Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Are regular folks doomed?

the average is over

I have been telling all my colleagues about Cowen’s latest book: The average is over. I really enjoyed the book. Cowen goes on in his new book to explain that regular folks are doomed. The economy will only need the top 10% of us.

The argument is essentially technological. Computers and robots are getting much better. Soon enough, your local McDonald’s will be entirely automated, except maybe for the manager. Self-driving cars and trucks will make truckers and taxi drivers obsolete. Cowen reiterate the well-known arguments: the best teachers will produce electronic material that will be used worldwide. There will be little need for most teachers. Maybe Cowen will get to teach economics 101 to 80% of all students worldwide, thus making obsolete thousands of economics professors.

Yes, only a small minority will be needed, but what Cowen failed to consider is that most of us haven’t been needed in a long time. Maybe economists can’t even consider such a possibility… but let us be honest. Most of us don’t have real jobs. Yes, we are very good at maintaining the illusion that what we do is essential… and it is crucial for our self-esteem… but, speaking for myself, if I were to disappear along with my job… what would happen? Some students may graduate later due to my disappearance. My research program would disappear in the ether… maybe some crucial discovery that I am about to publish would not see the light of day… at least until someone else discovers it independently. But if I stopped working, nobody would go hungry, nobody would die, nobody would be out in the street. Things would mostly be fine. The same can be said for most jobs. Yes, we do need the garbage to be taken away, we do need food on our tables… but we need fewer and fewer people to get these results.

What are the two fastest growing jobs right now? Software programmers and accountants. These are abstract, constructed jobs. If we had to, we could make do with far fewer software programmers… and we could certainly have far fewer accountants. We could make things simpler without any child having to go hungry.

Being needed, being useful… are concepts that are constantly redefined. What was once a hobby becomes a serious job (e.g., scientist). The truth is that as the need for work disappears, jobs appear out of thin air. When these jobs don’t appear fast enough, we ask that people get even more education (whether they need it or not). So, no, regular folks aren’t doomed. Maybe in the near future, we will all spend 20 or 30 years perfecting our education (using software instructors). When we graduate, we will become manager of the local McDonald’s (even though it is fully automated) or supervisor of the local park (and said park will be kept clean by autonomous robots). I am sure tens of thousands will soon make a living creating silly videos for YouTube (assuming that’s not already true).

Whereas jobs kept us fed and warm, jobs are increasingly meant to give us a social status. Essentially, Veblen’s leisure class is eating the world.

People like Cowen would like us to believe that as robots learn to grow and bring us all the food we can eat, learn to drive us around, and entertain us… a large fraction of the population will suffer. Nah.

Further reading: See my posts Jobless recovery, the Luddite fallacy and the 4-hour workweek and Automation will make you obsolete, no matter who you are.