"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Friday, December 6, 2013

She Might Be a Waitress or a Bank Teller

Here's a snatch from a Bruce Springsteen song, "Crush on You," from his album The River:

Well now she might be the talk of high society
She's probably got a lousy personality
She might be a heiress to Rockefeller
She might be a waitress or a bank teller
She makes the Venus de Milo look like she's got no style
She makes Sheena of the Jungle look meek and mild

Working glass girls from Jersey (and, frankly, from anywhere else) used to grow up to become, among other things, waitresses or bank tellers or secretaries.  

But ATMs more and more put bank tellers out of business -- my wife and I were in a bank recently looking to refinance our house, and there was literally no one waiting in line at the tellers, and there only two of them on duty.  

And I can tell you in our office that, more and more, secretaries (God bless them) are becoming unnecessary.   I type my own letters, most of which I sign electronically and send via .pdf and file with a drop-and-drag feature, all from my desk and without any help at all -- no typing, no copying, no envelopes, no filing, nothing.   I enter my own time on a computer program.   I do a good deal of filing with courts electronically.    We used to have one secretary for every lawyer.   We now have three or more lawyers for every secretary.   Given the cost of salaries and benefits (especially health care) involved in hiring a legal secretary, I suspect that the ratio will continue in an inexorable approach to a limit equal to zero legal secretaries.   That's sad, but that's what I see happening within the next 10-20 years.

Now there's this, as Jonah Goldberg reports:

On Tuesday, the day before Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage, the restaurant chain Applebee’s announced that it will install iPad-like tablets at every table. Chili’s already made this move earlier this year.  
With these consoles customers will be able to order their meals and pay their checks without dealing with a waiter or waitress. Both companies insist that they won’t be changing their staffing levels, but if you’ve read any science fiction, you know that’s what the masterminds of every robot takeover say: “We’re here to help. We’re not a threat.” 
But the fact is, the tablets are a threat. In 2011, Annie Lowrey wrote about the burgeoning tablet-as-waiter business. She focused on a startup firm called E La Carte, which makes a table tablet called Presto. “Each console goes for $100 per month. If a restaurant serves meals eight hours a day, seven days a week, it works out to 42 cents per hour per table — making the Presto cheaper than even the very cheapest waiter. Moreover, no manager needs to train it, replace it if it quits, or offer it sick days. And it doesn’t forget to take off the cheese, walk off for 20 minutes, or accidentally offend with small talk, either.” 
Applebee’s is using the Presto. Are we really supposed to believe that the chain will keep thousands of redundant human staffers on the payroll forever?

This is a gigantic problem for our society.   At the same time that we are making college increasingly and often prohibitively expensive, we are basically making the types of jobs people used to get without a college education obsolete.   I wish the problem were just lowering the minimum wage or eliminating it entirely, something I favor as a way of making unskilled young men, and particularly unskilled young minorities, more attractive to employers.   I wish the problem were just limiting illegal immigration, which adds millions of unskilled workers to an economy where there already aren't enough jobs for unskilled workers to begin with.   But the problem is probably more difficult than that -- Moore's Law keeps on chugging along, and computing power keeps on getting cheaper and cheaper, and building drones and robots and machines to do the work that people used to do keeps getting easier and easier.  

Everytime I go to a city on business, I'm invariably driven in a cab by a cab driver who's a recent immigrant -- in Minneapolis it's invariably a Somali, in Detroit an Arab, in New York a Russian, etc.   At some point, however, there will be drone cars, driverless cars, run by computers.   There will be drone deliverymen (see Bezos, Jeff and his plans for Amazon).   The Internet is already making going to the mall unnecessary, and hence the jobs of the mall security guard, the mall cleaning staff, the mall salesgirls, etc.   We have what amounts to online malls with every shop you could imagine, and no trouble finding parking.  

But, if you're a kid who just dropped out of college because it was too expensive, where exactly are you supposed to go for a job?  

A bit of a rant, and I'm not a Luddite, but there's a lot that worries me out there as a parent of teenagers.  

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