Automation and New Tasks

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Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, “Automation and New Tasks: The Implications of the Task Content of Production for Labor Demand.” Prepared for Journal of Economic Perspectives, November 6, 2018.

This paper really helped me think more systematically about the impact of automation on the demand for labor, something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. My last post on the subject, which also featured a paper by Acemoglu and Restrepo, is here.

Technology and labor demand

One of the key issues is how to reconcile the recent concern that robotics will destroy too many good jobs with the traditional optimism of economists about the effects of technology. Throughout most of U.S. history, new technologies like farm machinery or industrial assembly lines have not stood in the way of economy-wide gains in labor demand, as reflected in real wages per capita. And yet, too many workers today are experiencing unemployment or wage loss because of automation. How do we sort this out in a way that enables us to anticipate where we may be headed and formulate sensible policy responses?

Acemoglu and Restrepo conceptualize the labor demand of an industry as a product of “value added” and “labor share”:

Labor demand = Value added x Labor share

Value added is an industry’s addition to economic output and income. Labor share is the portion of that added value that is received by labor. Labor demand is the resulting wages per capita.

The authors say that economists have primarily conceptualized technological progress as “factor-augmenting.” That is, new technologies increase the productivity of labor or machinery or both. More productive factors of production mean more value added. Assuming that labor’s share doesn’t decline, labor demand as reflected in real wages ought to increase. “Factor augmenting technologies affect labor demand mostly via the productivity effect and have a small impact on the labor share of an industry.” That was the experience, for example, of manufacturing industries in the mid-20th century.

However, an analysis that focuses on value added while holding labor share constant is not complete. Technological change can also effect how much labor is needed in a particular process of production, and how much of the income from that process goes to workers.

The task content of production

The authors’ key concept is the task content of production, which involves the allocation of tasks between labor and capital (the latter including machines and software). Focusing on the potential of new technologies to add value “often misses the major implications of technological changes that directly alter the allocation of tasks to factors.”

What makes the implications of automation hard to assess is that it has contradictory effects on labor demand–a productivity effect and a displacement effect. By raising productivity and increasing value added, it increases the potential income to be distributed to the human workers who remain. But by replacing labor with machinery, it reduces labor’s share of income. Whether wages actually rise or fall depends on the relative strength of the two effects.

To complicate things further, displaced labor does not necessarily go missing from an industry, let alone the economy as a whole. The introduction of new tasks for humans to do has a reinstatement effect that raises the labor share of production and therefore labor demand. (Personally, I’m not too fond of the term “reinstatement”, since it sounds as if workers are getting their old jobs back, which is not at all what is intended. I would prefer the term “redeployment”.) But whatever term is used, the point is important. As machines take over familiar tasks, humans can move into new economic activities where they have some advantage over machines, especially because of their general intelligence, flexibility and creativity. This has been true in the past, and how much it remains true in the robotic age is an important question for the future of work.

Labor demand in a multi-sector economy

When the authors move from discussing individual industries to discussing the entire economy, they introduce an additional effect on labor demand, the composition effect. This occurs when labor moves from one economic sector to another, and the sectors differ in labor demand. If workers move out of a sector where wages and labor’s share of added value are falling, and into a sector where they are higher, that contributes positively to labor demand.

The classic example of this process is the mechanization of agriculture, “which started in the first half of the 19th century with the cotton gin and continued with horse-powered reapers, harvesters and plows later in the century and with tractors and combine harvesters in the 20th century.” That process displaced massive amounts of farm labor and reduced labor’s share of agricultural activity and income. Much of that displaced labor went into manufacturing. Manufacturing was mechanizing too, but it maintained labor demand by increasing output and creating new manufacturing tasks. “The composition and reinstatement effects explain why, despite the mechanization of a sector making up a third of the economy [agriculture in 1850], labor demand increased and the share of labor in national income remained stable during this period.”

Labor demand 1947-1987

For two recent periods, Acemoglu and Restrepo analyze changes in labor demand, measuring the relative contributions of the effects they have discussed. They chart developments in six industries: agriculture, mining, manufacturing, construction, transportation and services.

The postwar era of 1947-1987 was a period of strong labor demand and rising real wages, which grew at an average rate of 2.4% per year.

Nothing comparable to the displacement of labor by the mechanization of agriculture occurred during this time. The only industries to suffer a loss of labor share were the relatively small industries of mining and transportation.

There was some displacement of labor due to automation in the large manufacturing industry, but it was offset by the creation of new manufacturing jobs, such as managerial and clerical jobs in corporate bureaucracies, as well as jobs in the expanding service industries. “[T]here was plenty of automation, especially in manufacturing, but this was accompanied with the introduction of new tasks (or other changes increasing the task content of production in favor of labor) in both manufacturing and the rest of the economy that offset the adverse labor demand consequences of automation.”

With displacements due to automation balanced by reinstatements due to the creation of new tasks, labor’s share of output and income remained steady. The increase in actual real wages that occurred is accounted for almost entirely by the other effect that supports labor demand, higher productivity. New technologies added value, and labor got its share of that added value in the form of higher real wages.

If technological change always worked that way, we wouldn’t be so worried about the future. But there was trouble ahead. In their data for those years, we can already see labor’s share within manufacturing peaking around 1980 and starting downward.

Labor demand 1987-2017

In this more recent period, wage growth was slower, averaging only 1.3% per year.

Labor demand suffered in both ways suggested by the same formula:

Labor demand = Value added x Labor share

Value added increased more slowly because of slower growth in productivity. In addition, labor’s share of value added declined in manufacturing, construction and mining. That was because labor displacement due to automation accelerated, while labor reinstatement due to new task creation slowed down.

Deeper explanations for these trends are harder to agree on. One puzzle is why the accelerating automation hasn’t done more to raise productivity. The authors point out that productivity gains from automation depend on the actual superiority of machines over humans for a given task. A rush to automate because a company gets caught up in a wave of technological enthusiasm or receives a tax break on new equipment may not be that helpful.

This analysis clarifies that automation will reduce labor demand when the productivity effect is not very large. Contrary to a common presumption in popular debates, it is not the “brilliant” automation technologies but those that are “so-so” and generate only small productivity improvements that will reduce labor demand. This is because the positive productivity effect of so-so technologies is not sufficient to offset the decline in labor demand due to displacement.

Favoring machines over human workers may also result in a lack of investment in education and training:

…[T]here may be a mismatch between the available skills of the workforce and the needs for new technologies, which could further reduce productivity gains from automation and hamper the introduction of new tasks—because the lack of requisite skills reduces the efficiency with which new technologies can be deployed.

The future of work

By considering a variety of things affecting labor demand, Acemoglu and Restrepo avoid a simple preoccupation with a positive factor like the productivity effect or a negative factor like the displacement effect. “Our evidence and conceptual approach support neither the claims that the end of human work is imminent nor the presumption that technological change will always and everywhere be favorable to labor.” It will be the balance of the various effects that will matter.

The authors don’t make specific policy recommendations, but some very general prescriptions follow from their analysis. We shouldn’t be afraid to automate tasks where machines have a clear advantage, since the gains in value added are too good to pass up. But we should also enhance the value of human labor, both by giving the workers who remain in automating industries their share of the gains, and also by investing in the education and training workers need to perform new tasks that humans can do better than machines. Where private employers don’t find it profitable to nurture and reward human labor, government must play a strong role for the general good.

As it stands now, too much displaced labor is crowding into low-skill, low-tech, low-wage work. That is a waste of both our human and technological resources. A jobless future where robots work, their owners get rich, and most people live off public assistance is also a dismal prospect. If we are to have a hi-tech economy, let it be one where the average worker can reap the benefits in creative work, good pay, and rewarding leisure.

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