Wednesday, September 22, 2004

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A modest proposal to ban automation

Over at the anti-outsourcing IT Professionals Association of America, someone has discovered an insidious plan to destroy jobs in this country:

Have you seen self check out counters lately in your area stores such as Wal Mart, Target, K-Mart, Home Depot, Grocery stores etc. We have many in Dallas area. Guess what? The employers are cutting hours of cashiers, give them less than 28 hours, cut/stop their benefits and health insurance, use customers to do their job for free, and pocket higher profits. Watch out for those so called "Self check outs" or "Speedy check out Counters".

Basically, customers who use self check out terminals are eliminating jobs of fellow Americans.


Now I don't want to go off on a rant here, but if you ask me, this proposal doesn't go far enough. It's not just the automated cashiers who put people out of jobs. What about the ATMs that dispense money instead of bank clerks? What about those automated kiosks in airports that dispense boarding passes instead of gate agents? What about those computer thingmabobs -- you know, the devices without which no one could conceive of being a member of the ITPAA -- that have replaced many secretarial positions? Dear God, what about the Internet? WHAT ABOUT THE INTERNET??!!!

Clearly the ITPAA has fallen for the lump of labor fallacy. But I do admire their intellectual consistency. Most opponents of trade and offshoring clam up when it's suggested that a logical extension of their position is to oppose technological innovation and automation as well -- since technology, like trade, is about how to produce more efficiently (for more on this point, see this essay by Brink Lindsey). So bravo to the ITPAA for not being afraid to be out-and-out Luddites.

UPDATE: Several commenters suggest that the site I linked to is some kind of satire or parody. I can assure you it is quite real. I should also add that although I vehemently disagree with Scott Kirwin (ITPAA's founder) on the offshore outsourcing stuff, we've had nothing but polite interactions over the Internet on this issue.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Several commenters point out their dislike of automated checkout lines. They should check out the Economist's thoughts on the topic. Closing paragraph:

[T]here are limits to how far self-service can be taken. Companies that go too far down the self-service route or do it ineptly are likely to find themselves being punished. Instead, a balance between self-service and conventional forms of service is required. Companies ought to offer customers a choice, and should encourage the use of self-service, for those customers that want it, through service quality, not coercion. Self-service works best when customers decide to use a well designed system of their own volition; it infuriates most when they are forced to use a bad system. Above all, self-service is no substitute for good service.

posted by Dan on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM


This is almost too easy a shot, isn't it? A technology group advocating less use of technology? Too weird.

posted by: Donald A. Coffin on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

What about those automated kiosks in airports that dispense boarding passes instead of gate agents?

Every time I've used one of those, there was a gate agent who stood there and instructed the passengers how to use it, so I'm not sure that those have actually eliminated any jobs.

When I went the post office last week, there was a new stamp kiosk that accepted credit cards. There were two postal employees standing there instructing customers how to use it. As opposed to the one it would take to sell stamps at the counter. (The software itself was poorly designed. If you failed to "log out" after it printed your receipt, the next guy in line could buy stamps with your credit card.)

posted by: Brock on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

This "ITPAA" appears to be mostly one person's private project - he obviously hopes to attract some others to join him, but it's not as if this is some sort of official organization that needs to be taken seriously.

You might also want to read his "praise" (NOT!) for Kerry:

Oh, and he also recommends boycotting most big American companies:

posted by: gw on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Who in the hell do these people think are going to get hired to program these self-checkout terminals and kiosks? I poked around on the site to make sure this wasn't some opponent posting a satire. It doesn't appear to be... it says "posted by admin", who posted other stuff critical of outsourcing and so forth.

I tried using an electronic check-in at Southwest Airlines. It swiped my credit card for identification purposes, then required me to type in my flight number for a flight already booked. Geez, guys, a picklist didn't occur to you there? Once it knows who I am, shouldn't it tell me what my booked flight(s) is and let me pick one to get a boarding pass for?

It could use some work. And I know just the guys to keep as far away from the project as possible... the guys who think that having people boycott automatic terminals will protect their programming jobs!

posted by: Ken on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

you're sure this is not a joke? (by which I mean an *intentional* joke)?

posted by: P O'Neill on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Um, I hate those self-check lines, and I won't use them. They are usually managed by some really nasty straw boss. And the pretense that it speeds things up is laughable. The only way to get people to go into that line is to make sure that the lines at the regular checkouts are sufficiently long that people are willing to check their own goods.

posted by: mac on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

I clicked through the lump of labor link, and it got me thinking off topic. When, exactly, does Paul Krugman get an admission from his critics that his shrillness about the Bush Administration was a function of his prescience rather than his partisanship? I mean, it's not perfect, but his record looks pretty good from four years in. Iraq a disaster - check. Fiscal policy a joke - check. Record of secrecy - check. Administration's inability to accept accountability - check.

posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

I love self-checkout, *because* people are usually too lazy to use them. The downside is when you get behind the common technological buffoon trying to use them, which does slow things down. But usually, especially at the new Walmart that opened by my place, they are completely open while all the checkout lines have multiple people in them. Plus, you don't have to deal with incompetant cashiers, either.

So, by all means, PLEASE continue to go through the regular checkout lines!

posted by: Justin on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

"you're sure this is not a joke? (by which I mean an *intentional* joke)?"

I went to "Home", and the article about self-service checkouts appears in a long list of articles titled "BUSH ADMIN TARGETS MIDDLE CLASS JOBS", "US CONTINUES LOSING IT JOBS", "CNN: DOBBS TAKES ON COLUMBIA PROF OUTSOURCING APOLOGIST", and so forth. All by "admin". Unless someone hacked into the site and posted the satire a week ago and the real admin never noticed it, it's apparently for real.

Maybe he's hoping to be a cashier if the programming thing doesn't work out?

Interestingly enough, he's also got an article up about a worker shortage in India. Perhaps there's more than one "admin" holding a debate and not telling us?

posted by: Ken on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

A KMart in a lower-rent part of L.A. used to have self checkouts, but they got rid of them for some reason. I've used them in L.A. and TX and each time I had to get assistance from the operator. So, they apparently need some work.

Not to get too far off the topic, but the same types of people who would object to the anti-self-checkout comments (not necessarily DD) seem to think cheap labor rather than machines is OK for some tasks. A bit of cognitive dissonance if you will.

Example: By 1970, the number of tomato-harvest jobs had been cut by two-thirds [by farm mechanization]. But the tomato harvester's success proved to be a kiss of death for mechanical harvesting. In 1979, the farm worker advocacy group California Rural Legal Assistance, with support from the United Farm Workers union of Cesar Chavez, sued U.C. Davis, charging that it was using public money for research that displaced workers and helped only big growers... The lawsuit was eventually settled. But even before that, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter's agriculture secretary, Bob Bergland, declared that the government would no longer finance research projects intended to replace "an adequate and willing work force with machines." [NOTE: at the time, the UFW supported only legal workers; Chavez called the INS on illegal aliens --LW]. Today, the Agricultural Research Service employs just one agricultural engineer: Donald Peterson, a longtime researcher at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va... "At one time I was told to keep a low profile and not to publicize what I was doing," Mr. Peterson said.

See also "The Mirage of Mexican Guest Workers".

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Given the high-rate of turn-over of employees at places like Walmart, I really doubt they have to fire (or reduce anyones hours) anyone.

Since, everyone is jumping down this guys throat, I'll just suggest maybe one valid point -he has - I think its better (in general, probably not as profitable for the company) to higher fewer employees and give them full benefits, rather than to string along a number of employees at max p/t hours with no benefits. At least that's my intuition -- do the econmists in the room have thoughts on that?

posted by: Jor on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

The self-checkouts also need work. The ones I tried pitch a royal fit if you take any bags off the tiny little metal shelf before you've finished scanning, making the device worthless for anything more than two or three bags worth.

I figure that the self-checkout registers are an interim solution. When RF tags get cheap enough, they'll be attached to all the goods on the shelves; you'll swipe your credit card and everything in your basket will be scanned at once as you leave. That should work much better, assuming competent programmers are involved (i.e., not one that thinks IT guys worried about outsourcing should try to eliminate IT work in grocery stores, or anyone involved with the Southwest Airlines self-service checkin app).

posted by: Ken on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

"Since, everyone is jumping down this guys throat, I'll just suggest maybe one valid point -he has - I think its better (in general, probably not as profitable for the company) to higher fewer employees and give them full benefits, rather than to string along a number of employees at max p/t hours with no benefits. At least that's my intuition -- do the econmists in the room have thoughts on that? "

Yeah, I've got a few thoughts on that. Tax incentives to provide "benefits" in lieu of cash are a bad idea. Requiring people to charge more per hour (i.e., cash plus benefits rather than just the same amount of cash) if they work "full time" than if they work "part-time" is an even worse idea - the fact that they have a hard time getting "full time" hours in that situation should surprise no one.

posted by: Ken on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

The self-checks I've seen are really strange. They look more like someone's unfinished science fair project than like a commercial product.

posted by: David Foster on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Minus five points for referring to the "lump of labor fallacy." There are good reasons not to credit this individual's view, but referring to the "lump of labor fallacy" is not an intellectually meaningful objection.

posted by: alkali on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Why isnt anyone worried about all the buggy whip manufacturers that remain unemployed? How long must they suffer before their jobs are returned to them? Boycott the damnedable motorcar!

posted by: Mark Buehner on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Why isnt anyone worried about all the buggy whip manufacturers that remain unemployed?

Until recently, I didn't know that the "buggy whip manufacturer" was universal economics shorthand. Which is amusing to me, as I happen to know a buggy whip manufacturer personally, who is doing quite well, thank you very much.

posted by: Jonas Cord on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

"I love self-checkout, *because* people are usually too lazy to use them. The downside is when you get behind the common technological buffoon trying to use them, which does slow things down."

Exactly. They reward me with time because I'm willing to put in a little effort. Perfect trade-off for me. They reward the company because the self-checks are run on a 1-4 or better employee to checking station ratio. Great for the company. Welcome to efficiency.

posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

My daughter is suplementing her Girl Scout cookie drive with an HTML email and 'reply' counter (???). How many cookie sellers will that negate. I made her add a photo of her actually knocking on a door - just to take some sting out of it.

(ps - how about a self-service kiosk at the unemployment office?)

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Am I the only one who suspects that the same people who complain that we are "destroying jobs" when we use ATMs, pump our own gas, or do self-checkout also complain that we are creating a "subservient underclass" when we hire people to mow our lawns and clean our houses?

And do the same people who complain about how awful "McJobs" are also complain when these jobs get automated away?

posted by: Curt Wilson on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Luddites, all of them.

posted by: j swift on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]


Krugman doesn't always get what he deserves because he can be too shrill and can sometimes make a mistake or two. And I say this as a Krugman fan.

Maybe he'll have some more respect - damn, I feel like Rodney Dangerfield already - once he gets that Nobel Prize. Hey, they hand it out on October 8, and that's just around the corner.

posted by: Brian on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Don't forget Bastiat's famous candlemaker's petition.

posted by: David Nieporent on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

don't forget stopligths, they must be replaced with actual people. Stop signs must be replace with actual people also, to advanced for america.

Aren't toliets automated?

heh heh

posted by: cube on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Why am I hearing strains of Weird Al's "Amish Paradise"?

posted by: Bithead on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

the stakes can get even higher than we think. one reason the french got clobbered in 1940 is that they were badly outclassed in the air, even though they'd developed some promising designs. one reason for that, according to alistair horne in 'to lose a battle: france 1940,' is that the labor unions objected to using the assembly line in the aircraft factories. i've been a union man all my life, but sacre bleu.

posted by: greeneyeshade on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

I agree that this guy sounds silly, and thus we can all feel good about ourselves by calling him a luddite. The title of the original post is wrong, however. He is apparently not calling for a ban on anything, but rather asking people not to do something because it is morally wrong. I think he is wrong about that, but it is a very different thing.

Also, he sounds a lot like me some ways. I use the self-checkout at our grocery store because it means one less interaction with a human, there is usually no line, and the kids love doing it. On the other hand I usually try to find things somewhere other than Wal-Mart if I can. Partially because our Wal-Mart is a zoo, but also because our local Wal-Mart treats its workers like trash (even by Wal-Mart standards) and this offends my delicate moral sensabilities. Am I a Luddite?

posted by: AlanB. on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

The further continuation of this thinking is that the industrial revolution was bad for jobs since automation eliminated crafting positions.

That is eminently provably as false, of course, and so is the current reaction, for the exact same reasons.

posted by: Ursus on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Great post. I'm writing this wireless from my car. I'm at the gas station and figured I could bang this out while I wait for the attendant to come out to fill my tank and check the oil.

Still waiting...

posted by: Karl on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Isn't describing Krugman as "shrill" just another way of saying "Krugman had Bush's number long before I did, and I closed my eyes and ears because I prefered having a Republican president and didn't want to admit that this one was a train wreck in the making?"

posted by: S. Anderson on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Actually, S. Anderson, it's a way of saying "Good God, that man's whining could make paint peel off the walls."

I'm no Bush fan, but I can't read Krugman, Kos, or Kevin Drum anymore. If Bush said that the sky was blue, they'd be instantly off on a Bush conspiracy to mislead people about the fact that sometimes it rains.

The left really needs to work on how it messages as well as what it messages if it's ever going to win back support.

posted by: Dan W on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

Given Bush team's bait-and-switch tactics, given the fact the Bush team doesn't believe in policy, but practices 100% politics, 100% of the time -- it's *always* about rewarding some powerful constituency -- I would say that apparently level-headed commentators such as Drezner are doing themselves and their readers a disservice by giving Bush the benefit of the doubt as often as they do.

I frequently see variations on this "shrill" rhetorical tactic deployed elsewhere. It's way of changing the conversation from the content of what a critic is saying, which may be too solid to crack, to a question of the critic's tone.

I don't disagree that Krugman could be more effective if he toned it down. But in the "lump of labor" link it was obvious that Drezner was calling Krugman "shrill" in order to avoid dealing with the content of Krugman's repeated criticisms of Bush.

posted by: S. Anderson on 09.22.04 at 02:32 PM [permalink]

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