Paul Krugman Is Very Concerned About The Ominous Threat Posed By Robots

Paul Krugman

Photo: Frontline

The focus of a few of Paul Krugman’s recent blog posts and his most recent New York Times column is robots and how they are fundamentally changing the U.S. labour market.The upshot of Krugman’s argument is this: income inequality has been increasing for years in the United States, but one of the major drivers that no one talks about is the increasing use of robotics in manufacturing and other industries to do jobs traditionally done by human laborers.

One conclusion Krugman reaches is that even the highly-paid, highly-skilled workers who have dominated the share of income growth in the U.S. over the past several years will be increasingly affected going forward by the rise of the machines:

About the robots: there’s no question that in some high-profile industries, technology is displacing workers of all, or almost all, kinds. For example, one of the reasons some high-technology manufacturing has lately been moving back to the United States is that these days the most valuable piece of a computer, the motherboard, is basically made by robots, so cheap Asian labour is no longer a reason to produce them abroad.

In a recent book, “Race Against the Machine,” M.I.T.’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that similar stories are playing out in many fields, including services like translation and legal research. What’s striking about their examples is that many of the jobs being displaced are high-skill and high-wage; the downside of technology isn’t limited to menial workers.

Indeed, we’ve seen this taking shape even on Wall Street, where investment banks like UBS are laying off credit derivatives traders and replacing them with computers that trade off signals generated by internal algorithms.

That example reflects another of Krugman’s assertions: the robotics revolution may be a major driver of increasing income inequality.

Krugman writes in another post:

If this is the wave of the future, it makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality. Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society”, or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents. And so on.

I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labour dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.

Finally, Krugman offers a few alternative explanations for the increasing shift of income distribution toward capital and away from labour that don’t feature robots so prominently. One is the idea that monopoly power – made more ubiquitous by growing business concentration in the United States which allows big producers to control prices more effectively – may be a bigger culprit.

Izabella Kaminska, who has prepared an excellent primer on the subject over at FT Alphaville, comes to a slightly different conclusion:

Our own personal view is that this is because we’ve now arrived at a point where technology begins to threaten return on capital, mostly by causing the sort of abundance that depresses prices to the point where many goods have no choice but to become free. This is related to the amount of “free working” hours now being pumped into the economy — the result of crowd sourcing and rising productivity levels — thanks, in part, to the sort of gadgets that allow everyone to work anywhere and anytime, in a work environment that’s generally speeding up as everyone tries to keep up with the competition by doing yet more hours voluntarily.

Patent wars, meanwhile… and the rise of companies whose entire raison d’etre is focused on protecting patents… is the ultimate counter force. As a recent Fed paper spelled out, there is real evidence to suggest that idea monopolisation has become a hugely counter-productive force in the economy. 

Krugman thus concludes by writing that “the starting point is to realise that there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear, but it’s potentially really important.”

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