A diary written recently by RobLewis calls our attention to a prediction made by Gartner, as enunciated by Daryl Plummer, that as technology reduces the need for labor, social unrest will be the result. An article reporting on this forecast quotes Tom Seitzberg, who agrees with this bleak future:
“Ultimately, every society lives from the backbone from a strong middle class,” said Seitzberg. “If you get just a top level, a small amount of very rich people and a very large piece of very poor people, it leads to social unrest.”RobLewis also notes that Paul Krugman, in an article entitled “The Rise of the Robots,” has expressed similar concerns, arguing that the economic benefit of a college education is waning:
If this is the wave of the future, it makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality. Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society,” or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.What Plummer, Seitzberg and Krugman have in common is their emphasis on the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, while the rest struggle at the level of subsistence.
Economics is usually understood in terms of the production and distribution of goods and services. When John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society in 1958, he argued that the production problem had pretty much been solved. This is truer than ever today. We have it well within our capacity to provide our citizens with the all the necessities and quite a few luxuries. In fact, given the labor theory of value, the less human labor is needed to produce these goods and services, the less they will cost. So technology will only make it easier than ever to produce enough for everyone.
Therefore, it is argued, the problem is distribution. For the most part, we expect people to get what they want by working for it: they sell their labor, and in exchange get the money to buy the goods and services they desire. But according to the views expressed above, that option will become increasingly unavailable to more and more people in the future. Therefore, the problem of distribution will have to become one of redistribution, one of forcing the rich to share their wealth.
That rich people have so much money is really a remarkable thing, because we are free to take it away from them any time we want. They have it only because we let them have it. The fact is, however, that people will tolerate the rich, and even admire them, provided their own needs have been reasonably met. But if the disparity of wealth becomes extreme, the situation becomes untenable. In societies where the people are oppressed through force, revolution is the result. In a democracy like ours, however, confiscatory taxation will suffice. If the rich are as wise as they are wealthy, they will even encourage this redistribution, as a way of buying off the mob. If they are not wise, and there is no evidence to indicate that they are, we will take even more of their money as compensation for their insolence.
So the distribution problem can be solved as easily as we have solved the problem of production. But no sooner is that problem solved, than we realize that other questions present themselves: What happens when the link between labor and income has been sundered? What happens when the average person has enough money to provide himself with a decent living without having to work for it? What happens when the robots do all the work, and the goods and services produced by them are fairly distributed among the people?
Some of us can handle leisure. We do not need to work in order for our lives to have meaning. In fact, our lives don’t need to have any meaning at all. It is enough for us to while away the time indulging in harmless pleasures, be they sensuous or intellectual, allowing the years to pass effortlessly, until an inconvenient death puts an end to all our enjoyments.
But there are those for whom leisure is a curse. I have known people who, at the end of a three-day weekend, will say that they are so glad it is over, because they were becoming bored and restless. These are the people who will blithely say that they will never retire, that they will work until they drop, in part because they think they will not have enough money to retire, but mostly because their idea of retirement is an insufferable three-day weekend that just goes on and on without end.
Since the robots have not taken over yet, technology at this time has merely left us with an intractable level of high unemployment. One solution would be to allow all those for whom a life of leisure is the ideal form of existence to receive a government check without working for it. For example, there is an initiative being presented to the people of Switzerland which, if passed, would provide every adult with an income of $2,800 per month. That would certainly have been enough for me to quit my job and never turn a lick again. At the same time, those who need to work could continue to do the jobs that still remain, so that their lives can have meaning, along with the additional income. Unfortunately, those who need to work, and who say it is the meaning in their lives, nevertheless tend to resent those who seem to get along just fine without it. Like the dog in the manger, they cannot stand to be idle, and yet they are outraged by those who indulge themselves in the very idleness they abhor. There is no need to be overly concerned with this problem of resentment, however, because as time goes by, and robots take over more and more of the jobs, there will not be enough work left for humans to do, even after all the lazy people have removed themselves from the workforce.
Although a college education is not the solution, as far as making people employable is concerned, it may be the solution to making people suitable for unemployment by giving them the real skills needed for the twenty-first century, the ones needed for a life of leisure. Instead of emphasizing all those skills that robots can do better anyway, we should encourage a solid foundation in a liberal arts education, with special emphasis on that most useless of all disciplines, my major and lifelong avocation, philosophy. The problems of philosophy, being perennial, can provide the intellect with unlimited amusement. Nor need we fear that artificial intelligence will solve these problems, and leave us with nothing to do. What chance do robots have of figuring out the mind-body problem, of making sense of free will, or discovering the meaning of life, even if they are the ones doing all the work that supposedly provides it?
Not everyone is suited for a life of contemplation, however. Perhaps the legalization of marijuana would help. Marijuana is apparently pretty good at snuffing out ambition, a formerly useful passion, but without the need for work, a troublesome, mischief-making drive. Those for whom a love of leisure does not come naturally may be able to acquire an appreciation for it with the help of a little weed.
Unfortunately, there will still remain those who need to work, for whom the above remedies will not suffice. A lot of them will simply be bored, and marriages will fail as husbands and wives get on each other’s nerves. And then there is the fear is that without the exhaustion that comes with toil, people will become perverted and cruel, and violence will become the entertainment of choice. With the elimination of poverty and inequality, the social unrest that arises from an unfair distribution of wealth may be replaced by the social unrest of boredom, in which mobs go on a rampage just for something to do.
Perhaps the final solution will come when the robots replace us entirely.