“My friend, the communist holds meetings in his RV”

I have thinking of Sheryl Crow’s lyrics quite a bit lately as I hear from many of my friends about my new book, Silicon Collar about automation and jobs.

My left leaning friends lament the “sad state” of the jobs economy even as they enjoy their “limo-liberal” lives. Joining them, my conservative friends refuse to say anything good about the jobs economy fearful they could credit the Obama administration for anything positive. Finally, my super-smart analyst and academic friends are absolutely convinced the jobs economy is about to go to hell in a hand basket as machines will decimate millions of jobs.

It reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the tail or the tusk. They compare notes and find that they are in complete disagreement

a) “Things are already bad” — the guilty

These tend to talk about workers “left behind”. No denying there are many of those. You would be blind to not see the homeless or those that just stumble from job to job. This group, however, focuses mostly on poor and lower middle class and wants more social programs for them. They keep talking “middle class squeeze” — blaming corporations and the “one percenters”. For whatever reason, they only have a foggy notion of the solid core of middle class — plenty of accountants, attorneys, architects, engineers, plumbers, healthcare professionals and many others. They also don’t want to believe data like

  • if you leave out the top 5%, the rest reported $ 6 trillion in AGI or $ 8 trillion in income to the IRS
  • for 3+ years, the BLS has reported at least 4 million unfilled jobs every single month

b) “Things are already bad” — the angry

This group tends to discount all data, especially government sourced as propaganda for President Obama and by extension, Hillary Clinton. Their narrative is things will only get better if we have a change in government. I don’t have a problem with that (I am politically independent), but I do point out progress has been non-partisan under both parties

  • Since 1990, average value of new US home has nearly doubled
  • Since 1990, we have never had a single year when median annual family income has been under $ 50K
  • our workers have $ 25 trillion in retirement assets, with much of it contributed by workers to 401Ks and IRAs during Republican administrations

c) “Things will be really bad” — the guru

This group is convinced acceleration in computing curves will lead to massive job losses. In this ZDNet column I summarized a century of examples across sectors where we still have tens of millions of postal, secretarial, grocery and other jobs decades after automation was supposed to have destroyed them. In the book I have a chapter called Circuit Breakers to Over Automation which describes how societies only gradually absorb automation. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Automation does cause erosion of jobs, but that takes time, but mostly it changes tasks, not complete jobs, and it often creates a new generation of jobs

In some versions of the parable above, a person who can see describes the elephant to the blind and they realize they have all been wrong. I suspect in the current political climate people just don’t want to recognize the elephant in the room. That we have a pretty impressive jobs economy and it keeps morphing in interesting ways as I wrote here.