New MIT Research Indicates That Automation Is Responsible for Income Inequality

Income Inequality Concept

A newly published paper quantifies the extent to which automation has contributed to income inequality in the U.S., simply by replacing workers with technology — whether self-checkout machines, call-center systems, assembly-line technology, or other devices.

Recent data suggests that the majority of the increase in the wage gap since 1980 can be attributed to automation replacing less-educated workers.

When using self-checkout machines in supermarkets and drugstores, it is unlikely that you are bagging your purchases as efficiently as checkout clerks used to. The main advantage of automation for large retail chains is that it reduces the cost of bagging.

“If you introduce self-checkout kiosks, it’s not going to change productivity all that much,” says MIT economist Daron Acemoglu. However, in terms of lost wages for employees, he adds, “It’s going to have fairly large distributional effects, especially for low-skill service workers. It’s a labor-shifting device, rather than a productivity-increasing device.”

A newly published study co-authored by Acemoglu quantifies the extent to which automation has contributed to income inequality in the U.S., simply by replacing workers with technology — whether self-checkout machines, call-center systems, assembly-line technology, or other devices. Over the last four decades, the income gap between more- and less-educated workers has grown significantly; the study finds that automation accounts for more than half of that increase.

“This single one variable … explains 50 to 70 percent of the changes or variation between group inequality from 1980 to about 2016,” Acemoglu says.

The paper was recently published in the journal Econometrica. The authors are Acemoglu, who is an Institute Professor at MIT, and Pascual Restrepo Ph.D. ’16, an assistant professor of economics at Boston University.

So much “so-so automation”

Since 1980 in the U.S., inflation-adjusted incomes of those with college and postgraduate degrees have risen substantially, while inflation-adjusted earnings of men without high school degrees has dropped by 15 percent.

How much of this change is due to automation? Growing income inequality could also stem from, among other things, the declining prevalence of labor unions, market concentration begetting a lack of competition for labor, or other types of technological change.

To conduct the study, Acemoglu and Restrepo used U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis statistics on the extent to which human labor was used in 49 industries from 1987 to 2016, as well as data on machinery and software adopted in that time. The scholars also used data they had previously compiled about the adoption of robots in the U.S. from 1993 to 2014. In previous studies, Acemoglu and Restrepo have found that robots have by themselves replaced a substantial number of workers in the U.S., helped some firms dominate their industries, and contributed to inequality.

At the same time, the scholars used U.S. Census Bureau metrics, including its American Community Survey data, to track worker outcomes during this time for roughly 500 demographic subgroups, broken out by gender, education, age, race and ethnicity, and immigration status, while looking at employment, inflation-adjusted hourly wages, and more, from 1980 to 2016. By examining the links between changes in business practices alongside changes in labor market outcomes, the study can estimate what impact automation has had on workers.

Ultimately, Acemoglu and Restrepo conclude that the effects have been profound. Since 1980, for instance, they estimate that automation has reduced the wages of men without a high school degree by 8.8 percent and women without a high school degree by 2.3 percent, adjusted for inflation.

A central conceptual point, Acemoglu says, is that automation should be regarded differently from other forms of innovation, with its own distinct effects in workplaces, and not just lumped in as part of a broader trend toward the implementation of technology in everyday life generally.

Consider again those self-checkout kiosks. Acemoglu calls these types of tools “so-so technology,” or “so-so automation,” because of the tradeoffs they contain: Such innovations are good for the corporate bottom line, bad for service-industry employees, and not hugely important in terms of overall productivity gains, the real marker of an innovation that may improve our overall quality of life.

“Technological change that creates or increases industry productivity, or productivity of one type of labor, creates [those] large productivity gains but does not have huge distributional effects,” Acemoglu says. “In contrast, automation creates very large distributional effects and may not have big productivity effects.”

A new perspective on the big picture

The results occupy a distinctive place in the literature on automation and jobs. Some popular accounts of technology have forecast a near-total wipeout of jobs in the future. Alternately, many scholars have developed a more nuanced picture, in which technology disproportionately benefits highly educated workers but also produces significant complementarities between high-tech tools and labor.

The current study differs at least by degree with this latter picture, presenting a more stark outlook in which automation reduces earnings power for workers and potentially reduces the extent to which policy solutions — more bargaining power for workers, less market concentration — could mitigate the detrimental effects of automation upon wages.

“These are controversial findings in the sense that they imply a much bigger effect for automation than anyone else has thought, and they also imply less explanatory power for other [factors],” Acemoglu says.

Still, he adds, in the effort to identify drivers of income inequality, the study “does not obviate other nontechnological theories completely. Moreover, the pace of automation is often influenced by various institutional factors, including labor’s bargaining power.”

Labor economists say the study is an important addition to the literature on automation, work, and inequality, and should be reckoned with in future discussions of these issues.

For their part, in the paper Acemoglu and Restrepo identify multiple directions for future research. That includes investigating the reaction over time by both business and labor to the increase in automation; the quantitative effects of technologies that do create jobs; and the industry competition between firms that quickly adopted automation and those that did not.

Reference: “Tasks, Automation, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality” by Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, 14 October 2022, Econometrica.
DOI: 10.3982/ECTA19815

The study was funded by Google, the Hewlett Foundation, Microsoft, the National Science Foundation, Schmidt Sciences, the Sloan Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

14 Comments on "New MIT Research Indicates That Automation Is Responsible for Income Inequality"

  1. So actually the problem is capitalism.

  2. Scott C Shuster | January 15, 2023 at 1:07 pm | Reply

    How can I share this article in my Facebook Labor Studies group?

  3. Actually analysis as reported contains a major flaw. The example of self service checkout considers only raw productivity customer versus clerk. However, customer standing in line is having productivity of zero, versus non zero productivity if he is checking out his own groceries. In fact multiple customers working in parallel have higher combined productivity than a single clerk.

  4. The surface has been barely scratched by this article. The automated valuations of homes, airline tickets, and used cars to mention a few commodities, with online AI’s and algorithms have driven an inflation of values outdated incomes can no longer afford.

  5. Oh silly old me, it’s the robots!!!

    Wealth inequality has nothing to do with billions of dollars in lobbying, incestuous relations between government, big business and the banks, pseudo monopolies in almost every sector and the addition of 8 brand new billionaires since the start of the pandemic.
    Nothing to do with small business being torn down to shreds during lockdowns while it was buisness as usual for the mega corps or a minor inconvenience at best.
    Nothing to do with banks getting bailed out for trillions in 2008 on the back of the tax paying dirty peasants.
    Nothing to do with the unstoppable inflation that the rich can exploit to their advantage, steadily sapping the wealth of the lower classes.

    It’s the robots you guys.

  6. “Since 1980 in the U.S., inflation-adjusted incomes of those with college and postgraduate degrees have risen substantially, while inflation-adjusted earnings of men without high school degrees has dropped by 15 percent.”

    No statistic to cite on college graduates? I’m not sure that there’s been significant inflation adjusted wage growth during this period, so you lost me pretty early in the article.

  7. There seems to be many other potential variables involved that are either not being considered or are too difficult to measure. Only looking at whether someone finished high school is too simplistic.

  8. It is not the automation!! It is its use at global scale, in excange of money/goods.

  9. Come on guys, your like 5 years behind. No joke, came to this conclusion years back. Like some people have pointed out there are whole industries not accounted for and whole new tech completely missing.

    Regardless, I’m happy someone finally pulled their head out of a racists ass and looked into root cause instead of leaping to unsupported conclusions based on their own racial bias.

    Now go further back to dawning of the microchip in the 70s. Bam, wage stagnation solved.

  10. The future will belong to those that who can bring something extra that a computer can’t cheaply produce. Computers are great at cookie cutter solutions or when things need to be handled at mass scale.

    You can buy a nice looking, sturdy and functional bookshelf at Walmart for $30 but there is also a large market for carpenters to build custom and unique bookshelves for hundreds or thousands of dollars and these guys (they are still mostly guys) have waiting lists.

    In many markets, hiring someone to tile your floor means getting on a waiting list and paying whatever they are asking for. Plumbers, electricians, etc are often in the same boat.

    People producing artisanal goods can make crazy money. I have a lot of friends who have gotten into catering of high value goods where people are willing to pay extra because it was made with care.

    The list is endless.

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