Archive for July 13, 2013

Robots Will Waste You

robot advisor
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I couldn’t really run a blog called Future Economy if I didn’t love talking about robots. Well, over the last several days, my RSS feed was like Shark Week for radical econ geeks.

Humans as Wasted Capital

First up, Frances Coppola with an interesting commentary on “The Wastefulness of Automation”. If it’s just dawning on you that the perpetual automation game is rigged against working people, you can go through some of the phases of grief with Coppola (though, to her credit, I think she doesn’t make it past “bargaining” here).

It starts out on an odd note for someone as highly schooled in economics as Coppola:

But what if capitalists DON’T want a large labour supply? What if automation means that what capitalists really want is a very small, highly skilled workforce to control the robots that do all the work? What if paying people enough to live on simply is not cost-effective compared to the running costs of robots?

First thing’s first. A large labor supply means lots of people willing and able to work. The more of them available, the cheaper they’ll sell their hours. Of course capitalists want a large labor supply — they get to pick and choose from that supply which ones can come off the 95% unemployment list.

But Coppola struck on the core conundrum — the contradiction hopefully keeping the worst-conceivable future off the table. Do capitalists want a large, active workforce?

If only a small number of people can afford to buy the products produced by all these robots, then unless there is a vibrant export market for those products – which requires the majority of people in other countries to be doing rather better than merely surviving on a basic subsistence income – producers have a real problem.

Okay, well, phew — capitalists will always need us workers. Problem averted, right?

Coppola notes the current trend of automation happening in middle-skilled office jobs, where labor is costly enough that automation is most attractive, while automating the lowest-skilled jobs is of lesser priority to the cost-cutting capitalist happy to pay slave wages for picking and skinning, maybe even lifting and sorting.

But we can’t lose sight of the reason “white collar” jobs pay more; it is because the people in the market for those jobs have comparative bargaining power. It is not because the jobs themselves are more valuable, or have a marginal advantage to the purchase of labor, compared to lower-paying jobs. They’re just more costly due to irrational market forces.

Therefore, such jobs are worth spending more to eliminate.

If the future is that the majority of people will do unskilled, insecure jobs for very low wages, then this amounts to a shocking waste of human capital. And if the more distant future is that even these jobs will eventually be automated, and working for a living will become the privilege of a few, then it is an even bigger waste.

Well, no. Under capitalism, human resources are only “wasted” if they could otherwise be put to better use. There has to be an opportunity cost to their disuse. In the dread scenario Coppola lays out, it’s not clear all this excess potential could do anything the capitalists would value. And since capitalists in the scenario have nearly all the demand power (not just an insanely disproportionate share, as now), who else would capitalism dictate has the prerogative to be valued? Who would a skilled worker be to argue that her talents and passion are being “wasted”?

In these conditions, a “waste of human capital” would be someone who could outwork a robot for wages amounting to less than the cost of the droid’s inputs but who, by some accident, doesn’t get put on the assembly line working shoulder-to-shoulder with X9-5R112. What a shame, the capitalist would think if he ever learned of the case. But someone who can make great art or engineer a way to feed the poor is of no value in this scenario if they can’t do it in a way that makes money for capitalists.

That skilled worker withering away in a tomato patch is only a “problem” if you’re unfortunate enough to possess morals that suggest human suffering is somehow wrong, per se. It is demonstrably not something markets can be bothered by.

Crucially, this isn’t some “Egads! There’s a flaw!” aberration of capitalism. This is one of the market’s more elegant features, if you set aside the hardship blah blah blah. It’s what you get when you put your faith in a system that values people precisely for their ability to (1) invest capital, (2) consume products, or (3) produce valuable goods and services at market rate. What else would you expect?

If you have no money and can’t compete with robots, according to capitalism you’re not a “waste of human capital”; you’re a waste of carbon and water. Coppola can’t seem to get over this shocking notion that capitalism has this built-in anti-sanity attribute:

A labour market that is skewed towards unskilled jobs when the workforce is more highly skilled and educated is malfunctioning. People who are in the wrong jobs are less productive than they should be: therefore, when most of the workforce is in the wrong job, we inevitably have an economy that is less productive than it should be.

No. What you’re actually seeing is that markets don’t care about your skills. And they’re not supposed to. That’s not their job! You either outwork a robot while matching its obedience and loyalty, all while asking for less… or you can go rot in a gutter. At best, you can go do something that’s not yet cost-effective to automate. Oh, and don’t forget, the capitalist gets to keep the robot’s wages; you’ll probably get all selfish and only give your wages back to him in exchange for some kind of commodity or service.

Now, the quote above about the labor market “malfunctioning” if it is “skewed towards unskilled jobs when the workforce is more highly skilled and educated” is true about an economy if and only if you believe an economy’s mandate is to take care of human needs. But it is not true of a market, which has the mandate of moving products to sources of demand. You ask for an invisible hand, you don’t get to whine or call it a “malfunction” when it predictably turns into a fist and squashes you and everyone you love the way it’s been abusing so many for so long.

Robots don’t eliminate jobs; markets do.

Cartoon by Carol Simpson - Robots gather for employee empowerment seminar

Coppola’s revelations continue:

Looking ahead, the only way in which such extensive outright subsidy of wages can be sustained in the longer term is through heavy taxation of profits and wealth – which rather undermines the purpose of forcing down labour costs, from capitalists’ point of view.

Exactly. The capitalists’ only choice would be to pay people just to buy stuff. As neat as that might be for a dystopian novel setting, there’s a flaw in the concept: it would be way more sensible for them to pay robots to buy stuff. Why bother with consumer markets when you can program demand? (Everywhere you look, those damn robots…)

Anyway, we know this isn’t a practical scenario. So Coppola tries to bring us back to reality:

It seems to me that providing people with a reasonable income while they find or create for themselves the right job (not just any job), or to enable them to do creative and/or socially useful things that are currently unpaid, or to study and develop new skills, might be a good investment for the future, improving the productivity of human capital which over the longer term benefits the economy.

This is certainly the right general attitude to have about the future. But then you have to stop using the term “human capital”. As long as humans are capital, their “productivity” will be measured by the value of their output in the market. Only sounds about two-thirds insane… until you remember: robots. And then continuing to advocate markets sounds three-thirds insane.

You also have to rethink what it means to serve an economy. If the mandate of the economy is to produce goods and services for anything with demand power, there’s no way that “benefiting the economy” means “benefiting society”.

How They’ll Do it to Us

Martin Ford of EconoFuture blog is on a similar tip, but he’s been thinking hard about this issue for a very long time, and is probably the leading harbinger of the very real possibility that hyper-automation will create structural unemployment, with predictable shock waves throughout economies. Ford’s latest contribution is a primer on just how contemporary automation may encroach more permanently on the workforce.

Of course, people have cried wolf about technological developments throughout the modern era, yet from prior periods of egg-cracking disruption, omelets have usually emerged. So what’s different now?

Well, what if innovations started targeting more and more costly lines of work, as Ms. Coppola noted above? What if they started doing creative work? What if they start innovating, even upgrading themselves? Would that be fundamentally different from the steam engine? (Yes. Yes it would.)

Ford notes that the trend of automation is to replace routine functions carried out by workers. We see this everywhere. Workers welcome it when it means making their job a little easier — sometimes to their own peril down the line. Now innovators are seeking to automate more complex forms of routines.

Our definition of what constitutes a “routine” job is by no means static. At one time, the jobs at risk from automation were largely confined to the assembly line. … Machine learning … is in essence a way to use statistical analysis of historical data to transform seemingly non-routine tasks into routine operations that can be computerized. As progress continues, it seems certain that more and more jobs and tasks will move from the “non-routine” column to the “routine” column, and as a result, an ever-increasing share of work will become susceptible to automation.

So what are the implications for you and me?

Rather than simply acquiring new skills and moving to another routine job, workers will have to instead migrate to an occupation that is genuinely non-routine and therefore protected from automation—and they may have to do this rapidly and repeatedly in order to remain ahead of the advancing frontier.

Okay, but my job can’t be automated, you say… Well,

Lawyers and paralegals have been displaced by e-discovery software that can rapidly determine which electronic documents are relevant to court cases. More routine forms of journalism—such as basic sports and business writing—have been successfully automated.

If you’re starting to wonder if anybody is safe from the rise of the robots…

Not Brain Surgery, Right?

I imagine if I were a brain surgeon, I’d have trouble believing I could be replaced by a machine, even as I bragged about the jaw-dropping technological innovations being made in my field.

So I’m going to excuse the limits of Dr. Garnette Sutherland’s inability to see the writing on the wall as he regales us with stories of new and near-future technologies that are revolutionizing neurosurgery.

My favorite line is this:

What robots lack is the human brain’s executive capacity. Given that comprehending – and reacting appropriately to – the immense number of variables that can arise during surgery would require enormous computing power, surgical robots aim to integrate human experience and decision-making ability with mechanized accuracy.

Yeah, good luck with that, Doc. Neurosurgery will be a prime target for automation. Of course computers have an executive capacity; try playing one in Backgammon, Chess, or Texas Hold’em. If in the middle of a surgery, a not-yet-programmed decision needs to get made, the on-call surgeon will be able to cover several robot surgeries at once. Maybe several hundred. From across the Internet.

And talk about high-cost routines! Before the good doctor knows it, robots will be explaining how the human brain utterly lacks the capacity to aggregate the compound experiences of multiple units (in real time, no less!), and how its error rate is N times that of robots, and how it can only perform one surgery at a time, and how it needs to sleep and play golf, and go to conferences, and… you get the point.

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A Millennial Strikes Back

Matt Bors infographic-style comic about demonization and scapegoating of Millennials
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This is an amazing infographic-style cartoon from Matt Bors, a cartoonist who used to contribute regularly to my old project The NewStandard. I found it on CNN.com, where I also read that Matt was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2012. You can follow him on Twitter.

Matt Bors infographic-style comic about demonization and scapegoating of Millennials

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Left Catastrophism and Its Detractors

The Coming Economic Collapse That Never Was
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The perfect subject for my return to this blog has presented itself in the form of an interview with Sasha Lilley, following up on the 2012 book Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, which Lilley contributed to.

It has been a long time since I’ve nodded my head throughout an article while fundamentally disagreeing with a key part of its basic thesis. But that was my response to “Hoping for the Worst“, an interview with Lilley by Samuel Grove about just why so many people who want to make a better world seem to yearn for economic catastrophe and collapse, as if it will necessarily hasten the change they seek. With wisdom and clarity, Lilley thrashes what is indeed a commonplace view, which she calls Left catastrophism, used by many progressives and radicals as an excuse to wait for change to arrive, rather than making it themselves.

I found myself agreeing strongly with Lilley while also, uncomfortably, recognizing some of my own beliefs among those she is roundly criticizing. But Lilley’s representation of the archetypal collapse-anticipating radical doesn’t fit me or many others I know. I absolutely, unequivocally do not hope that global catastrophe arrives in order to usher in a new post-capitalist era.

In the first place, like Lilley, I don’t think such a meta-crisis would necessarily yield an egalitarian future. In fact, we suspect quite the opposite would emerge. In times of crisis, Lilley notes, humans do tend to turn toward regressive rather than progressive solutions:

Fear … tends to tilt right, not left. When people are fearful, they’re more likely to accept authoritarian solutions and the scapegoating of immigrants and others.

Ever skeptical of utopic pretenses, I simply do not believe that from the chaos of mass social upheaval will naturally emerge a peaceful, orderly anarchy. Such a thing must be strategized and painstakingly organized through struggle, and then failed at many times before success is at hand.

Even short of reactionary responses to crises, great upheavals are more likely to necessitate centrally coordinated solutions. In the wake of a real collapse scenario — the likes of which pretty much nobody involved in this debate can remotely fathom — the more reasonable among lifelong anarchists may just earnestly support authoritarian solutions. You might think you’ll simply twinkle and consense your way to socialism if the government and its systems suddenly vanished, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Lilley describes the probable result of “disaster fatigue” and the patronizing nature of the notion that more bad outcomes from capitalism will raise consciousness. She notes:

[People] don’t need convincing that something is wrong, or that the system we live under doesn’t work for them.

Unfortunately, Lilley seems to hold out hope in the potential for revolutionary change without war or any other calamity, if only for the sake of having hope. She is cynical about cynicism:

Political despair and a crisis of organization lend themselves to the hope that an external jolt will replace the arduous work of reaching out to and organizing others. … Catastrophism is, amongst other things, about shortcuts and the messy business of fighting and losing sometimes and winning others can be shunted to the side.

Lilley even sympathizes with some catastrophists — those who are desperate for a better world but fear that jolt will be required:

Add to this the very real urgency that many people feel about the need to stop the ravages of capitalism—global warming being the most obvious—and catastrophism is eminently understandable.

I think perhaps this is what discerns a reasonable belief that socioeconomic collapse is highly probable, from catastrophism — the hope that it will happen soon, ushering an era of great positive changes.

Lilley seems to hold as near certainty that capitalism will adapt to oncoming crises, rather than undo itself through internal contradictions or ever allow itself to be undone by outside forces such as climate change or resource depletion.

Denial is the first stage of... No it isn't!

But I see a bit of paradox in Lilley’s assertions:

  1. Capital will not permit itself to wither or collapse from external causes…
  2. …yet, workers could organize to defeat capital…
  3. …and if capitalism were to crumble due to outside factors, the same workers (who are powerful enough to overthrow it now) would then be unable to establish a superior alternative order.

I’m definitely convinced of Point 3, excepting the parenthetical flourish added to emphasize the contradiction, but the other two are not so obvious to me.

This is subjective stuff, to be sure, but my twenty years of closely observing the US Left in action have left me with essentially no confidence that it can or will evolve into a force that could organize a revolution against capitalism.

While I’m perhaps less impressed by the Left and its potential, I also see more weaknesses in late capitalism than Lilley seems to discern. I’m surrounded by optimists who believe capitalism will innovate its way out of climate change and find ways around the very real matter of finite resources. I am far less convinced that the End Game is not close at hand.

Despite my skepticism, pessimism, and cynicism, I believe in working toward practical solutions. I advocate dual power strategy — radical organizing that also happens to be relatively collapse-resistant. It’s an actual plan for dealing with economic catastrophe or smaller-scale chronic crises without necessitating, investing in, or hoping for such events.

I also agree with Lilley that there will be no radical social change without struggle. Collapse, catastrophe, or blue skies, any transformation will be made by people, through organization.

But I find hope for hope’s sake overrated. I spent years mimicking Noam Chomsky’s adaptation of Pascal’s Wager: we don’t know we can bring about real, lasting social change, but we know if we do not try, we are certain to fail.

Okay, well, what does the evidence suggest? After years of believing — insisting even — that a pro-active revolution leading to a dramatically altered world was possible and attainable, I have reached the sad realization that the people of this current world are not going to make that happen, possible or not. Despite my intense desire to conclude otherwise, I see no real evidence that authentic revolution is in the cards.

Lilley’s final statement in the interview is, to me, most revealing of the weakness of all sides of this argument, including my own:

Not surprisingly, catastrophism tends to stress our collective weakness, rather than our collective power.  And that I think is to be avoided, no matter how grim things sometimes appear, because it’s actually inaccurate.

Note the last clause, tagged on to convey truism, but to me it highlights an inadequacy. Don’t stress our collective weakness … because it’s inaccurate; we’re not weak. I rather think the only reason for radicals not to stress the demonstrably profound weakness of the presently mobilized populace is to pretend it is not in fact weak, perhaps fooling people into believing they can accomplish more. Hell, I wouldn’t scorn a rallying strategy that involved a “little white lie”, provided it actually worked.

Current Left strategies (and maybe the whole concept of a “Left”) are failing miserably, while capitalism is very likely entering a new phase of vulnerabilities and limitations.

I don’t think Lilley is suggesting we double down on the status quo Left approaches to change. And that’s good. But continuing to build on strategies that do not include contingencies for collapse is as ill-advised as living without health insurance or not backing up your computer files. (Collapse is not as certain as climate change, so I won’t compare ignoring it to purchasing beach front property.)

But I’m afraid collapse is far more likely than an authentic social revolution emerging while capitalism is, as Emperor Palpatine described his second Death Star, “quite operational”. Since capitalism doesn’t have an exhaust vent leading to a critical vulnerability we can torpedo, we may have to resort to sabotaging its defenses, building strong alternatives, and vigilantly preparing for better opportunities. Besides, the sweetest irony of all would be if, in the end, zombie capitalism lost out not to a lofty idea, but to a superior, competing system already in practice. (No, I’m not actually arguing that irony is a justification for delay. Sheesh!)

I think Sasha Lilley and I broadly agree on so much here, differing mainly in our hopes that the Left can pull off a revolution. We probably also both believe she’s a better writer than I am, so I urge you to read her previous short treatment on this subject, “Apocalypse Now?

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