Shorter Thoughts on Robonomics

My two robot posts are unfortunately long. So here’s a quick glimpse on my thoughts. This isn’t necessarily meant to be a standalone post, so if you want more details check out Kevin Drum’s comments here, as well as my response.

A note, I don’t think Drum is nearly as pessimistic as a few of the commenters I’m responding to. But I think the import of my point remains.

A comment I left on Brad DeLong’s blog to the many dissenters:

I’ve tried to address the criticism within most of the comments here:

The gist is as follows:

1. If the “masses” are to be “starved” then the rich must find a way to employ most of the capital and land in a way that is profitable *without* producing goods of mass production. It is difficult to believe this is realistic, there just aren’t enough “rich” ipso facto. But, if the rich hoard all the capital…

2. The “masses” are no longer “replaced”. The argument rests on the assumption that somehow their daily jobs doing things that help the average man have been replaced by robots. But if your saying goods and services consumed by the average American won’t exist that – after all – is the contention above, then there will be an arising demand for labor creating such things. This has to happen. In other words you will find a non-robotic economy divorced from the rich.

3. Further, the idea that “robots” can be kept away from “most” people is also difficult to believe. Software is naturally explosive and diffuses rapidly. Information doesn’t want to be kept secret. And, under the utopian (dystopian?) assumptions made by my critics, 3D printing will obviate the need for real “hardware”. That is, software is prior to everything. Therefore most people cannot be restricted from the “robo revolution”.

4. Hence, I find the whole “oh the rich people will keep it all to themselves” argument not just unlikely, but fundamentally allergic to the way technology works.

5. Robin Hanson corresponds via email noting that the limiting constraint is use of land and natural resources. If this is somehow monopolized, then we face a different future. To this my reactions are as follows:

This is why I support huge and strong Ricardian taxes on land, oil, gas, etc.

Go back to point (1) It seems odd to me that the rich can find a way of employing all American land in a profitable way that benefits only them. Sure they will hog the beachfront property, but I don’t really care if your Malibu vacation is affordable or not. Most habitable land can’t be “taken” by the rich in a way that benefits only them. They are not large enough in number, ipso facto. So it will be used for things that benefit most people, even if for a profit. This is how self-interest is supposed to work.

6. Disemployment can happen either in labor units, or in hours. I think if it happens at all, the latter is vastly preferable and more likely. Robots mean overworked lower class parents can spend more quality time with their kids, sleeping, taking a break. And did I mention not working two jobs?

7. The anti-robot narrative is deeply Anglocentric. Much of the working conditions in the global south – creating goods for American consumption – are absolutely dismal. The same conditions these people would any other day protest against. That is p(worrying about robots | protesting Nike shoes) > p(worrying about robots | standard American). Robots would let the ten year old boy in Bihar go to school instead of work to put food on his mother’s table.


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