Robots vs. minimum wage: As pressure grows on McDonald's, Applebee's does an end run
Paul Sancya, Associated Press
Even as pressure builds to hike the minimum wage, evidence grows that low-wage/low-skill workers may be dispensable in a world where automation of simple tasks is inevitable, syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg said Monday.
Goldberg cited the irony that just one day before the president delivered a speech calling for a minimum wage hike, the national restaurant chain Applebee's announced it would install 100,000 tabletop tablets for ordering and payments at its restaurants next year. Chili's announced a similar move in September.
"People don’t go into business to create jobs; they go into business to make money. Labor is a cost," Goldberg wrote, "The more expensive labor is, the more attractive nonhuman replacements for labor become. The minimum wage makes labor more expensive. Obama knows this, which is why he so often demonizes ATMs as job-killers."
The Applebee's tablets will be provided by E la Carte, whose founder Rajat Suri, Forbes reported, "admits that with technology like his tablets, such concern will always be there. E la Carte stays agnostic about how restaurants choose to use its systems, the company says, and Applebee’s insists that it won’t downsize staff after this massive rollout is completed."
“Very clearly, our intention is not to replace servers, who provide a personal connection that is invaluable in our restaurants and to our ‘See You Tomorrow’ experience,” Applebee's president Mike Archer told Forbes. “This is about building on to the experience for the guest, not saving on labor.”
But as Goldberg notes, "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.’ ”
While debate rages over the disemployment effects of the minimum wage and the role technology may play, some policy analysts like James Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Institute are calling for approaches that could help low-wage/low-skill workers without encouraging employers to phase them out.
Pethokoukis cites a number of proposals that would directly subsidize low-wage workers from tax revenue, including some that would directly subsidize at the paycheck with a reverse payroll tax. That proposal was offered by consultant Oren Cass, who argued that “the effect in many ways would mirror a substantial increase in the minimum wage. But whereas a price control would tend to decrease the size of the labor force, a subsidy would tend to increase it.”
So are robots a long-term threat to human labor, or an asset to human life?
"While the displacement of formerly human jobs gets all the headlines, the greatest benefits bestowed by robots and automation come from their occupation of jobs we are unable to do," wrote Kevin Kelly last year in Wired. "We don’t have the attention span to inspect every square millimeter of every CAT scan looking for cancer cells. We don’t have the millisecond reflexes needed to inflate molten glass into the shape of a bottle. We don’t have an infallible memory to keep track of every pitch in Major League Baseball and calculate the probability of the next pitch in real time.
"We aren’t giving 'good jobs' to robots," Kelly concludes, "Most of the time we are giving them jobs we could never do. Without them, these jobs would remain undone."