Practical Elegance

"Elegance is not a dispensable luxury." - Edsgar Dijkstra

Confessions of A Job Destroyer

One of the most unfunny ironies of the rhetoric surrounding “job creators” in contemporary American politics is that most of the jobs being created (or at least, those with the greatest demand) are in the tech sector. Jobs like mine. Jobs that automate processes that used to be performed by people.

So I’ll come out and say it: I’m not a job creator (which is, I suppose, why the Republicans aren’t too interested in cutting my taxes). I’m a job destroyer.

We (programmers) all are, on some level or another; we’re taking mundane repetitive tasks and automating them with code. In a perfect world, we would be hailed as heroes, freeing the toiling masses from their humdrum routines to engage in more ennobling pursuits… but there’s that pesky issue of needing an income. I’ll return to this momentarily, but I first want to confess to a darker truth.

Marc Andreessen famously explained ‘Why Software Is Eating The World’ in the WSJ a couple of years ago. What he failed to mention is that the snake of software is also quietly eating its own tail.

I’m not just an old-fashioned Job Destroyer, replacing secretaries and mid-level bureaucracy with CRM and accounting suites. By using the most efficient possible languages (Ruby and Clojure, in my case, rather than Java or C#) and relying on free and open source software (Postgres rather than Oracle, for instance), I’m potentially destroying jobs in my own sector!

I really feel terrible about this… what one or two lone hackers can readily achieve today, once could only have been accomplished by a team of engineers, business analysts, project managers, and QA testers, with tools purchased from vendors that employed legions more engineers, analysts, project managers, and QA testers (actually, I’m not sure if Oracle has a QA process… the only ‘quality’ I’ve ever been ‘assured’ Oracle will possess is bugginess, but I digress)…

With the exception of low-paying service jobs, most of the jobs we’re going to create in the coming years will be Job Destroyer jobs. (The whole health care thing is a bubble, trust me. After all those aging Boomers die off, our age distribution will even out and we won’t need so many people working to care for the dying and infirm). And as Amazon has shown, not only can we destroy retail jobs with software, we can also destroy jobs in system administration, datacenter operations, physical plant maintenance, etc.

Sure, we can’t destroy all the non-Job Destroyer jobs… yet. Burger King and Starbucks still need human subjects employees to make Whoppers and skinny lattes, but how long before these jobs are deskilled to the point they can be done by machines — i.e., by software?

(Aside: If you don’t believe Starbucks has radically de-skilled its workforce, you should have worked at one a decade or so ago. Some coffee shops still have manual espresso machines, which require training, skill and finesse to operate. At Starbucks, your double skinny half-caf mocha is, I assure you, prepared 90% by software, 10% by rote human activity that they haven’t figured out how to automate yet)

But wait, you ask, if all these jobs have been automated away by software, why are we still working so much (if employed), and what’s more, why are we trying to create jobs? Isn’t more work what we were trying to avoid with all this infernal software?

This, gentle reader, is where I make the argument for a basic income. It’s just common sense as the amount of socially necessary labor decreases with each passing year. How could we fund such a sweeping change to economic policy? Well, first let’s get back to basic principles: as programmers, we want to eliminate work. So let’s penalize those damn pesky job creators with a progressive taxation scheme. Let’s get back to America’s halcyon days of progressive taxation, the 1950’s that conservatives laud so dearly, and raise the top marginal tax rate back to 91%. Then we could afford a basic income, with single-payer health care for afters.

I’m a job destroyer, and I love what I do. Now if only we had a rational economy, I could stop having mixed feelings about the net effect of my work.

Update 2013-03-13

There’s some pretty lively discussion of this post beyond the comments here, both on Hacker News and on Reddit. I recommend checking out those discussions as well.