Robots Are Good for Us: Really, They Are!

Robot with Computer Chip

The Smart Manufacturing Coalition recently conducted a survey of Americans to get their views of whether modernizing factories with advanced technology and automation was a good or bad thing for the economy.

Amazingly, nearly two-thirds of respondents said it either made no difference or actually hurt the economy. Half of those making $35K to $50K actually said it has hurt the economy.

Wow, have these people not taken economics? Do they want to go back to farms with mules and factories with hand files? Have they not read the newspapers about how our manufacturing sector has been decimated by overseas competition?

Well wait, they probably have not read those newspaper articles, not because most people no longer see that they have a civic responsibility to read the news, but because by and large, the media doesn’t write these stories. Rather, they almost always write that when it comes to explaining the decimation of U.S. manufacturing jobs, the cause is automation. In fact, as ITIF and others have shown, the loss of U.S. global competitiveness has accounted for over half of manufacturing job loss over the last decade.

I suppose it’s not the media’s fault for telling the wrong story over and over again; after all they are not economic researchers and they read about economists like the rest of us wonks. As in so much of what’s wrong with economic policy, it’s the fault of economists (neoclassical economists that is) who have spun a story, in part based on faulty U.S. government data, that all the manufacturing job loss is from technology.

Why do they engage in this fictional account, besides being lazy and not digging more deeply into the faulty government data? It’s because the absolute last thing neoclassical economists and their supporters want to say is that, globalization might have harmed the U.S. economy. Because once you start to admit that, Smoot Hawley is next. So they would have us repeat after them, “robots killed the jobs, robots killed the jobs, trade is good, trade is good.” As a result, it’s not surprising that the public blames robots, not Chinese currency manipulation, Brazil forced technology transfer, Indian “forced localization laws,” and the raft of other mercantilist practices that have devastated U.S. manufacturing.

The only ray of hope in this depressing survey is that a majority of Americans think Congress should approve the Administration’s proposal to create a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation because they believe, it appears (and rightly so) that the NNMI will make U.S. manufacturing more competitive (not that neoclassical economists care, since they don’t even believe in competitiveness).


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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.
  • Philipp Messerschmidt

    Well, I believe trade and innovation have similar effects; the positive outpacing the negative ones….

    oh, and I thought Robert Atkinson is that dead guy who refused to eat carbs ;)