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Automation

In response to:

Where Do We Go From Here? from the March 17, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

In his moderately-phrased rebuttal to The Shape of Automation, [March 17] Robert Heilbroner insists that automation poses serious long-range problems of unemployment or economic glut. The best reply to his contention is the book itself (now also available in paperback), since the very arguments he raises are answered there, explicitly and in some detail. After stating the central point of our disagreement, I shall let the book defend itself.

Workers have been displaced from agriculture and manufacturing. Agreed: The essence of automation and any kind of technological progress is to permit fewer to produce more. But on balance, workers have not been displaced from the labor market. At the end of a half century of rapid technological advance, at nearly the same pace as at present, unemployment is below 4 per cent and dropping. Thus, facts support theory in showing that economic institutions, not technology, determine he level of employment. Professor Heilbroner does not deny my facts—he even used them to attack Mr. Theobald—and he praises the recent report of the President’s Commission on Automation which, as he says, shares my “Simonian optimism.”

But while Mr. Theobald, according to Professor Heilbroner, lacks nerve in facing the present, I lack it in facing the future. In the first chapter of Shape, I give reasoned arguments, which the reviewer does not discuss, why market mechanisms can continue to bear the main burden of the long-run adjustment of society to technological change. His only refutation is to cite my own predictions of future average incomes, which, he fears, will turn the economy into a “vomitorium.”

Our main disagreement, then, stems from differing conceptions of the “long run.” Professor Heilbroner, a philosopher, can become exercised at the prospect of consuming $112,000 in the year 2046; perhaps he can also worry about the day when the sun will burn out. I am preoccupied with my generation and my children’s; and as a social scientist I have great respect for the ability of human beings—given a little advance warning—to think up reasonable ways of spending $112,000, or twice that, without vomiting.

Does Professor Heilbroner believe that he and I will experience difficulty in spending $14,000 a year—the prospective 1986 average—or even $28,000, the average for 2006? Or is it the “common man” he is concerned for? Perhaps he has in mind the definition of leisure as “the time I spend improving my mind, and you spend getting drunk.”

Insofar as they are economic problems at all, the world’s problems in this generation and the next are problems of scarcity, not of intolerable abundance. The bogeyman of automation consumes worrying capacity that should be saved for real problems—like population, poverty, the bomb, and our own neuroses.

Herbert A. Simon

Carnegie Institute of Technology

Pittsburgh

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