Technology and unemployment

For many years people have worried about the rise of the robots and artificial intelligence. Science fiction writers have envisaged situations where robots gradually gain more intelligence and power until they are able to take over the world and whichever other planets feature in the story. Less exciting, but more immediately relevant, economists and politicians have also concerned themselves with the impact of the robots on society and particularly on the demand for labour. During eras of major technological change, it was predicted that the rise, firstly of steam, then electricity and more recently the computer, would lead to massive unemployment. Keynes, writing before the Second World War, predicted that new technology would drastically reduce the working week and we would have to tackle the problem of how to occupy our time with a 25-hour working week. In 1979 Fiat produced a now-famous advert for their new Strada ( ) under the slogan “handbuilt by robots” which showed the construction of the car in a spotless factory without humans, with everything done by robots.

A recent report, “The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030” by NESTA, an innovation charity, paints a relatively attractive future. They suggest that while 20% of the labour force is currently working in occupations which are likely to shrink, about 10% are in occupations that are likely to grow as a percentage of the workforce. Re-training will be necessary for the former, either to cope with the way their existing job has changed or to allow them to join the latter group. These industries include those working in teaching and education, hospitality, leisure, health care, and other jobs which require workers to deal with people, such as care for the elderly. Another group which will do well are those working in occupations which require higher-order cognitive skills such as psychologists. Those possessing creativity and communication and problem-solving skills will do well while those in jobs which can be more easily adapted to robots and artificial intelligence, such as those involving routine calculations and basic manufacturing skills will be lost. If you are seeking advice as to how to invest your portfolio, it is already possible to put all the necessary information such as your attitude to risk, how much you have available to invest and for how long and a computer algorithm will devise your optimal portfolio.


Pub smoking ban: 10 charts that show the impact – BBC News

It’s 10 years since smoking in enclosed public spaces was banned in England. What has the impact been?

Source: Pub smoking ban: 10 charts that show the impact – BBC News

This is an excellent article, written by an old uni friend of mine, exploring the impact of restrictions on where people can smoke. Cigarettes are considered by economists as a demerit good, one that generates negative externalities through consumption. These externalities, costs to a third party, can occur in many ways, for example, the adverse effects on the health of bar workers. The ban has helped to reduce the number of people smoking in the UK, although it still remains predominantly a habit of the poor. However, it is important to note that changes to packaging legislation and increased duties may have helped to reduce the number too. A reduction in the number of smokers helps to reduce the pressure on the NHS of treating tobacco-related illness, although, of course, if people live longer then other, perhaps more expensive treamtents, need to be paid for. An unintended consequence has been the impact on pubs, a number are closing creating unemployment in the process. Again, however, other factors, such as a general reduction in alcohol consumption and cheaper substitutes, i.e. buying beer from a supermarket, will have had an effect.

This is a nice example of how a number of government interventions can be used to correct the market failure associated with a demerit good.

Uber rival’s drivers are ‘workers’, employment tribunal rules

Addison Lee is a well-established brand in the London taxi market. It appears that they too have been making use of the ‘gig economy’ in order to reduce labour costs and maximise profits. Businesses, such as Addison Lee, Uber, and Deliveroo, do not employ their workers, but, rather offer a service that connects a customer, someone who wants a taxi or take out, with someone willing to provide the service. This helps to keep costs down as Addison Lee do not have to pay the additional benefits that an employee would cost, such as holiday pay, pension contributions, etc. The worker does have increased flexibility, and the potential to earn more, but has less security and does run the risk of earning less than the national living wage of £7.50 an hour (25+, April 2017). The growth in the ‘gig economy’ is seen as one of the reasons why wage growth has been so slow when UK unemployment is so low (4.3%, July 2017). Economists would expect wages to rise as the labour market ‘tightens’ and firms struggle to fill vacancies. It appears the growth of the ‘gig economy’ has resulted in more flexible labour markets, which, in turn, has reduced the natural rate of unemployment, the rate at which we would expect to see workers ‘bid up’ their wage demands. Clearly the ‘gig economy’ is good at creating jobs, but courts, unions, and those politically left of centre appear to be concerned by the potential exploitation of workers whose incomes can be rather volatile and lack much in the way of job security and employment rights.

FT article

UK water privatisation looks little more than an organised rip-off

Privatisation is an example of a market-based supply-side policy. Selling off public sector assets helps to raise funds to reduce the national debt and increases efficiency as firms respond to the profit motive. However, the record of privatisation has been rather patchy. The government has been accused of selling public assets at too low a price, reducing potential benefits to the taxpayers that funded their creation. In addition, the efficiency gains have been rather tepid. Instead, we have seen the growth of monopolistic and oligopolistic firms who deliver poor quality and charge high prices, enriching directors and shareholders in the process.

This article by the FT explores the dismal record of water companies and the regulator, OFWAT, in recent years. Households and firms often have no choice in who they buy from, directors know this, investors know this, and, as a result, consumers are exploited. Until the regulator takes a harder line or the industry is nationalised, a recent Labour party proposal, we can expect to see a lack of investment, high prices, ‘fat cat’ pay, and more “crappucinos”.

Source: UK water privatisation looks little more than an organised rip-off


The Economist | Deep trouble

The Economist | Deep trouble

The deep sea is a frequently used example of common access resources that is over-exploited  – a case of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ originally coined by ecologist, Garrett Hardin. It stems from a simple idea that the benefits of over-fishing (increased revenues) are private while the costs are shared. Unfortunately, such an approach is unsustainable as a result of over-consumption and subsequent market failure. Technology is both a cause of the problem and a solution too. Larger trawlers increase catch size reducing the number left to breed. However, new technology can help to monitor, collect information and enforce regulation. One extreme proposal is to ban fishing in set zones, this has been effective in some trials allowing fish to ‘restock’ and improve sustainability. Clearly, an international agreement is required, but this is hard, especially given the current rise in nationalism and self-interest. The WTO are working on something, but have been doing so for several years.

Tory plans mean no one will be left to build homes | Michael Thirkettle | Housing Network | The Guardian

Theresa May’s migration target will intensify the UK constructions skills crisis and scupper her plans for affordable homes

Source: Tory plans mean no one will be left to build homes | Michael Thirkettle | Housing Network | The Guardian

Nearly 12% of construction workers are migrants, increasing to 45% in London. The Conservatives, at the time of writing, have pledged to reduce migration to the tens of thousands in order to appeal to the popular vote. However, with the number of workers leaving the construction industry outstripping the number of apprentices (future workers), construction firms will face severe shortages. Expect wages to rise (due to supply constraints) and some pretty intense lobbying by construction firms to loosen visa restrictions for certain trades.

The significant differences between the proportion of migrant workers in London relative to the rest of the UK is a good example of geographical immobilities. Migrant workers are more ‘footloose’ and willing to move to where the work is.

I suspect other industries, such as health care and hospitality, will follow, making the setting of migration targets rather pointless.