Robots and Liberalism

December 12th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work  |  9 Comments

People know my beat by now, so everyone has been directing my attention to Paul Krugman’s recent musings on the pace of automation in the economy. He moves away from his earlier preoccupation with worker skills, and toward the possibility of “‘capital-biased technological change’, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.” He goes on to present data showing the secular decline in labor’s share of income since the 1970′s.

He then notes that his position “has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism”, but reassures us that this uncomfortable realization “shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts”. The implication of those facts, he says, are that neither the liberal nor conservative common sense has anything to say about our current predicament: “Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society” . . . won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.”

Meanwhile we have Kevin Drum despairing that the coming decades will be “mighty grim”, as automation means that “the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work”. And we have the Financial Times publishing Izabella Kaminska arguing that “we’ve now arrived at a point where technology begins to threaten return on capital, mostly by causing the sort of abundance that depresses prices to the point where many goods have no choice but to become free.” This, of course, leads to attempts to impose artificial scarcity through new forms of property rights (with dire consequences for growth and prosperity), but I’ve written all about that elsewhere.

What I mainly find interesting is what all this interest in technology and jobless growth says about the limits of contemporary liberalism. We can all hope that Gavin Mueller’s reverie of Paul Krugman dropping LSD and becoming a Marxist will come to pass, but in the meantime his type seems to have no real answer. Nor do those of a more labor-liberal bent, like Dan Crawford at Angry Bear, who laments being called a neo-luddite and scornfully says: “As if widespread use of automated systems was automatically good for us overall”. As if a world in which we hold back technical change in order to keep everyone locked into deadening jobs is a vision that will rally the masses to liberalism.

In its more sophisticated form, this kind of politics takes the form of Ed Miliband’s “predistribution”, which Richard Seymour glosses as a belief that “rather than taxing the rich to fund welfare, the government should focus on making work pay more.” But if the structure of the modern economy is, as Krugman argues, one which depends on increasing numbers of robots and diminishing numbers of people, this project is bound to be either ineffectual or pointlessly destructive of our potential social wealth. The idea that there is something inherently superior, either politically or morally, about raising pre-tax and transfer incomes, rather than doing redistribution, is one that has never seemed to me to be especially well grounded. At times I suspect that it stems from an uncritical embrace of the historically specific white populist identity politics of the working class, and its accompanying fetish for the point of production, that I talk about here.

Not to say I have all the answers either, but here on the crazy Left we at least have some ideas. Ideas that don’t presuppose the desirability of keeping the assembly line of employment going at all costs, pumping out something that we can call “middle class jobs”. Ideas that get back to crazy notions like working time reduction and the decommodification of labor. These days, the unrealistic utopians are the nostalgics for the Fordist compromise, who see the factory worker with a high school diploma and a middle class income as the apex of human emancipation. But as Lenin said, “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself”.

  • Howard Berman

    This new world has caught me by surprise. All I can do is pose a few questions, hopefully one or two fruitful or germane: there are massive opportunities for people to lead the good life, as depicted in classic philosophy like in Aristotle; but how would our freedoms and rights be safeguarded? Who would have the power? What would be the checks on this power? Would we segue into a kind of feudalism or would our nations come to resemble city states? Where would we find proper models to guide our efforts? Which contemporary countries? Would utopias and dystopias and science fiction illuminate our way? Would work become a hobby?

  • Tom Walker

    Robots present a compelling image but when you take a screwdriver to them and open them up, two facts become abundantly clear:

    1. they consume energy.

    2. they produce goods for which there must be a demand.

    It seems as though the discussion of the robot issue so far mainly assumes that those energy supply (and emissions) and consumer demand facts will somehow take care of themselves. They won’t.

    • Matt Bruenig

      Consumer demand will be pretty easy to take care of. Hand out cash.

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  • Steve Roth
    1. I wholeheartedly agree about “working time reduction and the decommodification of labor,” and the necessity of a guaranteed income program that they seem to imply. (Necessarily, by taxing the rich and giving to the poor.)

    2. I don’t envision that program being politically feasible for some time to come. We should “keep it in the intellectual hopper” and regularly boost its prominence in that hopper, but can’t expect implementation any time soon.

    3. Re: ““rather than taxing the rich to fund welfare, the government should focus on making work pay more.” Given #2, this does not seem a crazy approach to addressing real, current problems.

    4. You’re correct that many of “his type seems to have no real answer. Nor do those of a more labor-liberal bent”

    5. Which brings me to my actual nuts-and-bolts solution, which is a major ramp-up (and simplification/streamlining) of the Earned Income Tax Credit. (Even better, index it to the unemployment rate.) It’s politically feasible (viz: Reagan’s increase of same, the recent Making Work Pay program, and the temporary employee-side payroll tax cut, which is somewhat the same thing in reverse). While it doesn’t get people working less or delink a decent life from hard labor, it does address the immediate and ongoing issues of flat/declining real wages/median income, and involuntary unemployment.

    And it achieves the redistribution that’s necessary for a modern, high-productivity monetary economy to grow at anything like its “natural” rate.

  • Carlscheider

    I wish I had the answer to this. The progress is inevitable and good, I think. but we should be in charge of it, not at the mercy of a libertarian and blindly irrational market!

  • Bill H

    Since when has Direct Labor Cost been an issue at least since the sixties? You are chasing the wrong issue and yes Taylortuckey in Michigan still exists.

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  • Robert S

    Anyone interested in automation and its impact on the economy and job market should read the book, “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future”

    It focuses on this issue and proposes solutions….