For a while, all I could read in the newspapers was some story about how robots, computers, some form of automation, was going to steal all our jobs. In vain I have tried to persuade people that this isn’t really good economics–a kind of “just so” story that Americans seem to thrive on. Please. Think. All our jobs disappear. All our income disappears. Then we have nothing to spend. And then no one has anything to sell. So there won’t be any need for robots, computers, UPCs, whatever the latest bogeyman is. Because no one will be able to sell anything to people with no income. There will be no production. Therefore, no one will be buying job destroying technology–because there will be no demand. Therefore, no supply. Was that so hard? Even Americans should be able to get this.
Ah, a typical economic fable retailed by someone who never met a payroll! You pinheads all think you are so smart.
Au contraire, friend of the worker. I just got out of CVS. And CVS proves that robotic, automatic, swipe and go technology–whatever it is, will not destroy jobs. And here’s the reason why. Upon discussion, I find that absolutely the same thing has happened to my sweet spouse. So, this is not a sample of one. Two, maybe, but not one.
So you go into CVS looking for a couple of things. Not just any CVS, mind you, but the CVS by The Pearl Brewery. In San Antonio, this is where the quality are. Like the Cellars apartments at the Pearl start at $2600 a month and go up to $3700. Median income in San Antonio is about 27 thou a year. So a cheapo at the Cellar would require 100 percent of San Antonio median income. You get the picture? Not exactly Section 8 level stuff. In any event, the CVS is Pearl level. The employees are not only nice, they actually seem to know what the Hell they are doing. Like, “Yes, that is on the Second Floor, Aisle 18.” And, by golly, it was. In a place where “We sure don’t have that sir,” is the most likely answer to a question about a particular item in stock, a lapidary response fills you with dread and respect. These guys don’t mess around. They deal with the Beautiful People, and the BP expect to be served.
Ok, so I pick up the antacid I’m looking for, and remember that Linda tells me she has a CVS card and be sure to use it, because it’s got a good coupon. Don’t sneer. Like Hyman Roth, I am a pensioner living on a fixed income. I pinch pennies. So does Linda. So what else is new?
So I go down to check out. There are two check out thingies. Scanner with bags and card readers. One is busy–and audibly announcing “Help is on the way!”. The other is at rest. I approach this job-killer cautiously. I know I’m not supposed to like it. I’m a Democrat. So I scan the first item. It works. Damn. The machine asks me for my CVS card or code. I remember Linda’s and punch it in–but I’m not done. I try to scan in a second item, same as the first. It don’t scan. Damn thing just looks at me. Hell, I don’t know. I stick the UPC in its face. Nothing. Ok, I scan the antacid in. Ok. Then the damn thing starts calling for my CVS card again. Wait, I did that already. And before I can do anything else, the monster says “You’re finished, inset credit card.” But wait a minute, the order isn’t right, unless CVS intendeds to lay an item on me. I stand there, frozen. Now wtf. Do I comply and end up ripping off CVS? But wait, there’s more. 20 seconds of deer-in-the-scanner inaction activates an alarm: “Help is on the Way!” the job killer starts. Wait. I didn’t ask for help. Besides, I thought the idea was for the thing to eliminate help.
Never fear. The same young woman who instantly told me where to find my proton pump stuff is right there, helping me. She eyes the receipt, the screen and my pile of goodies. BUSTED. There’s only one dishwasher cleaner. But I have two. Not to fear. She examines the device, presses a scan button, and rescans the errant item. Now the thing goes crazy and recomputes the total and asks me for me CVS code. Again. Ok. I can do this. I key it in and it’s like jackpot time in Reno. The scanner starts spewing out an endless spool of coupons for future use. I’m standing there swatting them away. The young woman bags my stuff. She smiles and says, bless her, “Young man, you’re all set.” Young man. As Maxwell Smart used to say, “Check.”
As I step outside, it is pouring rain. Like no tomorrow. I can’t remember the last time I saw it rain so hard here. Figures. My car is two blocks away. Oh well, it’s only water.
When I finally link up with Linda, who has been shopping with the BP, she pauses to tell me how wonderfully trained the staff at Hotel Emily are. I take it Hotel Emily is some kind of national world class level hotel. In San Antonio? Why? Well, Linda is telling me this because she was waiting out the rain on their portico in the Pearl and admiring their service. Good help, it appears, is still around. You just have to pay to get it. She then tells me HER CVS story. Oh, yeah, same thing that happened to me, but at a lower rent store. Took three tries to get the scanner to work assisted by at least one employee. Oh, I see. I stop and think of the times I’ve tried to use one of these things at the supermarket and had a bottle of wine (it’s Texas) to scan. Emergency!!!! Flashing red light. Friendly employee has to come and verify I’m over 21. Check.
Are you beginning to see a pattern here? If you are, you can skip the next few paragraphs. If not, I’m gonna spell the moral of the story out.
If you are a historically literate American (they exist) you have heard of Ned Ludd and the Luddites, the British handloom weavers who supposedly went after mechanized weaving in 1779 out of fear that machines were stealing their jobs. I believe Eric Hobsbawm called their actions collective bargaining with sledge hammers, or something like that.
Economic historians, starting with good old David Landes, have always had an interesting take on machine breakers and employment in the Industrial Revolution in England. Their argument was that the early machines were not only unreliable, but finicky, and called forth a whole new class of mechanics to attend them. Otherwise the damn things wouldn’t work. So, in the fantasy world of neoclassical economics (I said it before you did), labor was released from one less productive and skilled occupation to pursue higher value work in another occupation–mechanics. Of course, mechanics had transferable skills (spillovers) and they were like the bees in the apple orchard. They ended up inadvertently raising productivity in other industries even as hand loom weavers disappeared. And they all lived happily ever after. It’s called progress. Dickens might have said otherwise, but honestly, history is not fiction, whatever the pomos said.
Obviously, the smooth and costless redeployment of resources that the Econ (especially in the South) like to wax eloquent over is a little more complicated in the real world, and, guess what, there are losers in the process. But, in theory at least, the gains to the winners could be redistributed to compensate the losers–you know, like in trade adjustment dollars that Congress under centrist Democrats loved to stick into free trade legislation. Oh, sorry. Sore point. But I am sympathetic to the idea that markets don’t just costlessly do things. No one with any sense believes that. In fact, if it costs too much for a market to solve a problem, well, the market isn’t likely to solve it. That’s not socialism. That’s just reality.
So if you worry that these job-killing Demons aren’t going to just lead to a smooth adjustment in the labor market, you probably have some reason to worry. Let’s not overdo it, though. Scanning groceries at the market probably reduced the number of old-style cashiers, but we got a whole generation of big data crunchers to drive us crazy with questions we never dreamed of asking. Things do evolve. We don’t worship low skill jobs for the Hell of it. Unless we’re Spartacists from Oakland who thought Shining Path in Peru was way cool.
But this is the troubling part. Helping markets reallocate resources is politically fraught. Somebody has to recognize that progressive tax codes, social insurance and the rest are not the enemy, but a necessary part of the way a market economy will function. Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding, there is such a thing as society. There is a reason for worrying about a fraying social fabric in which the only thing someone seems to care about is his or her “freedom” and “rights.” If you haven’t noticed, the political consequences are horrendous, and in this Covid mess, we are seeing one of them. We need to educate Americans in basic economics, and not the cowboy capitalism that our Republican friends seem enamored of. It’s not only bad economics, it’s bad politics. Forget counting jobs. Start counting what it takes to have a good society in which everyone has a shot at getting ahead. The cashiers will then, to paraphrase Christ, take care of themselves.