Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
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:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail