Continuing Conversation... David Autor on the Future of Work and Polanyi's Paradox

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
David Autor on the Future of W... Russ Roberts and Mike Munger o...

Are you concerned that robots will take your job? Could you write out complete instructions for riding a bike? This week, EconTalk host Russ Roberts explored these questions and more with MIT's David Autor. Now we'd like to hear from you.

Please use the questions below as prompts for the comments section. Or use them in your offline interactions. Either way, we're anxious to broaden the conversation. We love to hear from you.


Check Your Knowledge:

1. What's the difference between Polanyi's paradox and Moravec's paradox, and how does each relate to computerization and automation?

2. What does Autor mean by the "polarization of employment," and how is this different from polarization of wages? Which would be more worrisome, and why?

Going Deeper:

3. What are the factors that explain how automation affects your earnings potential, according to Autor? How do the elasticity of final demand and the elasticity of labor supply compare? How might these elasticities change over time?

4. Autor notes that the supply side response to increasing demand for high-skilled workers has been surprisingly weak. What factors does he suggest account for this, and to what extent do you agree? Are there factors Autor misses, and how might these affect the supply side response?

Extra Credit:

5. Autor notes that complementarity with robotic devices is critical for the jobs of the future. He and Roberts briefly discuss examples from medicine and warehousing to illustrate. What are some other jobs that might benefit from similar complementarity? How much emphasis would McAfee, McArdle, and Ohanian give to this notion of complementarity? What other suggestions do they offer for the job-seekers of the future?

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
dixie writes:

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g4r7h writes:

A basic workforce fact: when writing code, let's just say VBA for an excel macro, it is often the case that it is written obscurely so that others cannot come in and interpret how exactly to edit it. nested if-then statements, often call job protectors, are horribly intimidating to a anyone but the original author.

i say this because at a very basic level in the workforce, even coders are afraid of at least being replaced by other coders, and work to create disincentives.

the interview was AWESOME!!!! maybe David Autor will come back in future episodes for more? :)

John H Penfold writes:

Wonderful conversation. If we allow our economy the flexibility it will solve these issues but not without periods of adjustment that will cause political push back that can limit the very flexibility we must have to adjust.

We've seen the latent talent in the inner city schools when by accident a good math teacher appears. Much of the under class is not there because of lack of potential but because we pay for them to be there with insane policies.

I also saw the potential to learn math up to basic calculus needed for economics among Foreign Service Officers, almost all of whom had majored in Poli Sci, history etc. because of undergraduate math phobia. Good teachers brought them all along, probably a third actually understanding and a few of us with enough enthusiasm for math and econometrics to keep us from learning how real economies actually behave for years

Don Rudolph writes:

If society moves in the direction of a small group getting large rewards for their work and a large group getting small rewards for their work, how will politics react to this trend? I believe there will be a growing movement for redistribution of wealth. The question is will the redistribution be intelligent and frictionless or will we see violence and destruction?

Greg Pandatshang writes:

I have to say, I was pretty disappointed by this conversation. The point that kept coming to mind listening to Russ and David talk is the oddness, or at least the incompleteness, of the concept of "complementing a job". It seems to me that the natural first concern of almost everyone who has a job is how much money they can earn; how much work they can do is secondary.

Now, speaking from personal experience, it seems to me that I have just the sort of job that is complemented by technology. David happened to give a pretty solid description of my current job: I create "valuable kind of record-keeping ideas or ways of organizing information to augment operation". I spend all day working in Excel & fancier computer programs. My job would be very different indeed if we had no computers, and less would be produced.

And yet, a naïve account of what happens next might be that my boss gives me Excel, expects more production, and pays me the same money for the same amount of work. In this scenario, "the job" is complemented, but is my working life really improved? Now, I'm certain that economists have some ideas about why it wouldn't work this way in practice. Those ideas should at least have been brought up, rather than simply assumed.

Another thing that stuck out to me several times in this conversation was the reference to "successful, highly paid, skilled people" and variations on that turn of phrase. This seems to be that highly paid people are that way because they are skilled. Looking at the real world, I might suppose that Goldman Sachs executives will continue to be well-paid in the future. Technology is complementary to them. But, are they skilled, or are they unscrupulous? Again, I'm being pointedly naïve here. Economists presumably have some reasons for thinking that this or that trait will tend to be remunerative. But we didn't hear about those reasons in this episode; we only heard about "highly paid, skilled people".

Toward the end, David commented, "I do not foresee a time anywhere in the near or even relatively distant future where all the skilled activities are done by machinery and what's left for people to do is sit around and emote." What a straw man this is! I doubt that very many serious people are afraid that there won't be anything to do in the future. I think people are afraid that they will have jobs in the future, but those jobs will be low-wage and/or low-status jobs.

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