Sunday, 9 October 2016

Proper Jobs for Proper Blokes - thoughts on our robot future.

So we're having a cup of tea and a sausage sandwich as we wait out the hour before we get on the plane. And out the window we can see that typical airside scene with a bizarre collection of oddly shaped vehicles buzzing from hangers to planes, from terminals to hangers and on seemingly purposeless but I'm sure important trips elsewhere on the airport. Each one of those little vehicles is controlled by a man (and yes, as far as we could see, they were all men) and by the hanger doors there were other men. All sporting hi-vis clothing, heavy gloves and sensible boot-like footwear.

I don't know how many such men are employed at Leeds Bradford International Airport but they're pretty important to the smooth running of the enterprise - loading stuff on and off planes, waving things about to make sure everything goes in the right direction, hanging about in case there's a fire. A host of good old fashioned unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled manual labour. Proper jobs for proper blokes.

The thing is that, within a decade nearly all of these jobs will be gone. And, just as with mining, steel and shipbuilding, the big losers in this change will be working class men of a certain age. Too far away from retirement to just sack it all and put the feet up, too old and stuck to easily retrain for an unfamiliar, non-manual role. So just like those miners and steelworkers, we'll grow another cohort of resentful, unhealthy and unhappy men. Not just from the airport but men who once drove taxis, trains and buses, men who dug holes in roads, and men who sailed ships.

The future includes a scene where the product of an autonomous factory is loaded (automatically) onto a driverless truck which travels to an automated port to be transferred to a ship without a pilot which will take that product to another automated port, onto another driverless truck to an unmanned warehouse from where it's delivered to your house by a drone. Partly this is wonderful - a fulfilment of man's search to save labour so we can chill out with a beer. Partly it's terrifying, a dystopian, soul-less future without those 'proper jobs for proper blokes'.

We are doing too little thinking about this future. Not just how we make the undoubted economic gains that come from mechanisation, deskilling and robotics but how we share those gains across society without slaughtering the golden geese of our digital future. Some of this thinking is short term - what do we do for those proper blokes doing proper jobs at the airport, what work will there be for a future generation of less intelligent, less skilled men? Some of it is longer term - do we need a different approach to work, tax and responsibility in a world where most tasks are done by robots?

But in framing these thoughts we need to start by dealing with the things which aren't so - like us being more income poor:
Those of us who currently appear to have job security can more than likely look forward to making less in the future than we had once hoped we might. Over the last couple of decades, wages, adjusted for inflation, have scarcely grown throughout a broad range of rich countries, longer in some cases. And this wage stagnation has occurred alongside other distressing trends. The share of income flowing to workers, as opposed to business and property owners, has fallen. And, among workers, there has been a sharp rise in inequality, with the share of income going to those earning the highest incomes increasing in an astounding fashion.
Bits of this paragraph are sort of true (the wage stagnation part, for example) but most of it is nonsense - at least in an article about robots. What is interesting to explore however is this question about capital ownership versus labour. Put simply, this is where we want things to go - we want more people, in some way, to own more of those value-producing robots rather than get the means for consumption either via wages for labour or a benefits system. If those proper blokes wanting proper jobs did so in the context of having a rent income from a share of those robots this might reduce stresses associated with finding enough money to put food on the table, clothes on the kids and roof over the family.

Of course, one of the things with that food, clothing and roof is it will - so long as government keeps its neb out - be a whole lot cheaper than it is now. As an aside this is one of the reasons why the argument about wage stagnation is a bit one-eyed. What costs us £100 to lay on now may, in our automated future, cost only £20 - so even if wages stagnate, we'll all be a whole lot richer for the automation. The problem is that the route to realising those changes lies in removing the most expensive part of the service economy - people. The brake on automation isn't technological but economic - we only keep investing so long as there's a return and if automation destroys the mass market there won't be any automation.

The answer might lie in some sort of redistributive system such as 'universal basic income' but, depending on how it's set, this can only result in a class of de facto drones. A bigger problem is that such an approach doesn't connect income to ownership but rather links it to taxation. In a democracy this risks people voting to take more and more of other people's money. It would be far better to give workers ownership rather than just cash - in trite terms to give everyone a robot rather than a cheque from the government.

Perhaps the answer comes from a hybrid of these two thing. Until recently the UK's private pension system was held up as a fine example of how these things should work and it invested in industry meaning that nearly all British workers had, in one way or another, a stake in the nation. I appreciate that this might be something of a starry-eyed view of the past but it provides a hint of a possible way through the robot problem. After all those robots are capital and that capital has to come from somewhere - why not a fund or funds created by government expressly for the purpose of such investments, for buying robots. With the beneficiaries of the funds' earnings being the UK public and those payments distributed on a 'universal income' basis? Of course, as a good voluntarist, these funds should have what we might call a 'private socialist' structure such as a mutual or co-op and, as such, would be free from the tendency of governments to waste money on infrastructural vanities.

I've just put this here as a thought - I've no idea whether it would be practical (whose making the robots any how - there's no obvious Sirius Cybernetics Corporation) but it gets out from the pretty sterile 'late capitalism' arguments that dominate discussion of our futures. What I do fear isn't the capacity of our systems, ingenuity and innovation to meet (and make better) our future needs but rather a sort of neo-luddism that leads to the fetishing of inefficiency - we see this with organic and biodynamic farming, for example - and the impoverishment that comes from protectionism.

The future, for all its robots, will continue to require people to provide labour but, just as has happened before, the nature of that labour will change. There's a game played by some of trying to guess what jobs there'll be in the future that we haven't thought of yet - it's not just the 'app economy' or the chance to rent out your spare bedroom to visitors but a whole load of other things too. I suspect that we'll still value human service and that, in its widest form, entertainment will be important. And I'm convinced that some of those things we dismiss as 'micky mouse', especially culture things, will become far more valued as skills than the scientific and technical skills we stress today.

In the meantime we've got to work out how we reassure those proper blokes doing proper jobs at the airport that their life isn't going to be crap once the robots take their jobs away. We need to try and avoid the mistakes of the 1970s and 1980s when we assumed the changing economy would provide for those blokes. It might but, it has more chance of doing so if we start thinking about it before they've been given their P45s.


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