Episode 92: The Responsibility-Erasing Catch-all of ‘Automation’

Citations Needed | October 30, 2019 | Transcript

Citations Needed
50 min readOct 30, 2019


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “As technology shifts more layoffs loom at tech companies,” Reuters tells us.

Adam: “PepsiCo is laying off corporate employees as the company commits to millions of dollars in severance pay, restructuring, and ‘relentlessly automating,’” notes Business Insider.

Nima: “Apple’s dismissal of 200 self-driving car employees points to a shift in its AI strategy,” CNBC declares. For decades mass layoffs, factory closures, and industry shifts — from auto manufacturers to journalism to the banking world — have often been presented by American media, not as the moral choices of greedy CEOs, private equity and hedge fund managers looking to extract wealth for themselves and their shareholders, but instead the unavoidable result of nebulous, ill-defined, but entirely somehow inevitable, “market forces.”

Adam: After all, C-level decision makers, billionaires, media owners, hedge fund managers, private equity firms, they have no choice. Automation in car manufacturing is inevitable, globalization has moved your call center job overseas and journalism simply needs to pivot to video. No one is to blame, it’s simply the way it is.

Nima: Similar to what we’ve previously discussed, the always somehow stumbling US empire, the logical, often cruel end result of specific policy choices all decided by powerful moral agents over the past 30 years, is presented merely as a force of nature, something outside our control like the weather or entropy or the cosmological constant of the universe, quote unquote “free market” laying workers off is simply the way things go: unstoppable and immutable.

Adam: On today’s episode we’ll examine how capital has, for over 200 years, always blamed layoffs and cost cutting on inscrutable developments in technology and efficiency models out of their control. What this pat excuse hides and why it’s sometimes true and sometimes not and why the media shouldn’t take claims of CEOs’ hands being forced by market changes at face value.

Nima: We’ll be joined this week by two guests. First, Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and President of Just Foreign Policy. His latest book is Failed: What the Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy.

[Begin Clip]

Mark Weisbrot: What should we really be afraid of? We should be afraid of this crushing inequality that makes people struggle so much. You know, people live from paycheck to paycheck even when they have a job. And so what do we have to do? Well, that’s again, it’s increasing, primarily it’s increasing the power of labor, but it’s also economic policy and that economic policy, the most important ones, are things that people either misunderstand or don’t pay enough attention to.

[End Clip]

Nima: We’ll also speak with writer and researcher Peter Frase, a member of Jacobin’s editorial board and author of the book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.

[Begin Clip]

Peter Frase: Increased productivity and labor-saving technology hold out the potential for abundance, for some kind of post-scarcity way of life, or at least for a world where we can all work fewer hours than we do now. But of course that only happens in a particular political balance of forces in which we all share in the benefits of technological change rather than simply being thrown out of work or being thrown from good paying jobs into worst paying jobs.

[End Clip]

Nima: We hear these headlines all the time. In July 2019 NPR asked, “Will Your Job Still Exist In 2030?” CNN this past September said, “The robots are coming for your job, too”. While USA Today, just a couple of years ago, warned that quote, “Automation could kill 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030.”

Adam: Fortune magazine in January of 2019, “A.I. Expert Says Automation Could Replace 40% of Jobs in 15 Years.” New York Times December 2016 “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China. It’s Automation.

Nima: Because it’s only one of those two things.

Adam: Yeah, it’s not greedy corporations or lack of power for labor.

Nima: You have only those two choices.

Adam: Yeah. January 2019, “Over 30 million U.S. workers will lose their jobs because of AI.” The source there was the Brookings Institute.

Nima: And then that same study CNBC used in its article headlined “Automation threatening 25% of jobs in the US, especially the ‘boring and repetitive’ ones: Brookings study.” The BBC in March of 2019 said that “Automation could replace 1.5 million jobs.”

Adam: Similarly, we see when companies announce job losses, as we discussed at the very beginning, they don’t put the moral onus on the company. The company is simply responding to some nebulous market force. So Associated Press, May of 2019, “United Airlines to lay off 100 workers in Houston, outsource jobs.” “Under Armour to lay off 400 more workers as restructuring continues.” So time and again we see the ways in which mass layoffs, suppressed wages are said to be the result of inevitable shifts in the market. And of course if it’s an inevitable shift in the market, nobody’s really responsible. So as a way of sort of blunting the impact of saying this corporation has just laid off a bunch of people and you would see this, I think most commonly people in our industry would see this most with journalism where it says “pivot to video” or “shifts in technology” or “move to mobile” or “lack of ad revenue” is why we have to lay off 30 staffers or 20 staffers or a hundred staffers. There was a huge movement in 2015 and 2016 to quote unquote “pivot to video” by major media outlets. This turned out to be based on fraudulent data produced by Facebook. But one part of the story that was missing was that this correlated heavily with the rise of unionization of journalists and writers. So while it’s true that maybe you could argue video is doing better objectively on the Facebook platform, and they were told that by Facebook, that’s only part of the story. The other part of the story is that as writers and journalists began to unionize more and more places like Vice, Mashable, MTV News, Washington Post, that the shift to video was largely also about nonunion labor and about putting pressure on union labor. And you see this play out in different industries time and time again. So for example, the impetus for this episode was when The Washington Post shut down the 16 year old daily reader called the Washington Post Express, which was a physical paper that was in Washington DC. The headline when they did this on the front page of the newspaper was “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones. Add Express to the list of print publications done in by mobile technology.” That was their front page on their last publication. Now The Washington Post is owned by someone who’s worth roughly $140 billion. The idea that they couldn’t stay open because people were switching to mobile seems to sort of get Bezos off the hook. Again, that may be partially true. They said that the downfall corresponded in a decline in use of the DC Metro ridership. They said quote, “Which has been driven by a switch to home telework, rideshare services, and other means of transportation.”

Nima: It’s everyone else’s fault.

Adam: Yeah, so never mind that The Washington Post itself three weeks later published an article saying that quote the “Metro reported that daily passenger trips increased 2.3 percent for the first six months of 2019, with ridership for April, May and June up 3.3 percent compared with the same period last year.” So ridership was actually up in 2019. Obviously the guy who just shuts down a major publication and lays off two dozen writers is never going to say we did this because Bezos wanted more money, which is I guess perfectly fine in some libertarian sense. There’s always this mysterious market force which is requiring us to be greedy sociopaths. That it’s just not solvable. And a lot of these excuses don’t really hold water.

Nima: Well right. And so the onus then is on the readership or is on tele commuters or is on, you know, people that not only work from home but listen to podcasts instead of read this particular publication. And so it’s never going to be the decision making by the owners themselves to lay people off that actually winds up being scrutinized. It’s always this, ‘hey, you know, this is where our society is now,’ which just inevitably means that robots are taking over and that people doing certain kinds of jobs are going to be less and less desirable. Less and less needed, but never is there really any reckoning with who actually gets to make these decisions and who has to deal with the consequences.

Adam: Well right. ‘Cause, like, of course we’re not gonna expect The Washington Post to say we shut down The Express because we wanted more profits and we decided it wasn’t profitable. Nobody wants to hear that.

Nima: Right.

Adam: What the problem is is that reporters will just repeat these nominal reasons at face value. So WJLA at ABC station in Washington wrote an article called, “Here’s why the Washington Post Express is shutting down tomorrow.” And they just listed off the reasons their public relations firm said, which is that people weren’t writing the trains and that people were switching to mobile. Well yeah, sure. But that was also true a year ago. It would be true a year from now. You closed it because you ran the numbers and you decided you can make more money. So again, you see the point is not that there isn’t such a thing as technology or that there isn’t really AI or that automation isn’t a real thing. The issue is that it cannot serve as a sort of catchall, which is just that you ran the numbers and you decided you could buy your third yacht 20 seconds sooner if you got rid of it.

Nima: Now the thing about the robots taking over is that even though we see these headlines, we hear these reports again and again, they only continue, they only get more cacophonous, they’re not new — surprise, surprise. Back in the thirties the term “technological unemployment” meaning unemployment as a direct result of machines replacing someone’s job, the thirties and forties marked the kind of peak use of that term as the industrial revolution gave way to an even more roboticized automated kind of work that even took more people off assembly lines. The term technological unemployment was actually popularized in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, who famously contended that machinery would be so productive as to liberate workers from the drudgery of daily labor, yet failed to recognize that capitalists wouldn’t cooperate with any form of wealth redistribution that would actually allow that. So this actually occurred alongside — remember 1930 — occurred alongside the Great Depression, which experienced obviously extreme unemployment rates, of course, that had nothing to do with the rise of robots.

Adam: So there’s an interesting anecdote from this book by Rick Wartzman. He wrote a book called The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. And in the book Wartzman details a story about the way corporations use the threat of automation as part of a broader PR campaign to depress union resistance. So according to the book in 1950 General Electric ran ads reading quote “Machines that can read, write, do arithmetic, measure, feel, remember, now make it possible to take the load off men’s minds, just as machines have eased the burden on our backs. But these fantastic machines still depend on people to design and build and guide and use them. What they replace is drudgery — not people.” And so he details in the book how in the late fifties GE was offering another justification for it’s rush to automate that it’s overseas rivals having pulled themselves up out of the rubble of World War II were now on the rise. They said, quote, “‘We have strong competition from highly automated foreign plants paying wages that are only a fraction of ours,’ said Charlie Scheer, the manager of GE’s lamp-equipment unit. ‘It’s a case here of automate or die on the competitive vine.’” So General Electric reportedly showed a film called Toshiba to its factory workers in New Jersey highlighting the Japanese economies inroads into the lamp market.

Nima: It’s just the real life Gung Ho.

Adam: Yeah. The International Union of Electric Workers discovered that GE had in fact been investing in Toshiba since 1953 amassing nearly 6 percent stake in the company quote, “‘The purpose of this film is obviously to brainwash you into believing that low-wage competition … is a threat to your job security,’ the IUE told employees. ‘What GE failed to tell you is that it likes to play both sides of the street at the same time.’ The union labeled GE’s warnings ‘phony propaganda.’” What you have here is you have the spectre of automation as a way of saying ‘accept these shitty terms of this contract or we’re going to replace you.’ And now, whether or not that’s true is irrelevant because my guess is it’s probably true sometimes and it’s probably not true other times, but either way, it’s a catchall. It’s something you can use all the time, right? You can always hold up automation as a potential threat whether or not the economics make sense or whether or not technology is even ready to replace humans is sort of secondary from the 1950s on the specter of automation has both been true but also heavily exaggerated in order to make people feel grateful for the jobs that they happen to have already.

Nima: Right. And to not complain too much and certainly not to uh, strengthen their unions for fear that, you know, they’ll simply just be expendable.

Adam: On the issue of inevitability because the most profound thing you can do for anything is to sort of assert inevitability. It’s one of the great rhetorical scams of neoliberal punditry where you sort of say, this is just going to happen, whether or not we like it.

Nima: Right.

Adam: The question is how do you manage it, right?

Nima: Removing all agency and human decision making, let alone the context of power, removing all of that from the conversation.

Adam: Yeah. And in the build up to the signing of NAFTA in late 1993 — NAFTA went into effect on January 1st, 1994 — and in the buildup to that the media routinely presented it as something that was just going to happen, that globalization was just going to happen and that NAFTA sort of would put America out in front.

Nima: So after NAFTA was signed, a lot of media outlets cited economists and think tanks, business owners to excuse and really kind of like erase it’s actual real life impact and implications on workers suggesting that factory closures and other forms of job loss were just simply a matter of swimming with the current of globalization. Just move in with time as it proceeds forward. So for example, you have August 21st, 1993 — this is before it actually goes into effect — The Desert Sun notes quote, “With or without NAFTA, low-wage, low-skill jobs will continue to move out of the United States, which still must learn how to market its technology and know-how, experts say.”

Adam: “Experts say.”

Nima: “Either capital will flow to areas where there is abundant labor or labor will move to areas of abundant capital.”

Adam: The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 3rd, 1993, “The world is moving inexorably toward increasing international competition. The United States, as the world’s largest economy, cannot refuse to participate, without risking its current economic status. But the transition to this new world order has led — and will continue to lead — to real human pain delivered in the form of closed factories, lost jobs and uprooted families.” It’s just going to happen. Nothing you do about it.

Nima: Nothing you can do about it baby. Shreveport, Louisiana’s The Times in June of ’93 noted that “Economists say the debate over NAFTA job losses has obscured a key point: Globalization is more to blame than a three-country free-trade pact. NAFTA simply accelerated an inevitable economic trend, they say. ‘They would have happened anyway’ the Federal Reserve’s Orrenius said of lower-skill manufacturing job losses. ‘To blame it on NAFTA might be an easy solution. The truth is, they’re going to Mexico, they’re going to Panama, and they’re going to China, and they’re going to Vietnam.’” End quote.

Adam: This continued to the early two thousands. In 2003 we have an article, The News-Messenger in Ohio that said quote, “His boss at Competitive Engineering, Don Martin, also is blunt about the realities, unlike many of his counterparts in the aerospace industry. The company, which opened a small operation in Mexico, has cut its Tucson workforce from 160 to 60 in the past two years. ‘We’re in a global economy… You can kick and scream, but it’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘If we’re smart, we better get on the bandwagon. We better embrace NAFTA and things like it.’” From the get go these things are presented as inevitable. But of course they’re inevitable because people in power are pushing these policies.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: There’s nothing in the laws of nature that say this has to happen. So when, surprisingly, NAFTA didn’t really deliver the promises — so invariably this didn’t happen according to a 2003 Economic Policy Institute report, they found that from the time of the signing of NAFTA to 2002, NAFTA, it caused a net job loss of almost 900,000 jobs. Uh, the number is now in the millions, but at the same time, the WTO — which was created a year to the day from NAFTA and went active like CyberNet — on January 1st, 1995 — which we’ve talked about all the problems with the WTO in Episode 73 with Jason Hickel, you can go back and look at that we could pretty much trace the origins of all the massive wealth inequality and extraction from the Global South to the creation of the WTO but we won’t go into that right now. Thomas Friedman, who was of course one of the main propagandists for the creation of the WTO, very often talked in the sort of language of inevitability. He said in 1997 he was mocking the Zapatistas for opposing the WTO and poor farmers in Mexico for combating neoliberalism. He said there are, quote,““those that suggest globalization can be stopped. It can’t. It’s inevitable.”

Nima: Right. And then two years later, in 1999, Friedman was back, uh, bashing protesters in Seattle over their then planned demonstration — turned out to be incredibly profound and famous anti-WTO demonstration — Friedman said, quote, “There are still plenty of sweatshops in this region, and the Seattle protesters should go after them — by targeting the specific retailers who use them, but not by targeting globalization. That is stupid, not only because globalization is inevitable, but also because if managed properly, it can be an effective tool to lift labor standards around the world. The Seattle protesters need to understand that. The people of Sri Lanka already do.”

Adam: Yeah. And globalization, which is obviously the sort of close cousin to the promoting of the WTO, is to this day presented as inevitable. So from a CNN Business article from 2016 the gloss video said, quote, “Globalization was happening with or without those trade deals. The bigger culprit: Technology. It boosted productivity, it connected American businesses and consumers to cheaper factory floors all over the world.” And then the article mentioned that quote, “The tech trend [of automation] would have happened regardless of trade.” And then in AP in 2018 ““General Motors will cut up to 14,000 workers in North America and put five plants up for possible closure as it abandons many of its car models and restructures to focus more on autonomous and electric vehicles, the automaker announced Monday…Many of those who will lose jobs are now working on conventional cars with internal combustion engines. Barra said the industry is changing rapidly and moving toward electric propulsion, autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing, and GM must adjust.”

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: Now that may be true, but it may not be true because of course they’re not going to say we cut the plants because we can go ship these jobs to Mexico for cheaper.

Nima: Right.

Adam: The issue is that we have no idea if it’s actually true or not because it’s never something you have to substantiate. And you see this again and again, this sort of combination of inevitability and mysterious market forces. They all obscure decision making processes and it wasn’t until the last couple of years that politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and even of course quite a few others now because it’s popular, have begun to talk about these trade deals as effectively a heist. They are a way of just extracting money from the poor and poor countries and moving it upwards to basically a global oligarchies.

Nima: Right. And so you see this actually play out and sometimes the press kind of lets this slip. So you have Detroit Free Press in May of 2019 with an article, “Bigger cuts expected: 23,000 more Ford layoffs needed, analysts say” and the article says this, quote, “The math doesn’t seem to add up. Analyst Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley is among those who say Ford Motor Co. cannot reach its stated profit goals for ‘Smart Redesign’ by laying off just 7,000 salaried workers total worldwide by August. The company must cut ‘a further’ 23,000 salaried jobs in the near term to fulfill its goals, Jonas wrote Tuesday.” End quote. And so it clearly States the profit goals of Ford demand the layoffs of tens of thousands of people and yet the press just like reports it as “analysts say,” they must do this if they are going to do this. And so just sort of white washing what is actually going on here. I think this article actually lays it out in a much clearer fashion, but still does not actually come out and say this is all 100 percent about money and it actually doesn’t matter who’s going to be laid off, the jobs are going to end right? 23,000 salary jobs have to be cut.

Adam: But it has to happen. And this was Mitt Romney’s argument when he was running for president in 2012 where they’re like, you know, Mitt Romney your entire career, all you’ve done is just lay people off in the Midwest and the Southern United States and in the Pacific Northwest. And he says, ‘Oh, well if I didn’t do it, someone else would.’ I mean, it’s drug dealer logic. It’s inevitable. And with that, of course, nobody’s then responsible. There’s no sort of moral agent. Again, the US empire just bumbles around and happens to exist. And you see this sort of threat of automation as a way of intimidating labor play out over and over again. So for about a six month period in 2015 and 2016 Vox hired a former Cato fellow, Timothy Lee, to be one of their economics writers, who wrote half a dozen columns about how bad the $15 minimum wage was, which they don’t really do anymore. No one sort of does this. This is also, by the way, where Dylan Matthews, who at Vox got his start at The Washington Post talking about how stupid the $15 minimum wage was and how it was going to create unemployment. His beat, which was a very popular Cato beat, is this veiled threat that if you increase the minimum wage from $8 to $15 or $12 to $15 — and by the way Timothy Lee, if you look at his previous writing, actually doesn’t support any minimum wage, which is always hilarious to me when people oppose the $15 minimum wage, they never reveal that they would also oppose a $.01 minimum wage.

Nima: Right. It should all be based on just market value Adam.

Adam: Right, which they never reveal because that would pretty much explain to them that they’re completely psycho libertarians. But anyway, he wrote three articles. He said, “What Bernie Sanders Misses About a $15 Minimum Wage,” November 2015. “Hillary Clinton Knows a National $15 Minimum Wage Is a Bad Idea. She Endorsed It Anyway,” April 2016. “California Just Passed a $15 Minimum Wage. Even Left-Leaning Economists Say It’s a Gamble” the left-leaning economist is, by the way, from The Urban Institute, which is a corporate democratic think tank. But anyway, the whole thing basically republishes a press release from a McDonald’s executive who wrote an Op-Ed in Forbes saying that if we give a $15 minimum wage we’re going to introduce all these kiosks. And they had made this threat before. Reuters, June of 2003 “McDonald’s Fries Only a Click Away” where they first talked about introducing kiosks. How if wages go up they’re going to introduce them. “McDonald’s Hires 7,000 Touch-Screen Cashiers” CNET from May of 2011. This is NPR August of 2013 “The Fast-Food Restaurants That Require Few Human Workers.” So now again, this may be partially true, but we have no way of knowing, especially in the context of Fight for $15 when he’s writing this really petulant Op-Ed in Forbes magazine decrying the Fight for $15 movements saying, ‘if you do this, we’re going to introduce kiosks,’ which of course it’s a threat. And again, there’s no way of knowing if that’s actually true. There’s no sort of objective way auditing that, it’s just ‘nice job you got there, it’d be a shame if something happened to it.’

Nima: Well, right, because it’s always held as this hammer that’s about to drop if you organize too much, if you ask for too much, if you try and rest some sort of control over your own job, over your own time sheet, over your own schedule, then it’s like, well hold on, because then we’re just going to bring in WALL-E and you’re going to be out on the street and then you know, it’s supposed to really kind of quell any movement toward unionization, toward organizing and toward building power.

Adam: It’s also credulous because again, the question as to whether or not they’re actually going to implement these technologies or there’s a real threat of automation is sort of not really relevant. What’s relevant is that this is always the reason they give for the past 200 years this is the reason capitalists have given for why they’ve cut jobs or why they moved jobs overseas or why they’re closing down factories. What journalists should be doing is saying, well, okay, so if you’re saying if you go to $15 we’re going to increase kiosks that presumably you wouldn’t have at $7 can we start by you telling me what the number is like what? Presumably there’s some sort of ledger where if you go over a certain amount, we’re going to introduce these kiosks and lay everyone off and then of course there’s a bigger political question which we’ll get into with our guests Mark and Peter, which is what is the moral world we live in where CEOs can threaten people who are trying to make $15, which by the way is still a poverty wage in most cities. This glib asshole from the Cato Institute just writes these articles, snarking at these people who are trying to survive. Timothy Lee wrote quote, “It’s easy to get people fired up about an alliterative slogan like ‘Fight for 15.’ But alliteration isn’t necessarily a good way to choose a policy goal. The implicit idea here — that people everywhere should get the same minimum wage whether they live in a booming, expensive metropolis or a struggling town with a low cost of living — doesn’t make a lot of sense.” So it’s also fucking smug. Now again, this is a morally responsible journalist. Someone who’s intellectually curious would ask bigger questions rather than sort of going up to like literally a bunch of starving people having to choose between eating and diapers and going, ‘you don’t get economics, you fucking idiot.’

Nima: To discuss this more we’re going to be joined by our first guest, Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and President of the organization Just Foreign Policy. His latest book is Failed: What the Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy. Mark is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Mark Weisbrot: Thank you for inviting me.

Nima: In the recent CNN Democratic primary debate, two candidates, Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren got into a little bit of a verbal scuffle over this automation versus bad trade policy discourse, you know, which has been most harmful to working people in this country? Mark, can you talk a little bit about what this debate is actually about, what maybe its limitations are and how the left, such as it is, often views this threat of automation as being kind of this uber evil as opposed to say something seemingly maybe more benign but possibly more destructive such as say bad trade policy?

Mark Weisbrot: Yes. Well there were 3.4 million manufacturing jobs lost from December of 2000 to December of 2007 and the most important factor was almost certainly the expansion of the trade deficit during that period. There was a huge expansion from 2000 and 2007 the trade deficit went to a peak of 6 percent of GDP in 2005 and 2006, that’s really huge for this country. So Andrew Yang was wrong and Elizabeth Warren was correct in that by saying it was trade, but trade is not the whole story either. So trade was definitely, I think the most important policy during that period that contributed to the loss of 3.4 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007 and so that’s very important because the, a lot of the media does not recognize that. And so what else was there though that contributed to the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, you know, in the 21st century, let’s say, or even in the previous periods? And what else contributes to that? Because you always have the automation thing is actually a distraction because you always have automation, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s look at the things that actually do cause manufacturing jobs loss or cause the manufacturing jobs that are lost due to technological change not to be replaced as they were in the past. And first of all, you have not only the trade agreements that we’re talking about, you know, like NAFTA and the TPP, which encourage the offshoring of employment, but you also have exchange rate policy. When the dollar is overvalued, so, in other words, when the dollar rises relative to other currencies in the world and it rises too far in its value, then our exports become more expensive and our imports become artificially cheap. And we’d had a policy in this country of having an overvalued dollar, it’s been openly stated. They call it a strong dollar policy. They don’t tell you that’s kind of like having a strong influenza virus. It’s not a good thing for the dollar to be too strong. And that’s, I think, had even more influence than the trade agreements in having unbalanced trade, a trade deficit and all the policies that follow from that, including the loss of employment. So that’s a big part of it. And then you also have the other macro economic policies of the government. So that was exchange rate. And then there’s also fiscal policy and monetary policy. If the Fed, as often in the past, does not do its job as we would want it to do and they fact, for example, caused all, they triggered all of the post World War II recessions, except for the last two, that causes a loss of jobs. And there you actually have had some progress too, by the way. I would say in Fed policy right now, that’s another story we can go into it if you want. But that’s the policy. And then also there’s fiscal policy, the government can use spending to make up for the effect of international events or automation or anything else that reduces job creation.

Adam: Right. So we take this thing, this kind of dark matter we call the free market, this kind of amoral entity that’s sort of treated as a law of nature that just can’t be stopped. So the organization that you run and had been doing so for 20 years, CEPR, has been dealing with these issues for some time now. And you mention often that productivity and the public misunderstanding of productivity is sort of the core issue here when you talk about job losses and automation. Can you talk about the general public misconception around productivity and how the media portrays it in a way that’s not very constructive?

Mark Weisbrot: Well, that’s a good example of a concept that’s widely not understood and should be. And the media could help a lot in that case because if you look at the idea that, you know, we’re losing our jobs to robots and automation, if that were true, then it would show up in productivity. Productivity, the simplest measure of productivity that is the standard use is labor productivity. There’s how much output there is divided by the amount of hours of labor that it takes to produce them.

Adam: Right.

Mark Weisbrot: And so that generally grows almost every year. And the rate of growth is how living standards increase, right? Because a society that can produce more with the same amount of labor is going to be a richer society. And that’s true at every level of development. And so of course how it’s distributed is the other part and that’s gotten more press right? Because, but still they don’t use productivity enough even there. So for example, wages from 1946 to ’73 they basically kept up. The median wage kept up with productivity increases. And so people’s income, people’s living salaries increased quite a lot. And then there became a gap between productivity growth, which continued to grow and wage growth. So that you do see out there, not nearly as much as you should be, you should see it. But on the automation question, you have this idea that robots are going to wipe out our jobs and so on. And if this were true, if robots were really replacing jobs or automation, cause, you know, you had automation long before there were robots, there was an assembly line, okay? And there were factories and there always, there’s always technological change that displaces labor. And that shows up in productivity growth because if you have a technological change that increases productivity, that by itself is going to displace labor, right? And so look at productivity growth from 1948 to ’73 it was 2.8 percent a year annually. Okay. And then look at it the last 13 years, it’s 1.3 percent. This is a huge difference. Okay? It’s a decrease from 2.8 to 1.3 percent so productivity growth is actually very slow right now. That’s again, labor productivity and the non-farm business sector. That’s a standard measure. And that shows that the pace of automation is not displacing labor at anywhere near the rate that it did in the sixties or seventies for example.

Nima: So you’re saying, Mark, that the robots need to be working a lot harder? (Laughs.)

Mark Weisbrot: Well, what it means is that the things that kept us from increasing unemployment in the past — not right now of course, cause we do have low overall unemployment — but the problem we had in the last couple of decades is that you didn’t have the job creation that you used to have, the rate of job creation, to replace the jobs that were lost due to automation as they did in the past. And what does that mean? That means that it’s either the trade deficit, as we’ve discussed, because of that, okay, so we’re not producing as much here, running a trade deficit that’s going to subtract from the economy by itself. Or it could be that our Federal Reserve raised interest rates too high or kept them too high for too long. Or it could be because our government was too afraid of running deficits when they needed to.

Nima: I think something that we’ve been discussing a lot is how to dissect where the fear should be reasonably placed. Right? Or rather what we are told we should be afraid of consistently by the media, by politicians. There’s going to be a jobless future. Right? The end of work, we hear all the time, and what you’re saying is not only is that kind of not a threat — namely because automation does not continue at least now at the pace that it would actually get rid of all jobs, robots are not working that hard — but Mark, can you kind of tell us where we should be looking in terms of what the actual threats are to the economy at this point? And yes, this is a leading question, we are allowed to actually talk about the owners of things in the answer to this question.

Mark Weisbrot: Yeah. Well obviously the big problem that is being talked about thanks to people like Bernie Sanders, you know, he’s the one who really put it all into the Democratic Party platforms of various candidates, is inequality. And of course this has a whole number of remedies. One is you keep unemployment low and that we have right now we have to keep it there. So then we have to talk about the policies that will do that. But then you also have to increase obviously the power of union. And that’s where the owners of course resist enormously. I mean, we’ve had the labor law reform on the agenda since the Carter years and no president has done it. And I mean the basic, just restoring the right of workers to organize unions to what it used to be, you know?

Adam: Right.

Mark Weisbrot: So you have to increase the power of labor if you want labor to get even just the productivity gangs that are there. And I have to say even Powell, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, who’s a Republican, said in his testimony recently when people were pushing him, you know, that maybe it’s time to raise interest rates because unemployment is getting so low and it’s driving wages up. It’s going to drive prices up. I mean, that’s the usual story that they give. And he said, no, you know, income has shifted from labor to capital.

Nima: (Chuckles.) Right.

Mark Weisbrot: So it’s very surprising from a Chair of the Federal Reserve. And he said, no, there’s catch-up too. You know? And yeah, there’s a lot of catch-up to do because we’ve had so many years of shifting income from capital labor and labor to capital. What should we really be afraid of? We should be afraid of this crushing inequality that makes people struggle so much. You know, people live from paycheck to paycheck even when they have a job. And so what do we have to do? Well, that’s again, it’s increasing, primarily it’s increasing the power of labor, but it’s also economic policy and that economic policy, the most important ones, are things that people either misunderstand or don’t pay enough attention to. One is the Federal Reserve. They’re the first ones that’ll push it into the next recession if it happens. And, you know, they already raised interest rates like eight times, you know, the last few years. And there was no legitimate reason to do it, even according to their own criteria. Inflation was below their target inflation rate. So there was no excuse for that. And now you have a lot of Democrats saying, well, don’t pick on the Fed because Trump is picking on them. But, you know, sorry.

Nima: (Laughing.) ‘They’re our new best friend. They’re part of the resistance folks, leave them alone. Leave the Fed alone.’

Mark Weisbrot: Okay. Obviously this year they’ve finally started to realize their mistake in lowering interest rates, but they didn’t have to raise it and that was risky and that was bad. And so monetary policy is one of the biggest things and that’s where I say there really has been progress. And this again is a result of grassroots organizing. Now you have this, this discussion over Fed policy that we never had. You know, we never had in the nineties or the two thousands. The Fed just did what it did and it was like trade policy before NAFTA, you know, nobody even looked at it.

Adam: Okay, now you guys have been doing this for 20 years as we mentioned, when you started in 1999 you were in the wilderness. That conversation has shifted over the last few years. We, earlier in the show, we ran through a list of headlines saying about how NAFTA was inevitable. Globalization is going to happen, whether or not we like it. And you were one of a few lone voices pushing back against that inevitability and trying to show the real human costs of these transitions, this sort of quote unquote “creative destruction” the sort of destruction side of it. And forgive me, I know this is sort of a big question, but what has shifted in the debate? And I assume this is partially animated by what the failures of the Thomas Friedman crowd was in terms of delivering on the promises that were made, what promises were made around that time that never came to fruition. And what do you think the media role in that was?

Mark Weisbrot: Yeah, well that’s quite a lot there.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Mark Weisbrot: You know, I’d love to say it was because of us, you know, cause we were the first ones out there on a lot of these issues, but it’s not. And in fact it was because I think more of the, the grassroots organizing and the groups that got out there and fought and helped these grassroots movements, you know, Public Citizen, um, Trade, for example, and some of the environmental groups, the Sierra Club and a lot of others, I shouldn’t even name them because I’m leaving most of them out but those are the ones I think of right away. But that’s what did the most, and some of it was around elections as well. And the Trans Pacific Partnership was quite an amazing victory that that was defeated. And I think that was a lot of forces within the Democratic Party, including Bernie Sanders. Of course, who was running for president and he forced even Hilary Clinton to say that she was against it as well.

Adam: Right. Which there’s literally no one believed. Like, even her biggest supporters were telling people ‘oh she doesn’t really believe this.’

Mark Weisbrot: A lot of people didn’t believe it and I think that’s one of the reasons that she lost too. I mean, there was an analysis from Public Citizen that showed that the number of votes in those four swing states was much less than the people who were just displaced, officially recognized by the federal government of having been displaced by trade agreements. So that made a big difference. But I just have to say how important that was and how significant it is historically for something that the entire ruling class of this country wants and wants very badly and the entire national security state, so-called, also wanted it. That’s everybody who’s, you know, anybody in terms of power in this country and they still lost. And that couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t an election year, but it also couldn’t have happened if you didn’t have these kinds of movements and all the hard work of all the years that finally spilled over into the mainstream where you have mainstream economists even then say, well, yeah, you know, you did have a lot of workers displaced by these trade agreements and so the media couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Adam: Right. Well, uh, before we let you go, is there anything that CEPR’s up to, can you say what’s on the docket for the next 20 years?

Mark Weisbrot: Oh, 20 years? I don’t have a 20 year plan.

Adam: In 2016, and 17 years from now we’re going to stop a major trade agreement. Was that on your-?

Nima: On your bucket list?

Mark Weisbrot: I don’t know if they’re going to get one, uh, get close to one again. Uh, well I don’t know if I should say this here, if it’s too far off topic, but I think one of the biggest fights that we have and it affects workers here in the US as well, you know, that trade deficit that I just talked about, part of that was result of what the IMF did in Asia in the Asian financial crisis. That it produced a huge surge in our trade deficit because they wrecked all of these economies. And I think because partly we also work a lot and care a lot about people and the other 7 billion people on the planet, I think we’re going to make some progress on the IMF to reduce the harm that they cause in the world.

Nima: That is a great place to leave it. Usually we end our interviews on the saddest possible note, but thank you Mark for kind of lifting us up there. I think that’s fantastic. Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, President of Just Foreign Policy. His latest book is Failed: What the Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy. Mark, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Mark Weisbrot: Thank you.


Adam: Yeah, CEPR is one of those uh, sort of like Sanders, where they kind of were right and just kind of waited until they were old to be validated and now they’re hip again. So I don’t think kids these days don’t really appreciate it. And I was like 14 when this was going on.

Nima: I was already 43.

Adam: But kids these days don’t really appreciate how in the wilderness, we’re talking, you know, 1999 when CEPR started, it was the peak Clintonian era. We had the fucking Matrix. We all watched American Beauty. The West Wing just premiered, it was like peak neoliberalism. The height of subversiveness was like being super angry at the suburbs, but there wasn’t really a lot of pro-labor, pro-union activism. There was some of course, but there was basically no money for it. So, uh, but now the center of gravity is moved, which is not good for us. Our goal is always to tell you things that are going really badly propaganda-wise, but in many ways, you have to sort of acknowledge that the dialogue around these things has totally changed.

Nima: Right. Which is what Mark was actually saying, which is I think kind of interesting and actually new for this show Adam.

Adam: Some things do get better. Uh, I would say that only like on the issue of, even since we premiered our first episode on charter schools in July of 2017, that’s even changed. Even Cory Booker is running away from charter schools and he’s basically a human charter school.

Nima: That’s right. That’s the power of Citations Needed. Um-

Adam: Definitely not taking credit.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: I do think CEPR should take some credit for the changing of discourse around TPP, but no, that was not what I was implying.

Nima: To talk more about automation and the way the media covers this supposed threat we’re going to speak to our next guest writer and researcher Peter Frase. He’s a member of the Jacobin magazine editorial board and author of the book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Peter is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by writer and researcher Peter Frase. Peter, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Peter Frase: Thanks for having me.

Adam: So of all the sort of nebulous catchalls that the media holds up as being responsible for offshoring jobs, layoffs, wage stagnations, etcetera, etcetera, none are more popular than the fear of automation, which you’ve written about quite a bit. You have these sort of two sides of the debate as it were. Automation is a myth and then you have the kind of techno dystopians and the kind of Andrew Yang crowd. I want you to sort of explain to our listeners if you could, what is sort of missing from this dichotomy and what is the sort of real way of approaching the spectre of automation vis-a-vis offsetting jobs or removing jobs, especially the sort of recent iteration with AI and things like that?

Peter Frase: Sure. So there is, as you say, a lot of talk about automation these days and its effect on the economy and on workers. And I think that there’s a lot of related terms here that are thrown around with either unclear or contested definitions that we have to be somewhere careful about. So there’s automation. What does that mean? There’s technology in some sense in the workplace. What is that? And of course people like to throw around the term robots taking our jobs, the robot uprising and so on. And that can be just a shorthand for the other two, for technology or for automation in general, or it can refer to something more specific. When you get politicians, for example, arguing about automation, often they are concerned about the part of automation or of use of technology in the workplace that most directly affects jobs, lay offs, wages, this kind of thing. And for those purposes what we’re talking about is labor saving or productivity increasing automation, which we should keep in mind that in the sense that most economists talk about this, those are just two sides of the same thing. Saving labor, meaning producing more of the same output with fewer workers is the same thing as saying increasing productivity. And of course it’s a premise of, you know, mainstream economic thought that more productivity is good and we want it and we should do whatever is necessary to increase productivity. But all increased productivity means is the flip side of what we’re often talking about when we’re talking about automation is that we’re creating more output with fewer hours of labor input. And so then the question becomes what are the consequences of that going to be? And that’s an important thing to talk about and I think is often not talked about that well. But before we even get there it is worth pointing out that not all automation and not all use of technology in the labor process is labor saving. A lot of it is what I would refer to is labor controlling. So it’s not necessarily just that GM comes up with a new robot that can turn out cars faster with the same number of workers. It can mean things like retail workers whose bosses use scheduling algorithms that can move their schedules around at the last minute, which is more efficient and possibly in some sense labor saving for the boss, but mainly it’s a convenience for them that allows them to sort of manipulate and screw around with their workers schedules at the last minute, which is potentially neither labor saving nor good for workers. Or it can mean things like the GPS trackers that are on UPS drivers for package delivery, which again are as much about just sort of monitoring and micromanaging as they are necessarily about increasing labor productivity. And there’s also forms of automation that push off labor from the worker onto the consumer rather than saving it. Uh, but the most common one people talk about now and maybe is the self checkout machine at the grocery store, which essentially replaces labor not by having the robot check you out by, by having you check yourself out. But the ATM is a much older and more familiar example. The same thing replacing bank tellers with machines, which is saving labor from the perspective of the boss, but it’s not saving really total labor. It’s just making the customer do more labor. So all of that stuff to keep in mind, but even if we restrict ourselves to this narrow sense of automation that you would hear an Andrew Yang or someone like that talking about, meaning labor saving automation, there’s some things that we should keep in mind when we’re talking about this. The biggest one for me is that automation or, you know, increased productivity through the application of technology is a possibility that’s posed by a capitalist economy of the kind we live in, but it’s not an inevitability and it’s not something that automatically comes in from the outside. It really depends on both political choices that we make, but also the way the workers are organized and how powerful they are. And moving on from that, it’s also important to keep in mind that there’s this two sided quality to increased productivity and therefore to automation, which socialists and radicals have long recognized, which is that on the one hand increased productivity and labor saving technology hold out the potential for abundance for some kind of post scarcity way of life, or at least for a world where we can all work fewer hours than we do now. But of course that only happens in a particular political balance of forces in which we all share in the benefits of technological change rather than simply being thrown out of work or being thrown from good paying jobs into worse paying jobs. So that’s sort of where I would want to frame this discussion is sort of first of all is rapid automation happening? If not, why not? And under what circumstances might it happen and how might that turn out better or worse for bosses and companies and for workers?

Nima: Right. I think that it kind of gets to a level above the jobless future and end of work canards that I think we hear a lot that there’s actually a deeper thing going on and Peter, you’ve actually written that all of these kinds of warnings about automation are quote “Not as arguments against higher wages but arguments rather for them.” You continue “Workers, in the course of fighting for their interests, drive the dialectic that forces capitalists to find less labor-intensive ways of producing. The next political task, then, is to make sure that the benefits of such innovation accrue to the masses, and not to a small class of robot owners.” End quote. Which is actually what you were just getting to. Can you kind of unpack this and show us how we get abundance from what we currently perceive, I think incorrectly, as a scarcity society, while using advancements in computerization, robotization technology writ large, how do we get there?

Peter Frase: So one of the curious things that you find that comes up a lot in this recent wave of automation anxiety, as I like to call it, is this peculiar question of whether it’s actually happening. And let me explain specifically what I mean by that. You alluded, I think, earlier to the fact that you have these people who kind of breathlessly predict massive automation and rapid displacement of workers and then there’s also a school of people, including some very good left-wing economists, who basically make the case that this is all overblown and a distraction and it isn’t really happening. And the reason that they tend to say that it’s not really happening is because if you look at the published government economic statistics, productivity growth has not been particularly high in this recent period and say in the last 10 or 20 years, which is directly contrary to what you would expect to see if in fact we were seeing some kind of rapid historically unprecedented adoption of labor saving technologies, we would expect to see that output per worker should be growing unusually fast. And it hasn’t been. And so one way to read that is to say, well, this just means that this is all a bunch of bunk and we should just forget about it and go back to more important things like Medicare for All and unionization and all the traditional things that I’m also for politically. But my response to that is that there’s a different, or maybe more interesting or more useful way of thinking about this, which is that the failure of the robots to appear, the failure of rapid productivity growth is not unrelated to the fact that workers have been beaten down in the sense of wages having been stagnant for decades, of unions having become much weaker, of the protections of labor law and the welfare state having become much weaker. All these things are not unrelated to productivity growth in fact there is a pretty simple case you can make even with the tools of more mainstream economics that says that the weakness of workers themselves is the explanation for the lack of productivity growth. That is the explanation for a lack of automation. And the basic idea here is just that the technology might be there, but any rational capitalist is only going to deploy it if it economically makes sense relative to what they could be doing instead. And the advantage that the machine potentially has is that it’s cheaper than the worker and possibly also less demanding and ornery and difficult to manage than the worker. But if workers are weak and disorganized and powerless and can be paid very little money then they make more sense than machine, or rather from the perspective of the boss, they just are another kind of machine. We are just another kind of machine.

Nima: Right.

Adam: So I’m, I’m fascinated most from a media criticism perspective, less by the kind of soothsaying element of this, but specifically the ways in which automation or the spectre of automation is used as a veiled threat by capitalist against labor. You see this time and time again, the McDonald’s CEO for the past 10 years has been warning about replacing cashiers with kiosks. We talked about earlier, Vox ran three articles and about a year long period, Timothy Lee, repeating the McDonald’s saying he’s going to bring in the kiosk if they demand $15 minimum wage, $15 minimum wage is going to be the death keel of the worker. So even if one is given to that McDonald’s can do that or can do that to some extent, to what extent does reporting and automation in the aggregate kind of serve as a kind of, I don’t want to say PSYOP, but PR effort to quell labor demands? To say ‘don’t get too cute, Fight for $15’ — or god forbid $18 or $20 minimum wage — ‘or else we’re going to replace you by HAL.’

Peter Frase: I mean, I certainly think that it can function that way. I think in some ways, part of what I’ve tried to do in the work I’ve done and the arguments I’ve tried to make in this space, is to say that in some ways how effective that is depends on the stance that the left and the labor movement takes on these questions and on the question of jobs. And in particular whether we sort of buy into this premise that jobs are inherently good and we should defend them at all costs rather than maybe zooming it out a little farther and saying. okay, the point here is that we want everyone to have their needs met, we want everyone to be able to live a decent life, we want everyone to be able to secure they the income they need to survive. None of that, in my view anyway, is really served in the best or most utopian way by people working as cashiers at McDonald’s.

Adam: Right. But there’s sort of the abstract issue of like in theory we should be doing massive wealth redistribution, so forth. But in the more immediate sense, obviously the people who represent fast food workers, that may seem a little academic cause, I mean, I guess what you’re saying is that the more important question is how do we sort of wrestle political power away from capitalists to redistribute wealth, right? Is that, is that a fair summation of what you’re saying?

Peter Frase: It is because I think that for as pragmatic as it might initially seem to say, well we’re just concerned with these particular workers here and we can’t necessarily win all this other stuff. The problem with that is that it kind of commits you to being on the side of keeping wages low because in the end it isn’t just sort of personal greed or you know malevolence that causes people, you know, that causes employers replace workers with machines and that’s where it is a threat. It’s empty or the political rhetoric because obviously they will deploy these technologies at whatever point they think that it is going to be the best business decision for them to do so. And the thing that they’re implying by saying this essentially, it is that this is why you have to accept low wages forever. And so I think that should be cluing us in that we need a response to that that doesn’t sort of accept the inevitability of these jobs being low wage. And unless you’re going to found a politics just on a sort of generalized opposition to the introduction of labor saving technology, which not impossible once you do that though I would argue that there are some very, very serious political downsides to pushing it in that direction rather than by saying that like the use of these technologies, it does on a global level supposedly increase our social wealth and that wealth can be taken in the form of redistribution and shorter working hours and, you know, basic income and all these sorts of things.

Nima: You’ve written something that I find absolutely fascinating. There’s a term that’s used all the time that I think many of our listeners will be familiar with the term “Luddite” shorthand for people who either don’t understand or actively hate technology, but the term itself has a really fascinating origin that actually is quite different than just that sort of you’re a hater on what is new and inevitable. Peter, can you kind of unpack some of this history for us and explain where the term Luddite comes from and maybe a slightly richer origin story than what we’re meant to believe?

Peter Frase: Sure. So the part of the story that most people know to some degree is that the Luddites were a group of English artists and workers, and they’re named for a guy named Ned Lud, who was one of their leaders, who are, have gone down in history as the machine breakers, the people who smashed the new machinery that they saw as taking away their jobs in the Industrial Revolution. And so Luddite is taken out as this term that’s meant to denote people who are just against technology or in some versions against progress just as such. And if you look at what the Luddites were about and what they were doing, I think it’s the lesson in this larger point that I sort of was making earlier, which is that these arguments about automation and work are not arguments fundamentally about technology. They are fundamentally about workers and about the power of workers.

Nima: Yeah. Control.

Peter Frase: Right. And what the Luddites recognized, and what you’ll see if you read the work of, for example, uh, the famous Marx historian Eric Hobsbawm, who wrote an essay about that sort of reexamining the Luddites and there’s many others who’ve written about this. But if you read some of these histories and think about what the Luddites were about, they were not an anti-technology movement, right? They weren’t the Unabomber. What they were were people that recognize that particular technologies in their industry were being introduced and in a way that was going to immiserate them and displace them, impoverish them with no compensation. And that sabotage, the breaking of machines, was one of the tactics they had at their disposal in order to try to get concessions out of the boss. Because that was the point, concessions from the boss and from the ruling class, not simply the destruction of machines, which is why, you know, they had all kinds of other tactics at their disposables, they would go to the boss’s house and smash that up too. Not because they were opposed to houses, it was because that was one of the labor techniques that they had at their disposal that worked because the boss would pay attention to it. And so I think we should remember that history. Remember the Luddites as a particular chapter in the history of workers struggles over technology in the workplace rather than as some kind of debate over whether it’s good or bad to have advanced labor saving technology.

Adam: Well that makes sense. So in your opinion, when a plant closes because people say that they can get labor cheaper elsewhere or it’s simply a product of sort of vague technological changes in the market, you know, PepsiCo’s laying off employees as the company because of automation or the Charlotte Observer says that Wells Fargo shifts jobs overseas because of efficiency or Apple dismisses 200 self driving car employees because of AI. To what extent, that’s obviously true, right? That is objectively true a lot of times, but it does seem like it can be a bit of a catchall. It’s a way of sort of, you can use it for anything, right? So when The Washington Post closes its newspaper and says, ‘well we did it because too many people are reading mobile.’ Like obviously that’s objectively true but it sort of seems like it’s a sort of get out of jail free card. How do you think journalists, specifically labor journalists should go about sort of interrogating those claims? Should they accept them at face value or should there be sort of maybe a way of saying, okay, well yes that may be true but this is somewhat self-serving?

Peter Frase: Well I guess the starting point would have to be that all of these decisions are being made because somebody thinks that, it’s not for any other reason than that somebody thinks their profits could be higher than they already are if certain decisions that are made including those about laying people off, moving production from one place or another. And pointing it at technology is easier because partly because of this larger discourse we’ve been talking about, technology is portrayed as though it’s a thing that just sort of appears from the outside rather than a thing that is developed within the context of a particular balance of forces between workers and employers that’s deployed or not deployed, depending on those balances of forces. And so, I don’t know, maybe you could call it a catchall or you could just sort of say it’s one of the more palatable ways of saying, ‘I did this thing because I think it’s going to make more money than me or for my shareholders.’

Adam: Yeah. I don’t think any CEO is like the bad guy from Captain Planet, you know, where they would sort of like destroy the earth just for the LOLs. Like there was no real, you never like, well, there’s no real motivation for it. Like I’m not, I’m not sort of saying they’re doing it because they’re evil, but of course there’s always, yeah, there’s always some ledger somewhere that says we can do it cheaper this way and generate more profit that way. I guess a better way to put it would be that it’s a way of sort of shifting the burden to where it’s not like a bunch of people making a decision, but it’s this inevitable thing. Right?

Peter Frase: Right. And of course you do also have to keep an eye out at this particular moment in the economic cycle for the things that are just straight up fraudulent. I mentioned sort of labor saving technology and labor controlling technology.

Adam: I’m sorry, but correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of AI is, has a lot of Mechanical Turk elements to it, right? They’re sort of like a room full of people in Malaysia or something doing a lot of the — ?

Peter Frase: Yeah, this is definitely, it’s something that you see is that, yeah, stuff like your, you know, automatic your Siri or whatever it is supposed to recognize your voice and all of this is supposedly being done by computers and of course a lot of it is being done by computers, but then when you get into the, some part of whether it’s processing voice commands, whether it’s doing image classifying or various other things that there’s a human element, whether it can be, yeah, the low wage labor in India that’s contracted to do this stuff for a very cheap, there’s also, there’s a technique that’s very euphemistically called sometimes “human computation,” which is just another way of pushing stuff off onto the consumer that I talked about before. Like, so when you go to a website where you just click the thing that says, ‘I’m going to prove I’m not a robot,’ and it makes you click where it has a stop sign in it or whatever.

Nima: Yeah, sure.

Peter Frase: That was designed to actually have two purposes. One purpose is to do what it says, is to prove that you’re not a robot, but the other purpose is to actually have you perform a productive tasks that robots are not good at, which is image recognition and that stuff is actually going into image databases that they’re being used for other purposes that have nothing to do with whatever website you’re on. Really it’s just a way of getting people to do work for you for free.

Adam: Speaking of which, my favorite thing in the world is the way they appeal to your ego, like the self checkout line at Walgreens. You know if there’s two people in that line and two people in the normal line, like so many people are like, ‘oh, I can check myself out.’ But like by definition the person who does this process every day, all day, 40 hours a week, by definition will do it better than you. It’s just appealing to your ego. It’s wonderful. It’s brilliant.

Peter Frase: It’s true. And I think it’s worth thinking about in these instances, to not think of them necessarily as being inherently good or bad, like in a self-checkout example, I would tend to agree that these are like, I would just rather have a cashier who knows what they’re doing bagging groceries for me. However, I would not particularly like to go back to a world where I have to like find a live bank teller in order to take out money.

Adam: Yeah, yeah, totally.

Peter Frase: So it’s one of those things where again it’s like we can just think back to the both the politics and just sort of the kind of everyday life critique of like are these things making our lives better in some meaningful way even if it’s a contradictory one or are they actually just making our lives worse so that somebody can make more money somewhere?

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: So Peter, before we go, we are curious about what you are up to these days. You have written a book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, but what is on tap for your future, what can we look forward to?

Peter Frase: I would encourage people to follow me @pefrase — P-E-F-R-A-S-E — on Twitter and check out my homepage PeterFrase.com where I tend to post updates and stuff about what I’ve got going and what I’m writing.

Nima: Awesome. Everyone should absolutely do that and with that we will leave it there. Writer and researcher Peter Frase, member of Jacobin’s editorial board and author of the book, as I just mentioned, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Peter, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today on Citations Needed.

Peter Frase: Yep. Thank you all for having me.


Adam: I think that sort of thought about what we do when we, how we sort of wrestle power away from the capitalists is much bigger than simply fighting for low wage jobs, although of course you need higher wages in the short term. But in the long term, I do think that, uh, we have to address the, the ways in which the productivity gains and there’s a chart we’ll have in our show notes where you see productivity gains going up per worker, whereas the actual wealth itself is obviously not going to the worker. Wages are stagnant and or down and there’s massive underemployment. So I think that’s a question that’s outside the scope of this particular episode, but certainly one that we’re thinking about. Definitely check out his piece in Jacobin.

Nima: Well, I think that’s a really good place to leave it. Thank you everyone for listening to this episode of Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We are 100 percent listener-funded. The way we can keep doing this is because of our wonderful listeners and none more so than our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and writing for this episode by Julianne Tveten. The newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, October 30, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.