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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Rivera Sun
Blind Slogans and Shallow Greatness
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail