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Furthermore! – Robots, Deficits, and Skynet

January 2, 2013

Furthermore

Furthermore! – Robots, Deficits, and Skynet

Google “drones Skynet” and you’ll get lots of paranoid myths where robots escape our control and attack us from the skies. The Skynet fretters are missing a bigger threat that has been quietly growing for decades…. (More)

I’m not a big fan of The Terminator, the James Cameron movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, who founded the human resistance movement that threatens the robot hegemony of the future. Squirrels prefer movies that make sense and, among other things, had the Terminator succeeded and killed Sarah Connor, there would have been no resistance and no need for Terminators, including the one who went back in time to kill Sarah Connor, so she would have lived and there would have been a resistance after all….

I’m sure you can see the logical Möbius strip. Maybe squirrels are the the missing link in the movie’s timeline. With no Sarah Connor and no human resistance, squirrels would have stood up to Skynet … and the Terminator would have been sent back for the mother of Fluffy McTufts.

Anyway, the increasing use of remotely-piloted aircraft – from military strikes overseas to traffic monitoring here in the U.S. – has a lot of people worried about a real Skynet emerging. Never mind that these drones are flown by human pilots, not computers. It’s only a matter of time before the skies are filled with Computerized Flying Killer Robots – the fretters insist – and then….

Yeah, maybe. But here’s the thing. We’ve had robots for decades and they’ve been hurting us in ways we hardly notice, unless one takes over your job. Most humans are so accustomed to self-service pumps that you don’t remember – or are too young to have ever experienced – that service stations once employed human beings to pump customers’ gas. And if the electronic menus on the telephone bother you, consider the telephone receptionist who had to find some other way to make a living. For that matter, consider when you had to dial “O” and ask an operator to connect your call, rather than dialing it yourself.

The list goes on. Automatic elevators put elevator operators out of work. Word processors eliminated the secretarial pool. Remember when most large businesses and the government had printing departments to turn out documents, flyers, and the like, while smaller businesses contracted with local print shops that smelled like ink instead of copy toner? Computer graphic design software wiped out jobs there too.

And as Paul Krugman notes, manufacturing has grown increasingly automated:

Robots mean that labor costs don’t matter much, so you might as well locate in advanced countries with large markets and good infrastructure (which may soon not include us, but that’s another issue). On the other hand, it’s not good news for workers!

This is an old concern in economics; it’s “capital-biased technological change”, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.

The National Journal‘s Jonathan Rausch explains why this is just one element of The No Good, Very Bad Outlook for the American Working Man:

If economic strength means anything, it is that the economy can make almost everyone better off, thereby strengthening the country’s social fabric as well as its balance sheet. Such an economy unites rather than divides us.

Today’s economy, by that standard, is struggling. Its ability to deliver rising living standards across the income spectrum is in decline, and perhaps also in question. “This is a fundamental problem,” says Robert J. Shapiro, the chairman of Sonecom, an economic consultancy in Washington. “This is America’s largest economic challenge. People can no longer depend on rising wages and salaries when the economy expands.”

This is how we get jobless recoveries that boost profits and stock prices but leave hardworking families struggling to afford basic necessities and too many still unable to find jobs. These underpaid or unemployed families pay little or nothing in federal income taxes, and many qualify for social safety net benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and, soon, expanded Medicaid or premium supports under Obamacare. All of that adds up to less federal revenue and more federal spending, thus higher deficits.

The solution to our deficit, as Business Insider‘s Joe Wiesenthal wrote, is more people working at living wages. Families whose breadwinners make living wages don’t need safety net benefits, and more of them pay more in taxes to support the fewer who do need the safety net. Return us to full employment at living wages, and control the rise of health care rices, and our increasing deficit would instead become an increasing surplus that would pay off our federal debt … without cutting the safety net at all.

But that would mean redirecting more of our economic growth from investors to hardworking families, which Republicans insist is redistribution of income, on the tacit theory that investors deserve every penny they can suck out of the economy. So you get PowerLine‘s John Hinderaker offering an “optimistic” future where the economy doesn’t recover despite the fiscal cliff agreement and President Obama is forced to either cut spending or raise taxes on working families. Hinderaker is “optimistic” that median-income voters will want to slash spending rather than raise their own taxes.

In that “optimistic” future, robots still replace more and more jobs, allowing more and more of the income from rising productivity to concentrate in fewer and fewer pockets. The rest, increasingly unable to afford basic living expenses, let alone the taxes to fund their own social safety net, will just have to starve.

While the fretters worry about Computerized Flying Killer Robots, plutocrats whose food is grown and toys are built by robot employees … make Skynet seem downright cuddly.

Good day and good nuts.

3 Responses to “Furthermore! – Robots, Deficits, and Skynet”

  1. winterbanyan Says:

    Wow, this is an indictment and I never thought of it quite this way. I know the industrial revolution caused all kinds of problems and rioting. I never thought I’d want to become a Luddite, but this makes me consider it.

    If robots replace us all, nobody is left to buy anything that the robots make, so maybe they need to pay us more to do the human jobs. Or maybe a few million of the very wealthy will be glad to live on an empty planet that supports their needs and no others.

    Sooner or later the robots will break down. Who will be left to repair them?

  2. addisnana Says:

    Well crap! Skynet as cuddly? I’m waiting for the proposal to outsource our excess citizens. Someone must be drafting this as I type.

    Living wages… hello plutocrats. You aren’t very cuddly either.

  3. Jim W Says:

    Takes me back to when I read Player Piano as a boy.