Saturday, December 8, 2012

Kevin Drum — Our Bedpan and Canasta Future


More on the transition to an automated, robotized future.
It's quite possible that, say, 50 years from now the production of nearly all goods and services will be automated. And this might usher in a golden age of solar-powered plenty that allows us all to reach new pinnacles of human potential. Let's just stipulate this for the sake of discussion.
But what happens while we're busy getting there? Answer: the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work. Liberals will continue to think that perhaps this can be solved with better education. Conservatives will continue to insist that people without jobs are lazy bums who shouldn't be coddled. The lucky owners of capital won't care.
Their numbers will decline, but the ones who remain will get richer and richer. The rest of us will have no jobs, and even with all this lovely automation, our government-supplied welfare checks will be meager enough that our lives will be miserable.
This won't last forever. Eventually there will be a revolution, peaceful or otherwise, and the economic system will change. But until that happens, the next few decades are going to be mighty grim for an awful lot of people.
Mother Jones
Our Bedpan and Canasta Future
Kevin Drum
(h/t Kevin Fathi via email)

There's also the paradox of productivity. Who is going to buy all the stuff if wages shrink and jobs disappear. What will happen to demand as supply explodes?

It could be that prices will fall to rock bottom, but how does that help if one doesn't have a job. Obviously the service sector will have to take up the slack. Back to being servants for the wealthy again?

8 comments:

Dan Kervick said...

I've said it before, but might as well say it again. This vision of the automated future in which robots produce everything and do all the work is most likely an idle fantasy. People have been coughing up this fantasy throughout the industrial revolution, whenever some new spate of innovation and dislocation creates unemployment. It never works out the way they imagine. As old jobs are eliminated by the dislocations, people move on, find new and challenging things to do, and create a whole bunch of new jobs to do in the process. The robot replacement vision fails to understand human, drive, ambition, creativity and ingenuity.

Tom Hickey said...

Dan, the point is that this is as much an opportunity as a crisis. Mechanization has potentially eliminated virtually all the drudgery of agricultural work and reduced the agricultural labor force by well over 90% in developed countries. The same is in the process of happening in industry. The latest large US manufacturer auto plant built in the US is completely automated, for example, although I have seen nothing in the press about it. The only reason I know about it is that the father of a friend of mine was an engineer working on it. It's happening.

Of course, humanity will move on, but what form that will take and how the transition will be handled is unclear. It could happen smoothly in ways that we cannot now foresee, or not, and if not, this could have a major impact socially, politically and economically in an adverse way. Couple that with the adversity coming from climate change and we are facing a double whammy.

What I am concerned about is that people are still thinking in terms of the old "work ethic" paradigm and relatively few are thinking out of the box. But there have been out of the box thinkers in this regard for decades and some people have been putting these ideas into practice. We need to focus more on this aspect.

Tom Hickey said...

I should say that only a few hundred years ago, no one, and mean no one, could even imagine a post-agricultural economy in which agricultural labor would be largely replaced by machines.

Even the Physiocrats regarded only agricultural production, which was labor intensive then, as actually valuable.

The most significant contribution of the Physiocrats was their emphasis on productive work as the source of national wealth. This is in contrast to earlier schools, in particular mercantilism, which often focused on the ruler's wealth, accumulation of gold, or the balance of trade. At the time the Physiocrats were formulating their ideas, economies were almost entirely agrarian. That is presumably why the theory considered only agricultural labor to be valuable. Physiocrats viewed the production of goods and services as consumption of the agricultural surplus, since the main source of power was from human or animal muscle and all energy was derived from the surplus from agricultural production. Wikipedia

Master Of Interesting Links said...

http://jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures/

Dan Kervick said...

Tom, I don't think there is anything wrong with the work ethic paradigm. Some such paradigm must be the foundation of every society. If you want to be part of a society, and the maintenance of that society requires some measure of human work to generate all of the fruits of that society, then you owe the society your fair share of that work if you want to share in the fruits.

Now maybe we could reach a point where a society of 150 million working age adults can sustain a very prosperous way of life with only 1.5 billion hours of human work each week. Then each adult will owe ten hours of work a week. People who are doing substantially less than this share will be seen as slackers who make it necessary for others to do more than that share. And people who do their fair share of the work but derive a much larger share of the fruits are free-riders of another kind, and will also be resented. That's the basis of the work ethic, and it has always existed.

It will be great if mechanization eliminates the necessity for the most onerous and awful kinds of human labor. But a job is just some service you perform for which you get something in return. The exchange can be privatized - I do something for some private individual or business, and in exchange that private person or business gives me something I want. or it can be socialized - I do something that contributes in some way to creating the goods which are enjoyed in the society by others, and in exchange the society's governing institutions govern some share of those goods to me. But either way it is productive work I do to produce something for others in exchange for some of goods that have been produced by others.

It seems to me the people who are failing to think outside of the box are the people envisioning the mechanization of all work. Mechanization is eliminating jobs they already know and understand. But one should conclude that people won't go right on creating new kinds of activities and jobs that we don't currently understand, to create new kinds of value we can only dimly imagine. Maybe those new activities will be more fun or inherently enjoyable. But if we want the activities to be part of a system in which people are all benefiting from the activity performed by others, and the benefits are shared according to some fair plan, then the new activities will have to be organized in some way into some kind of system in which they are accounted for and the fruits of the activities are divided up according to some scheme of justice.

Dan Kervick said...

I should say that only a few hundred years ago, no one, and mean no one, could even imagine a post-agricultural economy in which agricultural labor would be largely replaced by machines.

That's a good point Tom. And by the same token, no one at that time could imagine a world of electronic communication and information processing devices that everyone would want and use, and whose use would require armies of people writing code. It takes lots of work to satisfy our desires and fulfill our dreams. Once that work is mechanized, we dream new dreams.

Tom Hickey said...

om, I don't think there is anything wrong with the work ethic paradigm. Some such paradigm must be the foundation of every society. If you want to be part of a society, and the maintenance of that society requires some measure of human work to generate all of the fruits of that society, then you owe the society your fair share of that work if you want to share in the fruits.

I disagree, Dan, first because this is not an accurate description of the "work ethic," and secondly, even so, it falls into the "work ethic" trap of moralizing.

We need to begin with the assumption that "not-working" is superior to "working." Who chooses to "work" when they have the choice of not "working." No one. "Working" means selling your time to someone else for a price, and one's time is one's life. It's slavery.

Forcing kids to go to school and follow the rules so they can grow up be somebody is in the same vein. Education based on it doesn't really educate and it produces psychologically deranged results. Everyone who goes through this process is traumatized by it on one way or another, although few realize this.

This is the wrong approach to motivation. It is based on the authoritarian strict father model rather than the nurturing family model, that is, force and fear v. choice based on benefit. Society is best structured when motivation is in terms of nurturing rather than forcing. This is basic to the libertarian POV as opposed to the authoritarian POV.

Tom Hickey said...

That's a good point Tom. And by the same token, no one at that time could imagine a world of electronic communication and information processing devices that everyone would want and use, and whose use would require armies of people writing code. It takes lots of work to satisfy our desires and fulfill our dreams. Once that work is mechanized, we dream new dreams.

I know quite a few people who "work" in these "jobs." Under a different system, they would pay to be able to participate.