Senator Cotton Observes That Automation May Lessen the Need for Immigrant Workers
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Here’s some good news and some bad news in a Washington Post article. First, it’s heartening to learn that Senator Tom Cotton grasps the idea of automation reducing the need for immigrant workers, as tweeted and then reported.

The bad news is the splatter-shot Post piece doesn’t explore serious projections of future job loss, but relies on shallow refutations by economists.

By “serious projections” I mean predictions from actual tech experts who know the subject and extrapolate accordingly. For example, consider actual forecasts from the tech world:

Oxford researchers forecast in 2013 that nearly half of American jobs were vulnerable to machine or software replacement within 20 years. Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi believes that in 30 years humans will become largely obsolete, and world joblessness will reach 50 percent. The Gartner tech advising company believes that one-third of jobs will be done by machines by 2025. The consultancy firm PwC published a report last year that forecast robots could take 38 percent of US jobs by 2030. Last November the McKinsey Global Institute reported that automation “could displace up to 800 million workers — 30 percent of the global workforce — by 2030.” Forrester Research estimates that robots and artificial intelligence could eliminate nearly 25 million jobs in the United States over the next decade, but it should create nearly 15 million positions, resulting in a loss of 10 million US jobs.

Below, human workers have largely disappeared from many automotive factories.

A common ploy also used by the Post is to argue that the automated future will create new employment — “history suggests new jobs will replace old ones” — which is not exactly true: the explanation gets sketchy about how many new occupations will be forthcoming, how much training they might require or what the pay will be. It’s doubtful that businesses are investing great sums of money for automation and intend to keep the same number of employees: the whole point of investing in smart machines is to save money by reducing labor costs.

The Post article was reprinted by the Miami Herald, so click away:

We need fewer immigrants because robots are coming, GOP senator suggests, Miami Herald, By Heather Long (Washington Post), February 20, 2018

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., last week helped kill the bipartisan immigration deal in Congress. He didn’t think the bill went far enough in transforming the U.S. immigration system. Like President Donald Trump, Cotton thinks the United States should cut legal immigration. The senator’s reasoning?

Well, part of it seems to be that robots are coming for our jobs.

“It can’t simultaneously be true that robots will take all the jobs & that the West needs millions of new immigrants to do the grunt work,” tweeted Cotton in late January, quoting a Wall Street Journal op-ed from a conservative commentator.

The senator repeated that argument last week when a reporter at Vox asked him why he is so adamant about cutting legal immigration, a big shift from the GOP’s classical stance of accepting legal immigrants and fighting only illegal immigration.

“I think it’s certainly critical that we reduce unskilled and low-skilled workers. It can’t both be true … that we need both more unskilled and low-skilled workers, but robots are going to take all the jobs,” Cotton told Vox.

The connection between immigrants, robots and the labor market hasn’t been widely discussed. It’s an argument about the future. Typically, people who favor restricting immigration look to the past and present, arguing that immigrants have taken the jobs of low-skill Americans or depressed their wages. There is almost no evidence to support such a claim. In fact, unemployment in the U.S. is down to 4.1 percent, the lowest since 2000, and businesses say their top complaint is they can’t find enough workers for all the 5.8 million job openings that currently exist.

Almost every economist (on the left and right) says we need more immigration right now, not less, especially since America’s population is aging, meaning there will be even fewer native-born workers in the coming years.

“You’ve clearly got a serious demographic problem in the United States,” said Desmond Lachman, a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “The number of people over 65 will double between now and 2060. That’s clearly a problem. You need younger people in the workforce to support a whole lot of older people.”

But what about the robots? Plenty of studies predict machines will disrupt entirely industries. Driverless cars and trucks, for example, could put 4 million Americans out of work in the “near future,” predicts the Center for Global Policy Solutions.

In this context, the robot argument sounds compelling. Do native-born Americans need to compete with immigrants for jobs that are going to be increasingly rare because of automation? On closer examination, it’s unlikely this is a real worry, several economists said.

Yes, machines will almost certainly take over some jobs but that doesn’t mean there will be fewer overall jobs in the U.S. economy.

[. . .]

“In the real world, the problem is we can’t find workers. That’s getting worse by the day. The problem isn’t robots taking over our jobs,” [Mark] Zandi said.

Even though U.S. businesses are desperately seeking workers, the Cotton proposal would reduce immigration an estimated 40 percent by 2038, according to an analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute.

Second, history suggests new jobs will replace old ones. As the Industrial Revolution demonstrated, technological transformations create new jobs no one has thought of yet. The same trend appears to be happening today.

Companies shed workers during the Great Recession and rapidly tried to cut costs, including by introducing more machines on assembly lines and in fast casual restaurants like Panera, where you can now order on a touch screen. Yet even with those trends, the U.S. economy has added over 16.4 million jobs since the low point for employment in December 2009.

“Tom Cotton is woefully misinformed,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM. “Robots will create more jobs.”


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