Nuggets of Wisdom

Thursday, December 8, 2016

No, Amazon Go Won’t "Terk Er Jerbs"!

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that it will be opening Amazon Go, a proposed nationwide chain that promises no lines and no checkout. Thanks to the wonders of new technology, customers will grant themselves entry with the Amazon app on their mobile device, select whatever items they want, and simply leave while having their transactions automatically deducted from their account.

Upon hearing this news, I had two simultaneous feelings: first, a sense of childlike wonder upon learning how technological progress has taken us to this point where stores no longer require even self-checkouts.

Alas, I also felt a sick knot in my stomach knowing that there would be a knee-jerk backlash against said progress. Luddites would most certainly feign faux outrage about how these “new-fangled machines” will end up “stealing” jobs from poor innocent cashiers--never mind that these stores will still require employees to restock and tend to the store!

Sure enough, if you glance at the comment section of any news story discussing Amazon Go, you'll see plenty of comments along the lines of "dey terk er jerbs!" And sure enough, we already have think pieces and political cronies accusing Amazon Go of trying to "terk er jerbs!"

With any news concerning any great leap forward in technology, be it with self-checkouts or self-driving cars, the cries of machines “terking er jerbs” soon follow.

This irrational fear of technological progress killing jobs is quite common, ironically enough, among so-called “progressives.” However, it doesn’t help that many libertarians and fiscal conservatives exploit this fear to antagonize said progressives when discussing economics. (“Oh, you want a $15 minimum wage? Well, have fun in the unemployment line when you’re replaced by a machine!”)

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Luddites have been arguing that new technology would be the death of employment as we know it. They've been repeating that very argument for the past 200 years, and every single time they have been proven wrong.

More than 200 years ago, the original Luddites feared that machinery would displace the lowly factory worker. 200 years later, we still have factories, and we still have people working in them.

More than 100 years ago, the same Luddites worried that the "horseless carriage" would not only do away with the horse-drawn carriage, but also the countless jobs associated with it. They were right, of course! We no longer have jobs for making horseshoes and buggy whips, but we have plenty more for making tires, fixing engines, and changing oil.

Today, we have people fretting that the self-checkout kiosk will replace the human cashier. Even Barack Obama made a similar argument about how ATMs were stealing jobs from bank tellers. However, statistically speaking, there are more bank tellers (520,500 in 2014) than there are ATMs (425,000 in 2015). If the ATM is replacing the teller, it's clearly failing. As for cashiers, considering there’s 3.4 million of them in the U.S. workforce, making them the second largest occupation, self-checkouts clearly aren’t placing their jobs at risk.

Lest we think that Ludditism is only a progressive dogma, plenty of Republicans have made similar claims concerning antiquated industries. Republicans currently argue that stricter environmental regulations have killed coal-mining jobs. Never mind the fact that coal is a finite resource that will inevitably be depleted. The same thing goes for fossil fuels. Yet Republicans will insist on keeping the dying dinosaur of oil alive on life support through government subsidies rather than help breath new life into much more profitable renewable energy sources like solar or wind.

As clearly shown, the fallacy that machines steal jobs is not a new one, nor is it even an argument that's hard to debunk. As the great economist Henry Hazlitt wrote in his own refutation of it (nearly half a century ago!), if that argument were true, "not only must we be causing unemployment with every technological improvement we make today, but primitive man must have started causing it with the first efforts he made to save himself from needless toil and sweat."

In other words, you might as well argue that the caveman who invented the first wheel destroyed the jobs of those other caveman responsible for dragging heavy objects around. The only jobs that new technology steals are those that we are all better off without.

Of course, if progress has proven anything, it's that the more things change, the more things stay the same. We may continue to get newer, shiner machines, but we will continue to hear the same old argument that they’re "terking er jerbs."