Thursday, October 13, 2016

Does the USA need not more, but less productivity?

When robots steal almost everybody's
work, how will people find any?
A lot of people aren’t going to like what I’m about to say.

Most Republicans probably won’t like it. Quite a few Democrats won’t like it either. I’m going to describe an ugly, civilization-threatening life form that America and the world needs to come to terms with.

I'm talking about robots. Wait up, don’t run!  Listen to this. It could affect your income and your future, or even whether you will have a future.

The robot in my pants

Let me start by confessing that I have a robot in my pants pocket. You may, too. Its name is Siri, and I connect to it via my I-phone. 

Every night I say, “Hey Siri,” and follow that with a request to wake me at a certain time, usually 7 or 7:15 a.m. As I make my request, Siri types out the words that I’m speaking on my smart phone's screen. Then, in a woman’s voice it says to me, “Your alarm is set for 7 a.m."  

Cool, right? Except robots have also begun driving cars, evidently in a safer manner than humans. They’re doing enormous amounts of work building cars — work that used to be done by humans. They screen callers at enterprises ranging from credit card companies to medical labs, eventually directing the caller to an appropriate extension. You've likely dealt with a robot the last time you called for your credit card balance. They screen job applicants and widgets on production lines.

The day is likely not far off when robots will be able to interview people and then write news stories. Or evaluate employees for raises or termination.  They’re already fighting and killing for us in wars — those drones that supposedly save American lives. And the list of things they do, and can do, and are likely to do keeps growing.

They’re coming for your job.

All of the foregoing means that a generation or so down the road, or possibly less, Robots will be doing most of the work that humans now do.

So what should happen to the Americans who lose their jobs to robots? Retraining? Please! There are going to be fewer and fewer jobs to retrain for as everyone from the nasty clerk in the driver’s license bureau, to the charming hospital nurse who brings pills to your bed, to truck driver, to insurance actuaries, journalists and copywriters find machines doing jobs that they used to do.

In the end, the enemy is not cheap workers in foreign countries, or immigrants replacing Americans on the job. The enemy is a microchip driving a machine. And the microchip doesn't care if it replaces you.

We could take the attitude that the replaced people can all go starve. Trouble is, in the long run “they” is likely to include you, your spouse, your kids, your neighbors. With machines doing most of the work, should every suddenly-unproductive person starve? Or should you just be on the dole, collecting a lifetime unemployment income? Or is there another solution?

A solution with long, lovely weekends

It’s time to consider dividing up the remaining jobs a bit more equitably. Instead of one person doing a job for 40 hours a week, two equally capable people could each do half he same job, each of them for twenty hours. Yes, that cuts per-person productivity in half. But it also assures that employment will be spread around a great deal more. 

A shorter work week assures that people will have a place to go each day — perhaps each day of a four day work week instead of a five-day week. It spreads around self-esteem and lessens the opportunities for people who are made to feel worthless getting into mischief.

But where will the money for this lessened productivity come from? 

Make the robots pay

Take the money from the productivity of the tireless robots who are taking jobs from people. Robots earn no salary, require no food other than electricity, need no sleep. While they steal work from people, huge masses of people can steal the fruits of robot labor for themselves.

But that means rigidly controlling how the income that robots earn gets distributed. And it means, for example, that a CEO might have to scrape along on a paltry couple of million dollars a year while a greater share of income goes to an increased number of employees, all of whom are less productive than they used to be. And it means protection in the U.S. economy against imports from places where fewer people are being paid salaries because robots are doing most of the work.

Admittedly, this idea is revolutionary and markedly socialistic idea. But the alternative is a society with far greater extremes of wealth and poverty even than we have today — a society where the 99 percent become an impoverished and idle hatchery for crime and mass insurrection.

For more jobs, we will need people doing less work. Let's have a 20-hour work week.

Feel free to discuss.

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