Let’s Revisit Robots and Minimum Wage Fast Food Workers


I’m not a fan of convenience stores.

But I get the case for why so many of us visit them — familiar structures located within the familiarity of our neighborhood’s borders, and merchandised with a limited set of familiar choices to enable easy purchase decisions.

The world is already difficult to navigate. We love “easy” when we can find it.

The problem with convenience and familiarity is the risk of obscurity.

Meaning, when left unchecked, convenience and familiarity can inhibit our freedom to view choices through a new lens, or explore a completely new set of choices.

And smashing the whole idea of “familiar” is a reason for why mentalunrest exists …

The fight for fast food workers to receive a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour fits squarely into criteria for becoming a story in this blog. Politicians and the mainstream media have conveniently framed — if not curated — the issue’s debate positions into the binary bins of “for” or “against” the wage increase.

But how about an effort to reframe the problem of poorly-paid fast food workers and ask a different set of questions?

Nope. Doing so breaks the rules of convenience and familiarity. And such an exercise would place politicians in an uncomfortable position, given their focus on treating your support as a transaction.

More on that later in this piece.

For a moment, forget about how the current states’ minimum wages virtually makes an affordable one-bedroom apartment a coast-to-coast American fantasy.

And let’s not dwell on a post I published just over a year ago about how the a $15/hour wage represents a step toward helping families save money, change their living conditions and even increase consumption in the economy.

Instead, let’s build on a point I made a while back about how robotics makes the $15 an hour debate is a decaying one and an eventual waste of time — perhaps even a game —  thanks to a moving goalpost called economic opportunity and the technology advancements that carry it.

Last month, robotics company Momentum Machines received $18 million in funding to pursue its mission: roll out restaurant robots that can each serve 400 hamburgers — from grilling to bagging — in just one hour.

This stealth technology startup, which has been funded by luminary venture firms like Google Ventures, is poised to conduct a limited test of these robot employees, with an eye toward ramping up deployment.

Major restaurant chains across the country are exploring robotics as a way to replace traditional eatery jobs.

So while states like New York slowly phase in wage increases to reach $15/hour as a way to protect restaurants from sudden financial disruption — a point I completely understand, by the way — fast food workers are on track to experience a major disruption of their own: long-term unemployment with limited prospects for skills upgrades.

With no help in sight.

And that translates into nothing less than increased misery for the working poor and poverty classes who’ve already been under attack during the past four decades.

The coming labor disruption also means a higher social and financial burden placed on local, state and federal government agencies.

As I mentioned in the past, the common sense prescription for workforce relevance while commericial enterprises continue to innovate is education and training.

Politicians have not been oblivious to this point. Burrowed deep in then-President Barack Obama’s February 2016 report (pdf) to Congress prepared by his Council of Economic Advisors, is an acknowledgement that the rise of robots is not only real, but there’s also a high probability that technology will aggressively replace workers who earn less than $20 an hour.

effects of robotics automation on jobs research

After citing the productivity gains the American economy will experience from robots, the report tries to address the human needs that will result from automation:

These data demonstrate the need for a robust training and education agenda, to ensure that displaced workers are able to quickly and smoothly move into new jobs.

Given what policymakers know about the coming disruption to the low-wage workforce, I challenge you to visit welfare offices across the country and find widespread signs of a desire to reimagine possibilities for underskilled job seekers in the robotics age.

I know — some of you will get sidetracked by that last sentence and begin to rant about how “those people don’t want to work anyway.”

While I don’t agree with that pseudo-hypothesis, let’s run with it for a moment.

The work provisions in many state welfare policies mean that whether or not recipients of public assistance dig the whole concept of work, they have no choice but punch a clock to receive welfare benefits.

But what you’ll mostly find in the form of support for the poor entering the workforce are listings for low-skilled and low-wage 20th century jobs with no skills upgrades opportunities for the current marketplace.

Any such skills initiatives broadcasted by the Obama administration were small in scale and subsequently ineffectual, while President Donald Trump has shown no appetite for reskilling the poor and working class.

This means, given the current course and data, two sad realities.

One, the cycle of poverty and unemployment is about to run deeper. Obsolete skills send more people to the public benefits line; but they will need jobs to get those benefits and the supply of low-wage jobs will become smaller over time; the lack of training presents more obstacles to finding employment thus reinforcing the poor’s position in the public benefits line. But they’ll need jobs …

Two, you now have proof that politicians view your support on issues as a mere transaction.

Not as a longer-term partnership for equality, social justice and a sustained vigilance for your community’s well-being, but simply a transaction where your vote is exchanged for mere “Thank you,” followed by a hope that your memory is short …

song currently stuck in my head: “desire” – pharoahe monch

3 thoughts on “Let’s Revisit Robots and Minimum Wage Fast Food Workers

  1. Inevitability it seems, driverless vehicles is another technology for the future,how will teamsters view that. Also in the news lately sex robots…hell no 🙂 All the more pertinent is education and inevitably song stuck in this post The Dells “All About The Paper”

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