Return Of The Luddites: Technology Must Be Stealing Your Job

from the if-it-ain't-offshoring,-it's-that-damn-technology dept

Many realize that offshoring is really no different than automation – it’s just that with offshoring jobs are going to people in other countries, and with automation, jobs are going to computers. In both cases, it is not at all fun to be caught up in the transition, where a job may be lost, and a set of well-honed skills may seem useless. However, it’s part of the usual advance of civilization, and the end results always lead to new jobs, that are often more appealing than the old jobs. Still, too many seem to forget that we can, and do, adapt. Cheaper inputs open up many new opportunities for new types of jobs that never existed before. The problem, though, is that once people realize that offshoring and automation are the same thing, they’re turning their anger (incorrectly) towards automation as well. Over a century ago, Luddites went around destroying machinery because they thought it was destroying their livelihood. Instead, it was the beginning of the industrial revolution that did much more to help everyone than to destroy livelihoods.

Now, it seems the Luddites have returned, and they’re completely ignoring history. The Guardian has published an opinion piece by Jeremy Rifkin predicting that all this technology stuff is going to throw everyone out of work. He makes a number of logical mistakes, starting with the most obvious: assuming that this is all a zero-sum game. If the jobs go to computers, then the jobs are gone. This ignores the fact that in making the costs of production cheaper, new opportunities are created. We used to have telephone operators who needed to connect each line to make a phone call. Eventually, we replaced them with switching technology that started an entire communications revolution – none of which would have been possible with human operators. Can you imagine dialing up the internet if you needed someone at the local phone company to patch you in to AOL? Rifkin’s steel example is terribly misleading. He paints a picture suggesting that every American steel worker that lost his or her job never found another job and assumes that cheaper steel hasn’t led to many other cheaper products that have increased jobs and opportunities in other industries. Finally, and most glaringly, Rifkin misuses “productivity” as if that’s the most important measure of economic activity. Productivity is just a ratio of output per worker – and doesn’t (as he seems to assume) mean that fewer workers are needed. It just means that we can produce more at lower costs, meaning there’s more opportunity for everyone. Rifkin argues that economists are ignoring that the system no longer works, but presents no real evidence that this is the case. He also concludes by stating a “paradox” that is no paradox at all. He claims that with all this “productivity” (not output) there won’t be anyone left who can afford to by the products. If that’s truly the case, then wouldn’t the market correct itself? Why would I produce 1,000 widgets if there are only 10 people in the world rich enough to buy one?

There absolutely are very important social issues that we need to be aware of concerning the impact on very real lives due to offshoring and automation. We need to promote systems that encourage job creation and job training for those most impacted by the changing economy. What we don’t need are fear mongering reports leading to racial hatred and technology bashing. That helps no one, and harms almost everyone.

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Comments on “Return Of The Luddites: Technology Must Be Stealing Your Job”

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Carey says:

No Subject Given

You ignore one important facet of history though. It is true that the jobs lost to the Industrial Revolution were made up for by those created by the Industrial Revolution. However, one can argue with the quality of said jobs. Before that moment in history, many jobs had been mostly craft-based. Afterwards though, the oppressive factory job became the norm as urbanization swept nation after nation. The Luddites were not only protesting the loss of jobs but the loss of high-quality trade jobs for almost slave wage jobs in dangerous conditions. That conditions became so bad that the first modern labor unions were born should say something. Just because they were anti-technology in this pursuit doesn’t mean they didn’t have some good points.

dorpus says:

Rust Belt

Yup, there are parts of the USA that have never recovered from the loss of factory jobs. People did everything they were supposed to do — those that could afford it went to college, got advanced degrees. The region remains poor with a scarcity of more high-skilled jobs that automation/outsourcing was supposed to bring. People have had to settle for lives as security guards, supermarket cashiers, postal workers.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Rust Belt

Once again, these posts miss the point. We should have better training for these people. However, protectionist plans did nothing to help, and only sped up the process of destroying steel industry jobs.

You can claim that things weren’t great for everyone who it impacted – that’s true. But, if you’re trying to disprove the point you need to also show (a) a better solution and that (b) cheaper steel didn’t help other parts of our economy greatly.

Oliver Wendell Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Rust Belt

Just out of curiosity, Mike, how many people do you know who have lost jobs to outsourcing and have since found ‘better’ or ‘more fun’ jobs than they had before?

I know several people who are currently un-employed (or under-employed – working at McDonalds, etc., until they can find something better) and are having a hard time finding any decent paying job due to their age (45+) as more and more tech jobs are being shipped overseas.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Oil Bust Belt

Just out of curiousity, Oliver, where were you in the mid 80s when 100s of 1000s of high paying oil jobs were exported overseas when oil dropped from nearly $40 a barrel to $10 a barrel, making U.S. production uneconomical and imports from the mid East the most efficient way to get oil in this country? What was the net effect for the economy for cheaper oil versus the mass job losses, huge plunge in real estate prices in oil dependent cities (Houston, Midland, etc.), tax losses, etc. Guess what, the net effect in a country of nearly 300 million people was positive.

The oil bust was order of magnitudes larger and harder compared to the offshoring and what not going on today in a recovering economy. The jobs lost weren’t only high paying engineering positions, but the well paid blue collar guys running the rigs. Rig activity plummeted and to this day domestic U.S. production hasn’t recovered (and all those liberals crying about losing high paying jobs overseas aren’t about to open Alaska for more drilling, bringing in tons of high paying domestic jobs, so I guess some things are more important that jobs to them).

20 years later what are all those geologists, petroleum engineers, chemical engineers and rig workers? Well, a few managed to hang on in the industry – it didn’t competely die. A few ended up in Walmart, but you know, the vast majority of them moved on to things outside the areas they were specifically trained for. I know. My own family was hit brutally hard when this happened, and delcaring bankrupcy in the 80s isn’t like it is today.

But you pick up the pieces, retool and move to something else. There are no guarantees in life and if you want to cry to the government to get a guarantee on employment, you shouldn’t be living in a capitalist democracy.

Philip Shropshire (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Oil Bust Belt

That’s an interesting point of view. Life in the US demands that you have a decent job, but there are no guarantees that you will actually get a job. Out of curiosity, does this situation benefit the majority of soon to be layed off citizens, or the managerial classes that run everything anyway…

Frankly, the oil companies, big telco and others of their ilk benefit from a kind of welfare subsidy system that would put welfare moms to shame…As someone who lives in the US, it’s not clear that it’s really about fair capitalism (broadband should have been sold in exactly the same way that dialup was, that’s why dialup was ubiquitous and broadband is slow and stodgy: lack of competition)and it certainly isn’t about democracy. For the record, getting a choice between two business party candidates who share the same views about mostly everything ain’t much “democratic”…I’d be thrilled with voting machines that are uniform and have paper trails, let alone something resembling direct democracy…

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Rust Belt

Oliver, again, you’re looking at the wrong thing. Explain to me how protectionism would make the situation better? It wouldn’t. It would make things worse for those people, because their jobs would disappear just as fast, and the economy would be even weaker.

I’ve said it every time this debate comes up: I know that it sucks for those who lose their jobs, and not everyone does well. HOWEVER, I’m actually suggesting a better solution: helping to train those people to find better jobs.

Your solution seems to be to make things worse for them by pretending the economy can still support them in their old jobs. Not only are you making misleading arguments, you’re doing more harm to the people you’re trying to help.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Rust Belt

There’s no *guarantee* that they find a better job, but the main point is that if you don’t have training and protectionism, then everyone is actually worse off. The fact is, this is a free society, and not everyone comes out better off – but shouldn’t we be working towards the solution most likely to make the most people better off?

Ametamorphosis says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Rust Belt


HOW many times am I supposed to retrain ?
I’ve been back to college twice and I’m ONLY 35.
Who is going to pay the exorbitant bills of CONSTANTLY retraining ?

25 Million is a drop in the bucket !

And While I’m on it … WHAT are all these ” new & exciting ” jobs you speak of ?

I fail to see you giving any real solutions except blathering on about how ” something ” else will replace what we worked hard, followed the rules and TRAINED for.

AMetamorphosis says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Train, Train & Train again

and while I’m on it.
I work for an American technology company that employees ENGLISH speaking people.
I hear on a DAILY basis from customers and clients that they are pleasantly surprised that they got A) Someone ( me ) who actually speaks English and can assist them in their financial needs.

How about IBM spending 25 million for English classes for all the outsourcing they seem to think is so great for business ?

AMetamorphosis says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Protecting American jobs


If we don’t invest in our own economy and our own country then why do we even call ourselves Americans ?

Yes, protectionism IS needed.

American companies REGULARLY receive HUGE tax breaks ( that I as an American citizen have to subsidize ) with promises of how its going to spur the economy with new jobs. 6 months later the jobs are exported. Those companies are NOT paying 1/6 the labor cost by doing this … YOU AND I ARE !

And its evident that not only the technology workers like myself are getting tired of this or this wouldn’t be such a heated debate.

So again, what is it that you think all these displaced workers are going to do for a living ?

And again … how many times must I go back to school and run up school loans that I can not afford to repay because I’m under employed ?

Pennsylvanians are gearing up to protect our jobs and I for one am glad to see it.

( See below )

McGeehan acts to protect Pa. workers from job out-sourcing

HARRISBURG, Feb. 4 — State Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Phila., today said he is moving to introduce two bills that would discourage Pennsylvania companies from terminating Pennsylvania employees and shipping jobs overseas.

McGeehan pointed to recent announcements by U.S. firms that they would be shifting jobs overseas, including 3,000 from IBM and 400 jobs at Earthlink in Harrisburg that will be farmed out to India to take advantage of cheaper labor.

Morgan Stanley estimates that 150,000 American jobs will be outsourced to India alone over the next three years. Analysts also predict that as many as 2 million American white-collar jobs such as computer programmers, software engineers and application designers will be moved overseas in the next 10 years.

?As manufacturing and technology-oriented jobs are shipped overseas by American corporations, what is left for the working families of Pennsylvania?? McGeehan asked. “What employment are our displaced workers supposed to retrain for? What will be left for students who graduate from Pennsylvania colleges?

“Will they have to emmigrate to get a technology-oriented job or settle for life in a dirt floor hut to compete against Chinese prison labor? Are living-wage jobs in American headed toward extinction?”

McGeehan asserted that companies that reap huge savings in operating expenses by outsourcing should not be doubly rewarded by Pennsylvania taxpayers through state and local government contracts.

One McGeehan measure would prohibit awarding state procurement contracts for services delivered from outside the United States, and would specify that all work be performed in the United States during the life of a contract. Violation would result in voiding the contract and possible financial penalties.

The second McGeehan bill, the Pennsylvania Jobs Preservation Act, would require any company doing business in the state that outsources 100 or more existing jobs out of the country during the previous calendar year to notify the Commonwealth. The company would then be prohibited from entering into a procurement contact with the Commonwealth or a local government for seven years, and would also be excluded from receiving state grants, loans or bond assistance.

?There?s talk in other states about the need to protect American jobs, but it would fitting if Pennsylvania, the home of the Declaration of Independence, were to be the first to enact a law against taxpayers benefiting companies that ship American jobs overseas,? McGeehan added.

McGeehan expects to introduce the bills before the end of the month, and hopes they will have bipartisan support and swiftly advance to the governor?s desk.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Protecting American jobs

AMetamorphisis: we are clearly talking at cross purposes. There’s no reason to continue this debate, because we are simply repeating the same points over again.

My final comment on this matter: though you seem too angry to realize it, I am mostly agreeing with your secondary points: we need to encourage more jobs in America. The problem is that if you look at protectionism you’d learn it simply doesn’t work and, in fact, accelerates job loss.

You keep saying we need it, but it’s going to make the problem you’re facing worse.

The issue about how many times you need to retrain is a red herring that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about. If you put in place protectionist plans, then the American company that employs you won’t be able to compete, and your job will go away anyway.

The point is that we need just any retraining, but the type of retraining that makes our workforce flexible to find new jobs in emerging areas. You don’t believe those jobs are coming. I do. History will show which one of us is right. By your logic, though, if I went out now and signed up to be trained in the art of buggy building, I should then be able to claim afterwards that I DEMAND a job and HOW DARE the US not support the buggy industry that I trained for.

Look, I know things are tough. It’s difficult for many people to find a job. I’m trying to come up with real solutions that help. History has shown over and over and over again that the solution you propose makes things worse – and if you think through the logic, it’s easy to see why. So, why are we still having this debate?

AMetamorphosis says:

Re: Re: Re:9 Training

Well Mike,

You post a story about every other day about how you personally think that outsourcing is good for the economy. It tends to rile those of us up that don’t agree.

Perhaps if your job as a moderator for Techdirt is outsourced to India or China you might feel the same way.

The analogy to Buggy Building is absurd.
And no, the issue about retraining is not a red herring. You are purposely changing the issue. You yourself have espoused retraining numerous times. I’ve done this in the very industry that you and I work in.

I’m not saying that emerging technologies will not come, what my point is is that we can not afford to continually retrain.

Mike , if you don’t want people to debate this issue, stop posting so many stories about it.

On a nice note, Thank you for some spirited discussion today 🙂

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:10 Training

Actually, to clarify, I don’t think all outsourcing is good for the economy. I think many companies are doing a horrific job of outsourcing jobs that shouldn’t be outsourced and that’s damaging to the economy. However, protectionism throws out the good reasons for outsourcing along with the bad ones.

The example of buggy building is not absurd. The point was that using an individual data point about how you retrained is indicative of nothing. I don’t know what you retrained for, but the point is that if retraining is to work, it shouldn’t be expected that anyone who retrains is guaranteed a job. Any retraining shold be focused on giving people a flexible skill set that can be used in a variety of areas – not necessarily a single skill set that might become obsolete. The point of good training is to teach people how to find and succeed at new jobs – not to get them ready for a single specific job.

And, if my job were outsourced, I’d take it for what it’s worth and move on. I’m confident enough in my own abilities to find a new job. I know it’s a possibility, and that’s why I make sure that my background and skills are transferrable to other areas.

I have no problem debating the issue, but I do have a problem when it’s not so much a debate, but people throwing up red herrings that have nothing to do with the overall question.

More to the point, this story was actually on automation, not outsourcing. So, how will you feel if your job is automated? You work in the tech industry. Do you believe we shouldn’t work to automate jobs also?

AMetamorphosis says:

Re: Re: Re:11 Training

Good point about automation Mike.

I’ve trained so that I have multiple skill sets so as far as automation I’m not too concerned.

Besides, there are technology jobs that can’t be replaced by automation and customer service with good human interaction is one of them.

The backlash with Dell outsourcing to India is proof of this.

I too am confidant that I can find another job if my job were to be outsourced because I continue to learn and take advantage of the inhouse training my company graciously provides.

What bothers so many of us is that when our jobs are taken away we have to start @ the bottom over and over. This hurts our ability to have a decent standard of living.

Your point about people going off topic is quite valid as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Protectionism and Training

Just throwing in my two cents worth:

First: protectionism. From an academic, impartial viewpoint, protectionism is not a successful strategy. We all agree on that. BUT it depends on two basic assumptions: a free market, and time. In an unfree market, which is what the world really is, protectionism may indeed work enough to be successful. Trade agreements, market restrictions, racism/prejudice, etc. can all work to offset small competitive advantages. Or perhaps to shield a politically connected class. Or to decimate some other countries industry for political causes.

And the other assumption is time: that protectionism fails quickly. This is not necessarily true. While the company may fail eventually, it may also maintain its market for some time (perhaps a decade or more). Look at this from this point of view: should I as CEO cause upheaval now to ensure my company will be viable ten years from now, or should I get a protectionist cover for the next 3-5 years until I retire and it becomes someone elses problem?

Second: training. Its not a red herring. As mentioned, its not a trivial issue to the person being retrained. First: who is paying for this retraining? If you’re out of work, thats a pretty expensive proposition to spend thouands with no income, and no guarantee of a job afterward either. Don’t count on govt programs, those are impossible to get into, especially for middle class educated folk.
Second: what do I retrain in? Retraining is not taking a two week course in some programming language, you’re really talking fundamental career changes. Do you have an aptitude for some other career? Do you have the ability for it?
How will you know if you even like it? Is it a viable long term career choice or is it going to disappear in five years as well?
Third: how do I get retrained? In my area (CHicago Metro area) there is currently a 12-18 month waiting list to simply get into most colleges nursing programs.
If you career switch from programmer to say, registered nurse, that not a simple two week class. Try 18-36 months of classes/training/internships before your done. That assumes you want to be an RN in the first place, and have the stomach and aptitude for it as well. Most other careers have similar barriers to entry: teacher, lawyer, plumber, cop, air-traffic controller, dentist, politician, etc.

Bottom line: people have to retrain because they need to in order to survive. They won’t necessarily like it. And a lot of them won’t regain the standard of living they enjoyed in the past. Resentment of that will be an influence in political decisions in the future.

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