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The Loss of Skill in the Industrial Revolution (growthecon.wordpress.com)
76 points by stang 405 days ago | 22 comments

"If we were talking about innovations that got more output from less energy, then holding output constant while lowering energy consumption would be what everyone hoped to see. Why should human capital be different?"

Wow. I'm not a Marxist, but perhaps this person may want to start by reading Marx' view about de-humanization in industrial production.


Well, to the dismay of people who like throwing labels like "marxist" around, Karl Marx was right about many things (also wrong about many, like every human), and his ideas seem to be more applicable nowadays than they were in his time.


Marx identified some problems. This is fairly underwhelming... one need merely step outside, point, and one can probably find a problem. Stepping outside is optional, in fact.

Marx was mindblowingly wrong about the solutions. This is also, frankly, underwhelming... solutions are really hard. He got unlucky though... people took him seriously, and a lot of people died as a result. Whoops. May we all never have the curse of being taken serious at such a scale given to us.


First, I've never seen Marxism implemented in the real world. At the time of its writing, only the UK, Germany and perhaps Holland fit the required industrialization level. Attempting to implement it in an agrarian society was doomed from the being by the theory. Now I know that many (myself included) take issue with what we now call a living wage, but so far it is the only humane response to dealing with poor people and their growing population due to industrialization. A living wage is essentially Marxism.

Think about the present situation. Technology is making more and more jobs unnecessary. Soon trucking will probably go the way of the buggy whip. That entire industry will shrink. Capitalist will own the trucks, and pay a select few to manage a fleet. The drivers and some of the mechanics are no longer needed to maintain routes. That's a lost of many good jobs.

Now, not to disrespect every trucker, but many are average intelligence or below average. If jobs that survive technology require above average intelligence, the aforementioned truckers won't have a job, even with retraining. Now what should we do with them? Pure capitalism would either have the poor die of starvation/exposure, private charities, poor jails or extermination. Private charities haven't scaled in the past. Poor jails didn't work either. I don't see anyone killing the poor either. I also don't think you'll get mass extinction in a modern society. Thus you're pretty much left with a Marxist endgame. Eventually enough of the means of production is owned by the government, either directly or taxation on the producers, that you have a Marxist state.


"Now, not to disrespect every trucker, but many are average intelligence or below average" You underestimate the adaptability of your fellow human. There may be truckers that performed less well academically than you, but perhaps they didn't need to perform academically in order to survive, and preferred a different route. Give me anyone from any background with motivation to learn the skills I can share and I'd guarantee I could get them to a decent level.


The thing is, the goalpost is moving. First of all, not everyone has enough of "motivation to learn" (along with things like time; the general case is, the poorer you are, the less time you have available to learn; this also applies to unstable situations like losing a job). Secondly, the "decent level" is the moving goalpost. At some point "decent level" is not decent enough to get the bread.


My main point is "motivation to learn" is key. Give me someone with motivation to learn, even if their free time is limited, and I can get them to a decent level in the fields I have knowledge of. As for what "decent level" means, to me in this case it means good enough to be employed based on those skills based on current requirements, and with all the mental tools to further their own education in the future.

Perhaps it's because I recognise my own aptitude is very little to do with being "intelligent" (whatever that means), and much more to do with having an interest in what I do.


Ayn Rand would love the questions near the end.

Although most markets have historically had a high concentration of output from the top percentile, so its not exactly a far fetched proposition to say that 5% of the workforce led development during the IR.


If the vast bulk of technological output amplifications are additive, then we'd expect to need broad distribution of the skills and experience a broad distribution of results.

If even a few technological output amplifications are multiplicative, and especially if they are independent (one can freely choose the 3x and the 4x and the 5x advantage and obtain something like a 60x advantage), then we would expect the skills to end up concentrated and the optimal strategy to be to load up as many multiplicative advantages as possible in one place.

(Note carefully the first few words of each paragraph. It only takes a handful of multiplicative advantages for them to dominate.)

You can obtain this result by playing lots of strategy video games, especially Civilization which has both. Additive results like the simple Granary, which adds a constant amount of resources to the containing town, need to be built in every city to be effective. But things that have a multiplicative advantage need only be built where they are necessary, and if you have certain unique things that can only be built in one place that are also multiplicative, the optimal strategy is to build them all in one place so they reinforce each other, not scatter them about.

So far, none of this has a moral dimension. This is all just simple optimization. Now we bring it back down to reality, where morality intrudes. It should be so obvious that a great deal of technology in the real world has a multiplicative effect rather than an additive effect that I should not have to justify that statement. IMHO, the question is what to do about this rather than whether this is true. And one of the dangers is that it is very easy to end up giving answers that actually destroy the technological advantage in the process, because for as mighty as it all appears to be, it's a lot more fragile than it looks, as you can see once you start seeing it this way. The humans involved in the tech aren't irreplaceable (or it would be really fragile), but there's still limits involved, and destroying or impeding their effectiveness can have non-linear impacts on total productivity. A lot of people model the technological advantages we've obtained for ourselves as a constant; we can do whatever we want and it will always be there, no matter how we impede or help it. It's scary how untrue that is.


One problem with deskilling is loss of bargaining power. Because you become a cog in the machine, easily replaced. Good if you own/rent people, sucks if you're the "human capital".

(Companies often reject profit-improving innovations which empower skilled workers. On the flipside, unions — to the extent they exist — also have the incentive to reject improvements which damage bargaining power. That's one problem with capitalism's built in boss/worker antagonism.)

Another is mind-numbing work. Adam Smith rants about how division of labor makes people "stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become... But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it." (http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN20.html#V.1.178)

Another (since the last century) is the rise of managerialism, with its bureaucracies. David Noble points out that tech can deskill workers and strengthen management, or empower workers and peel away management layers.


Do you have any examples of companies rejecting profit-improving innovations which empower skilled workers?


I was told last week not to create any macros whatsoever. Everything must be either completely manual, or outsourced to India. I work in one of the largest financial institutions in the world.


What the hell? I belive this might just be gross incompetence and not a deliberate manouver.


As a libertarian, my personal philosophy leads me to be suspicious of all large organizations, and one of the reasons why is that once you become large enough to stop being rigidly held to a standard such as the market's demand for efficiency (there are other possible standards, but that's a popular one; small local governing organizations can also be effectively held to account by their constituents, for instance), you become free to do things like start playing turf games internally without regard to whether it impacts the bottom line. Government, company, non-profit, club, union, NGO, sports organization like the MLB, doesn't matter, as soon as you are free to engage in human politics without restraint you get too many people who begin playing games that destroy societal value for their own local political gains. In this case, doing everything manually is a net loss for society, and a net loss to the company in question, but a local gain for the person making that dictate (or at least perceived to be a local gain, which is good enough), and so the trade is made.


It is a deliberate strategy. It is partly to reduce key person risk, and partly to reduce complexity.

It is also because the business is run by lawyers, accountants, underwriters, and actuaries, and they have almost zero knowledge of software.

And, yes, actuaries. I mean you. You write terrible code. Terrible, terrible code.


Surely that comes from a failure to recognize that macros would increase profit, not a rejection of profit because it would empower workers.


Java vs. Lisp/OCaml/etc.

It is thought that these niche languages are more productive in the hands of an expert, but then, you need an expert, which is scary for the corporate bottom line. Hence the mass adoption of Java to keep workers interchangeable.

Thankfully a few companies have realized what Jane Street did: niche languages actually make hiring easier if you are looking for top talent, and of course, the productivity is better too.

Related: http://flownet.com/gat/jpl-lisp.html

"The management world has tried to develop software engineering processes that allow people to be plugged into them like interchangeable components."


Have you ever tried BYOD?

Know this guy? http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Mordac%20The%20Preventer


Its probably hard to talk about without naming names and violating NDAs. However I can think of at least three areas to search:

1) Hand wavy "who will support this?" arguments. Sometimes with a prefix of "when you leave, who will..." etc.

2) Extreme top down management style "all innovation comes from above, even if that results in none at all". Often closely tied with credentialism. "we pay engineers to innovate, so shut up and do what they say". I interned at a place like that decades ago, now out of business.

3) Empire building / contractual obligation. "We paid a zillion bucks for lotus notes, you will use it, I don't care if it makes things slower than simple manual processes or your new ideas, we will use Lotus Notes anyway"


This is particularly interesting in combination with Gregory Clark's ("The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility") research into social mobility and relative fecundity by social strata.


Could also be phrased "the rise of under-employment" rather than loss of skill. Hundreds of years ago my direct ancestors were making coo coo clocks in the black forest, and on paper that carpentry skillset is completely lost after a couple generations of job titles, although I am actually a modestly skilled wood butcher, I am beyond your average handyman or roofer or maybe even average rougher, but I am good enough to know I'm at least one step, maybe two, beneath the true masters of the craft. I might be a higher skilled carpenter than some of my less competent ancestors, despite it merely being a hobby.

As a close to the heart analogy, everyone here knows that if you graduated with a BSCS and didn't do the IT/accounting or the graphics arts/web design track then the student probably did the stereotypical academic track with all manner of highly skilled senior year classes like automata theory, compiler design, maybe some control theory (although thats more EE). I did well in those classes and like many (most?) people I'm highly underemployed. I would guess that well over half, maybe 90 percent, of my fellow students in automata class and compiler class are just doing CRUD web apps or mobile apps, which hardly require those skill levels / skill sets.

I'd be slightly interested in sociological commentary on societies where underemployment increases. Does it always increase infinitely, or crash after awhile, or just not matter much?

A better proxy for carpentry skill level of a society might be the total sales of tools and supplies. I think the total economic size of the "at least somewhat skilled woodworker" is larger today than in the olden days.

Another interesting aspect is expansion of titles. Everyone in a skilled craft no matter if its programming or carpentry knows some are more equal that others, in carpentry no matter if you all have the same job title, or hobby name, some guys can barely be trusted with material handling and rough carcasses while other guys can be trusted to trim the finest kitchen cabinets, despite all having the same title. And obvious IT/CS analogies.


I think the modern wave of industrialization (post invention of the micro-computer) is starting to reverse the trend, especially as leisure time is potentially increasing.


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