Bring on the Robots; Death to the Robots

Terminator Robot

The subject of automation and innovation — especially their effects on labor and productivity — is one I’ve spent a lot of time pondering and researching. The issue is gaining renewed, much-deserved traction lately.

The matter boils down to productivity increases, and why in a sane economy they would be good for workers writ large, but in market capitalism they are not. As economist Tim Jackson (Prosperity Without Growth) put it recently:

We are caught in a productivity trap. While it generates wealth, productivity also generates unemployment.

We’ll hear more of Jackson’s critical ideas in the future, but for now I want to implore you to check out a piece called “Debtmaggedon vs. the Robot Utopia” from Caleb Crain’s blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. A taste of the brilliance:

You remember the robot utopia. You imagined it when you were in fifth grade, and your juvenile mind first seized with rapture upon the idea of intelligent machines that would perform dull, repetitive tasks yet demand nothing for themselves. In the future, you foresaw, robots would do more and more, and humans less and less. There would be no need for humans to endanger themselves in coal mines or bore themselves on assembly lines. A few people would always be needed to repair and build the robots, and this drudgery of robot supervision would have to be rewarded somehow, but someday robots would surely make wealth so abundant that most people wouldn’t need to work and would be free merely to enjoy and cultivate themselves—by, say, hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and doing literary criticism after dinner.

Your fifth-grade self was wrong, of course. Robots aren’t altruistic beings; they’re capital investments; and though robots may not ask to be paid, their owners demand a return on their investment. We now live in the robot utopia, which isn’t one.

Thanks in large part to computerized mechanization, manufacturing productivity in the past century has increased many times over. Standards of living are higher than they ever were, but we no longer need as many humans to work as we once did. Perhaps not coincidentally, human wages, in America at least, have stagnated since the 1970s. If humans made no more money in the past four decades, where did the wealth created by the higher productivity go? Toward robot wages, as it were. The owners of the robots took the money—that is, the capitalists.

Any fifth-grader can see where this leads. At some point society has to choose. Either society accepts the robots’ gift as a general one, and redistributes the wealth that the robots inadvertently concentrate, or society allows the robots to become the exclusive tools of an ever-shrinking elite, increasingly resented, in confused fashion, by the people whom the robots have displaced.

[paragraphing added]

The idea of “robot wages” collected by capitalists is brilliant, and I’m disappointed I’d never thought of it quite that way.

This is all similar to something I went around saying for a couple of years. “You know what’s wrong with capitalism? Robots, that’s what.” Why aren’t robots making our lives easier? The typical pro-capitalist response would be something about productivity increases — we’re getting more stuff. Much more. It’s everywhere. Between cheap labor and automated labor, those in privileged societies/classes are veritably are piled with crap. But “more stuff” isn’t making our lives significantly better in the short term, and it’s killing our habitat.

A sane economy would take benefits accrued from productivity increases of all kinds and parlay them into generalized gains.

I don’t know why we’d expect capitalism not to disappoint in this regard. After all, we were also promised jet packs.