In recent decades the US economy has lost millions of jobs, most of them to increases in efficiency through automation. The manufacturing sector has borne the brunt of these losses thus far, but while those losses will continue, increasingly we will see losses in the service sector and in “white collar” jobs. Artificial intelligence and robots will claim 47% of American jobs in the next few decades. What are your politicians doing about this? Absolutely nothing!
On the right we see a lot of finger-pointing at China, at immigrants, etc., which is simply misdirection for political advantage. And on the left we see a fetishization of jobs and job-growth, as though this fully could address the problem. Yes, re-training for new industries will undoubtedly help, and yes, we will still want something to do, regardless of how much drudgery is automated away, but that the core dynamic has been continuing for two centuries and will in the end eliminate a great deal of the work necessary under our current understanding of economics. We need, therefore, a kind of “future economics” — a slow paradigm shift away from the left-right polarization we have inherited from the Cold War.
Economists have long predicted that automation and the accompanying productivity gains would create a “leisure economy”, and we are closer to that than ever, at least in technical terms. But the link between productivity gains and pay rates was broken by GOP tax policy in the 1980s, so that instead of working fewer and fewer hours for our pay, we have had to work more hours (since the cost of living has climbed faster than wages by far). Had it been allowed to continue as it was before the neoliberal turn in economics, average pay would be vastly higher than it is now, making life easier and more affordable. Instead, businesses create “bullshit jobs” in order to keep people working at the same low pay simply to depress wages across the economy as a whole, and the only people to benefit truly from our productivity gains are at the very top.
The time has come to consider a basic income across the country. Proposals like this are quite old, and have been championed on both right and left. No less than Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon spoke in favor of such a policy! Yet since the 1970s, and until quite recently, it was relegated to academic debate and off the mind of the public. This is fortunately changing, as trials have repeatedly shown that the single best way to defeat long-term poverty is to give people money! Far from producing indolence and dependence, it sets free creativity and entrepreneurship, allows for education and social mobility, and greatly reduces poverty and addiction.
How we get to a basic income is a tough question, but there are a number of competing models for how to do it. That we must begin thinking along these lines, though, is inescapable. This is, after all, a consumer economy, and our purchases are what drive the whole thing! When we acknowledge that wages have been stagnant while the cost of living rises, we can see why consumer debt has reached epic levels. If the companies making products and providing services wish to continue doing business, they need to make sure we can afford what they’re selling. To do that, we need to find a way to tax the robots that are replacing us, and finally take the benefits of automation for ourselves, as was always promised and never delivered.
Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikipedia