“The Workers are Animals. Let’s Replace Them with Robots.”

Among the billionaires at the vanguard of global capital, Terry Gou of Hon Hai (also known as Foxconn) deserves special recognition for his honesty. “Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” said the chairman. His company has also begun building “an empire of robots” to replace a whining workforce.

To get a better sense of why the “animals” may be complaining, be sure to listen to Mike Daisey’s extraordinary report on his trip to Shenzhen, home of a massive Foxconn factory. Here’s one excerpt:

N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.

I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen.

But that would require someone to care. That would require someone at Foxconn and the other suppliers to care. That would require someone at Apple and Dell and the other customers to care. Currently no one in the ecosystem cares enough to even enforce that. And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away.

When workers are already treated as machines, perhaps their replacement by robots should be a cause for celebration. But the question then becomes: what do the displaced do for a living? Is there an alternative to exploitation?

Writers in the more rarefied precincts of technology studies tend to praise the fading boundaries between man, machine, and beast. However, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that animals’ interests will be vindicated by the legal order, or robots treated with the simulacrum of respect that their simulacrum of humanity merits. To the extent the bulk of humanity is being recognized as “dependent rational animals,” those in authority tend to agree with Gou’s approach more than Alasdair MacIntyre’s.

Expect more speed-up in the developed world, as thought leaders decree that Americans must become “ten times more productive” if they dare demand wages ten times higher than those prevailing among the bullied and battered workers at the bottom of the supply chain. That’s our future, unless we can continue to rally around a sense of social minimums due to each person qua person. That motivates my interest in positive rights, and the fantastic discussion that followed this post on the topic. Richard Posner once said that “Most of us would think it downright offensive to give greater rights to . . . computers than to retarded people, upon a showing that . . . [they have] a greater cognitive capacity than a profoundly retarded human being.” Similarly, global priorities are troublingly scrambled if the construction of a “robot empire” is more pressing than the establishment of humane and secure living conditions for those whose work created the wealth that makes the “empire” possible.

Sharing the Gains from Automation

Of course, we all know the Davos elite’s response to such dark premonitions: get educated and hustle. The bard of flatworld, Tom Friedman, helpfully applauds “race to the bottom” online auctions for talent as one more “opportunity.” He ignores the vast literature on these systems’ potential to eviscerate the last vestiges of legal protections for employees. Friedman’s too busy jet-setting to worry about anyone’s slavery footprint. Thinking about how to get health care or housing to the newly “liberated” global workforce is beneath him.

While Friedman’s Panglossian outlook is au courant, this plain talk from FDR appears ever more a relic of the 20th century:

To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order. Some people try to tell me that we must make up our minds that for the future we shall permanently have millions of unemployed just as other countries have had them for over a decade.

What may be necessary for those countries is not my responsibility to determine. But as for this country, I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed. On the contrary, we must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then to take wise measures against its return. I do not want to think that it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls.

We can count on Friedman and other sophisticates to claim that times have changed. Globalization and automation have made many US jobs obsolete, they say. FDR may have had an answer to the first Great Depression, but not the second.

Is the answer really to put everyone on a hamster wheel of digital labor auctions and scrambles for gigs? I don’t think that’s correct. The question for a future economics (and morals) is how to set a baseline “social minimum” for workers in an utterly precarious and unpredictable work environment.

We have the resources to do this. There have been enormous gains in productivity over the past few decades. But the gains are going disproportionately to those at the very top. In the last economic expansion, the top 1 percent of U.S. households captured two-thirds of income gains. Yes, that’s 67% going to the top 1%. During the expansion, “the inflation-adjusted income of the top 1 percent of households grew more than ten times faster than the income of the bottom 90 percent of households.” The thought that the gains from automation will be shared equally among social classes is about as quaint as this personal robot envisioned in 1961.

Now I’m sure that, among that top 1%, there were some incredibly hard-working geniuses. Maybe some produced productivity gains that were actually worth 200 times more than what the average member of the bottom 99% contributed.* But power drives economic outcomes at least as often as productivity. Being able to slash all your workers’ pay (or work them to exhaustion in an 110-degree warehouse) simply because there is high unemployment is not exactly a valuable skill. Any fool could improve the bottom line at “a highly profitable company” by “demanding large-scale concessions” from its employees.

As a whole host of commentators have suggested, automation and technological change is threatening to wipe out whole industries, and to create far fewer jobs than they destroy. If software and hardware are making jobs in fields ranging from medicine to retail to science to law obsolete, it doesn’t make sense to continue giving the lion’s share of gains to the top 1%. A longshoremen’s union provided one model here:

In modern times, far more than other unions, the longshoreman have used technological change to their advantage. In 1960, the West Coast longshoremen agreed to far-reaching automation that replaced inefficient break-bulk cargo, which relied on hooks to move the cargo, with containerized cargo, which relies on cranes. In accepting automation, the union recognized that productivity would soar and the number of longshoremen needed would plunge; there are now 10,500 West Coast longshoremen, down from 100,000 in the 1950′s.

In exchange, the union received an unusual promise: port operators pledged to share the fruits of the new automation. Management promised all longshoremen a guaranteed level of pay, even if there was not work for everyone. Management also promised to share the wealth.

I found this example via Peter Frase, who offers the following gloss:

Basically, I think this is the deal we need to strike throughout the economy: automation (and relatedly, free trade) in exchange for compensating the displaced. However, the longshoremen were only able to achieve this victory because they occupy an unusual strategic choke-point in the economy. Shutting down the ports can cripple wide swaths of business, and this gives dockworkers a kind of negotiating leverage that isn’t available to, say, supermarket checkers. Which is why I think that the demand to compensate workers for technological change now has to be fought out politically and electorally, at the level of the state, rather than in the individual workplace. That’s the essence of my argument for the Basic Income: just like the dockworkers’ agreement, it ensures a level of pay whether or not there is work for everyone, only it generalizes the principle to encompass the whole economy.

You can dismiss that as utopianism if you like. Certainly the call for work reduction and the decoupling of income from employment has been made many times through the generations, from Paul LaFargue to André Gorz to Stanley Aronowitz. But the left does itself no favors by remaining in a defensive crouch, clinging to nostalgia for a political order that was rooted in a very different political economy–and which wasn’t even all that great to begin with. . . . The modern right provided an offensive strategy and a grand vision of what was wrong with the society that existed and what had to be done to turn it into something better: one market under god.

Pace economists like Goldin & Katz, we can’t guarantee livelihoods by promoting employment by educating everyone more. When robots are in line to replace some of the most highly educated people in society, that’s a recipe for disappointment. The real question is how to divide the spoils from societal advancement and automation fairly. Alperovitz and Daly have demonstrated that “up to 90 percent (and perhaps more) of current economic output derives not from individual ingenuity, effort, or investment but from our collective inheritance of scientific and technological knowledge: an inheritance we all receive as a “free lunch.”” The real motivation for calling workers “animals” or “machines” is to deny them their share in the the “universal destination of goods,” which “remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.”

*My back of the envelope calculation: If there were 100 units of gain in this time period to be distributed to 100 people, that means that the top person would get 67 units. The 99 persons remaining would share the remaining 33. That average would be one third of a unit for each of the 99. That’s 200 times less than 67.

Frank Pasquale

Frank is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries.

Frank accepts comments via email, at pasqresearch@gmail.com. All comments emailed to pasqresearch@gmail.com may be posted here (in whole or in part), with or without attribution, either as "Dissents of the Day" or as parts of follow-up post(s). Please indicate in your comment whether or not you would like attribution, or would prefer your comment (if it is selected for posting) to be anonymous.

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17 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Actually, according to Japanese employers interviewed on an NHK news feature a few years ago (airdate 2009 Feb 07) human temporary workers, hired as contractors from agencies, have a big advantage over robots: no depreciation expense.

  2. Doc says:

    The quality of life of law professors is easily within the top .5% of the world. How do law professors treat their students?

  3. Paul Horwitz says:

    Frank, I certainly agree with you that what to do with and for the displaced is an essential question. That said, I did wonder upon reading your post: whether one puts it in terms of “celebration” or not, isn’t it generally the case that where a job can be done equally well or better, and more inexpensively in the long run (all of these are of course significant qualifications), by a robot or in some other mechanized fashion, we ought to do precisely that? Or, to extend the point a little, that where a job is no longer necessary at all except as a means of providing income and sustenance to workers, we ought generally to get rid of that job? At least given the point that “what to do with the displaced” is an essential question, neither of these strike me as especially controversial or inhumane propositions.

  4. Frank says:

    Paul, I think that, in general, the robot gets implemented. However, I do think that a lot of wisdom in life comes down to timing. If a firm could, tomorrow, save a penny an hour by replacing its factory workers with robots, it might make perfect economic sense for it to do so. (At least for the top managers and the small portion of people lucky enough to have stock.)

    But I hope we can live in a polity that would create transition programs that might delay that implementation (while compensating the firm for the delay), to better allow the workers and communities to adjust.

    I think if we were to compare Germany’s successful transition through this recession with the United States’ wrenching failures, we’d find the Germans far better able to anticipate long-term market changes (rather than grabbing for immediate, short term gain), via industrial policy and work-sharing.

    One last point: I wanted to question the very idea of “productivity” in this post, but didn’t have time. I’ll hand it off to Mandel at the Washington Monthly, with a long quote of a very good part of an insightful article:

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january_february_2012/features/the_myth_of_american_productiv034576.php

    “[T]here’s an enormous difference between “domestic” productivity growth and what Susan Houseman of the Upjohn Institute and I have called “supply chain” productivity growth. Over the long run, gains in domestic productivity should translate into higher living standards and more jobs for U.S. workers. Economic theory—and common sense—tells you that companies will want to hire more of the types of workers who are contributing to higher profits. If the profits are coming from improved factory productivity in Dearborn, High Point, or Mountain View, then the company will want to hire more good production workers at those plants.

    ““Supply chain” productivity doesn’t work the same way. If companies reconfigure themselves to better scour the globe for the lowest-priced goods and services, then their essential personnel are multilingual business school graduates with the ability to parachute into Shanghai or Bangalore and negotiate the best deals with suppliers, logistics experts who can keep the goods flowing, marketers to sell the goods, and software engineers to program the computers that communicate with the suppliers. In other words, the bulk of the company’s own workers essentially perform a creative or coordinating function, rather than a manufacturing one. These workers might be in the U.S., or they might be spread around the world.

    “The model of success in this vein is Apple, which has no manufacturing facilities. Instead, it maintains enormous profit margins through innovative product development and tough negotiating with suppliers. One thing feeds the other: because Apple brings the promise of huge markets and trendsetting products, it has enormous clout to bargain with suppliers for lower prices.

    “But not many companies are quite so successful at this game. Any number of American firms have offshored production and even product development to foreign suppliers, only to then see those same suppliers become lowcost rivals. One company that fell into that trap is Hewlett- Packard, which has reduced real spending on R&D since the mid-2000s, focusing instead on supply chain management and outsourcing its computer production and development. The resulting lack of innovation put HP at a bargaining disadvantage relative to its suppliers. That’s why HP’s latest tablet computer couldn’t undercut Apple, and why HP is talking about getting rid of its computer business. Without innovation, a supply chain strategy fails over time.”

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    Apropos of Paul@#3, “Or, to extend the point a little, that where a job is no longer necessary at all except as a means of providing income and sustenance to workers, we ought generally to get rid of that job?”: Subject to some qualification, the general answer to your question should be NO: providing income and sustenance to workers is an excellent justification for jobs.

    The qualification is that we need to consider the qualitative aspects of the job for the worker and for society. The job needs to preserve the dignity of the worker. Obviously, retaining humans to apply N-hexane to LED screens without adequately protecting their health can’t be justified by the fact that they’re being paid a salary, any more than voluntary slavery would be justified.

    This is also pertinent in the service sector. Not long ago, I was walking around a residential neighborhood in Tokyo, looking for an address. At an intersection of some side streets there was some roadwork blocking the sidewalk. In addition to several men working on fixing something, there was a middle-aged woman whose only job seemed to be to smile and wave, saying, “Hello! Please walk this way…” In the States, her job would have been performed by a flashing sign. And US construction workers are far more likely to curse you or make rude remarks when you go by, if they don’t simply ignore you.

    Isn’t it inefficient to have a person devoted to such a job? Absolutely. And that’s a great thing about living in Japan. People who smile and greet you make Tokyo much more pleasant and humane than big cities in other countries. And her smile and greeting were sincere, since she wan’t trying to get me to buy anything from her. What’s more, the job gives her some income. Same thing is true in “overstaffed” Japanese department stores, many of which still have elevator ladies to call out the floors, even though the elevators’ control electronics are as modern as you could imagine.

    These “unnecessary” jobs not only feed workers, but contribute to something 18th Century Italian philosophers called felicità pubblica: public happiness. The safety and courtesy to be experienced in Japanese cities is well-known. A 2009 survey by Monocle magazine ranked Tokyo #3 for livability, behind Zurich (1/20th of Tokyo’s central city population) and Copenhagen (1/8th). Having lived in Manhattan, Cambridge MA, West L.A., San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Jose, I’d agree. No American cities in the magazine’s top 25, BTW.

    When my wife, a graduate of a top national university, was hired as a management trainee by a major retailer, she had to do a stint as an elevator lady — which she recalls fondly and with admiration for the skill involved. Her younger brother, graduate of the #1 university department in the country (Tokyo U. law section), had to spend a month working in line operations at a tire factory when he joined Bridgestone’s legal department, where he’s now a group head. I don’t know how common a practice this is in post-Koizumi Japan, but the idea at the time was to give management some sympathy for their employees. Similarly, I think it would be good for academics and other pundits to have experienced being “displaced” involuntarily for a while, before being so quick to recommend the experience for others.

  6. Shag from Brookline says:

    Frank’s illustration for this post reminds me that I read “Player Piano” shortly after it was published in the early 1960s. At the time I was in my early 30’s and establishing a law practice in the Boston area with its Route 128 technology. This was Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel. Its basic theme was a time in the future when with advances in technology the goods and services required by Americans could be provided by a few managers (MBAs?) and engineers. The hero was a manager, coming from a family of managers, who revolted the system, requiring the establishment to rein him in. On the merry chase we meet many Americans who no longer have jobs to go to, although they are well provided for, with housing, food, entertainment, medical care, etc. We learn that this financial security may not be enough, as Americans miss working.

    At Route 128, there were many advances in technology coming to fruition back then. Since the 1960s, technological advances have accelerated. With “Player Piano” in the back of my brain, I wondered if the days of “Player Piano” would arrive. So every few years I would reread “Player Piano” as a reminder of what might come. But unemployment never reached the stages of “Player Piano.” Could it be that even with technological advances and productivity gains, “make work” jobs were created just to keep unemployment low and provide Americans a place to go to from home where they might feel productive? Even with the current high unemployment resulting from the 2008 Bush/Cheney Great Recession, the “Player Piano” days have not yet arrived. But might they, with robots?

    I last reread “Player Piano” about 3 years ago. While it was not Vonnegut’s best written novel and seems with time stilted, “Player Piano” may indeed be in the future. Just imagine electronic lectures of our abundant constitutional and other legal scholars teaching future lawyers in the comfort of their homes. But will there be jobs for them?

  7. Paul Horwitz says:

    Just to be clear, Frank, I agree that timing and implementation are important. Although I doubtless made my statement sound a little bloodless, my view on this is not based on callous indifference for the holders of jobs that may become rightly obsolete. I am less certain I agree with A.J., however. Whether providing income and sustenance to workers is an excellent justification for jobs or not, I don’t believe it to be a sufficient one. Just as important, much depends on whether those jobs can truly be sustained in the long run and whether those resources could be redirected in a way that better serves the good of both individual workers and society as a whole. Much depends on what else that old Japanese lady could be doing instead, and how much opportunity cost for her and others goes into the job you so delightfully portray.

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    Paul, we agree that it’s not sufficient — that’s where the issue of human dignity comes in. But what’s the criterion for determining whether resources can “be redirected in a way that better serves the good of both individual workers and society as a whole” — some sort of utilitarian calculus? What determines whether jobs can be sustainable or not — some sort of profit- or “welfare”-maximizing algorithm? Rolls-Royces are still made in great measure by hand: better quality often entails lower productivity. Similarly, the quality of urban life, the quality of retail service, etc. benefits from emphasizing, well, quality, rather than efficiency. How do attention to opportunity costs and the other measures you propose accommodate these qualitative aspects of working and of living together in society? (And BTW, have you ever spent any time in Japan?)

  9. A.J. Sutter says:

    PS: I’m not sure how the “middle-aged woman” I mentioned got transformed into an “old Japanese lady” in your comment #7; but since you appear already to be past 40, inevitably within a few years (kinahora) you’ll develop some more empathy in this regard, at least.

  10. Paul Horwitz says:

    AJ, I don’t think a lack of empathy is involved on my part, except insofar as my empathy is devoted not only to the present individuals whose livelihoods disappear and those faceless future livelihoods and generations that are also involved. On the transformation I have no idea; being over 40, mind you, my mind is already going, and I would attribute the mixup to that. I have not spent time in Japan. And I agree, as I take it that you do, both that it’s not sufficient and that the calculus is complicated; we may differ on the values involved or what they mean (I have no problem with human dignity, except an inadequate understanding of what it means and how to apply it as a concept), but we both appear to agree that values that aren’t translated into policy, with all the complications that entails, may not do us as much good as they ought to. I suppose I could link the empathy question back to the general calculus question, and the quality of life question, by pointing out that I am a distinct beneficiary of progress: I have two artificial hips and an artificial shoulder, am expecting at least two more artificial joints, and have benefited immensely from drug regimens. Even in the time I’ve been alive, the quality of life of people sharing my illness has improved by leaps and bounds, thank God. That’s not meant to be a paean to progress or a sign of indifference to the fact that newer jobs and technologies can end up doing away with old ones. It is meant to suggest how emphatically, but not callously, I feel that we are better off with motorized ambulances and electricity, no matter what it did to the livelihoods and traditions of carriage drivers and lamplighters; and that clean-burning energy for all is more important to me than the folkways of generations of coal miners, no matter how movingly Sting may have sung about the latter. In short, I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

  11. Paul Horwitz says:

    In the first sentence, “and” should be “but also to.” Cheers, PH

  12. Shag from Brookline says:

    Today’s (1/22/12) NYTimes’ extensive front page article “How U.S. Lost Out On iPhone Work” has a lot to say about Foxconn and its workforce in China who may be treated somewhat as animals. Bringing those jobs back to America under the same work conditions might violate the 13th Amendment – but not if performed by robots.

  13. Frank says:

    Great comments…just a quick note for the mix, something that Jed Purdy has on HuffPo that I think is relevant:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jedediah-purdy/romney-bain-morality-capitalism_b_1221922.html

    “As for “capitalism makes us rich,” it’s . . . too simple to tell us whether we should allow complex derivatives, foster strong unions, allow unlimited capital mobility, etc. It’s pretty clear that regulation can choke growth, especially if it involves a lot of bureaucratic micro-management of economic decisions, which is the model of regulation that a lot of semi-socialist countries (notably India) labored under for decades in the twentieth century. It’s also pretty clear that capitalist crises like the last crash destroy a lot of wealth, and would probably do worse if the government didn’t get involved (though of course government can always make things worse — anyone can always make things worse). While “capitalism makes us rich” is a great argument against adopting, say, India’s 1970s policy for the 2012 US economy, that’s about the level of detail it gives us.”

  14. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Paul, for your comments. Certainly improvements in the quality of life such as the medical technologies you mention and changes to less-polluting fuels are often desirable. (In the case of coal, though, the shift you mention actually is undoing a shift made in the 19th Century away from clean energy (water power), a shift that wasn’t at all inevitable: see Alain Gras’s Le choix du feu (Fayard 2007).) I share with you a desire that these improvements continue, both for your sake and for the sake of myself and others in the present and future. This is quite different from basing an argument on productivity, efficiency and opportunity costs, though. As a general matter, quality seems at least as likely to be compatible with low productivity as it is with ever-increasing productivity.

    As for the quote that Frank provides, he won’t be surprised to hear me say that whether regulation chokes growth isn’t so relevant — at least for wealthy countries — as whether and how the regulation, or lack of same, benefits the well-being of people. (I have a book on this subject coming out in Japan on March 16; Frank has graciously read pieces of the English MS.) Although capitalism and economic growth-oriented policies raised real median incomes under Keynesianism (ca. 1949-1980), real median incomes have been flat or declining in the US and elsewhere for roughly the past 30 years. And although many beneficial technological changes occurred during both of those eras, a lot of not-so-beneficial ones occurred, too, e.g., environmental damage, which both Keynesian and neoliberal growth capitalism fostered. We shouldn’t limit our imaginations with a fallacy, reasoning that just because the quality of life has improved in certain respects under capitalism, capitalism is necessary for improvements in the quality of life. (Note to some readers, no, I’m not advocating monolithic socialism or communism, either: rather, more economic pluralism.)

    Nor should we limit our imaginations with science fiction: most actual robots are limited-purpose, sessile, non-humanoid machines. Even where they might be useful, they need never become our overlords — as long as we stay focused on what it means to be a human being.

  15. A.J. Sutter says:

    PS: this pacific vision of Things To Come (in Japan, at least; Indian release was in 2010):

    http://videotopics.yahoo.co.jp/videolist/official/movie/p2bcf94ed559d1ee284c9eee0b62e39b4

  16. Z says:

    America has no formal industrial policy or framework. This is a purposeful omission. The informal policy, which was articulated by Gou and is believed (but not candidly remarked upon) by American businessmen and the politicians they own is that people are animals to be used and then discarded.

    Of course, there is the question of what to do once so many animals have been discarded that they are fighting each other for scraps and turning on their owners. Not to worry my friends: The American government, via numerous laws and a burgeoning law enforcement apparatus (TSA, FBI, Sheriff, prosecutor, judge etc) has a solution. If the animals get out of line, smack them around a little and then cage them. And of course keep various lists animals are required to register for one way or another to keep track of the herd.

  17. When workers are already treated as machines, perhaps their replacement by robots should be a cause for celebration.