Connecting the Dots

Dirty Jobs and Macro Questions

November 30, 2016

Every day brings a new warning: robots are coming to take our jobs. Soon we’ll all be unemployed… and unable to buy what the robots produce.

What good are robots if all they do is make stuff we can’t afford? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt automation will replace some human workers—even (gasp!) writers and editors.

I’ve thought about this a lot. While I haven’t found a good answer yet, recently I had a light-bulb moment.

Strangely enough, it came while I was watching a food show on TV.

Photo: Getty Images

Robot Waiters Are Waiting

Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN is must-see TV for me. If you’ve never watched it, Bourdain is a celebrity chef who visits interesting places around the world. But food is only the hook. The fun part is seeing things you would miss as a tourist.

Bourdain celebrates regular people. You see them eat at home, like we all do, and you learn how ordinary life can be both very familiar and strikingly different in other places.

Anyway, the episode that caused my epiphany was about Buenos Aires, Argentina. They eat a lot of meat there. It looked delicious.

Photo: Getty Images

Bourdain chatted with an older gentleman who had been a waiter in Argentina his whole life. They talked about how the restaurant business had changed over time.

Waiters once led an entire crew in delivering an experience. They took the mundane act of eating and made it memorable. A top waiter would make you feel like a king, if only for a short time.

Bourdain and the waiter concluded the world is different now. In 15-20 years, there will be no more human waiters. Both thought this was sad—I do too.

Here’s what struck me.

In the US, we don’t usually think of restaurant staff as “professionals.” It’s a low-skill job when you can’t find anything better or while you’re going to school to be something else.

Why is this?

Who decided that serving food to your fellow humans—a literally life-sustaining act—is somehow inferior? It shouldn’t be.

Serving others is always honorable work. Every major religion teaches this. If the work itself is honorable, why don’t we honor those who do it?

Answer: Because we would rather spend our money in other ways. When we consumers take our demand signals elsewhere, the market efficiently reduces restaurant wages to match what we’ll pay. It’s the invisible hand at work.

Jobs don’t disappear because greedy capitalists replace people with robots. Businesses turn to robots because consumers want lower prices than can be achieved with human workers.

The robots are just a means to that end.

Dirty Jobs

The next morning, I was turning all this over in my head. I thought of another TV celebrity: Mike Rowe. If you never saw him on Dirty Jobs, I promise you’ve heard his voice on a commercial. He’s everywhere. Watch his TED Talk sometime.

Dirty Jobs was a show about, well, dirty jobs. Mike’s crew would film him trying to do the unpleasant but necessary work that keeps civilization going. Cleaning sewers, picking up roadkill, that sort of thing.

Photo: Getty Images

You see in the series that the people who do these “dirty” jobs often love their work. It can pay well too—better than some jobs that require a college education.

Economics 101: If demand for workers to do Job X is high and supply of qualified, willing workers is low, the pay for Job X goes up.

Why is the supply so low? Maybe because we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not a real “career” unless you first go to college and learn about Shakespeare and organic chemistry.

The crazy expectations we put on our children (and ourselves) have consequences:

  • Too many people go to college because they think it is essential to career success.
  • Excess supply of college-educated people drives down wages.
  • Low pay plus student debt obligations make them look for the lowest price in everything they buy.
  • This reduces wages for the less-educated people who sell everyday goods and services.
  • Worker productivity falls as low wages discourage the more qualified workers.
  • Eventually, robots become the most cost-effective labor.
  • More people go to college to get ahead of the robots.

It’s a vicious cycle. We’re stuck in a rat race and won’t escape unless something pulls us off the wheel. What will it be?

The government? There are policy changes that could help, but governments tend to use brute force. Usually the outcomes aren’t ideal.

Photo: Getty Images

Another possibility: the same technology that gives us robots might produce new human jobs that don’t presently exist.

That’s likely true—but it takes time, and people can’t always wait.

I think our twisted ideas about money, work, and education are the real problems. They’re distorting supply and demand. The root causes aren’t so much economic as cultural and psychological.

Macro Questions

This year’s US election, contentious though it was, brought important issues to the surface. Ditto events around the world, like Brexit. The economy isn’t working like we think it should. People are tired of asking questions and getting no good answers.

I don’t have all the answers. I suspect no one person does. But the answers are out there, and we won’t find them unless we look for them.

That awkward, uncomfortable search will be the global macro story in 2017 and probably beyond.

See you at the top,

Patrick Watson

P.S. If you’re reading this because someone shared it with you, click here to get your own free Connecting the Dots subscription. You can also follow me on Twitter: @PatrickW.

Discuss This


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Venkatraman Anantha Nageswaran

Dec. 4, 2016, 10:26 p.m.

“Jobs don’t disappear because greedy capitalists replace people with robots. Businesses turn to robots because consumers want lower prices than can be achieved with human workers. The robots are just a means to that end.”

It is useful but not necessarily the whole story. The first line is too dismissive of an equally valid (if not better) hypothesis. That gives too easy a pass to capitalists and their greed. Indeed, some of it is very much behind the development of robots and their applications in fields that no one would not have even thought of, before.

Second, robotics are not just coming after low-paying jobs.

It is good to make ordinary people think about their own roles in this evolving story but let us not dismiss hypotheses on matters which we have hardly begun to understand, let alone master.

Dec. 1, 2016, 4:48 a.m.

My highly educated friends look at my DIY attitude in the same as most people view “Dirty Jobs”: why on earth do you do this yourself? I recently renewed my plumbing, installed a solar heat pipe system and insulated large parts of my house. I do my own car maintenance and repairs. Any time that I talk to people who do these jobs for a living they are scared of robots taking over or even worse that they will be replaced by low-wage foreigners. (I live in the EU).

But what I learned in the last 30 years is that when a job is partially automated either the expected level of quality goes way up, or the price goes down so much that demand goes way up. 
Take plumbing: in our parents house piping was visible and highly skilled labour had to install it. I recently renewed all the pipes in my house with easy to use press-on fittings. But press-on fittings make life so easy that I decided to move all pipes out of sight: much more work. Net effect: it took the same amount of labour/time, but the quality went way up.

Same with car maintenance: new cars need much less maintenance. If cars needed the same amount of maintenance today as they did 25 years ago there would be a lot less cars around.

The thing that is scary is that the regulations take more and more time and the attitude is changing from: it’s allowed if it’s not forbidden to it’s only allowed if the bureaucrats approve it.

Simon Maughan 48114

Dec. 1, 2016, 2:24 a.m.

There’s a twisted logic going on here. The premise is that too many people have a debt-funded college education. Let’s assume that is correct, then is the problem the education or the debt-funding?

If college-educated level jobs no longer pay so well then the demand for college education should fall and the price come down. This will reduce the debts that students have on graduating. This is the supply and demand that is out-of-balance, not the supply of labour, which is a function of the birth rate more than anything. Patrick seems to be suggesting that we kick-back in school and prepare for a life sifting road-kill, which seems a bizarre conclusion for a website whose author is writing a book on how new technologies will alter the world for the better.

If the cost of an education is too high, then more people should go into teaching in colleges, which is a job that requires a college education. Look to why this is not happening, or why more colleges are not being built, rather than question our desire to better ourselves. Alternatively, let’s all encourage the young generation to skip college; starting with your kids.


Nov. 30, 2016, 11:43 p.m.

Technical processes which are procedural and definitive i.e. step 1, then step 2, and then step 3 and so on will be automated and robotized sooner or later. For instance, we will likely see “qualified” robotic physicians (not referring to computers which passively assist) doing the initial round of medical diagnosis in the not too distant future. However, thought processes which are doodling and abstract in nature are (still) more difficult to be assimilated by computers, robots, and machines.

Nov. 30, 2016, 1:42 p.m.

I love it. This is the type of thinking that makes me curious, motivated, creative, and productive. What can we not teach a robot? Is it emotional intelligence and improvisation? It makes me think that the future’s most profitable jobs may be in exactly what people are not learning. I’m a sophomore in college now, and not once have I had to learn about dealing with people or solving emotional problems. This type of intelligence is learned mostly through experience…something we millennials seem to miss when we’re staring at our screens paying more attention to 2nd and 3rd versions of reality. I believe you’re right when you say the root problem may be psychological.

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