Biden’s policies are creating jobs — for robots

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Joe Biden campaigned on creating jobs, and he’s doing that — just not so much for humans.

Employers are increasingly turning to robots to perform tasks humans typically do but either can’t or, more likely, won’t do now. At the same time, the U.S. labor force has shrunk significantly, leaving some 10 million job openings unfilled. 

President Biden’s policies – with the help and strong urging of progressives – are exacerbating both of those trends. 

Of course, employers, in the United States and many other countries, have been automating for years. That’s not new. 

But that trend has dramatically increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. According to the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), a U.S.-based automation trade association, robot orders in the first quarter of 2021 were up 20 percent over 2020’s Q1. And second quarter orders increased 67 percent over the same period in 2020.   

Jeff Burnstein, president of A3, said last May, “While advances in robot technology, ease of use, and new applications remain key drivers in robot adoption, worker shortages in manufacturing, warehousing, and other industries are a significant factor in the current expansion of robot use that we’re now seeing.”

The need for workers across a wide swath of the economy is driving employers who weren’t the typical robot purchasers to begin making the transition. According to A3, “more than half (5,530) [of Q2 orders] came from non-automotive customers as industries such [as] metals, semiconductor & electronics, plastics and rubber, food and consumer goods, and life sciences recognize the benefits of automation.” 

Many of the unfilled jobs are in the service sector, and that’s where robots are making new inroads. Matt O’Brien and Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press (AP) write, “Improvements in robot technology allow machines to do many tasks that previously required people — tossing pizza dough, transporting hospital linens, inspecting gauges, sorting goods.”

The AP story also hints at why we can tie the increased automation trend to Biden and progressive policies. “The pandemic accelerated their [robots] adoption. Robots, after all, can’t get sick or spread disease. Nor do they request time off to handle unexpected childcare emergencies.”

Nor, I might add, do they demand higher wages. New York Times reporter Ben Casselman wrote last July when COVID cases were declining, “Now the outbreak is ebbing in the United States, but the difficulty in hiring workers — at least at the wages that employers are used to paying — is providing new momentum for automation.”

The increased use of robots is in part a response to rising labor costs. For example, President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide ObamaCare-qualified health coverage. In 2020 employers spent on average about $10,000 per covered employee or dependent

A full-time worker making $10 an hour earns about $21,000 a year. Thus, employer-provided health coverage increases the cost of a $10/hour employee by 50 percent, to about $31,000 per year. But Biden wants to increase the minimum wage to at least $15.00/hour, and he has issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to do so by March of 2022.

Everyone likes to make more money, but arbitrarily increasing the cost of labor by imposing higher wage and benefit costs eventually makes robots an affordable alternative to humans.

While Biden’s policies may be pricing potential workers out of the market, he has also passed, or is promoting, policies that make it easier not to work. From pandemic relief checks, to enhanced unemployment benefits, to child tax credits and more, Biden and progressives are making unemployment, if not profitable, at least acceptable.

Biden may have the right to require federal workers to be vaccinated (whether he should is another issue). But it’s doubtful he has the authority to require federal contractors to impose a vaccine mandate. And he almost certainly doesn’t have the constitutional authority to require large employers to do so.

You may think it’s important for most people who can be vaccinated to take that step. So do I, with appropriate allowances for certain medical and religious exceptions, and perhaps even those who developed natural immunities. 

But government-imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates may be creating more problems than they solve — especially in this highly divisive political climate. The vaccine mandates are clearly keeping some people out of the workforce at a time when the virus is receding and workers are needed more than ever.

There has been a long-running concern that robots will eventually take the jobs humans could and wanted to do. It may turn out that in the Biden era, robots are simply taking the jobs humans choose not to take. 

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.

Tags Automated retail Automation Barack Obama economy Joe Biden Minimum wage Presidency of Joe Biden Robot robots

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