Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"I for one welcome our new robot overlords"

Walter Russell Mead (who is just awesomely productive in his blog, writing on everything from Kyrgyz politics to American inner city politics to the future of Argentina - and that's just the last few days) pushes back against those who believe technology will cause a jobs crisis. He condemns later-day Physiocrats who believe there is a fixed amount of "real work" to be done:

What Physiocrats and neo both miss is that while the basic work needs to be done (the crops need to be planted and harvested, the stuff needs to come out of the factories), human society becomes richer and not poorer when fewer and fewer people have to spend devote those lives to those jobs. Yes, a lot of scut jobs (and some white collar ones as well) are going to disappear, but ultimately people will figure out new ways to create value that will make them good livings.

This is true enough, but also a straw man. No doubt there are immense new possibilities if we carry out the "basic work" more efficiently with fewer and fewer people. But we have to actually figure out how to do that.

He continues:

We can’t all make a living planning each others’ weddings, neo-Physiocrats cry, but in fact we can — if the food and the other things we need are plentiful and cheap. Value is what people will will pay for, and that can be ballet lessons and items for e-gaming; as more and more of the routine business of life isn’t needed, people will have more free time and be willing to pay people who can help them fill it with meaning, excitement, satisfaction and fun.

But at the same time in other posts he is warning college students and public unions that life is about to get much much tougher.

We do have to figure out new ways to organize the economy so people get what they value most. The trouble is more and more of that is not traditional private goods, on the definition I was discussing here.

So value is not just what people will pay for, or pay for effectively. At very least, you need some better conception of property rights and incentives to provide and consume value.

To me this is the great question of the age, though, which is why I'm trying to figure out what I think about it on this blog.

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