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Monday, February 20, 2017

The Luddites Were Right

No one argues against the idea that automation improves our lives. Clearly, automation improves our lives. The very fact that 7 billion people are all living better lives today than ANYONE did when there were only 1 billion people alive (1804), speaks to that. But, similarly, no one can argue against the idea that automation takes jobs. In 1804, when the earth's population was 1 billion, everyone between the ages of roughly 8 years old and dead worked a minimum of 6 days per week, 12 hours per day. There were no 40-hour work-weeks, no retirements, precious little time spent in education, and child labor was the norm. The population is now 7 billion. If everyone were correct about how technology and jobs interact, then all 7 billion of us would still work our 6-day per week, 12-hour per day jobs from the age of eight until death, with essentially no breaks for education or retirement, just like we did in 1804. But, we don't do that. We can now afford to have child labor laws, education that takes 30% of the population out of the workforce for decades on end, retirement, and a 40-hour work week, headed towards a 30-hour work week. In fact, the very fact that this isn't what we do now is precisely why we call machinery "labor-saving." Machinery saves labor. That is, the Luddites were correct. Machinery takes jobs, and doesn't give back as many jobs as it takes. The Luddites were wrong on one point - machinery doesn't hurt us, it helps us. They were right about the other point. The number of jobs relative to the population size do, indeed, go away as a result of machinery.
In fact, computers, in the form of robots and other automation, are taking jobs at an increasing rate, and are making jobs at a decreasing rate. One-half of the population has an IQ below 100. Their jobs are generally simple to automate. So, machinery is eating the low-IQ jobs. The few jobs machinery creates are jobs only high-IQ people can perform. The new, few jobs cannot possibly be done by one-half of the population. Indeed, even many jobs requiring high-IQ are disappearing. For instance, the computer industry does not need nearly as many server admins per server or computer techs per desktop machine as it did 20 years ago. As computer design improves, the need for all those highly intelligent support people disappear. The same future looms for lawyers and doctors. Well, and pretty much everyone else. So, one way or another, at least one-half of the population, possibly more, is being rendered completely unemployable. Unfortunately, these people still need food, clothing, housing and medical care. They also need self-respect. Automated machinery is the new slave labor. It doesn't need food, clothing, housing or medical care. All the profit the machinery produces goes to the person who owns the machines. That person will become very wealthy, everyone else will not. Thus, the income gap will steadily increase. As Hans Rosling has pointed out, increasing income inequality is not necessarily a bad thing, unless there are unemployable people who do not get the food, clothing, housing and medical care they need, or the self-respect every person deserves. If there are such people, then something has to be done to get them the basics they need, including basic self-respect. You may not like the idea of universal basic income. You may be strongly opposed to the idea of taxing robots. You might (correctly) argue that a tax on automation is a tax on efficiency, and efficiency is how we got to be rich. Taxing efficiency does not seem a very bright idea. Strong arguments can be made against both of the above ideas. But, if you dislike these ideas, you have to come up with an alternative way to take care of the people who can no longer be employed. The machines have eaten their jobs. This group will have smart people, stupid people, capable people, deficient people, but they will all have one thing in common - they cannot be retrained to take the jobs that are left, either because they can't be retrained or because there simply aren't enough jobs left. These unemployable people will need help. Either they need help now, or they will within a decade or two. The pool of unemployables will grow every year. The next unemployable person could be you. The next unemployable person could be your child. Or your grandchild. Or your nephew, your niece. So, consider carefully how you want this problem handled.


Zer said...

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I didn't say automation would make us poor.
I said automation would take most of our jobs, possibly all of them.
The two statements are quite, quite different.

Zer said...

If we're not poor but without jobs, it looks like the garden of Eden. Resources without working? Anytime! The real universal income.
But fun aside, the article answers your concerns about joblessness.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Actually, the article ignores the problem of joblessness.

Unless a good or service is free (i.e., worthless), it doesn't matter how low the price is. If I don't have money, I can't buy it. I either need a job to earn money (however little that salary might be) so I can buy it, or I need that good/service to be absolutely free.

Since, by definition, robots will have taken most jobs from most people - and driven down the cost of the goods produced by robot production, but not yet driven it to zero - I don't see how you get around the need for universal basic income.

Zer said...

From the article`s conclusion:

"So while technological innovation may eliminate some people’s jobs, other folks may see many benefits. If the prices of enough goods and services go down, lower wages will become sufficient enough for many people to live comfortably on lower nominal wages. This is what is known as an increase in “real income,” and it’s a good thing."

We must avoid UBI because it is unethical (immoral even), aka theft, and because it will block through economic stagnation the creation and expansion of the future jobs that machine cannot do like personal care, arts, religion, sports etc. and all that we cannot yet imagine and... machine supervision.

"It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Thanks, Zer, for proving my point. As your quote demonstrates, the article only deals with people who still have jobs. It doesn't discuss the people whose marginal utility to society has become nil as a result of automation (i.e., people who don't have jobs).

Either that or the phrase "lower wages will become sufficient enough for many people to live comfortably on lower nominal wages." is a reference to UBI. But in order to have "wages" the person in question must either have a job or UBI. If the person has neither, then - by definition - they don't have wages.

There is nothing particularly immoral about UBI. It is just as (im)moral for the rich to refuse to care for the poor as it is for anyone to steal from the rich. Indeed, as St. John Chrysostom, doctor of the Church, points out, anyone who has more than he needs, yet refuses to care for the poor out of his own riches, is guilty of theft.

According to Catholic theology, if an airplane crash strands me in a forest or desert, and my only hope for survival lies in my ability to break into a locked cabin in order to gain food, drink and shelter, than I do not steal or commit any other sin by breaking into that cabin. If the owner were there, the owner would be duty-bound to assist, so the lack of an owner poses no impediment to my taking what is necessary to sustain myself.

Similarly, if the owner WERE there, refused to give me sustenance out of his excess, and I had to overpower him in order to get what was necessary for my own survival, I still have committed no sin. He had a duty to share from his excess. His miserliness is the sin.

That's been Christian moral theology for 2000 years, my friend.

Zer said...

Lifeboat scenarios are always the nice sophistic trick.
Automation is not a lifeboat scenario. It is not an unpredictable catastrophic event, we are discussing it.

Now even in the catastrophic setting of your airplane crash, you have indeed the obligation to break into the cabin to survive. Then you have a debt to the owner.
If the owner is a nice person, he would probably not even want to get it reimbursed.

"Excess" is a subjective term. You cannot define a norm of "excess".
You are not entitled to anything from anyone outside a freely subscribed contract.
If enough people are charitable, UBI will surface on its own, voluntarily. No need to use the threat of violence to implement it.
If not enough people subscribe to the idea, forcing them to commit their "excess" resources to fund UBI is tyranny.

Read on the non-aggression principle.
Thou shalt not steal, my friend.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I didn't say automation was a lifeboat scenario. I stipulated that automation would make everyone rich. The question is, how do you get the riches created by automation *TO* everyone?

Look, we used to spread the wealth through jobs and salaries, and that was considered equitable. To each according to his ability, as it were. But we can't spread the wealth through jobs if there aren't any jobs. As automation improves, ability is increasingly irrelevant. It made sense at one time, but less sense now.

If I am an undisputed expert in my field, the best of the best, but a machine can do it better, than my skill is irrelevant. As automation everywhere increases, individual skill levels become less and less important. Jobs become less important. We can't spread the wealth equitably through jobs, because there are no reasonable jobs.

But, we can continue to spread the wealth through salaries, independent of whether or not the salaries are attached to what we formerly considered jobs. The rich formerly rewarded people based on the people's contribution to wealth-building. That won't work anymore. So, we have to figure out another way for rich people to contribute their wealth.

And, yes, if the rich people don't want to give up their riches, there is no sin - according to millennia of Christian teaching - in taking what is needed for the poor to survive. It isn't stealing, and your characterization of it as such doesn't make it so.

The problem here is finding a scheme by which the rich distribute their wealth in a way that everyone finds equitable, without regard to jobs... because there won't be any.

Bastiat said...

Your doomsday scenario of joblessness simply hasn't been borne out by reality in this world. The Luddites went on to work another job, and they too benefited from the advances of automation.

"And, yes, if the rich people don't want to give up their riches, there is no sin - according to millennia of Christian teaching - in taking what is needed for the poor to survive. It isn't stealing, and your characterization of it as such doesn't make it so"

It isn't stealing to take what someone has rightfully earned? Now that is simply false, and you know it. Nowhere in the bible can you find a recommendation to steal from those who have earned something, just because they earned more than someone else. You pervert the Christian faith when you make comments like this.
Ephesians 4:28 ESV
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

While the bible does condone 'voluntary' giving, it does not condone theft via force, violence and coersion against those who do not 'voluntarily' give.

Feel free to point to the specific verse in the bible that condones the use of force, violence and coersion to steal from anyone enough to fund the less fortunate.

In the same manner, the bible does not condone force, violence and coersion as a manner in which the word should be spread.

IMHO, your major flaw is that you see government as legitimate, rather than as an unconsented rule of mobsters using force, violence and coersion to rule over society.

Just because the Mafia feeds the poor, it doesn't make their theft irrelevant in the eyes of God.

Godliness does not require the use of force, violence and coersion. Period!

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Bastiat, if you were correct about your belief concerning the interaction of jobs and technology, then we would all be working 12-hour days, 6 days/wk, no holidays or retirement, from the age of 8 until we died. And, if you were correct, then we would be wrong to call automation "labor-saving machinery" because it wouldn't save labor.

As for your assertions about the Bible, your interpretations are simply incorrect, as they are with the facts of history.

Government, pace Hobbes, Lock and even Marx, is simply an agreement between large groups of people on how to interact with one another. As is clear from history, if any sufficiently powerful group dislikes the agreement, that agreement can be renegotiated, either by words or by force of arms.

If godliness does not require the use of force, violence and coercion, then Jesus was not engaged in godliness when He entered the Temple with a whip, nor was He acting in a godly way when He informed the apostles that they would need swords.

I do not doubt that you have read Scripture.
I strongly doubt that you have understood it.

Zer said...

M. Kellmeyer, you absolutely need to read
The Ethics Of Private Property by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, especially Part II from page 265 on.

A 3 minutes video introduction to the topic of government: The tale of the slave

More titles available from

Zer said...

sorry, correct link is

Steve Kellmeyer said...

I think you misunderstand the position I am presenting. Catholic theology has always affirmed that property rights are basic rights. This affirmation is one of the reasons She condemns communism.

St. John Chrysostom and the other Doctors of the Church do not deny the right to private property. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Catholic theology, Chrysostom or the Christian theology concerning wealth and poverty without affirming private property rights.

Christian theology is not directed towards explaining THAT these rights exist. The existence of the right is axiomatic. Catholic theology is directed towards explaining WHY these rights exist, what the proper end of these rights are. Property rights properly end in stewardship. Without property rights, there can be no such thing as a steward, without stewardship, there can be no such thing as a Church founded by Christ. It is the discussion of stewardship that I am involved in, and Hoppe is not.

Hoppe is bent on proving the existence of property rights. That's fine, someone should do that, I'm glad he took up the task. But, since Hoppe's work only addresses WHY the right is fundamental, but does not address WHY the right exists (that is, he does not address why God endowed man with property rights, Hoppe does not address the end God intends man to serve through the use of individual property rights), there is nothing in Hoppe's work that is of particular use to answering the Christian theological question.

Zer said...

Hoppe does address the question of why the property right exists, cf. the axiom of argumentation. But since he does not need God in the equation, nor any other superstition especially not that of the Sate, the discussion ends here. Thank you for your time.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Well, if there is no God in the equation, then might makes right and that ends the discussion.

Zer said...

You have not understood the ethics of the non-aggression principle and its consequences.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

There is no "non-aggression principle" unless the strongest say there is.

Zer said...