09 July 2018

Quant's Hubris - part the second

"Regular reader, by now, knows one of the mantras: "the bane of the capitalist is capital". Meaning, of course, that using capital to get rich by substituting machines (hardware and/or software) for people reaches a tipping point. Not just the wall of diminishing returns, but the abyss of unremitting sunk cost. That's just a fancy way of saying that automation methods become more expensive, as unit cost."

Thus begins Part the First (not then known to be yet another serial) of the capitalist's dilemma. Capital, the real physical kind at least, makes its value-add either (or both) by replacing labor while keeping output static, or by increasing output with the same labor. The problem for the capitalist is that as automation (not to mention robotics) moves ahead, labor is gradually (or instantly) removed, thus removing yet more folks from earning and no further benefit from labor substitution. The only way for the capitalist to win when the labor component reaches that tipping point, is to push more output with all those magnificent machines. But can that be done as labor continues to be ejected? Fewer folks earning, whatever happens to GDP, inevitably leads to diminishing demand. Macro, anyway. The reason there's a fraction of the coal miners today vis-a-vis 1940 is not the EPA or other effete bureaucrats, but massive changes in how coal is mined. More machines, less underground extraction (aka, hill topping), poof! There went the jobs. The Kenyan President had nothing to do with it.

Quite the same thing has happened in general manufacturing. First, New England manufacturers departed for the labor antagonistic South. Still aiming to sell to the remaining higher wage North, of course. Thence to Mexico and Central America and Caribbean. And thence to Asia, China as poster child.

There's been a paper making the rounds of the innterTubes for a while now, and makes another appearance today. The in-your-face number is $8.46 as the China specific value-add to an iPhone7. Naturally, one can go find whining that such a number is way too low, but that's not the main point of this missive.

The main point is that amount of direct labor in making an iPhone is teeny, no matter the dollar value. Most of the value in such things is delivered by automated processes; almost no humans touch semi-conductor in production these days. Robots, even. And, of course, China didn't steal American jobs, Steve Jobs and his friends sent them away. And, of course, Apple's source isn't even a Chinese (the big one on the continent), but from that little island called Taiwan.

The authors, without resorting to irony (I would, fur shur), say that Foxconn got about $3,000,000,000 (or may be $4,000,000,000) to make a plant in Wisconsin. Welfare queen. Taxpayers shouldn't pay for sports facilities, either, but that's another show. If you want a rundown, here's one.
To land the massive Foxconn factory, Gov. Scott Walker has committed the state to paying more than eight times as much per job as Wisconsin will provide under similar job creation deals struck last year, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis has found.

So, the next logical question: does capital hang around after such incentives end? Way back in 2012, the Failing New York Times published an extensive piece on corporate extortion. Worth the read.

A more caustic review, and newer, is here.

What's being discovered, but only occasionally acknowledged, is that the farm-to-factory paradigm of the 20th century no longer holds. Back then, factories absorbed displaced farm hands since skill level wasn't an impediment. Today, we've two problems: 1) new jobs are a fraction of those eliminated, and 2) new jobs simply can't be done by those displaced.

The answer, of course, is socialism, wherein the net winners compensate the net losers. GDP grows, demand is maintained, and technology can continue. If technology reaches a point where it serves only to eliminate macro-demand, it's game over. Reducing price through cost reduction of automation is meaningful only to those who remain with income sufficient to afford the new, lower price. As income concentrates, the number of demand units, aka people, diminishes. Jay Leno may have hundreds of old cars, but that doesn't do much for Ford or GM.

No comments: