Thursday, 11 July 2013

Robots and the successors to Captain Swing....

Sir, Your name is down amongst the Black hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you, who are Parson Justasses, to make your wills. Ye have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions, Ye have not yet done as ye ought,.... Swing

We are told - by people far wiser and more knowing than me - that the future of employment is bleak:

Could the jobless recovery be signalling that technology has lead to the sort of abundance and productivity that leaves NAIRU — the unemployment rate below which inflation rises — with no choice but to recalibrate higher, if returns on capital investment are to be protected?
The point being made here is that the future of making stuff rests with robots not with people. And that means there won't be enough work for all the people. The result of this is a lot of frothing and excitement and calls for something to be done. And is accompanied by the emergence - blinking in the lights of the 21st Century - of Captain Swing from his nearly 200 year rest.

For men who smashed up the threshing machines under Swing's directions, just as for the followers of Ned Ludd, the objective was to constrain technology. By preventing its spread or by limiting its application (or as in the print industry by requiring more overlookers and operators than the machine required) we protect jobs and the livelihoods of workers.

The simple truth of technology is that, while technology improves productivity, causes prices to fall, demand to rise, more workers to be hired, and the economy to grow, there is a practical limit. If all the work is done by robots all the productivity gain serves no purpose since there is no work and no earnings - no-one to buy the things the robots make.

The central issue here isn't whether we have a job but rather whether we need to have a job. In simple terms, the people who own the robots don't need a job because the rents generated from that ownership would provide. The problem - if the argument about technology destroying all the jobs is correct - is with the people who don't own the robots (or at least not the robots that make all the stuff).

The modern day successors of Captain Swing think they've a great solution - let's either pay everyone a basic income with no strings or else fund a guarantee of a job. We have to assume that the money for this system (whichever is chosen) would come from taxing the robots - or rather the returns the robots generate for the people who own them.

The questions we have to ask are firstly, will there really be a wholesale destruction of jobs without new ones to replace them? And secondly would a basic income or job guarantee actually work? There is a third question - is it morally justified to pay people to do nothing - but this is a far bigger question and we'll leave it for now.

Apple reckoned recently that the app economy (just the iOS bit) has generated nearly 300,000 jobs in the USA alone:

The app revolution has added more than 291,250 iOS jobs to the U.S. economy since the introduction of iPhone in 2007

These are jobs that we hadn't thought of - for all the jobs destroyed by technology there are new ones created.  Izabella Kaminska may talk about the 'jobless recovery' but there's precious little evidence for it - other than in the sclerotic, over-regulated economies of Europe. It could be argued as forcefully that supply-side barriers to employment, the lack of need to work (especially among young people receiving benefits and contributions from the bank of mum and dad) and poor education are more of a problem than the rise of the robots. That government is more of a barrier to future job creation than robots.

A further factor in all this will be that - as has happened over the past decades - we'll see a further decline in average working hours. Back in Captain Swing's day the workers toiled for six days - probably for ten, even twelve hours, for wages far less than any basic income we might propose. And despite this the Captain and his mates smashed up the machines so the workers could carry on with back-breaking, life-shortening heavy manual labour.

Today, the average working day is under eight hours and people work just five days - our time working nears half that of those Captain Swing and Ned Ludd protected. And yet our incomes are immeasurably higher - even the wealthy owners of those threshing machines would be amazed at the life, the comforts that the poorest Englishman enjoys today. What is to suppose that this trend continues? That we work only 25 hours before enjoying the benefits of that work (and let's face it most people work because they want the money not because their work is such an exciting thing to do)?

It seems to me that the bounty of the robots' efforts will be more leisure time for all. And not some ridiculous idea that allowing anyone - at any time - to down tools and toddle off to live on their basic income. Get a good summer and no-one would be working (I appreciate that many of the believers in basic income also follow MMT - "magic money tree" - fantasies and the delusion that this doesn't matter). This indeed is rather the point of it all - we know that, given half a chance, people will swing the lead (you only need to look at sickness statistics in local government to understand this), so if we legitimise swinging the lead we'll just take advantage. As Flanders & Swann noted: "you can't change human nature."

This argument - 'there'll be no jobs, you know" - rather reminds me of Paul Ehrlich's bet on resource depletion. Following one thread takes you to a point where logic and common senses collapse. The theory still looks shiny and right but it has lost any contact with reality. Which, I guess explains why seemingly intelligent people are sucked into believing the sort of nonsense that is basic income (or worse job guarantees that are essentially slave labour directed by the state - we feed and clothe you and you do whatever work we demand).

If there is more stuff (in the widest sense of the word stuff) for us that is good especially if that more stuff comes without us having to work more hours. And that increased earning means more time for arts, sport, celebration, fun and games (and for all the people that provide such pleasure).

So let's be optimistic about what the robots bring and let's escape from the controlling, dictating approach that is captured by one advocate of basic income:

And I don't think anyone from the basic income side would dispute that the public sector might need to help those who are not self-starters to find useful and productive things to do.
And this from someone who self-describes as a "liberal" - such a view is as far removed from liberal as it is possible to get. Look folks, the future's a great place - there'll be flying cars, jet packs, holographic opera and leisure trips into space. And, even better, nearly everyone will be able to afford this stuff. So let's get on with the free markets that make it work and give up on the idea that the solution lies in either a vast lump of unmotivated drones paid to do nothing or else a slave labour force for the masters to direct to projects of their choice.

Above all let's remember - always remember - that government, mostly and most of the time, is the problem not the solution. And let's enjoy the future - it will be better than the past.



Frances Coppola said...

MMT followers support job guarantee, not basic income. It was one of the foremost proponents of MMT that I was taking apart in that post. In particular, I was debunking MMT's claim that job guarantee can be used as a countercyclical buffer. Basic income supporters don't make any such claim.

If you had bothered to read anything else I've read, you would realise that actually I have talked extensively about new forms of work, new jobs to replace automated ones. I'm no Luddite.

Re your quote from my post, which is of course out of context: so you don't think that there is any value in careers services, or schemes to help people find work, then?

And finally. I used the term liberal about myself entirely correctly. Everything I write is defined by this:

"a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.
b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded."

What you mean by "liberal" may be this:

"An approach to economics and social studies in which control of economic factors is shifted from the public sector to the private sector."

Or possibly this:

"1. One who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state.
2. One who believes in free will."

Simon Cooke said...

Of course - I'm not a liberal. I'm (like Iggy Pop) a Conservative