When work is done by robots, what will happen to workers? | Citizen | Indy Week
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When work is done by robots, what will happen to workers? 

Last week, I wrote about hard times in West Virginia and that state's turn to the Republicans. The challenge for Democrats in 2016, I concluded, is persuading white voters—as well as minorities—that progressive policies mean good jobs for them. Because, like West Virginia, most states and congressional districts are predominantly white. And while a Democrat can win the White House without a majority of white voters, economic reforms must also pass Congress.

"[Let's] assume," I wrote, "that President Sanders or Clinton wants to restore the American dream for working-class Americans and has a viable plan to do so ...."

At this, one indyweek.com commenter, "mike in nc," snorted: "Thank you for my morning laugh."

You're welcome, Mike.

But seriously, neither party has stood for the working class since ... oh, I don't know, Lyndon Johnson? Wage stagnation dates to the 1970s. But in 1981, Ronald Reagan ruled out government action even during a recession. "Government isn't the solution to our problem," Reagan said. "Government is the problem." Bill Clinton seemed to agree in 1996. "The era of big government is over," Clinton proclaimed.

Yet the era of giant corporations and banks "too big to fail" abides.

So, Mike, let's flesh out that viable plan. I'd suggest we start with an idea from Martin Ford, who'll be in Raleigh Feb. 8 to keynote "Future Work," the 31st-annual Emerging Issues Forum at N.C. State.

Ford is a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur, software developer and, last year, the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. Its thesis is that "machine learning" is advancing dramatically in every sphere, from flipping hamburgers to self-driving cars. Think Google algorithms that seem to "learn" and improve with experience—i.e., by crunching more data.

Soon, no truck driver's job will be safe. Nor any rote industrial, sales or service job. Not even at McDonald's.

Robots will do them, hence the threat.

"Machines are transitioning away from being tools and turning into workers. They're becoming autonomous. And rather than complementing people and making people more valuable, in many cases they're substituting for people," Ford told an interviewer recently. "More and more people are going to be left behind."

An Oxford University paper by economist Carl Benedikt Frey and technologist Michael Osborne raised a similar prospect. They examined 702 occupations for susceptibility to computerization. "About 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk," they determined.

At risk, yes, but perhaps about to be liberated?

The problem is that as robots become the "labor," the gains are accruing to the relatively small percentage of Americans—the 1 percent—who own them or control them, meaning corporations and their bankers.

Human workers, meanwhile, can't get a raise, and there are fewer of them every year, at least as a percentage of working-age adults.

This is not a new problem, of course. Machines have been displacing labor for decades. Any West Virginian who's watched coal being mined without miners can attest to that. What is new is that as displacement picks up, so does the need for government policies to balance the scales and redistribute some of the gains to the whole of society. But since Reagan, government is failing. Tax cuts for the rich are the last thing we need.

Ford suggests a radical solution, which is to boost taxes on the wealthy and use the money to finance a guaranteed minimum annual income of $10,000 for every adult, whether working or not.

That would pump a lot of buying power into the economy, which otherwise may collapse from a lack of aggregate demand if only the elites can buy what the robots produce. But it misses the human side, which is our need to work for what we're paid and contribute to the common good.

So, as robots take on the scut work, let's turn humans loose on our most pressing problems:

Health care. We need more people caring for the aged, and more doctors, nurses and surgical facilities across the board to increase supply and drive down our soaring health-care costs. They'll have amazing tech support in the form of instant lab results and preliminary diagnoses thanks to the algorithms.

Education. We can afford more teachers at every level, and we'll need them, because in a future with robots, people will have more time to read, learn, explore the world and think critically, especially about how their government operates.

Infrastructure. Put people to work repairing old houses, putting solar panels on new ones and rebuilding an obselete utility grid. We can also afford more parks, more transit and other public goods that reduce our cost of living. (The solar panels can make us some money.) And our roads are a long way from ready for self-driving vehicles, public or private.

Leisure. With robots, we'll have more time off, so more of us can be employed in entertainment, sports, fitness, travel and tourism. And in security—running the robots—in public places and at border crossings.

As robots allow us to raise our living standards, Mike, let's invest in these things so that everyone benefits, not just a lucky few. And yeah, we'll need a $15-an-hour minimum wage—and maybe $5,000 a year on top of it.

It's all viable, my friend.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rise of the machines"

  • Creating a viable economy in the coming age of machines

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