The minimum wage and the rise of the machines
The robot future is coming, and helping human laborers will require creative responses.

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  • Title:

    The Tyranny of Clichés
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Article Highlights

  • Was Obama sent from the future by Skynet to prepare humanity for its ultimate dominion by robots?

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  • People don’t go into business to create jobs; they go into business to make money.

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  • The more expensive labor is, the more attractive nonhuman replacements for labor become.

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After you heard President Obama’s call for a hike in the minimum wage, you probably wondered the same thing I did: Was Obama sent from the future by Skynet to prepare humanity for its ultimate dominion by robots?

But just in case the question didn’t occur to you, let me explain. On Tuesday, the day before Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage, the restaurant chain Applebee’s announced that it will install iPad-like tablets at every table. Chili’s already made this move earlier this year.

With these consoles customers will be able to order their meals and pay their checks without dealing with a waiter or waitress. Both companies insist that they won’t be changing their staffing levels, but if you’ve read any science fiction, you know that’s what the masterminds of every robot takeover say: “We’re here to help. We’re not a threat.”

But the fact is, the tablets are a threat. In 2011, Annie Lowrey wrote about the burgeoning tablet-as-waiter business. She focused on a startup firm called E La Carte, which makes a table tablet called Presto. “Each console goes for $100 per month. If a restaurant serves meals eight hours a day, seven days a week, it works out to 42 cents per hour per table — making the Presto cheaper than even the very cheapest waiter. Moreover, no manager needs to train it, replace it if it quits, or offer it sick days. And it doesn’t forget to take off the cheese, walk off for 20 minutes, or accidentally offend with small talk, either.”

Applebee’s is using the Presto. Are we really supposed to believe that the chain will keep thousands of redundant human staffers on the payroll forever?

People don’t go into business to create jobs; they go into business to make money. Labor is a cost. The more expensive labor is, the more attractive nonhuman replacements for labor become. The minimum wage makes labor more expensive. Obama knows this, which is why he so often demonizes ATMs as job-killers.

Just a few days before Obama’s big speech on income inequality, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos launched a media frenzy by revealing on "60 Minutes" that he’s working on the idea of having a fleet of robot drones deliver products straight to your door. I can only imagine the discomfort this caused for any UPS or FedEx delivery guys watching the show. There are still a lot of bugs to be worked out, but does anyone doubt that this is coming?

You might take solace in the fact that there will still be a need for truck drivers to deliver the really big stuff and to supply the warehouses where the drones come and go like worker bees. The only hitch is that technology for driverless cars is already here, it just hasn’t been deployed — yet.

None of this is necessarily bad. Machines make us a more productive society, and a more productive society is a richer society. They also free us up for more rewarding work. As Wired’s Kevin Kelly notes, “Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines.”

While some hippies and agrarian poets may disagree, most people wouldn’t say we’d be better off if seven out of ten people still did backbreaking labor on farms.

That doesn’t mean the transition to a society fueled by robot slaves won’t be painful. The Luddites destroyed cotton mills for a reason. Figuring out ways to get the young and the poor into the job market really is a vital political, economic, and moral challenge. My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, James Pethokoukis, argues that one partial solution might have to be wage subsidies that defray the costs of labor, tipping the calculus in favor of humans at least for a while.

“Of course,” Pethokoukis notes, “wage subsidies are an on-budget, transparent cost — which politicians hate — while the costs of the minimum wage are shifted onto business and hidden. But the costs exist just the same.”

The robot future is coming no matter what, and it will require some truly creative responses by policymakers. I don’t know what those are, but I’m pretty sure antiquated ideas that were bad policy 100 years ago aren’t going to be of much use. Maybe the answers will come when artificial intelligence finally comes online and we can replace the policymakers with machines, too.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback.

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About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

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    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

    Follow Jonah Goldberg on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202-862-7165
    Email: jonah.goldberg@aei.org

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