What If Technology Does Destroy Jobs?

By Shlomo Maital


Larry Summers

   Larry Summers was Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, President of Harvard, and is one of the world’s top macroeconomists. In a recent New York Times article on how technology is disrupting the world, the author recalls how Summers spoke in November at a conference, about his undergraduate days at MIT in the 1970s. Nobel Laureate Robert Solow made the case then that new technology boosts productivity and overall creates jobs, employment and wealth. Sociologists at the time responded that new technology often destroys jobs and wealth.

   “It sort of occurred to me,” Summers recalled, “suppose the ‘stupid’ people (sociologists) were right, and the ‘smart’ people (economists) were wrong. What would it look like?   Well – pretty much how the world looks today.

     Uber is eliminating taxi-driver jobs. Internet news is destroying print journalism jobs. Digital education will soon eliminate my job (as professor).   Long ago, software made the entire mid-level managers’ jobs (focused on processing and interpreting data) redundant. Add to that globalization and world trade, which led America to outsource its manufacturing to Asia.  

       What if technology really does eliminate jobs? What if, like Finland and Switzerland, we will need to consider providing a basic minimum living wage for everyone, when unemployment becomes widespread? (The referendum in Switzerland on this idea was soundly defeated…but nonetheless, the mere fact it happened is important).   What if in future, work itself will be a huge privilege and a luxury, granted only to a very few highly skilled, highly productive people who somehow are not made redundant by very smart machines?  

       The late MIT Dean and Professor Lester Thurow, who passed away recently, liked to say that sociology trumps economics. If sociology is about how people live and work together, and economics is about how money and capital procreate and proliferate,   then surely he was right. Perhaps it is time that economic policy should be shaped by the sociologists.