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Robots, Other Technology Benefit Economy, Don't Hurt Job Growth, Think-Tank Head Says

Monday, January 13, 2014
By Larry Swisher

Jan. 9 --The argument that rapid technological development is destroying jobs and slowing employment growth is “a very dangerous idea,” the head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said Jan. 9.

“That's what we would call the Luddite fallacy,” Robert Atkinson, ITIF president, told members of the National Economists Club in Washington, D.C. “From an economic perspective, it's simply not accurate.”

A September 2013 report by the group--“Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them?”--disputed the notion that the growing use of automated equipment, robots, and other technological innovations explains the slow pace of job growth since the end of the 2007-2009 recession.

“I think this is a very dangerous idea,” Atkinson said. “The Europeans are in love with it” and resist productivity improvements more than Americans do, he said.

“The only way we get richer as a society is productivity growth,” or the ability to produce more goods and services using the same or fewer hours of labor per unit, Atkinson said.

The ITIF report said that most scholars have concluded jobs aren't disappearing because of automation, but rather are shifting away from routine occupations, as non-routine jobs increase and overall employment grows.

However, U.S. productivity growth has slowed over the past decade, partly because businesses are spending less as a share of the economy on new equipment and software, Atkinson said.

Untrained Workers
ITIF is a technology-oriented think tank that recently urged federal policymakers to expand the research and development tax credit to include employer-provided workforce training, boost federal funding for worker training by at least $10 billion per year, and increase federal funding for research and technology by at least $50 billion per year.

“U.S. companies increasingly don't train their workers,” Atkinson told the NEC. “I think that's a big problem.”

The danger with the popularity of the Luddite view of technology as a threat to jobs is that it could erode support for policies that encourage businesses to replace workers with machines, Atkinson said.

Although automation does displace some workers in the short term, it boosts the overall economy, incomes, and employment over the long run, he said. The answer is not to block innovation but to provide displaced workers with unemployment benefits and retraining, he said.

In addition, Atkinson voiced support in general for policies that reduce the growing inequality in incomes and wages. Some analysts have said the spread of technology also is a factor in the widening of the income gap. “I think we'd be better off with more balanced income distribution,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Larry Swisher in Washington at lswisher@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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