Confessions of A Job Destroyer

Jason Lewis writes:

One of the most unfunny ironies of the rhetoric surrounding “job creators” in contemporary American politics is that most of the jobs being created (or at least, those with the greatest demand) are in the tech sector. Jobs like mine. Jobs that automate processes that used to be performed by people.

So I’ll come out and say it: I’m not a job creator (which is, I suppose, why the Republicans aren’t too interested in cutting my taxes). I’m a job destroyer.

We (programmers) all are, on some level or another; we’re taking mundane repetitive tasks and automating them with code. In a perfect world, we would be hailed as heroes, freeing the toiling masses from their humdrum routines to engage in more ennobling pursuits… but there’s that pesky issue of needing an income.

I will always remember my first project at my first job out of school. The project manager sat down the team to explain the goals of the project. My company made digital asset management software, and it had sold a license to a major client.

It was pitched to the team like this: “The client has already announced to shareholders that this project is going to lay off 20 people, so we need to get it done by such-and-such date.” If we got it done on time, we might get a bonus! (Of course, the date was completely unrealistic, and the bonus was never mentioned again.)

I felt terrible about those poor saps who got unemployed partially due to my work. As programmers, at our best, we can create whole new industries, but most of what we do is automate repetitive tasks. Which means that most of us, like Jason Lewis, are Job Destroyers.

That’s good for productivity, but might not be an unvarnished good for society if the gains are not distributed in a fair manner – and if you look at productivity versus median wage growth over the last 30-40 years, the gains have clearly not been captured in the form of higher wages. I’m all for creating a post-labor utopia, but it won’t be much of a utopia if only the robot owners (and maybe programmers) get any of the benefits.

Paul Krugman has written a lot about “capital-biased technological change” lately.

In Futurism and Policy he sums up what continued growth in inequality will mean:

If you look, for example, at the CBO’s long-run budget outlook, it assumes that productivity growth over the long term will be 1.7 percent a year (p. 34), which is roughly equal to average productivity growth since 1973. But it also assumes that compensation will grow roughly in line with productivity, which has not at all been the experience of the past 30 years.

I can see why the budget office does this; basing the productivity guesstimate on the past is surely a defensible procedure — but projecting a continuation of the rapid rise in inequality would mean basing budget projections on a dystopian vision of the future, which is not exactly what you expect government agencies to do. Still, surely it’s overwhelmingly likely that these projections will be hugely off in one or more ways.

No immediate moral from me, except as a reminder that all those long-term budget discussions in which people act as if we really know what the state of Social Security will be three decades from now are basically just boring science fiction.