Martin Ford’s new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is likely to produce as many nightmares as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Reviewer Edward Luce in the Financial Times describes it as an apocalyptic warning for the coming decades when “more than half of American adults won’t be able to find employment.” (“Book of the Week,” The Week, June 26, 2015, pg. 22) Already, Ford’s argument seems to be coming to pass. China, for example, which has benefited from cheap labor, is plunging headlong into robotics. A heavy manufacturing center like Guangdong is replacing 6,000 jobs with robots and Foxcom, which makes products for Apple, Sony and Microsoft “will automate 70 percent of its factory work within three years” without creating a single new job. That, at least, is Ford’s prediction.
Looking to our own history, we know what happened to the horse after the combustible engine was invented. Between 1849-1900, 21 million horses and mules were part of the workforce. At last count, (1960) the horse population stood at 3 million, “a decline of 88 percent in just over half a century.” (“Will Humans Go the Way of Horses?” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Foreign Affairs, July/Aug. 2015, pg. 9) But, as authors Brynjolfsson and McAffee are quick to point out, humans aren’t horses. We have two attributes going for us. First humans “are a deeply social species, and the desire for human connection carries over to our economic lives (Ibid pg. 10). Second, “people can influence economic outcomes, such as wages and incomes, through the democratic process.” (Ibid pg. 12)
Without human intervention, however, democracy’s power and money will pool, like rain in a barrel, concentrated in one area while beyond its walls the ground grows parched. We see this imbalance in the growing gap between rich and poor.The imbalance means wealth must be readjusted or the jobs lost to the robot revolution will, as Thomas Piketty wrote in Capital in the Twenty-first Century, create a disastrous imbalance where, “… the least wealthy half of the populations own virtually nothing.” (Ibid pg. 12)
As a society, the question we face is how to distribute wealth as the demand for human workers declines. For the Labor movement this challenge may be its greatest opportunity. Rather than wait until unrest in the middle class foments into violence, such as we’ve seen in Greece, Labor leaders should be championing a social agenda that includes reforms in education, the social safety net, the infrastructure and above all, a revision of the tax code. Its demands should be relentless and unending until reforms are in place. Workers have faced this dark hour before, in the sweatshops at the beginning of the industrial age. They have the power to meet the challenges of the robotic age. Capitalism doesn’t promise equality, but the ballot box does.