AS A SAVVY reader, you already know that technological change is why the jobs in manufacturing are drifting away from Youngstown, Ohio. You know that most of the drift goes to other American cities, such as Houston or Chattanooga. You know that Appalachian jobs in coal mining are not coming back, because new techniques have permanently cheapened natural gas. You know that the Trump administration's scapegoat, foreign competition, bears little responsibility for any of this. And when foreign encroachment does happen, you know it's good, not bad, for most Americans.
Still, many reasonable people fret. Isn't technological unemployment a real and serious problem? Non-economists of a quantitative bent fret about what we're going to do when all the jobs go away--when, say, autonomous vehicles replace America's 3.5 million truck drivers.
Even some economists, brilliant ones, think we're in trouble. Robert Gordon of Northwestern suggests it in his recent book The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press). Tyler Cowen of George Mason University does too, in Average Is Over(Dutton). The great if misled John Maynard Keynes believed we would lose jobs from technology. So did the still greater David Ricardo.
They were wrong.
Otherwise sensible folk are, for some reason, terrified by robots. Yet the results of automation are good overall. Workers move from wretched assembly-line jobs to better ones standing in white coats monitoring the robots, at the higher wages made possible by the higher tech. Or, even better, they move to jobs outside the auto industry, earningpay that goes further because people can buy the radically cheaper stuff the robots now make.
If their new jobs are not higher paying, it's probably because the auto union managed to extract monopoly profits from the company, and therefore from consumers. Robert Reich, a reliable source of sweetly leftish errors of facts and ethics, declares that "the decline in unionization [of private companies] directly correlates with the decline of the portion of income going to the middle class." But paying selected workers on the assembly line more than they can earn elsewhere, at the expense of other, sometimes poorer, workers' ability to buy cars, is hardly an ethical formula for raising up the working class.
When a Ford plant installed robots, Walter Reuther, a long-ago president of the United Auto Workers union, is said to have asked a manager: "How are you going to get them to...