Posner on the Costs of Automation

March 18th, 2013

Richard Posner writes about how advanced automation will affect the supply of jobs, and the needs of those displaced to rely on government:

Apart from specific job categories, technological advances in products and services, along with greater outsourcing opportunities and free trade with other technologically advanced nations, increase returns to IQ and educational achievement relative to other worker qualifications such as strength, quick reflexes, and physical fortitude. The design, production, and control of robots require intellectual qualities that are not required in factory workers. Though there is evidence that IQs have increased over the last century and may continue doing so, and though some day it will be possible to increase IQ by altering brains, technological advances may continue for some time to increase the wage premiums for high-IQ workers and reduce wages of average- or low-IQ workers, thus increasing the rate at which inequality of incomes is growing. Not that the jobs of high-IQ workers are immune from the effects of technological progress; I gave the example of lawyers. Any job category involving a high degree of specialization is vulnerable. Think of the impact of photography on portrait painters, or of computers on typesetters.

These trends bear on the current debates over the size of government. Technological advances are increasing longevity, and with it an increase in the dependent population. By reducing demand for workers, and therefore employment and wages, in many labor markets, the same technological advances may be creating a second dependent population, consisting of people of working age and their children who cannot support themselves without public assistance that will either replace or augment wages. Republicans may therefore be tilting against windmills in thinking that the size of government can be reduced.