Random Thoughts Indexed

Robot Economics

The central question I want to raise in this piece is one that has been gathering with increasing speed over the last century.

While over the course of human history and prehistory, we have used mechanical devices to improve our productivity, a new wave of machines has been rising, slowly at first, and recently much faster, since the industrial revolution.

I don't want to dwell on the early stages, although I think that tot he professional economist, they do provide important data. Where I am concerned is basically what we might call the "factory of the future," where very minimal work is performed by humans, and almost all operations are done by an army of specialized robotic devices.

This has the potential to be a tremendous liberating force in human society. Many of the "jobs" being done by robots are not particularly pleasant ways to spend ones day, so the relief of the worker by the machine from "dirty work" is welcome. Also, there is an exponential increase in what we call "productivity," in that vastly more goods (and perhaps services) are created for our consumption (short or long term) with far less human time and effort expended than previously required.

The problem? Somehow all this "wealth" still needs a mechanism by which it finds its way into the general populations hands so they can buy all these efficiently produced goods and services.

After all, if you roboticize an automobile factory and then lay off 9,000 out of 10,000 employees, how can they afford to purchase new cars next year (keeping the factory in business), unless somehow they find new gainful employment of some sort?

One factor that has made these robotic takeovers a bit ugly, is that in spite of the fact that the jobs were unpleasant, they traditionally also paid very well. This was mostly due to the unionization movements of the twentieth century, that resulted in the lifestyle of a blue collar worker being able to earn enough to support a family, buy a small house, and probably send his children to a college (or at least, technical training school) to better their lot in life.

Eliminating those jobs and replacing them with non-union clerical or service work destroys the economic base that previously supported the lower economic classes and kept them happily above the level of peasantry and serfdom.

A quick study of the classic economists will show that two laws tend to apply in the absence of some major force opposing them: 1. the population of workers will expand to constantly use up all resources available to them, and, 2. wages will tend towards the point that is barely sufficient to keep the workers alive. Discarding and undermining the gains of the twentieth century in forcing capital to share some of its proceeds with labor will get us back to those harsh realities if we aren't careful.


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© Huw Powell

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