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Smart Machines, Dispensable Workers: A Jobless Future?

David Callahan

Think of technology replacing workers and what comes to mind are low-skilled workers who are bumped aside by relatively simple machines: Subway clerks replaced by Metrocard machines, toll workers rendered obsolete by E-Zpass, banker tellers replaced by ATMs, assembly line workers replaced by robots, and so on.

Yet as technology advances, the range of human jobs that can be turned over to machines also advances. Exhibit A: Morgan Stanley's move to replace bond traders with computers, as reported today in the Wall Street Journal:

Morgan Stanley's head of interest-rate trading, Glenn Hadden, has told colleagues in recent months and that the trading floor of the future will surround a few traders with the hum of powerful machines. The unit, which has at least 200 staff according to industry estimates, has cut about 10% of staff on some trading desks. Morgan Stanley declines to discuss employment levels, but there according to these estimates the company employs more than 1,000 traders.

We are not talking here about clerks making $25,000 a year losing their jobs to machines. We're talking about college-educated professionals making six-figures with big houses in Westchester and New Jersey.

And why are these peoples' lives being derailed? Because Morgan Stanley, a publicly-traded company, needs to boost its profit margins and technology offers a way to do that. Under our current form of capitalism, in which shareholder value is all-important, few CEOs feel they are really in control of the choices public companies make. That mechanistic and amoral economic trend has long been teaming up with technological change to create outcomes that are extremely harsh for human beings -- only now the damage is moving up the socio-economic ladder.

Bond traders aren't the only white-collar workers being dispaced by new technology. Corporate lawyers -- who've long had the fanciest degrees and fattest salaries in their profession -- are also being squeezed as new computer programs automate the review of large numbers of legal documents. Today, teams of young associates, billing $600 an hour, still pore over documents for weeks or months as part of the discovery process in complex legal cases. Already, though, it is possible in some cases for one lawyer to do this same job sitting in front of a computer screen searching for keywords. 

Likewise, some doctors -- particularly radiologists -- may find themselve with less work as computer programs are designed to handle complex diagnostic tasks that once required the veteran eye of a well-trained physician.

These emerging technological threats to high paying jobs come on top of a threat that has already materialized: The Internet and other communications technology has made it much easier to outsource white-collar jobs to India and other low-wage economies. So it is that Indian radiologists, who are able to instantly access images from U.S. hospitals, have long been taking the jobs of U.S. radiologists.

The counter-point to my pessimism here is that technological advances are generally a good thing and new jobs are created by this form of "creative destruction." There may be fewer bank tellers, for instance, but they are many more people with jobs designing and servicing ATMs. Also, the productivity advances from technological change create more wealth overall and that wealth ends up being invested, creating jobs.

All that sounds good in theory, and it's hard to think of many technological advances one would roll back just to have the jobs. Do we want to get rid of container ports so that vast armies of longshoremen are once more needed to unload cargo ships by hand? I don't think so.

Still, the United States is now well into a de-industrialized, information age in which the economy is not producing enough good jobs to sustain a strong middle class, and a greater slice of national wealth is being captured by the top 1 percent. As of yet, we have not re-ordered public policy to adjust to this new reality -- and so it's frightening to see even more jobs disappearing and even more gains from productivity increases go to a tiny elite. There is no consensus among our political elites about how to handle the very real possibility of not a jobless future, exactly, but rather a future with many fewer jobs.

Low-wage workers tend to have little voice in our democracy, and so it's been easy to ignore their job losses to machines. Maybe now, with Wall Street bond traders losing their jobs, somebody will pay attention.