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Robots taking our jobs?

By Diane Cooke

Does artificial intelligence and automation erode global workforces? Politicians would say not.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin dismissed the notion during an interview with Axios.

“It’s not even on our radar screen…. 50-100 more years” away. “I’m not worried at all” about robots displacing humans in the near future, he said, adding: “In fact I’m optimistic.”

However, the press doesn't seem to be convinced. The New York Times ran a story titled “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China. It’s Automation,” while the Associated Press explained “Why robots, not trade, are behind so many factory job losses.

So while Donald Trump blames Mexico and China for stealing millions of jobs from the United States, he ought to look towards robots too.

Manufacturing is still flourishing in America. The problem is, factories don’t need as many people as they used to because machines now do so much of the work.

America has lost more than seven million factory jobs since manufacturing employment peaked in 1979. Yet American factory production, minus raw materials and some other costs, more than doubled over the same span to $1.91 trillion last year, according to the Commerce Department, which uses 2009 dollars to adjust for inflation. That’s a notch below the record set on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007. And it makes U.S. manufacturers No. 2 in the world behind China.

A much-cited Ball State University study suggests that automation has already proven a major driver of job loss this millennium. The paper notes that the decade between 2000 to 2010 marked the U.S.’s largest decline in manufacturing jobs in its history.

Those numbers are supported in part, by figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which notes that manufacturing jobs in the U.S. increased between 1994 (the year NAFTA went into effect) and 2000. After that, however, things look decidedly less rosy, with a loss of five million jobs in the intervening years. In spite of this troubling stat, productivity actually rose, according to Ball State’s report.

On the campaign trail, Trump told workers that he would bring back their jobs by clamping down on trade, offshoring and immigration. But economists say the bigger threat to their jobs has been automation.

“Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important — it’s not even close,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard who studies labor and technological change.

Andrew F. Puzder, who was Mr. Trump’s pick for labor secretary (he withdrew in February this year) and chief executive of CKE Restaurants, extolled the virtues of robot employees over the human kind in an interview with Business Insider in March last year.

“They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case,” he said.

Be afraid?

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