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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

When a robot takes your job

Several friends of mine, seeing technological advances around the corner, are predicting the permanent obsolescence of large parts of the workforce.
One such technology is autonomous trucks. I understand how these will be bad news for truck drivers.
But I think they're underestimating the adaptability of retail politics and special interest bribery. Think about all the law firm office jobs staffed by lightly educated people, thanks largely to the legal-political complex. Think of the bases and trillion dollar military employment that politicians dare not touch. Think of the prison industrial complex that pays to keep sentences lengthy and arbitrary.
Our political system is pretty good at finding the profits made from technological and productivity advances, hoovering it up, and delivering it into protected industries who can organize money and machines to keep the politicians who do their bidding in power. It takes a few years for that system to get around to responding to acute needs, but it muddles through.
High unemployment is just another input to the machine... the machine knows how to set up some obscure new regulation, establish a consultancy that has a pipeline to "expediting" the regulatory filings, staff it with representatives' kids and cousins and untrained people who swear loyalty to the local party boss, and accept campaign donation kickbacks from it.
The bigger worry is about the accumulating deadweight loss to our growth and to our souls of doing things this way. This keeps the working class and middle class alive, but only with subsistence wages, forever stretched thin and made to work on deadening, pointless bullshit, or working independently in a scramble for what's left after the lion's share has been sucked up by the rent-seekers.
In a sense, we are increasingly having the worst parts of both socialism and capitalism.
We have, from socialism, the absence of responsibility for your treatment of others, the distrust of the rules, and the disincentive to build businesses and hire; Venezuela is an example of the widespread social damage this direction can cause.
And we have, from capitalism, the disregard for suffering, the celebration of the powerful, purchasing of anything up to and including dignity as a commodity, the crushing of humanity under the uncaring boot of the profit motive.
So I think more Trumps and prisons and escapist fantasy (religious and not) and senseless violence are in our future, but I believe (and hope!) is that the widespread unemployment of the trainable unskilled isn't.

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