Dislocation

“The [robotic] technology proposed appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs LESS THAN in China,” according to Softwear Automation’s website. “There is only one basic innovation required; that the metric of motion should not be meters or inches but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions.”

Success could spell out huge disruptions for workers as robots continue taking over human jobs in manufacturing and other industries. Low-paid workers in developing countries stand to lose out the most in this case, but U.S. workers won’t gain much, either. Still, U.S. businesses could once again regain a foothold in the garment industry and win back a share of international trade. mother nature network via the prof
The direct substitution of machines for men (and women) has been going on for a couple of centuries but we still really do not have much of a handle on its implications or its economics.
Propose for a moment that you can robotize clothing manufacture. What would be left is building the robots and the buildings in which they would function and then designing the clothes themselves and the fabric and doing routine maintenance on the ‘bots.
So while the clothes produced would be very cheap indeed there remains the question of who could actually afford to buy them?
This is an increasingly troublesome question as various working and middle class jobs fall of the table. Economically, from a Canadian or American perspective, a Vietnamese seamstress is pretty much the same as a robot. However, from her perspective, she is at least making some money which she will spend on goods and services of some sort.
Robots don’t spend money.
Now, various economically savvy types will suggest that the robots’ owners will make tones of money which they will spend. Perhaps. It depends on whether those owners are public companies with lots of shareholders who actually consume stuff, or if they are tightly held companies with very few owners who have a lot of money to spend…buying more robots.
And the economically savvy will also point out that the clothes made by the robots will be really, really cheap. Well, so are the clothes made by our Vietnamese seamstress. Making a t-shirt cost 10% less is not going to make it vastly more affordable to people who essentially have no income.
Trade economists talk about comparative advantage and Marxists mutter about the ownership of the means of production; but underlying such conversations is the assumption that it is, as a practical matter, impossible to directly substitute capital for labour in its entirety. The evolution of robotics is making that ever more possible.
Thinking hard about the implications of labour replacement devices and their impact on how we allocate income is something we should be doing right now. Before a robot comes up with a solution which makes sense for, well, robots.
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