Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On the Waterfront

One of my all-time favorite movies is On the Waterfront. Marlon Brando – and I’m not a huge fan – at his mumbly, heart-breaking best as Terry Malloy, the boxer turned longshoreman. You know, the guy who could have been a contender, but instead is just a bum. Then there’s Karl Malden – at this righteous, soul-stirring best as the priest who helps the longshoremen stand up to the vicious, mobbed up waterfront boss. And Lee J. Cobb as that vicious, mobbed up waterfront boss. Et al.

The acting is terrific. The setting authentic – the movie was filled on the Jersey waterfront, not in a Hollywood back lot. (This was a time when most films weren’t made on location.) The plot tough and gritty. The black and white cinematography just perfect.

I haven’t seen On the Waterfront in a good ten or so years. Maybe I’d find it overblown. But my memories of watching it are vivid, strong and positive.

Longshoreman is one of those jobs that’s been going buggy-whip since the advent of container shipping. And it’s about to get worse.

At one end of a dock at America’s busiest port, tractor-trailers haul containers through dense, stop-and-go traffic. Sometimes they collide. Sometimes the drivers must wait, diesel engines idling, as piles are unstacked to find the specific container they need.

A few hundred yards away, advanced algorithms select the most efficient pathway for autonomous carriers to move containers across the wharf. The four-story-high orange machines cradle their cargo, passing quietly within inches of each other, at speeds as fast as 18 miles an hour, but never touching. Self-driving cranes on tracks stack the containers and then deliver them to waiting trucks and trains with minimal human intervention.

TraPac LLC’s Los Angeles marine-cargo facility demonstrates how autonomous technology could revolutionize freight transport as much as or more than personal travel. TraPac’s equipment doubles the speed of loading and unloading ships, saving money and boosting profits. Their impact is rivaling that of containerization, which eliminated most manual sorting and warehousing on docks after World War II. (Source: Bloomberg)

This will be good news for the environment, as there’ll be less idling time for trucks to do their diesel-spewing as they wait for the containers to get loaded. It will, of course, be a boon for the companies that produce the equipment. Not to mention to the port facilities that will no longer have to deal with as many human beings. (Who wants and needs them?)

In truth, automation on the waterfront has been going on for a quite a while. And, to some degree, the longshoremen have been able to resist some of the efforts to do away with the human element. But, surely, the handwriting’s on the wall. More automation = fewer people needed. And that is not, of course, limited to longshoremen.

All this automation is, of course, cool.

Any day now, we’ll have autonomous cars and trucks and trains and boats and planes. Which not only means that we can sit back and enjoy our commute by texting without guilt, it also means that the world will need fewer truck drivers and fewer engineers and fewer captains and fewer pilots. It also means fewer Uber drivers: Uber has an order in for the first half-million self-driving cars that roll off the (automated) assembly line. Thanks for playing, Uber drivers, thanks for playing.

We did not, as an economy, do an especially good job at planning for what should have been the obvious outcome of so much manufacturing moving overseas: people who worked in factories lost decent-paying jobs. Yes, indeed, many communities – and I live in one – can congratulate themselves for having replaced those odious, low-end manufacturing jobs with jobs of the future in technology, healthcare and financial services. And weren’t we the lucky ones that so much of our crappy manufacturing (think shoes and clothing) went South long ago enough to have made an adjustment before globalization began? But there are plenty of communities that got just plain hollowed-out, and for them the replacement jobs have been lousier and less well paid than what left when the washing machine and air conditioning plants upped-stakes and moved to China. For these places, the brave new world opportunities are working as a prison guard, or at the landfill, or in Wal-Mart.

I saw some of this up close and personal this past weekend, when I spent a few days in upstate NY, “out west”, which is really where the Rust Belt begins.

So what are we going to do about all the jobs – more blue collar jobs like longshoremen, and plenty of white collar jobs thanks to AI – that are going to disappear over the next few decades? Make that what are we going to do about all those people in all those jobs. Let the market take care of it? We’ve seen how well that’s worked for the folks who used to work in factories but now run meth labs our of a shack in their back yard. (And, no, taking care of old ladies in nursing homes will not be for everyone.)

We’ve got lots of crumbling infrastructure to rebuild, for starters.

I’m guessing that longshoremen displaced by automation could help out there.

What’s the plan, Stan, for when automation fully takes over on the waterfront?

1 comment:

Rick T. said...

Having been in some of those same Finger Lakes towns myself only a few weeks ago, I'm curious what crumbling infrastructure you saw out there that I missed?

Yes, there were some 19th Century factories along the rivers and canals that had fallen to ruin, rather than turned into trendy condos as they would have been had they been located in Boston or Portland ME. But factories today don't need water power, and there aren't armies of potential factory employees desperate to escape from bare subsistence level farms anymore. Converting them to condos makes no sense because the housing is already absurdly cheap out there (we checked on Zillow.com - those gorgeous mansions on S. Main in Geneva on the ledge overlooking Lake Seneca are worth about 10%-20% of what a comparable place would go for in the Boston area.)

As far as the public infrastructure goes, the roads were fine, the lights and water worked, there seem to be well kept up parks on all the lakes, Seneca Falls has a number of buildings devoted to educating the public about its early role in the women's rights movement, so what are these ex-longshoremen going to do out there?

As far as working people losing jobs, the innovation that has made the average person today in capitalist countries vastly wealthier than than the richest 0.1% were 100 years ago, is caused by, and results in, various changes, and the jobs that need to be done keep changing too. 250 years ago we needed over 90% of all people to be farmers to produce enough food for everyone to eat. If you told someone then that eventually agriculture would be so automated that only 2% of all people need work on farms, and they would produce enough to feed everyone in this continent plus millions of people overseas as well, that person might have expected there to be massive unemployment. Yet the wealth produced by better farm productivity created the ability of people to demand other things, new things, that needed workers to make, sell, install and service them.

Every technological change or productivity improvement initially looks job threatening, but the savings to consumers that come from those improvements are spent on something else, or saved and used to finance some business, and that is what creates the new jobs. To understand economics one has to look not just at what is seen (containers make longshoremen lose jobs) but what is also there, but not obvious (savings to consumers from lower cost shipping and not having the longshoremen steal so much stuff) increases demand elsewhere, creating new jobs.

What we want to avoid are government caused job losses, not associated with natural increases in technology and productivity, such as will happen over the next few years as higher minimum wage laws cause massive job losses for fast food workers replaced by ordering kiosks, and comparable changes occur in other businesses that use low skilled workers. Those things lose us jobs by raising costs for businesses and consumers, and therefore do not increase wealth nor generate new job opportunities, as natural productivity improvements that cut costs do.