Once again the debate over the impact of automation on jobs is in the headlines and, once again, the same old techno-optimist/pessimist quarrels have broken out -- without much useful new work being done by any involved. There is a fundamental problem since economics appears to be a field in which those who go through professional training have been specifically instructed to ignore technological change. As a result, few professional economists even know where to start.
There has only been one time in US history when an attempt was made to examine these issues in any detail and, apparently, it was undermined from many directions before it even got started. Following his major interest in the work of Norbert Wiener in the early 1950s, the UAW's Walter Reuther took advantage of the election of a Democrat in 1960 to press for a "blue-ribbon" panel to examine the impact of technology, specifically automation, on the economy. JFK's assassination didn't derail the funding, which was approved by Congress in 1964 and the heads of IBM, Texas Instruments, Polaroid met with top labor leaders and social scientists to take extensive testimony, leading to wide-ranging recommendations and six volumes of supporting materials. But by the time they were finished in 1966, President Johnson had already launched his own programs and the work of the Commission fell on deaf ears -- never to be revived again in any comprehensive fashion.
The CSDL believes that the time has come to do something about this failure. We intend to organize a renewed attempt to collect what is known and, more importantly, to generate substantial new research about these matters.
In particular, we believe that careful consideration of the likely employment scenarios 10-20 years out -- for all of the major economies of the world -- need to be constucted, building on the preliminary work done at Oxford and elsewhere. Furthermore, the lack of any thorough understanding of what drives consumption is a glaring absence in all of these discussions. The Center believes that digital technology shapes our behaviors and attitudes and that consumption -- reflected in people's attitudes about what constitutes an attractive "standard of living" and what sort of purchases are "needs" as opposed to "wants" -- has already undergone fundamental adjustments.
We intend to return to the questions posed by Wiener in his 1950 "The Human Use of Human Beings" and to consider the wide-range of "end of work" ideas which have been produced, often for popular audiences, over the subsequent decades. Recently, Larry Summers -- who, as it turns out, was a student of MIT's leading economist Robert Solow (who participated in the 1960s Commission study)-- has stated that he no longer believes what has been the economic "orthodoxy."
The Center is the right place to try to sort all this out and we believe it is both urgent and a fundamental priority for sound policy discussions to break new ground on these issues.