Abstract: Confronting Automation: Enlisting Economists to Address Great Society Fears of Technology and Unemployment

Andrew Meade McGee


In the mid-1960s federal policymakers, elected officials, and labor and corporate leaders confronted an economy marked by the increasing prevalence of computer-directed machines that could operate assembly lines, perform secretarial tasks, and seemingly even supplant the need to rely on the human oversight of white-collar managers. A growing "automation panic" gripped the press and the American public. How to maintain America's remarkable economic prosperity in the face of new machines that threatened to render millions unemployed? Interest groups demanded government action even as they clashed over how best to ensure that the wheels of national employment and consumerism continued to spin. Seeking authoritative guidance on how to balance an economy and labor force increasingly comprised of machines that could take the place of men, the Lyndon Johnson administration turned to economists (both inside and outside the government) for advice. This paper seeks to frame the mid-1960s debate over the effects of automation within its temporal and political context, looking at the role played by those economists engaged in "the business of policy-making." Their heavily contested (and at times contradictory) contributions to the national debate over automation would have significant policy ramifications and help shape the emergence of a post-industrial American service economy.