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Michael Owens' breakthrough bottle-making machine, 1907. The machine displaced glass-blowers. Photo: Science & Society Picture Library / Getty.

In the 19th century, it took six decades after the Luddites for the wages of textile workers to recover from the advent of weaving machines. We are in the midst of another such gap now, according to David Autor, a pioneering labor economist at MIT.

What's happening now: Machines are creating more wealth, but workers are not getting their usual cut of the pie, Autor told Axios.

"Automation is redistributing income from workers to owners."
— Autor

Between the lines: This partly explains why American wages have been largely stagnant despite one of the tightest job markets in decades. And no one knows how long the gap will last — when workers displaced by the new automation revolution will find employment at gainful wages.

The chronology: Blue-collar misery goes back to the 1980s, when such workers began to suffer job, wage and benefit cuts, Autor said. But in the late 1990s or early 2000s, they were hit by a new phenomenon: the divvying up of the total economic pie — steady for decades — suddenly changed, and labor's share dropped, according to a new paper by Autor and co-author Anna Salomons.

  • Autor, who presented the paper last week at the Brookings Institution, said he doesn't know what caused the gap to open.

In a video produced along with the paper, Autor said people are too focused on the potential for jobs to be wiped out. "The concern should not be about the number of jobs," he said, "but whether those are jobs that can support a reasonable standard of living and what set of people have access to them."

  • There are an unprecedented number of "creative, rich, rewarding and well-remunerated jobs," Autor said.
  • But low-skilled jobs are among the most rapidly growing — in personal services, food services, cleaning, security, home health, and so on. These, he said, "are not well-paid, are not stable, and don't offer a very good standard of living."
  • Autor said, "So you could say on the one hand, 'Great we have a lot of jobs.' On the other hand, those are not the jobs we'd most like to have. So I think the concern ought to be about what is the comparative advantage of human labor in an increasingly automated world."

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

4 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.