Fun as it is to imagine a worker takeover of the industry-leading (and most infuriating) ride-hailing app company, for a host of reasons, it’s a pipe dream that misses the forest for the trees.
The number one way in which humans contribute to global warming is not mentioned in Showtime’s groundbreaking “Years of Living Dangerously”. Not even when repeatedly highlighting the impacts of climate change on the very industry and way of life causing the lion’s share of warming.
Two more financial elites join the ranks of those rearranging the deck chairs on the proverbial Titanic that is capitalism. Watch in awe as they execsplain how capitalists can save their beloved system from itself, and the world along with it, but only in order to save itself.
Innovation leads to automation of more complex work, threatening higher-paid jobs more than the traditionally automated rote tasks. Unless you can outthink computers, the robots are coming for you, and the onus will be on you to demonstrate your value.
Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff exhibits a remarkable ability to see what’s wrong with capitalism and markets, while simultaneously astounding with his capacity to not consider these problems to be fundamental deal breakers.
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.
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.