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Applebee’s is ordering tablets for its restaurants/Anthony92931


Recently, we learned that there was a filibuster in the US Senate to stop a hike in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour rate to $10.10 over a 30-month period. The hike commands strong support, so don’t be surprised if it ends up as law. But what will be the outcome?

We live in such rapidly changing times that we risk responding to present crises as if they were past ones. Some people are then tempted to speak from a commanding moral height, as if the answers were self-evident. In the present case, they aren’t.

First, there is legimitate reason to worry about the long-term effects of technology. Many people assume that most current minimum wage jobs can’t be automated. But, as we have seen, Japan is trying to automate health care for seniors. Few informed critics are telling us that they can’t succeed. Indeed, about 45% of US jobs, for example, are considered vulnerable to automation.

That these are not mere scare stats can be gleaned from the fact that the best remedy some suggest is creating a sort of eco-brand, “made by humans” (think “fair trade”), reducing minimum wage workers to boutique status. Which ignores the fact that all robots are made and managed by humans too—far fewer, and better educated and paid humans.

Last year, one proponent told us not to think of automation as a “staff reduction enterprise”:

“People really need to focus on customer service and customer experience,” said Lee. The iPad and self-help kiosks “are fantastic tools” but “you need a human element to make it really successful,”

Rubbish. Fast food chains reply on speed and low cost, not the “human element.” It is a staff reduction exercise. Of course, they won’t fire staff. They just wait for attrition.

We are told not to worry, people will find more creative things to do. For sure, some will. But long term high unemployment in most communities hardly creates such a rosy picture: Mental and physical capital and even health can decline. Which is to say, the worker laments that he doesn’t have time to pursue his first love, painting. But the long-term unemployed person may not have the desire or energy. Which is worse?

Note: A common conceptual mistake is to conflate the artist who starves for his art and the worker who laments he doesn’t have time for it, then to assume that if only unemployment gave the worker time for art, he would morph into that first guy. No, he won’t. Or not usually. Life doesn’t work that way.

Will everything end up automated? Not likely, but the middle class is shrinking due to computerization, say economists David H. Autor and David Dorn:

Computerization has therefore fostered a polarization of employment, with job growth concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations, while jobs in the middle have declined. Surprisingly, overall employment rates have largely been unaffected in states and cities undergoing this rapid polarization. Rather, as employment in routine jobs has ebbed, employment has risen both in high-wage managerial, professional and technical occupations and in low-wage, in-person service occupations.

So computerization is not reducing the quantity of jobs, but rather degrading the quality of jobs for a significant subset of workers. Demand for highly educated workers who excel in abstract tasks is robust, but the middle of the labor market, where the routine task-intensive jobs lie, is sagging. Workers without college education therefore concentrate in manual task-intensive jobs — like food services, cleaning and security — which are numerous but offer low wages, precarious job security and few prospects for upward mobility. This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality. More.

So now, returning to the minimum wage controversy, many people sense rightly that they are stuck. They are not computer geniuses but they feel they should make what their parents made when they worked as the old-fashioned blue collar employees whom the robots are replacing. By contrast, the robot neither needs wages nor feels the lack of them. It is a brand new factor in the very industries that provide the foot soldiers for raise-the-minimum-wage campaigns.

I can’t offer a quick fix, only predictions:

Raising the minimum wage will hasten automation no matter what people say.

Politicians will score points by demonizing the employers who are only trying to keep prices low for their largely lower-income clientele. (Upper-income people can choose boutique, all-human dining experiences.) That’s why laws against automation won’t work as hoped. Everyone who needs cheap food, employed or not, will try to undermine them. 

Lastly, service industries like health care will—in reality—prove very hard to automate. How do I know?

Because what is the worst thing you can say about a doctor or nurse? How about, “Worst of all, she doesn’t even care!”

No, but neither does the iCarebot. Ever.

So if caring is a key part of the package, you won’t want that thing around much. Jobs in health care are comparatively safe.



Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...