Along with the rest of the world, I just got another reminder that the future is arriving a lot faster than most of us expect. And that’s got especially big implications for related points I’ve long been making about U.S. immigration policy and efforts to boost the country’s minimum wage.
For many years, when I’ve spoken about immigration policy, I’ve used the following argument to explain the relationship between the mass immigration America has fostered for so long (including winking at illegal immigration) and the productivity gains and technological progress needed to ensure that living standards can improve in a sustainable (not bubbly) way:
“Does anyone remember Rosey, the robot maid on the 1960s TV cartoon show, ‘The Jetsons’? Did you ever wonder why, decades later, there’s still no Rosey – or anything better than a Roomba? A major reason has to be that, with so many legally and illegally present housekeepers and housekeeper candidates available, and willing to work so cheaply, there’s been little incentive to automate domestic work.”
It was my way of using pop culture to illustrate why a big spur to technological progress (and the higher productivity it tends to bring) for the United States in particular has been the scarce labor situation that’s existed for most of American history. With workers in chronically short supply, and therefore increasingly expensive to hire, U.S. businesses were constantly looking for labor saving devices that could cut their costs. And American inventors were terrific at seizing the opportunity and providing them.
In other words, the U.S. economy was behaving exactly the way the textbooks said it should. When labor became too costly, business stepped up its search for ways to substitute capital (which often meant) technology, for those overly dear workers. More recently, as labor has become more abundant (and therefore, all else equal, cheaper), this dynamic has often shifted into reverse.
Incidentally, mass immigration policies aren’t solely to blame. Offshoring-friendly international trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and similar trade policies (like coddling China’s trade predation) have also greatly expanded the amount of workers realistically available to American employers, especially in sectors like manufacturing. And it’s surely no coincidence that business spending on equipment and machines and the like (called capital spending) has been a notable weakness lately in the U.S. economy. (In fact, although many factories in China are automating rapidly – because of wage increases – this report makes clear that labor surpluses are still slowing its pace in some important Chinese manufacturing industries.)
What has this to do with Rosey? Simple. As this Washington Post piece from last week shows, she’s here – or just about here. For at the latest annual Consumer Electronics Show (one of the tech industry’s major events), a company called Aeolus Robotics unveiled a device that looks awfully similar. According to the Post reporter, this “child-sized” machine
“performed domestic duties such as mopping, picking up stuffed animals off the floor and moving furniture, and, perhaps most impressively, retrieving drinks from the fridge using an intricate-looking grabbing arm — all without human assistance.”
The robot – billed as “the first multi-functional robot that can act like a human being” – still doesn’t crack wise in a New York accent, like the cartoon Rosey. But how far off can that be?
Technology and labor costs hardly move in lockstep, and of course innovation results from many causes. But economic theory, anyway, is saying that my view on the cost and supply of domestic workers is becoming outdated. Common sense also suggests that if something like Rosey is just about here, then domestic workers aren’t as cheap and/or as abundant as I believed. So their wages may well have been rising strongly enough lately to create demand for an automated counterpart.
At the same time, the advent of “Rosey” (and how many other devices like “her” just over the horizon?) amounts to a frantically waving red flag about the wisdom of any immigration policy moves likely to increase the supply of poorly-skilled workers in the American economy – which is to say, any proposals supported by the national Democratic Party and the rest of the country’s Open Borders enthusiasts. Just what kind of work can they be expected to find? Indeed, the automation progress represented by “Rosey” signals that much of the existing workforce in the nation is going to be increasingly hard-pressed to secure or hang onto decent-paying jobs.
Similarly, although I believe there’s still a strong economic (and moral) case for a national minimum wage that tracks inflation, the seemingly impending dawn of the Age of Rosey raises big questions about the wisdom of the kinds of minimum wage jumps sought by the “Fight for 15” campaign and other activists.
“Rosey’s” appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show doesn’t mean that I’ve come down one way or the other in the vital debate taking place today over whether all this recent technological progress ultimately will be a net job killer or creator. But it seems clear as a bell that this tech wave is being completely ignored by the Open Borders and the Fight for 15 backers, and that Americans closest to the low end of the wage and income scale are likely to be among the biggest victims.