The Causes of Wealth Inequality (31): Automation and the Hollowing Out of the Labor Market

Conventional wisdom has it that automation comes at the expense of low-skilled jobs and aggravates income inequality because of labor displacement at the bottom of the income distribution. It turns out that this is a bit too conventional, and not only because it runs afoul of the lump of labor fallacy (machines need to be built and people can go on and do other things). Mid-level jobs are also hit by automation, and perhaps even more than jobs at the bottom of the skill continuum. This has been called the “hollowing out” of the labor market. This hollowing out, caused in part by automation, in turns causes an increase in income inequality. This is mere arithmetic: if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Ryan Avent puts it well:

Work published in 2006 by David Autor, Lawrence Katz, and Melissa Kearney argued that employment and wage growth in America have “polarised” in recent decades, a conclusion that has been reinforced by subsequent research. Employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs. The resulting employment distribution generates a distribution of wages that is similarly polarised and more unequal than that which prevailed prior to this period. (source)

Why does technological automation focus mainly on middle skill levels?

Daron Acemoglu and Mr Autor pioneered a “task approach” to labour markets. Tasks can be completed by either labour or capital. The more routine a task is, the more susceptible it is to automation. But whether or not a task is automated depends upon the relative supply—and the real wage—of workers of various skill levels. Subsequent work has shown that automation and trade are responsible for displacement of routine tasks previously done by middle-skill workers, in both manufacturing and clerical or service activities, leading to polarisation of local and national labour markets.  (source)

Technological automation focuses mainly on middle skill levels because it’s relatively easy at that level, easier sometimes than at the extremes of high and low skilled tasks. “Easier” here means both technologically easier and more cost effective. Highly skilled tasks, such as teaching a philosophy course, are difficult for machines to do because they are complex (although we do sometimes see high-skilled jobs being automated, such as legal research for example). In the case of low-skilled tasks, some of these are surprisingly hard to automate, as in the case of truck driving or toilet cleaning. Even low-skilled jobs that aren’t technically hard to automate aren’t always automated because the pay-off may be too low – people doing those jobs are poorly paid so developing expensive machines to do it for them isn’t worth the trouble.

And then there’s the added worry that displacement of many low-skilled workers would create a permanent underclass unable to participate in the economy – unable, in other words, to buy the goods and services produced by machines. There’s a famous anecdote about Henry Ford mocking a labor union president in one of his factories, saying it wouldn’t be easy to get the robots to pay their union dues. To which the union president responded that Ford wasn’t going to get the robots to buy his cars.

The hollowing out of the labor market, driven by mid-level automation, has therefore a direct effect on income inequality, but it also a few indirect effects. For example, automation means lower production costs, and the savings or the added value go primarily to shareholders through capital gains and stock appreciation. Since stock ownership and capital income are concentrated among those already better off, income inequality is further increased.

If technology decreases the relative importance of human labor in a particular production process, the owners of capital equipment will be able to capture a bigger share of income from the goods and services produced. (source)

Another indirect effect: increasing automation of manufacturing jobs pushes unionization rates down, which in turn decreases bargaining power among low-skilled workers. This, in the end, aggravates inequality yet again.

More posts in this series are here.


2 thoughts on “The Causes of Wealth Inequality (31): Automation and the Hollowing Out of the Labor Market

  1. It’s important to keep in mind that what you’re describing ends up as a benefit to society. As Friedman said:

    “When the United States was formed in 1776, it took 19 people on the farm to produce enough food for 20 people. So most of the people had to spend their time and efforts on growing food. Today, it’s down to 1% or 2% to produce that food. Now just consider the vast amount of supposed unemployment that was produced by that. But there wasn’t really any unemployment produced. What happened was that people who had formerly been tied up working in agriculture were freed by technological developments and improvements to do something else. That enabled us to have a better standard of living and a more extensive range of products.”

    If a business can operate at the same level of output, with less employees, it absolutely, 100% should. Increasing labor productivity is progress, plain and simply. If those farm owners in 1800 hadn’t found ways to operate their farms with less labor, we would never have industrialized. And in addition to not having all the technology that comes from freeing labor to work new industries, we also would still be paid pennies a day. Increased wages and compensation are only possible with increased productivity.

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