Wednesday, March 09, 2016


In the business section of today's New York Times, there's a very civilized discussion between Eduardo Porter and Farhad Manjoo on the subject of what should be done if, as many people predict, technology eliminates a large number of paid jobs:
In the utopian (dystopian?) future projected by technological visionaries, few people would have to work. Wealth would be generated by millions upon millions of sophisticated machines. But how would people earn a living?

Silicon Valley has an answer: a universal basic income.
Yes, that's right -- as Manjoo noted in the Times last week, many in the tech elite really believe they can replace most of us with robots, and think we'll need to get a government paycheck instead:
Let’s say computers come for most of our jobs....

In Robot America, most manual laborers will have been replaced by herculean bots. Truck drivers, cabbies, delivery workers and airline pilots will have been superseded by vehicles that do it all. Doctors, lawyers, business executives and even technology columnists for The New York Times will have seen their ranks thinned by charming, attractive, all-knowing algorithms.

How will society function after humanity has been made redundant? Technologists and economists have been grappling with this fear for decades, but in the last few years, one idea has gained widespread interest -- including from some of the very technologists who are now building the bot-ruled future.

Their plan is known as “universal basic income,” or U.B.I....

Imagine the government sending each adult about $1,000 a month, about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans.

... U.B.I. has ... gained support among a cadre of venture capitalists in New York and Silicon Valley....
In today's discussion, Porter disagrees with Manjoo about this solution. He suggests alternatives -- "wage subsidies or wage insurance to top up the earnings of people who lose their job and must settle for a new job at a lower wage" -- or this:
If there are, in fact, jobs to be had, a universal basic income may not be the best choice of policy. The lack of good work is probably best addressed by making the work better -- better paid and more skilled -- and equipping workers to perform it, rather than offering a universal payment unrelated to work.

The challenge of less work could just lead to fewer working hours. Others are already moving in this direction. People work much less in many other rich countries: Norwegians work 20 percent fewer hours per year than Americans; Germans 25 percent fewer.
But do you know which of these remedies we're actually likely to get if the future looks the way the tech savants think it might?

None of them. We'll be told to sink or swim.

Why do I say that? Because tech is already upending people's lives, especially in the geographic center of the tech industry, and the tech giants are doing next to nothing to soften the shock, as we learn from a separate story in today's Times:
.... increasingly Silicon Valley is rooted in [San Francisco] itself....

The consequences for people who do not make their living from technology are increasingly unpleasant. The city is bulging at the seams, adding about 10,000 people a year to a record 852,000 in 2014. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a median $3,500 a month, the highest in the nation....

Signs of distress are plentiful. The Fraternite Notre Dame’s soup kitchen was facing eviction after a rent increase of nearly 60 percent. (It was saved for a year after its plight received worldwide publicity.) Two eviction-defense groups were evicted in favor of a start-up that intended to lease the space to other start-ups. The real estate site Redfin published a widely read blog post that said the number of teachers in San Francisco who could afford a house was exactly zero.

“All the renters I know are living in fear,” said Derrick Tynan-Connolly, a teacher at a high school for pregnant teenagers and young mothers. “If your landlord dies, if your landlord sells the building, if you get evicted under the Ellis Act” -- a controversial law that allows landlords to reclaim a building by taking it off the rental market -- “and you have to move, you’re gone. There’s no way you can afford to stay in San Francisco.”

... “The city has the largest budget it ever had,” he said. “But the homeless are still suffering while working-class families, including my students, struggle to find affordable housing and child care. Where are the benefits from the boom that are accruing to the whole city?”

San Francisco has a budget of $8.6 billion and a deficit of $100 million, according to Mayor Lee, who ordered city departments to cut spending by 1.5 percent.
Why are we having discussions about which generous wealth-transfer scheme our tech overlords will help implement in order to assist us in a post-jobs future when it's clear that they don't do jack about the "disruption" they're responsible for now?

And when it's clear that they think they're ubermenschen and the have-nots are just lower-order beings?
Tech people regularly issue electronic broadsides that irk San Franciscans. The latest came in late February from a start-up founder, Justin Keller, who complained about the homeless and “riffraff.”

“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city,” he wrote in an open letter, adding: “I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.“
Do we think the techies are going to lead the way on this because they seem cooler? That's nonsense. They're economic elitists. There's no reason to think they have any more empathy than the Koch brothers do.

If we really are facing a massive loss of jobs in the future, the only way we're going to get anything from the people taking those jobs away is if we're threatening to burn their mansions to the ground. We shouldn't assume they have any common decency. If that future comes, they'll be happy to let us die in the streets -- as long as they don't have to see us doing it.


M. Bouffant said...

Once the wealthy's robots, nanotech & algorithms have subsumed almost all "needed" work, I suppose personal servants (probably indentured) will be quite a status symbol, & numbers of armed thugs will be (barely) employed to protect the 1% & their property, but yes, everyone else will be shit outta luck, & under an overpass huddled around a blazing oil drum.

petrilli said...

Heads on pikes.

CH said...

Maybe it's just my dotage showing, but as 1-percent oppressors go, for some reason I prefer the old J.P. Morgan variants to the "cooler" current versions. But not by much. Just different subspecies of swine.

Ten Bears said...

Soooo... No Star Trek: The Next Generation, where everyone speaks American, has universal education, health care and income, and are free to pursue the finer things in life. Bummer. More like Blade Runner, I suspect, or the latest incarnation of Total Recall.

I find it fascinating to read the histories and literature of the European Revolutions, and a lesser extent the Chinese. Masses of millions throwing down the ruling hand-full who by most accounts had no idea what was coming. Marie Antoinette didn't know they were going to cut her head off till she reached the gaol steps. And that canard about banksters leaping to their deaths from skyscrapers in the heart of The Great Depression: it's just that, a canard. History rewrit by those (temporarily) in a position to get away with it. They didn't jump.

History only repeats to those paying attention. Interesting times, we live in. Fascinating even.

swkellogg said...

When they finally fire everybody, and nobody has an income, then the profits will really start rolling in.

"If we really are facing a massive loss of jobs in the future, the only way we're going to get anything from the people taking those jobs away is if we're threatening to burn their mansions to the ground."

This is the way it has always worked, society is a protection racket -- you've got to keep enough people, (especially the one's who know how to make trouble) enfranchised, lest the reactor lose all its control rods and KABLOOEY!!!. The problem with too many of the ultra well-heeled is they tend to forget this fact, believing that the stability they've known is a given, and more importantly a right, rather than a privilege. Combine this with the tendency of those who live in a bubble (like the techies) to engage in mutual strokefests whereby they ascend in their own minds to the status of ubermenschen who can out wit and out do anyone without their pedigree and resources and voila, you've got the mindset that provokes revolution.

I remember watching Sophia Coppola's film about Marie Antoinette and repeatedly having the thought, "where's the revolution?" and seeing this as if it were an omission. But in the very end it showed up, and from her perspective seemingly without warning, and then I got it -- they never see it coming until it's way too late. By removing themselves from the loop they lose the news. Alas.

I suspect they believe they will come up with some solution to maintain crowd control, I would guess that the universal income is one of the more enlightened, but in the absence of any seamless segue to such a solution they'll probably just continue along in the old habits of business as usual as they learned it at Stanford, Harvard or Wharton until the shit hits the fan, and at that point all the police state tactics and fast talk about free market virtues won't be enough to distance them from the misery.

An empty stomach knows no philosophy.

It's the cycle of history, man.