FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Attack of the Robots

by DEAN BAKER

Economists are not very good at economics. We know this because we had a huge housing bubble that collapsed, which almost none of them saw. The pre-crash projections from the Congressional Budget Office imply that this downturn has already cost us more than $7.6 trillion, or $25,000 per person. This could have been prevented if we had economists in policy positions who understood how the economy worked.

But even if economists aren’t very good at dealing with the economy, they still can provide value to society. In particular they can be a great source of entertainment. That’s how we should view the story that robots will take all of our jobs and leave most of the population unemployed.

This story has become a popular theme lately among Washington policy types. There are important people from across the political spectrum running around town wringing their hands over the prospect that the economy may not provide jobs for large segments of the labor force.

The first aspect of this story that should impress people is that many of the same people have been wringing their hands about the exact opposite problem, most likely without even knowing it.

Remember the story about how the aging of the baby boomers will bankrupt us because we will have too few workers to support the surge of retired baby boomers?

In that story, all of us aging baby boomers will be left waiting around for someone to change our bedpans. But now we are supposed to be worried that we won’t have any work for people to do because the robots will be there to do it faster and cheaper.

Either of these stories could in principle be true, but they cannot both be true. If robots are capable of doing most of the tasks that humans now do, then we don’t have to worry about declining ratios of workers to retirees. We will have plenty of robots to do the work for us.

Alternatively, if we are facing labor shortages because there are too few workers to support a growing population of retirees, then clearly robots will not have taken everyone’s job. At worst we have to worry about one of these problems, but not both.

Let’s assume robots are the problem. This would actually not be a new story. The robots might be new, but this is the story of productivity growth that we have dealt with for centuries. Ordinarily we think productivity growth makes us richer, since we can produce more goods or services in every hour of work. This can lead to rising pay and living standards or alternatively more leisure time.

However, the robot story is somewhat different or so its proponents would claim. Robots are supposed to lead to such rapid increases in productivity that there will be no way for all the displaced workers to be reemployed. The problem in this case is not productivity; rather the problem is that all the benefits are going to the owners of the robots.

Before evaluating the logic of this one, it’s first worth noting that we have yet to see any evidence to back up this picture of the economy. In the last six years, productivity growth has been notably slower than in the years from the beginning of the productivity speed-up in 1995 to the beginning of the downturn in 2008. There also is no evidence that robots and other technological change is responsible for the upward distribution of income in the last three decades.

But there is a more fundamental problem with this robot-driven inequality story. The owners of the robots won’t directly get rich from owning the machines: robots will presumably be relatively cheap to make. After all, we can have robots make them. If the owners of robots get really rich it will be because the government has given them patent monopolies so that they can collect lots of money from anyone who wants to buy or build a robot.

Patents are not given to us by the gods or nature, we write patent laws. If patent monopolies are making most of us poor and a small number rich, then we can just write the laws differently. It’s very simple; we make patents shorter and weaker. That could mean 10 years rather than 20 years. And perhaps more importantly, we make patent enforcement more difficult.

That means interpreting the patents more narrowly. For example, the next time some character like Jeff Bezos tries to claim a patent on something like one-click shopping, we not only turn down his patent suit, but we fine him really big bucks for trying to beat his competitors in the courts rather than the marketplace and for wasting everyone’s time.

If we adjust patent laws to better serve the economy we can ensure that robots and other technological breakthroughs make most of the world richer not poorer. The economists might tell us that the problem of inequality is just the natural progress of technology and the economy, but the bubble and its collapse should have taught us better than to take this crew seriously. The problem is really just one of the rich writing the rules to make themselves richer.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This essay originally appeared on Baker’s HuffPost blog.

 

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail