Robots Won’t Take Your Profs’ Jobs

I’m going to weave a few themes together for you today; it’ll make sense by the end.

We begin with a friend’s comment last week about robots taking everyone’s jobs. I called him on the lump-of-labor fallacy—there isn’t a fixed amount of work to be done in an economy and therefore technology only creates jobs. You can argue the fallacy as much as you like, but don’t talk about robots taking our jobs until you’re aware of it.

I wrote about robots in the past, when Paul Krugman popularized it in December 2012. I’ve revisited it and found an interesting exchange between Sandwichman and Nick Rowe that I missed last year.

To summarize: Sandwichman argued that the lump-of-labor fallacy is really Say’s Law in disguise. Say’s Law is to me a confusing, contentious tautology that evades a concise rendition. My crack? An economy’s production supplies it with sufficient purchasing power to consume that production. Thus, under normal circumstances there can be no general surpluses, including labor. Keyensians, including Krugman, reject the strict use of Say’s Law but for some reason still point at the lump-of-labor fallacy.

Rowe countered that technology’s impact depends on people’s preferences and money. People can simply consume more of what they make, or the central bank needs to give them more money to increase their consumption. I didn’t like some parts of Rowe’s model, but his last, parenthetical paragraph closes the issue perfectly: Technology is only a problem if it displaces workers from land.

I’m starting to think that maybe just about all productivity advances substitute for land and not labor, which is good. The converse is rare, e.g. Dutch disease scenarios where technology makes it easier and more profitable to extract oil than pay workers to make stuff. The workers don’t get the benefits, unlike the landowners, and they can’t leave the country. The land question precedes and supersedes any discussion of technology.

Theme number two is “cost disease,” the explanation of higher college tuition costs on lack of productivity improvements in lecturing. The illustration for cost disease is a string quartet, which takes the same quantity of labor to produce as ever. Cost disease came up twice in the legal-education context in the last few weeks. Once by a dean claiming that scambloggers ignore it, and again by a study pointing at federal student lending as the fuel for higher college tuition, aka the Bennett hypothesis.

I chewed on these two ideas while at … the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which was performing Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring with some other stuff for padding. It was a real treat, and right at the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor*, it all came together. It was a really rewarding feeling.

(* Mozart only composed one other piece in a minor key. I have absolutely no ear to tell keys, but it was lovely.)

So, what does last year’s lump-of-labor discussion tell us about cost disease?

We can set up a model just as Rowe did for Sandwichman, but instead of labor hours, as a good Georgist I’ll use land. 60 people live and work on 60 hectares; 30 grow apples and 30 grow bananas, one each of everything. (Numbers divisible by 12 are always good.) Nobody wants their own type of product, so they trade for the other. Someone stumbles on an apple-growing process that doubles productivity. One of three things happens:

(a) The apple growers each double their output, leaving the bananas constant. 30 hectares grows 60 apples, 30 hectares grows 30 bananas. The ratio of apples to bananas doubles to 2:1, but bananas’ share of the output has fallen to one third. The apple growers really want those bananas.

(b) Banana growers really want their apples, so 20 apple growers double their output, but 10 apple growers switch to banana cultivation. 20 hectares creates 40 apples, and 40 hectares creates 40 bananas. This situation creates an equilibrium for the ratio of apples to bananas, 1:1.

(c) Same as (b), but the 10 hectares shifted to banana production go to a third commodity. This situation is essentially identical to (a), since bananas are what we care about.

Cost disease says that higher education is like situation (a) (and (c)). Productivity “enables” people to satisfy their preferences for the same stuff when we want it to increase their purchasing power to demand new stuff. Here, the more productivity increases, the more income goes to the unproductive.

Now for the twist: If banana-production technology never improves, and people’s appetite for bananas doesn’t wane, we can say that the supply of bananas is inelastic—insensitive to changes in price. But that’s exactly what proponents of the Bennett hypothesis argue: Higher education is a positional good, so educators absorb money lent to students to buy it.

So what’s the difference between the Bennett hypothesis and cost disease? Formally, they’re the same, so the policy responses should be the same: Lending money to people to buy educations that don’t respond to price changes is no different than increasing their productivity, ergo don’t lend the money. Just as Sandwichman argued that Say’s Law is the lump-of-labor fallacy, so too is the cost disease really the Bennett hypothesis.

The function of cost disease, though, I think is different. It’s raised to neutralize the positional-goods argument implied by the Bennett hypothesis. It’s not that education is a rate race, they argue; rather, it’s that we can’t make the rat race better.

If that sounds like a non sequitur, it’s because it is, but with logic like that we needn’t worry about robots replacing the profs.

4 comments

    1. It counts as productivity. The questions are (a) who gets the benefits, the schools or the students, and (b) whether schools actually adopt it. Given that average faculty sizes increased for so long, productivity probably isn’t an issue.

  1. Matt:

    “Technology is only a problem if it displaces workers from land.”

    So far nothing has occurred to give those people displaced by technology or more efficient processes improved outcomes and there is a surplus of Labor which has been growing far longer than the 2008 crash. As a throughput analyst this is what I do, eliminate labor.

    Yes we could have a mass of hamburger flippers several steps down from the wages made assembling automobiles; but, I would not even suggest this would be sharing the gains from an improved throughput. Technology has bypassed Labor in sharing the gains from improved productivity. It has gone to capital.

    The lead sentence in my opinion is “double speak” as it does not address the issues of Labor displaced from higher wages.

    1. Hello, Bill H. If you don’t think the lump-of-labor fallacy is not a fallacy, can you explain why the worker displacement that began in 2008 didn’t happen centuries ago?

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