John Maynard Keynes predicted an impending mass unemployment 85 years ago. And before Keynes, technological unemployment was similarly forewarned by prescient thinkers like Karl Marx, Paul Krugman, and Mao Zedong. Even in 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote about the end of human labor due to the invention of watermills and levers and vending machines.
None of those predictions came to pass, but this time is different. This time, we have ROBOTS.
Previously, Keynes proposed a solution to mass unemployment in his General Theory :
If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.
Actually Keynes went on to suggest that houses and roads and pyramids might be a better use of human labor, but infrastructure development is politically fraught. And we have robots for that stuff.
So let the hyperproductive robots bury banknotes in coalmines, and have the unemployed masses dig them out.
The nation has no shortage of abandoned coalmines now that the largest coal companies have all filed for bankruptcy. The robots didn’t take the coalminers’ jobs, but they can certainly appropriate the coalmines!
As government agents, the robots will need to undergo certification and background checks. Robots will need occupational licenses, work permits, microchips, and NTSB-approved safety wire. We’ll also need robot compliance officers, certified robot mechanics, and people to certify the certified mechanics. We can use bureaucrat-robots to supervise some of the worker-robots, but it can’t just be robots all the way up, because Quis custodiet ipsos custodes and such.
There will inevitably come a day when a robot malfunctions. A minor software glitch or a malicious hack, and maybe a robot causes some damage. Robots will thereafter need to be insured, they’ll need routine audits and health & safety examinations to check for viruses. We’ll see a proliferation of attorneys specializing in robot litigation. Maybe they’ll demand rights for their clients.
And lest you think I’m being ridiculous, just refer to the sequence of events that transformed general aviation in the past century. What began as a hobby for self-taught mechanics is now an industry where you to have your anus digitally inspected by an FAA-authorized medical examiner before you can legally pilot a Cessna 152 (FAR Part § 61.23).
There’s gonna be a lot of work to do, is the point I’m trying to make.
But we’re not asking for banknotes in coalmines, and we don’t actually want to do work. We really just want free money. That is, a Universal Basic Income.
I get the impression that the loudest advocates of UBI are also the people least likely to have their jobs displaced by automata. How come I don’t hear manual laborers calling for Basic Income? Probably because I don’t follow any on Twitter, but still.
The technologically-elite don’t really believe that robots will destroy all the jobs. They just want to seem like they’re not only looking out for themselves for once.
But this is Silicon Valley, and that’s never the case. Silicon Valley progressives want a social safety net so that they can explore world-changing ideas without incurring any real risk. They want the grown-up world to be more like college.
Great, I would love to get paid for not working. Unfortunately, the ruling class knows better than to let large numbers of smart and educated people have too much free time on their hands. That’s exactly how we end up with anti-establishment movements like the Beat Generation and 60s Counterculture and Occupy Wall Street. Do you think Satoshi Nakamoto* could have created Bitcoin while chained to a desk job?
Academia used to be the most effective way to keep a lot of smart, ambitious narcissists from doing any real harm. But the government no longer provides sufficient funds to keep these people institutionalized. The academic world has become a bureaucratic politicized mess, and there is no place left in society for those who want a life of intellectual freedom.
So what do you do when you have the soul of Socrates and the Lyceum of America’s underfunded academic institutions?
You say some stuff about robots taking our jobs and make the case for Basic Income. Maybe with enough social security, Silicon Valley can become a safe-haven for aspiring tech leaders to pursue challenging projects without worrying about an immediate return. UBI won’t be cheap, but if we eliminate all existing welfare programs, we can redistribute funds from the needy to the lazy .
If we’re honest about what we want, we can see that there are other ways to get there. The domain of solutions to Robots are taking our jobs is different from the domain of solutions to Smart people want a safe space in which to be academic.
Do we want a return to the Golden Age of Athens? Ancient Greece didn’t achieve economic and cultural growth by instituting UBI, they did it by funding public works programs. There are other possible solutions. More funding for research and the arts. Government think tanks. Intellectual safe spaces. Whatever. But to blame the robots for automating our jobs away is disingenuous and grossly misinforms the entire conversation.
*But what if Satoshi was a bot?
1. John Maynard Keynes. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936.
2. Charles Murray. In Our Hands: A Plan To Replace The Welfare State. AEI Press, 2006.