Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May 16, 2017--Where's Waldo?

Flipping through the Sunday New York Times, I was struck by a dramatic photo on the first page of the business section.

It was of a Ford Motor Company "assembly line" in their new plant in Hangzhou, China. I put assembly line in quotes because my notion of an assembly line is a slowing-moving conveyer belt where cars are assembled by workers one stage at a time.

From what I could tell from the picture of the Hangzhou plant the cars being assembled were moving along but there wasn't a worker in sight.

See if you can spot one. I couldn't.

Ford Assembly Plant, Hangzhou, China
Workers are nowhere in sight.

This reminded me of Where's Waldo?, a series of children's books created by the English artist Martin Handford in which there are detailed illustrations depicting dozens of people doing a variety of amusing things. Hidden in their midst is Waldo. Though he is always wearing his distinctive red and white stripped shirt and a bobble hat with a pom-pom on top and large, Harry Potter type glasses, it is not easy to locate him.

Where's Waldo?
As our economy continues to struggle with the decades-long decline in good manufacturing jobs, and as politicians point out the off-shoring of so many jobs to sites such as Hangzhou, all the while pandering to worker fears of global unfairness--how foreign wages are artificially kept low in regrettable efforts to undermine the workings of the free market--there are in fact larger forces at work that are not as widely discussed and much more difficult to ameliorate.

Yes, many high-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost because in places such as Hangzhou the workers that are employed at the Ford assembly plant make on average only $4 an hour, more disruptive--even to the Chinese economy--is the exponential proliferation of robots.

Robotics more than low wages is what is fundamentally transforming the nature of work.

And not just manufacturing. Modern forms of automation are also altering how work is organized in corporate offices. Thus the question the world faces, as we see the global economy undergoing a paradigm shift, is what kinds of jobs will be available, even exist, by the middle of the 21st century.

To adapt we may need to experiment with different ways to help support employees, or permanently displaced workers. Guaranteeing a minimum annual income may be one such approach. This has been suggested, counter-intuitively, by some of the economically conservative members of the free-market-oriented Austrian School of Economics.

It is being tried in Canada among other places and it may also be time to begin to think this way here.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home