Monday, May 30, 2011

Ford's Lights in the Tunnel, early quibbles

I haven't read far enough through the book yet to know whether Ford actually stands behind these positions, or has simply propped them up as straw men.

In the Introduction, on page 5, he writes The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 demonstrated quite conclusively that there is no good alternative to the free market system. Perhaps he was attempting to ingratiate himself to economists in saying this, or attempting to preempt argument based on the soviet example, or maybe he truly believes it. Whatever his purpose, the statement by itself is a blatant non sequitur. The Soviet Union was a single example of an alternative, or maybe a class of alternative examples, since they tried just about every permutation of their own model at one time or another (some of which worked rather well in microeconomic terms, by the way). But their ideology-driven model severely constrained what experiments were possible and even more so which could be given sufficient latitude for a fair test.

Then, in Chapter 1, in the Automation Comes to the Tunnel thought experiment beginning on page 17, he discusses temporarily increased profits deriving from reduced costs made possible by automation, but he completely neglects the secondary effect of growth and jobs created in the automation/robotics industry, in design, customization, testing, sales, production, shipping, installation, maintenance, programming, and retooling. These may not add up to the jobs replaced by machines in other industries, but it's too large a factor to be ignored.

Now, back to the Introduction, page 2, for a consideration of the following. Put yourself in the position of a business owner and think of all the problems that are associated with human employees: vacation, safety rules, sick time, payroll taxes, poor performance...maternity leave. If an affordable machine can do nearly any routine job as well as a human worker, then what business manager in his or her right mind would hire a worker? This turns on the word affordable which at best comes down to a projection, made by a CFO, based on incomplete information, regarding whether the business will profit more from keeping its workers or from replacing some of them with machines, and it's not as simple as comparing the cost of a machine with the annual cost of the workers it could replace multiplied by the machine's estimated useful life. People are more adaptable, and can move from one task to another with a minimum of fuss, whereas a machine would at least need to be reprogrammed (or retrained) for each new task, and might even prove useless in the new circumstances; the more specialized the machine the less likely it is to be able to adapt. Also, just as technology enables automation, it also enables augmentation - strength amplification, protection against environmental hazards, heads-up displays providing just-in-time information, enhanced senses, precise manipulation, eye tracking, voice recognition and synthesis, etc. - making what the average human worker is able to perform a moving target.

The situation would seem to be less bleak than Ford's first pass through the tunnel suggests.

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