talk about the New York Times article and income inequality and the loss of middle class jobs. Noah says the change, which David Autor elsewhere calls “job polarization,” is worldwide, noting that the Japanese have a term for it: kudoka (“hollowing out”). But, Noah continues:
It’s worse in the United States than it is in comparable countries that are facing precisely the same technological challenge. We seem to be handling it worse here in the United States.
When asked why, he explained, an explanation that should ring in the ears of anyone who gives a damn about the possibility of restoring a robust middle class in America:
I think it’s mostly government policy. Things like the minimum wage. Our minimum wage hasn’t gone up for a long time. Our government is pretty hostile toward unions. We don’t have a good early education program. There are all sorts of government programs that in other countries focus more on the needs of the middle class and focus on creating greater income equality.
Get that? Our government, despite what you hear from reactionary Republicans, can help with the hollowing out that technology, great for us in other ways, has caused. Noah offered a few things (he left out advocating for a more progressive tax system) that can help: provide more support for community colleges, which help train “middle skill” workers; make college more affordable; end government’s hostility toward labor unions; make sure the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy is focused on job creation; and raise the minimum wage.
As far as the minimum wage, here is a video circulating that makes a salient point: