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De Blasio’s war against the machines: What the mayor and presidential candidate doesn’t understand

2019-09-12

As a college student in the 1980s, one of my side jobs was working as a stringer for the New York Times. They’d assign part of a national story and I’d go chase down a few interviews, then send in a short compilation of quotes, which would eventually appear as part of a big, long story under somebody else’s name.

The most fun part of the gig was sending in the material. In those days — well before the widespread use of cellphones, email or even fax machines — you’d call the recording room at the Times, where operators were standing by, 24 hours a day, to transcribe reporters’ stories.

You had to speak all punctuation out loud. The late Times columnist William Safire once described the odd resulting patter: “I would dictate the Bible's opening as 'Cap I In the beginning no comma cap G God created the heaven and the earth period new graf cap A And the earth was without form comma and void semicolon….’ ”

Around the same time, I did a summer internship at the Wall Street Journal that included a turn filing breaking news to the Dow Jones newswire — again, by calling an operator to transcribe each story and blast it out worldwide on teletype machines.

If Company X announced $9 million in profits, you’d tell the operator that the number was “Bucks nine, trip-trip,” meaning a dollar sign and a 9 followed by two sets of triple zeros.

In both jobs, the process had an air of glamour. The Times recording room was the same place where overseas correspondents filed dispatches from far-flung war zones; the Dow Jones numbers could — and did — move global markets.

The Times announced in 2007 that it was laying off the last operators and closing the recording room. Dow Jones had long since gone fully digital.

I thought about the obsolete journalism jobs when Mayor de Blasio released his promise, if elected president, to fight for a “robot tax” that would require firms to pay five years’ worth of payroll taxes, up front, for every worker displaced by automation. The process would include a new agency created to “oversee automation” and issue permits to firms that want to increase automation in ways that might kill jobs.

“The first thing we have to do is stop rewarding automation for automation sake,” the mayor told me. “So either your workers get another job in your own company or you pay a tax to help reemploy those workers.”

While de Blasio deserves credit for raising the issue, his proposed solution is a non-starter.

The modern workplace is much too fast and complex to be regulated with permits issued and lost jobs counted and compensated. In the case of the newspaper recording rooms, for instance, it’s unclear which robots eliminated the jobs. Were fax machines the culprit, or was it email, or voice-transcription software? And wouldn’t the Times be sued by its shareholders if it didn’t try to cut costs through automation?

It would take a major research project — not a clunky new government agency — to estimate exactly which professions were hurt or eliminated by new technologies. Did supermarket scanners replace cashiers, or just make them faster and more efficient? Did Apple Music put jukebox repairmen out of work, or was it streaming services like Pandora?

And candidate de Blasio seems to be ignoring government’s own role in automating jobs. There used to be token booth clerks in every subway station; now many of the booths (and their occupants) are gone, as the MTA shifts to vending machines and coming payment by credit cards and smartphones.

Earlier this year, the U.S. hit a record one-month high of 5.9 million hirings, the most since we began keeping records. Those workers certainly deserve higher wages, and more help finding new professions when old ones disappear. But that lack of compassion is a human failing; don’t blame the robots.

Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.