Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Larry Summers Tells It Like It Is

From the unedited transcript, "Future of Work in the Machine Age" policy forum:
Third, when I was an undergraduate at MIT in the 1960s there as a whole round of concern about this -- will automation displace all the employment? And what I was taught as an undergraduate was that basically the people who thought it would were a bunch of idiot Luddites and that obviously there would eventually be enough demand and it would all sort of work itself out, and if people got more productive they'd be richer and they'd spend and maybe we needed some transition assistance, but that it was all basically going to be okay. That was what I was taught. That's what Bob Solow thought; he was a hero and the other people were all a bunch of a goofballs was kind of what I learned. (Laughter)
I actually believed that for many years and actually repeated it often. It has occurred to me that when I was being taught that about six percent of the men in the United States between the age of 25 and 54 were not working. And that today 16 percent of the men in the United States between the age of 25 and 54 are not working, and it won't be very different even when the economy is at full employment by any definition. And so something very serious has happened with respect to the general availability of quality jobs in our society and we can debate whether it's due to technology or whether it is not due to technology. 
We can debate whether it's the cause of dependence or whether it is caused by policies that promote dependence. But I think it is very hard to believe that a society in which the fraction of people in -- choose whatever your most prime demographic group is that should be working, whatever that group is, a society in which the fraction of them who are not working is doubling in a generation and seems to be on an upward trend is going to be a society that is going to function well, or at least function well without major social innovations.

And I would want to leave you with that concern as there whether you think it's due to technology or whether you think it's due to globalization, or whether you think it's due to the maldistribution of political power, something very serious is happening in our society.

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