Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Free trade won’t kill U.S. jobs — robots may

Critics of President Barack Obama’s plan to sign a Trans-Pacific agreement that would create the world’s biggest free trade zone are missing the point: the biggest threat to U.S. jobs won’t come from cheaper imports from Vietnam, Malaysia or Mexico, but from robots.

Congressional opponents of Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) — a bloc of 12 Pacific Rim countries in Asia and the Americas that would include Japan, the world’s third-largest economy — say the deal would outsource jobs to cheap-labor Asian countries. Among the biggest critics of the plan is the AFL-CIO, and legislators from Obama’s own Democratic party.

But their fears are at best exaggerated. While some of TTP participants, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, have much lower wages than the United States, workers in other possible TTP member countries, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan, by most standards earn higher wages.

More importantly, as a new book, The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, says, the big threat to world employment in coming years will come from robots, which will increasingly displace human factory workers, white collar employees and professionals from their current jobs.

“One widely held belief that is certain to be challenged is the assumption that automation is primarily a threat to workers who have little education and lower-skill levels,” such as assembly line workers, says the book’s author, Martin Ford. “The reality today is far different.”

A 2013 study by Oxford University’s Carl Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are in areas that are at high risk of being taken over by robots over the next 10 years.

These areas will include services that until recently seemed impossible to be filled by robots. Earlier this month, for instance, Japan’s Henn-na Hotel announced that it will add 10 human-looking robots to its staff starting this summer. And 3D printers, self-driving cars and super-computers will turn today’s world employment scene upside down over the next decades.

Because of the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, even many professionals like medical doctors who read X-rays, attorneys who write standard contracts and — yes — journalists are likely to be replaced by robots and algorithms, much the way many travel agents were in recent years.

I see it every day in my profession. Many of the layout designers, librarians and fact checkers have long disappeared from the newspaper business, and growing numbers of sports and financial stories are written by machines.

And cameramen are increasingly vanishing from TV sets. I tape my weekly CNN en Español show in Miami, but the cameras are operated remotely from a control room in Atlanta.

Many experts reject the notion that we’re heading toward a jobless future, citing the fact that pessimists have been predicting that since the 19th century’s industrial revolution, and the fact is that the United States and many developed countries have relatively low unemployment rates.

When ATMs started appearing in the 1990s, many predicted that bank tellers would disappear. Instead, the number of bank employees has grown because banks “feed” their bank tellers to become loan officers or sell other bank products, and U.S. bank branches in urban areas increased by 43 percent in recent years.

“If we go back 100 years, people would work in factories for 80-90 hours a week, and many would die because of the intense work they did. Now, very few people do that,” says Vivek Wadhwa, a leading technology guru with Singularity University. “With technology, the cost of everything, from food to iPhones, goes down, so people won’t have to work to live as much as today.”

Wadhwa added, “I worry about joblessness, but I’m also excited about the fact that we will have more time for knowledge and recreation.”

My opinion: The fact that the biggest members of the proposed TTP agreement are not low-wage countries — but in many cases have even higher labor costs than the United States — and that robots and automation will be the biggest threat to U.S. employment in coming years debunks most of the TTP critics’ arguments.

Instead of worrying about free trade and investment agreements that would allow the United States, Mexico and other countries to significantly increase their exports to Japan and other major Asian countries, free-trade critics should worry about rising education and technology standards, so that as many humans as possible remain one step ahead of robots, and the rest develop new skills to work fewer hours, and lead more fulfilling lives.

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