The Burden of Proof and Automation

A debate at the Soho Forum between Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan was held on the subject of whether robots will eliminate most of the jobs. Hanson argued for, Caplan argued against. Here is the video:

Starting at minute 18:00, Caplan made an interesting argument: that the burden of proof lies on those who claim the unemployment will occur, not on those who deny it. It makes sense. The burden of proof should be on those who argue that some great change will happen. And so if the claim is that self driving cars will replace human drivers, the burden is on those making this argument. But in most cases, those who argue against automation-caused mass unemployment don’t argue with this part of the argument. They don’t argue that self-driving cars or robots are impractical. The libertarian-types who are making this argument, they tend to be techno-optimists, convinced that technology will always advance so long as the market is ‘free,’ and resistant to the arguments of Mark Steyn and Tyler Cowen that the rate of technological advancement has decreased.* Rather, the argument is that all these “new jobs” will be created. When they give examples of the new jobs, I find them unsatisfying, like the celebrity butcher example. They are jobs of which there will be few and which will require intelligence and/or social skills that most people do not have.

I argue that the burden of proof is on those who believe a large number of new jobs will be created, not those who deny it.

I’ll conclude by quoting John Derbyshire:

The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.

What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn`t one.(…)”

*I personally disagree with this argument. Much of it is a matter of opinion, how much do you value air travel rather than the internet? Which is cooler, computer programs or aircraft engines? Do you value effect on society or some other yardstick like ability to navigate space? I think the internet and mobile phones are a pretty big deal, allowing instant communication with anyone in the world and allowing people to bypass regimes of controlled or biased media. When the history of technology in 2500 AD is written, the internet will have a central place. Air travel is convenient, but mostly because it is simply faster than the alternatives, travel by train, car, and ship. The upper classes in the early 20th century enjoyed widespread, comfortable international travel on trains and ocean liners. But there was nothing like Facebook or WordPress in 1950, no matter your wealth.

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2 Responses to The Burden of Proof and Automation

  1. Torr says:

    You and Lion talk about how automation hasn’t caused mass unemployment because people are doing jobs where they just sit at a desk and don’t create any value. Maybe that’s going to be the permanent pattern?


    • jasonbayz says:

      This is why I think it will take some time. Even the technology is developed in the next 20 years, it will take longer than that for all those workers to be fully replaced.

      There are many reasons companies would want to retain unnecessary workers, some moral, some self interested.(PR or morale effect on other workers) But once those workers are gone, to other jobs or retired or fired, companies may not hire replacements. Middle management will want to hire more workers, they don’t want to follow the workers they oversee out the door. And they want something to do. Still, workers cost a lot of money. Libertarians imagine the market as hyper-efficient at culling inefficiency. I see it as a light wind, pushing in the direction of maximum efficiency. You can, and many do, go against it. But, given enough time, the whole economy will be pushed in one direction. Firms which waste money will eventually be out-competed by newer, less wasteful firms or foreign competition.

      How long will this take? It could take many years, however, these factors mainly apply to white collar employment. In the two prole jobs I worked, I observed a few common themes: hostility between management and employees, rapid turnover, and rampant misbehavior. In one case, since I left I am told that a computer system was put in place to catch a specific type of cheating. And what do the workers do? They continue to cheat. Almost all of them. Management can’t do anything about it, but if they ever wanted to fire any given employee, they have the cheating on file. It is for this reason, not necessarily because the work is “more automatable” than white collar work, that I think this will really be felt, first, at the low end.


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