Policy: Technology

Economists: Robots aren't killing jobs, but might be hurting wages

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Jobs,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Technology

Robots aren't coming for our jobs, but they're probably lowering our wages.

That's the takeaway from a new survey of top academic economists conducted by the Initiative on Global Markets Forum, affiliated with the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

More than three-quarters of the top economists polled by the IGM Forum agreed with the statement that advancing automation has not reduced employment in the United States.

But a plurality of the academics also agreed with the statement that "information technology and automation are a central reason why median wages have been stagnant in the U.S. over the past decade, despite rising productivity." One-third agreed with the statement, while 28 percent responded that it was uncertain. Just less than one-fifth disagreed.

The respondents are prominent economists from schools such as Stanford, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chicago who are regularly polled by the IGM Forum on a number of topics.

David Autor, a top labor economist at MIT, agreed that automation has been depressing median wages, and noted that "[t]echnology and trade/globalization are probably two largest factors. Would also include deunionization."

Others disagreed. Princeton's Janet Currie wrote that rising health care costs "may actually be more important for the median worker." And Chicago's Steven Kaplan, who said he was uncertain about the effect of automation on wages, wrote that "[information technology] and automation have helped the "top 1%." Not clear what that has done to median relative to financial crisis, government policy, etc."

The impact that increasingly sophisticated forms of automation will have on labor markets has become a hotly debated question in recent years.

In a new book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that coming applications of automation will disrupt the economy and potentially hurt average workers.

In a recent interview with the American Enterprise Institute's James Pethokoukis, Brynjolfsson said that "you can imagine a scenario where a lot of these gains [from automation] get captured by a very small group and that has all sorts of negative effects, not just on the economy, but on our politics, leading to a lot of social unrest. That kind of thing has happened before. And so that's a scenario that is, unfortunately, very plausible and not a very happy one."

Whether technological progress has already harmed average workers' incomes is far from clear. In a recent study titled "Don't Blame the Robots" published by the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute, researchers took aim at the idea, pushed by Autor and other economists such as Harvard's Larry Katz and Claudia Goldin, that technology is to blame for middle America's declining fortunes.

EPI's researchers examined income data and found little evidence for the kind of "job polarization" that would be expected to accompany technology-driven rising inequality. Instead, they found that middle-wage occupations have been shrinking and high-wage occupations have been growing steadily since the 1950s, in decades with both rising and falling median wages.

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