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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

When a robot takes your job, cont'd

I think there's a fundamental error in assuming that lack of productive employment among much of the population necessarilyequals poverty.
I actually think that the scenario where technology grows our collective productivity so well that few of us have marginally productive capability is a very good thing for the wealth of the poor--at least in the moderately democratic first world.
Why? Because it means there's way more wealth in general. Yes, in an autocracy the unproductive could be left to starve... but in any slight democracy there will be constant political work being done to share the wealth.
Much of that work will be ideological and identity-based cover for what is effectively a clumsy, haphazard socialism. Hence you have the anti-government Nevada racist rancher guy who happily takes government land subsidy checks and advocated for massive government seizure of labor wealth and private wealth to pay for a security state. 
Isn't this the old argument for supply-side, or trickle-down, economics? Not quite. That argument was an argument for redirecting wealth away from the welfare state and towards the already wealthy, with the justification that this would indirectly serve the working class even better than direct subsidies.
My argument is that overall productivity growth, which expands the whole pie, will make up for the reduction in wealth of the working class and poor due to replacement of unskilled and semi-skilled labor due to computerization. This process will be painful and problematic, but not apocalyptic.
We'll be amusing ourselves to death, but we won't be starving to death. At least in the first world, where there is a practical cost to too much poverty.

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Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Tue May 10, 09:44:00 PM:
Well ... maybe. I just wrote you a longish and nicely-reasoned response, but my blinking browser chose to crash when I tried to post it. Perhaps tomorrow.
Blogger Ben on Wed May 11, 11:37:00 AM:
Sorry to hear that! I'd love to know your thoughts!
Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Wed May 11, 02:41:00 PM:
What I said in my now-vanished comment, basically, was that you seem to assume that automation will only affect unskilled and low-skilled jobs, but that all the commentary I've seen on the widespread automation of labor argues that almost *all* jobs will be eliminated (except caring professions like childcare and elderly care), including jobs we currently think of as impossible to automate. This is why universal basic income is being seriously discussed on both the left and the right.

I can't assess how likely this outcome actually is, but the automation of some aspects of high-skilled jobs like law and medicine makes me think it's at least a plausible scenario. But let's say it happens. Human beings need a purpose to their lives, and a sense that we're contributing to something -- for most of us, work fills that bill. It's obviously foolish to imagine that the vast majority of people will suddenly amuse themselves with philosophy and the arts; most of us aren't even that good at providing direction to our lives for long periods of time (though we all think we'd be good at unending leisure). So what do people do? I think a mass lack of purpose and sense of powerlessness are likely to lead to increased xenophobia, chaos, violence, and war ... a surefire recipe for poverty. (That's not even taking into account vast income disparities, probable mass movements of climate change refugees (the Syrian refugee crisis, according to one view, has its roots in the drought that drove massive numbers of agricultural workers into the cities), and the increasing scarcity of clean water.)

Maybe this is too dark a view -- it's always easy to see doomsday on the horizon, and would-be Cassandras are often wrong -- but I think our own democracy is less and less interested in "sharing the wealth" (even among those who would most benefit from it), and with the capacity (and willingness) of large corporations and the very rich to disconnect themselves from the United States, there's less and less political motivation to care about the disenfranchised -- especially if you need very few of them for labor.
Blogger Ben on Thu May 12, 11:00:00 AM:
I agree with your economic predictions but not your philosophical and social ones! There is so much room for a sense of meaning, purpose, direction and accomplishment without there needing to be an economic reason for your work at all. Just look at the army! Many army jobs are the equivalent of digging a hole and filling it up again. And yet the army is known as a place where people find direction. And if you don't think many more people could be satisfied as artisans of some sort, try asking well paid lawyers and finance and restaurant workers and the unemployed what they really want to do... very many would like to do boutique, artisanal curation or creation.

Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a good argument in this direction.
Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Mon May 16, 01:38:00 AM:
(Part 1/2)In spite of the stereotypes -- all the wait staff who want to be actors, etc. -- and people's common avowals that they would love to write a book if only they didn't have to work, etc., I'm unconvinced that a vast number of people would take up some form of art or artisanship to give their lives meaning, in the absence of employment.

On the plus side, creativity comes in a million forms, and I think if people have an inch of luxury to do so, they do find ways to apply it or express it. On the down side, the disappearance of work would wipe out a lot of culturally understood avenues for leading a meaningful life, and I simply don't have the confidence that you do that very many people would be able to build that for themselves. (I haven't read Doctorow's book (Wikipedia's summary makes it sound a bit baroque) but I'm familiar with some of his essays and a recent YA book of his, and he strikes me, fundamentally, as an optimist about people's capacity to self-organize and self-direct themselves. I could be way off base about this.) There's a huge number of people who don't value intellectual or what we now class as creative work *as* work -- in their eyes, it's effete, it's pointless.

So I don't know that I have all that much more to add here, since we simply disagree. But as I've been thinking about this over the past few days, I recognize that I have, well, more thinking to do on the subject. Needless to say, my premise that universal basic income will destroy the world of work for most people has some problems. For one thing, I haven't read enough on the subject of basic income to understand how it's supposed to be funded. For another, it raises the question: if almost everyone is receiving basic income, will there be markets to raise the capital to fund that income? Will there be enough of the rare elements needed for processors that will run the AIs that are supposed to take our jobs? The entertainment industry might grow further -- we'll still need human actors and many of the supporting technicians; some direct care jobs in the health industry would likely still be human; and there are a large number of government jobs that would, I think, still probably be staffed by humans: public health, community justice (probation, parole, law enforcement), mental health, alcohol and drug treatment, and support of the elderly and developmentally delayed. These examples aren't a huge portion of the labor force, but I'm guessing that there are quite a few sectors of the economy where AIs either wouldn't do the job we wanted, or we wouldn't be likely to let them.
Blogger Benjamin Chambers on Mon May 16, 01:39:00 AM:
(Part 2/2) And from another angle: how do people who can't or don't need to work *now* fill their time and their lives with meaning? I'm sure studies have been done of what retirees or folks on unemployment, SSI, or other subsidies do, and how they feel, though I'm unfamiliar with them in any detail. Retirees have the advantage that there is a cultural niche for them -- I think many of them struggle with feelings of irrelevance and not contributing, but there is a strong belief that they have "earned" their retirement, that their status is something to be coveted, and I'm not sure how that changes when everyone is "retired," albeit without money to travel, golf, finally rebuild the engine in that 57 Chevy, become a patron of the arts, etc. The unemployed, I think, mostly don't want to be -- if for no other reason than they want to contribute, provide for their families, etc. -- but after a while, if you can't get work, what do you do with your time? I'm not sure of the answers here. All I'm really saying is that I don't know, but the answers might have a bearing on what would happen if the ranks of the unemployed/retired poor grew exponentially. It could lead to widespread unrest ... or not. I really don't know.

I just think that we're talking about a potentially enormous cultural shift in how we value ourselves and our roles in society -- we're talking about eliminating, for most people, potentially, the pathways they have to participate in culturally recognized and valued ways in that society, and not giving them anything in return except subsistence. The work of creating new roles that are valued will be, I fear, hard, chaotic and violent, and therefore, an economic disaster for most. But who knows? I don't.
Blogger Ben on Mon May 16, 02:11:00 PM:
You make some really great points, and I appreciate your perspective. I might be overestimating how many people dream of being some sort of business owning artisan. But my broader point is that being rich enough not to have to work is something that for most people is basically liberating, not basically oppressive. The people whose work is farthest from being artisanal -- unskilled service laborers -- are largely working mindnumbing jobs that they don't leap out of bed for in the morning. Of course these jobs do provide them a sense of being valuable, require them to structure their day and their appearance, etc., but I don't think there is something magically better for them than just being paid the money and given infinite days off :)

But I see your point that subsistence income is not a substitute for the income from a real job like, say, being a bus driver or a typical clerical worker. Here's where I appeal to the democracy, or pseudo-democracy, that a quasi-empire like the United States enjoys: the power structure is willing to spend money to buy off the population and increase social stability, in part because the people really are part part of the power structure. (Even antigovernment folks insist that Social Security and Medicare not be touched, so they aren't.) Maybe in our technological future that means there have to be all sorts of fake jobs concocted to keep people docile, but I think the power structure is completely capable of delivering that, especially with all of the added wealth that technological innovation brings.

So I expect inequality to keep increasing drastically, but because the whole pie is increasing so fast and because we have something of a "chicken in every pot" democratic politics, I think robot capabilities are not going to increase poverty in the United States or the rest of the first world.