Robots: Just as Useful to Politicians as to Factories

A little while ago the inestimable Kevin Drum wrote a great, if speculative, piece on one of my favorite subjects: the potential for mechanization to permanently replace large parts of the human labor force.  “Robots” here is short-hand for a lot of stuff – actual robots that build cars and so on, software that replaces many currently-manual accounting processes, algorithms doing currently judgment-based business decision-making, and so forth.  It’s more a set of various labor-replacing hardware and software advances than “ROBOTS” per se.

Don’t fear him…yet.

In a follow-up post, Drum poses the reasonable follow-up question many readers must have asked themselves:  when will this trend be generally acknowledged?  This question seems trivially obvious to Drum: when public pressure to do something becomes overwhelming.  In other words, long after it becomes obvious to the economically literate.  However, let me suggest another answer: as soon as it becomes useful to political actors.

If the Western economies are about to undergo a period of severe capital-biased technological changes, then the remedies of the far left become more relevant.  For example, one theme that occurs over and over in discussions of how to deal with robot-caused unemployment is the idea of a “Universal Basic Income”.  Drum mentions this in his piece – I know I have as well.  It seems like the obvious way to continue to support a consumption economy without suffering catastrophic demand shortfalls as the labor force is eliminated.  However, we on the left should wonder if we are simply suffering from “now more than ever”-ism.

Re-orienting around a Universal Basic Income makes sense as a new objective for a left-wing movement that has lost its revolutionary goals.  Henry Farrell has a fantastic article in the new Aeon on the crisis of European socialism – it has achieved its most substantive goals and has no real goal other than stewardship.  In the United States as well, the passage of Obamacare substantially resolved the major remaining goal of the welfare-capitalism project.  There are other projects to be sure – such as full equality for gays and lesbians and protecting the environment.  But these are (while important), just subsidiary channels to the main drive of the West’s historic left wing, which is to fight for more economic justice.  Whether or not robots threatened to take all of our jobs, a Universal Basic Income is the natural next lodestar of the left wing in the developed West.

So, I would guess that the robot threat will become a more mainstream topic fairly quickly because it serves a useful purpose to political actors.  By “fairly quickly”, I do not really want to guess at the timing because I don’t know how technology will develop…but it will probably be before evidence of capital-biased technological change becomes overwhelming, not after.  Of course, that suggests it will be an object of bitter controversy rather than a universally-acknowledged “problem” that everyone agrees should be dealt with.

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