The Robots are Coming! …Thanks to the Minimum Wage?

Fast food chains have NO CHOICE but to automate order-taking and start using robots. And it’s all thanks to those greedy, lazy unskilled kids picketing McDonald’s for a higher minimum wage because they can’t afford an unlimited data plan! Boo hoo.

Don’t believe me? Google it. You’ll see every business publication and conservative think-tank declare as much. They back it up with statistics and quotes from fast food CEO’s, while at the same time declaring how obvious and self-evident that it is. How could all those socialist, Bernie Sanders liberals not have seen this coming?

But, HERE is what’s self evident to me: The robots are coming anyway. Those jobs WILL be replaced. And it has NOTHING to do with the minimum wage. Those who are claiming that fast-food automation is a direct consequence of the push for a higher minimum wage are opportunistically using 2nd grade logic to support an ideological point of view.

Rather, ample evidence shows that what we’re seeing is more of a coincidence of timing.

On the one hand the field of robotics has made tremendous leaps, making use of machine vision, machine learning and other advances running in parallel with exponential growth in the cost/performance ratio of computing power. As a result, order taking kiosks and even full-blown burger flipping robots are ALREADY cost-effective, at a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. Does anyone really think that fast-food CEOs are so derelict in their duty as to NOT deploy them en mass, regardless of current labor costs? Robots work 24 hour shifts without complaint. They don’t show up late, whine about benefits, pilfer free food for their buddies, need to cover up face tattoos, demand raises…

And on the other hand, we’ve been living through The Great Divide. A period of accelerating income inequality. One suggestion to alleviate the worst effects of this are, for better or worse, calls for a ‘livable’ minimum wage. In other words, fast-food protests didn’t cause automation. Automation caused a glut of underemployment, leading to a glut of minimum wage service jobs.

If we take a look at the history of the minimum wage, we see that it was at its highest reaches (as viewed in 2016 dollars) throughout the 1950’s and ’60’s, reaching its peak in 1968. A couple of observations: There weren’t a whole lot of fast-food restaurants in existence before the mid 60’s, and the economy was doing pretty good!

I’ve never been a fan of victim blaming, but you don’t have to click very deep to see examples of just that in the discussion over the minimum wage. It is common to hear something along the lines of, “Nobody is holding a gun to anyone’s head to accept a $7/hr fast food job. Better yourself and aim HIGHER, dagnabit!” (OK, I’ve never actually seen ‘dagnabit’ used in this context. That was my own literary embellishment.)

Such statements, or referring to service industry workers being greedy or unmotivated, etc. conveniently ignores reality. In the 50’s and 60’s, minimum wage jobs were at the Shotz Brewery or the local variety store. They offered something called ‘upward mobility’. You may have noticed

that today, most major American urban centers are sorely lacking in industrial-scale breweries and local variety stores. This is not to say that our economy has not been growing and generating tremendous wealth. It’s just that the benefits thereof have been primarily going to the major shareholders of InBev, the Walton family and the like.

So when you hear (mostly) angry middle-aged white guys who want to ‘make America great again’ spout off about how the minimum wage was designed for teenagers getting their first jobs in fast food restaurants and not meant to be a living wage, and that $15/hr is just too damn high? Well, they have nothing to back them up except for warm, fuzzy self-mythologies of their lost youth.

And during a period of unprecedented technological advancement, that’s not really something that an intelligent, rational society should rely upon when setting policy.


Originally published at bonafideai.com on August 29, 2016.

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