A Short Piece

In the Long Run, Everything Might Be Automated, Assuming We Don’t Destroy Ourselves First Because We Think Everything Is Going To Be Automated

Economists are so concerned about “the signals” of interest rates, but paradoxically don’t mind talking about coming automation.

Photo by Indira Tjokorda

We all know the famous Keynes quote:

‘In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.’

The idea that “we’re all dead in the long run” is generally used to justify addressing present economic troubles, versus ignore them because doing so might somehow benefit us in the future. For Keynes, if we refused to get into debt to save the economy now in the name of the economy in the future, that might be precisely why we don’t have a future economy. Keynes complexifies the simple idea that we can promise ourselves a better tomorrow by simply suffering more economic pain today. That might be true, and certainly is true in some if not most circumstances, but Keynes wants to make very clear that this is not always true. As I discuss in the paper on Keynes, there is something I call “the demand event horizon,” and if we fall below that, “self-correction” of the market is not guaranteed. If we fall below the DEH, saving money today for the sake of tomorrow might be why our money tomorrow proves worthless.

That is all a topic for another time: here, I want to focus on a particular irony. Generally, people talk about automation like it will happen tomorrow. Sure, in the long run, Martin Ford’s case in Rise of the Robots seems ironclad: automation will end up doing everything for us. But, you see, there’s a problem: we need truckers now. The supply chain is a mess, a crisis which is articulated incredibly well by Ryan Johnson in “I’m A Twenty Year Truck Driver, I Will Tell You Why America’s ‘Shipping Crisis’ Will Not End,” an article that’s quality is too high to be included in the New York Times or Washington Post.

Paradoxically, our discussions on automation are sending signals to people not to become truckers or to join the work force; as a result, the future where we don’t need truckers or workers may never come. Yes, I understand unemployment programs and Federal Reserve Policy isn’t helping (for large amounts of debt also send signals that “the future might be rough”), but I don’t think we’re doing enough to highlight how the internet and mass information also send “signals” that impact the market. No, I’m not claiming the supply chain crisis can be totally explained this way, but I think it is an important factor to consider.

Keynes was very concerned about how our future ideas impacted what we did in the present, thus his profound concern about “the signals” which interest rates sent to the market. But I fear discussions “about future technologies” can have a similar impact: when all anyone talks about is automation and the inevitability of self-driving cars, why would anyone become a truck driver? You’d have no future — an idea that makes it thus.

Self-driving cars might be coming, sure, but I don’t think they’re coming for at least another decade, and we need truckers now. But since we keep talking about “self-driving cars,” people will stop becoming truckers today, and so the supply chain might collapse. And guess what? If the supply chain collapses and the economy goes down with it, we might not get self-driving cars. Do you see the joke here? Because we are so confident mass automation is coming, the conditions which could arise to mass automation may collapse. (Kafka would be proud.)

Audio Summary. Photo by Bruno van der Kraan

When Keynes was alive, information was much more limited. The main signal for the economy was interest rates and government action — Keynes was right about that — but today there are numerous sources which “signal” about the economy and the future. People have even stopped trusting the Fed and “signal” of interest rates, because the internet has taught us that it’s all manipulated propaganda. In fact, many people have come to believe the Fed is trying to trick us, and so now when the State does things that should “signal” a prosperous future, we see it as a smokescreen. And maybe it isn’t, but we’ve learned from the internet that it might be (say from someone like Peter Schiff). Did Keynes see this coming? The inflation of economic signals themselves? The radical increase in noise we cannot readily identify signals amid? Hard to say.

Anyway, we learn from Hegel that our ideas about the future shape the present, which changes the future, which changes our ideas about the future — you get the idea. In my view, Keynes was actually Hegelian in his understanding of how ideas about the future changed the present, which in turn changed the future, and today we’re supposed to “all be Keynesians now” (as Milton Friedman said). Maybe that’s true, but goodness we sure are stupid Keynesians. Yes, maybe we learned what Keynes warned us about interest rates (though I’m not sure if now “low interest rates” send the same signal, because paradoxically our knowledge about Keynes may hurt Keynesianism), but we sure didn’t apply his admonishment to discussing the job market. We’re convinced automation is coming, but it never occurred to us that our certainty in automation could ruin its development.

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan

Critically, after an economic collapse, Keynes never denied that the market could perhaps ultimately recover on its own without government assistance; rather, Keynes argued that this “self-recovery” might take a really long time (and unnecessarily so). Likewise, I’m not arguing that our discussion on automation will necessarily stop automation from happening (though it could); rather, I’m arguing that our talk on automation could greatly extend how long it takes for automation to show up. Perhaps the future is bright, but our discussions about “the bright future” may inspire us to sit back and wait, causing the future to show up way later (if ever).

Photo by Taylor

But wait, aren’t I assuming that automation is good? Maybe we’ll be better off if automation never arrives. Maybe it’s a good thing that our discussions on automation delay its advent. That’s a very good objection, but note how automation could be delayed: by a breakdown of the supply change and collapse of the economy. If the economy stops growing, it retracts, and that means we will likely suffer a bad depression. We cannot stop automation now without a great reduction of economic wellbeing for millions of people: there is a difference between stopping automation and maintaining a high quality of life and stopping automation at the expense of economic wellbeing. In my opinion, the later is the only option available to us, and if history is a guide, artificially delaying or stopping technological developments has never proven wise (take China under Mao). If it did, we should ban heavy machinery and computers.

Critically, we need to realize that the information people read and hear about the future changes the present, which changes the future. Okay, right, but am I saying that we shouldn’t let truckdrivers know that their jobs are going to be taken by robots? Ignorance and censorship would seem to be what I’m suggesting. Does that mean China has the right idea? No, I’m saying that we need to start talking about how people who have been in trucking for a decade will receive stock and ownership rights in the coming automation. We need new ideas and new hopes (and please note that what I’m arguing regarding truckers could apply just as well to any job that might be automated).

What did I just say? I suggested that we can keep truck drivers working today by promising them a percentage of ownership of the coming automation that is tied to the number of years they worked. Basically, truck drivers should be offered stock in automation. Companies may not like this, because they would want all the profits of automation for themselves, but if companies don’t come up with a plan like this (and I’m certainly open to other suggestions), truckers will keep quitting their jobs in large numbers, and these companies won’t make it to the “golden age” when robots do all our work for us. Also, Capitalism certainly favors capital owners, and this is a way to expand the number of people who are “capital owners” so that the benefits of Capitalism are more widely distributed (perhaps this is the next true evolution of Capitalism, and it might even make Thomas Piketty happy). Also, this will make automation something to look forward to, versus dread, because automation will be when people start making returns on their “stock portfolios.”

Photo by Kane Taylor

How has Capitalism kept people working? Generally, delusional or not, it’s by giving them hope that our grandchildren might live better lives than us. If we lose that hope, we die now, so we need to make automation something we can hope in. In other papers like “The Creative Concord,” I’ve argued that the growth of the Artifex or “creator class,” along with technology, are the main reasons Capitalism survives and prospers. We need to expand the Artifex to keep growing, but that comes with it the risk of “creative destruction” that causes horrific unemployment. A growing Artifex means more technology and automation, but it can also mean more ideas on what to do about the resulting “creative destruction.” For me, I see having workers gain stock in future automation as a way to keep the future bright, for they will have something to hope in.

(Also, the growth of the Artifex is especially important where information can no longer be controlled, because the State simply can’t control “information signals” like Keynes imagined with interest rates. Things out of our control, so our ability to improvisation “on the spot” is critical — a creative skill mastered by Artifexians.)

But have workers gained “stock” in tools like computers and shovels that were invented? Why should robots be any different? A great question, but I would submit to you that robots and automation are not merely tools: they are workers (Ford has a great thought experiment on this in his book). Robots are not tools that only make the work of people easier; rather, they replace humans entirely. And because of this, I would argue that robots “are” wealth. Personally, I believe the most important resource in economies are “human capital,” and those who own, finance, cultivate, and direct “human capital” are incredibly important. Well, an age is coming when we will have “robot capital” to talk about, and that will change everything. “Robot capital” will be a new form of wealth like “human capital.”

Hope for a better tomorrow drives people to do their best today, which in essence is a hope in an increase in wealth. No, that’s not merely money: wealth is what brings about an overall quality of life (which certainly includes money, yes). If we want to keep truck drivers and other potential victims of automation working today, they need to believe that the work they do today could grant them greater wealth tomorrow. Well, tomorrow’s wealth may mainly be a result of “robot capital,” so workers today need to be promised stake and stock in the value created thanks to “robot capital.” This will be in the interest of business owners today, because if they don’t promise this “distribution of wealth” (voluntarily), then workers will likely stop working today, and “the age of automation” will never come. Even if it does, the economy will be too weak and damaged to make the most of the potential.

If we do not start paying people the “wealth” of the future — a percent of ownership in the profits of future automation — they will stop working, and paradoxically “the wealth of the future” may never arrive. The design of these “ownership rights in automation” can simply be stock in the company itself or some breakdown of annual profits. I’m not sure, the arrangements may depend on the enterprise, but regardless I see no other way to keep people today, in expecting “creative destruction,” from causing destruction.

If workers who will be “creatively destroyed” by automation in the future are not promised shares of tomorrow’s “robot capital,” tomorrow may hold no “robot capital” at all. As people receive benefits like healthcare and retirement funds, a new benefit of “ownership rights in automation” could be introduced. Ownership of automation and stock in the increased productivity is a form of wealth that can be offered to truck drivers to keep them invested in their jobs. If their interest is lost, as truckers would be rational to lose if they only have unemployment to anticipate, who will win? Certainly not us.

To offer truck drivers the “wealth” of stock in automation is to offer them hope, and nobody works well once they lose hope. Currently, automation is terrifying, but we can make it something for which to anticipate: how wonderful would it be if truck drivers could retire while still receiving income from ownership rights in automation? That sounds like a wonderful retirement benefit, and I think it would incentivize people to search for and want jobs that will be one day be automated. Crazy twist, right? Maybe we really can make the future bright without setting it aflame.

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