FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Attack of the Robots

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.

 

More articles by:

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

Weekend Edition
March 22, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
The Ghost of Fascism in the Post-Truth Era
Gabriel Rockhill
Spectacular Violence as a Weapon of War Against the Yellow Vests
H. Bruce Franklin
Trump vs. McCain: an American Horror Story
Paul Street
A Pox on the Houses of Trump and McCain, Huxleyan Media, and the Myth of “The Vietnam War”
Andrew Levine
Why Not Impeach?
Bruce E. Levine
Right-Wing Psychiatry, Love-Me Liberals and the Anti-Authoritarian Left
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Darn That (American) Dream
Charles Pierson
Rick Perry, the Saudis and a Dangerous Nuclear Deal
Moshe Adler
American Workers Should Want to Transfer Technology to China
David Rosen
Trafficking or Commercial Sex? What Recent Exposés Reveal
Nick Pemberton
The Real Parallels Between Donald Trump and George Orwell
Binoy Kampmark
Reading Manifestos: Restricting Brenton Tarrant’s The Great Replacement
Brian Cloughley
NATO’s Expensive Anniversaries
Ron Jacobs
Donald Cox: Tale of a Panther
Joseph Grosso
New York’s Hudson Yards: The Revanchist City Lives On
REZA FIYOUZAT
Is It Really So Shocking?
Bob Lord
There’s Plenty of Wealth to Go Around, But It Doesn’t
John W. Whitehead
The Growing Epidemic of Cops Shooting Family Dogs
Jeff Cohen
Let’s Not Restore or Mythologize Obama 
Christy Rodgers
Achieving Escape Velocity
Monika Zgustova
The Masculinity of the Future
Jessicah Pierre
The Real College Admissions Scandal
Peter Mayo
US Higher Education Influence Takes a Different Turn
Martha Rosenberg
New Study Confirms That Eggs are a Stroke in a Shell
Ted Rall
The Greatest Projects I Never Mad
George Wuerthner
Saving the Big Wild: Why Aren’t More Conservationists Supporting NREPA?
Norman Solomon
Reinventing Beto: How a GOP Accessory Became a Top Democratic Contender for President
Ralph Nader
Greedy Boeing’s Avoidable Design and Software Time Bombs
Tracey L. Rogers
White Supremacy is a Global Threat
Nyla Ali Khan
Intersectionalities of Gender and Politics in Indian-Administered Kashmir
Karen J. Greenberg
Citizenship in the Age of Trump: Death by a Thousand Cuts
Jill Richardson
Getting It Right on What Stuff Costs
Matthew Stevenson
Pacific Odyssey: Puddle Jumping in New Britain
Matt Johnson
The Rich Are No Smarter Than You
Julian Vigo
College Scams and the Ills of Capitalist-Driven Education
Brian Wakamo
It’s March Madness, Unionize the NCAA!
Beth Porter
Paper Receipts Could be the Next Plastic Straws
Christopher Brauchli
Eric the Heartbroken
Louis Proyect
Rebuilding a Revolutionary Left in the USA
Sarah Piepenburg
Small Businesses Like Mine Need Paid Family and Medical Leave
Robert Koehler
Putting Our Better Angels to Work
Peter A. Coclanis
The Gray Lady is Increasingly Tone-Deaf
David Yearsley
Bach-A-Doodle-Doo
Elliot Sperber
Aunt Anna’s Antenna
March 21, 2019
Daniel Warner
And Now Algeria
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail