Is "Soylent Green" the new "1984"?

Billions of people across Africa, Asia and Latin America won’t be surprised to learn that economies can place, essentially, zero value on human labor. But billions more — in prosperous, industrialized countries — are starting to witness the value of their labor plummet.

For many years, computers and robots have been muscling their way into increasingly more sophisticated physical tasks and intelligent analyses. Years ago, I extrapolated this trend to predict a bleak economic future for most people. Only those who own the technologies that power sophisticated robots and computational algorithms (or the giant databases they analyze) are economically safe. Most everyone else is living on borrowed time until computers eventually do their jobs better and cheaper.

Well, Martin Ford — a computer engineer — has written a book laying out my long-ago vision:

[H]e believes that technology is the direct cause of job losses that will never return. In fact, his fear is that even in those industries that are currently still labor intensive, job losses are inevitable. Which just might mean that there will be vast numbers of people all over the world who will have no money to spend at Zara. Not even at Old Navy…

…[E]conomists such as Hanson tend to believe that economic inequality might be a politically difficult thing, but it doesn’t portend economic disaster: because, as Hanson says, “producers can focus on giving the rich what they want, and innovation and growth is just as feasible for elite products as for mass products.”

…Ford… has a very interesting solution to his rather bleak human scenario. He seems rather keen on a consumption tax, or a direct tax on business that would attempt to capture the income that people would have earned if they had had a job. Then he would incentivize the unemployed to contribute to society according to their own talents and society’s needs…

“I really wonder if the system will be sustainable without some type of intervention,” he told me.

Extrapolating this trend all the way to a jobless future sounds like reductio ad absurdam …until you realize that double-exponential technological “progress” is practically rendering this extrapolation a fait accompli. Robots don’t have to replace everyone to destroy the value of labor. They need only take over enough jobs that the number of people wanting to do the remaining jobs far exceeds the number of openings. A substantial surplus of human labor will then drive the price of labor to zero.

Leaving aside the issue of how we distribute the bountiful goods a robotic society produces (and leaving aside the psychological fact that people who work feel they’re doing something useful), our collective ability to produce huge quantitites of goods with fewer and fewer people is a GOOD thing. It potentially frees us all to live happier, more fulfilling lives. But that potential can become reality only if we all share in the fruits of robotic labor whereas our capitalist system is concentrating those fruits in the hands of a select few (Bill Gates and the Google Guys, for example).

The obvious fair solution is a heavy tax on automated production that spreads the wealth. This is exactly what I envisioned years ago: that society would move toward the socialist ideal of healthcare for all, a basic living income for all, good education for all, community health and recreation facilities for all, greater spending on sports, the arts and music, shorter work weeks, etc.

(Private property absolutists will, of course, say this is unfair. But the justification of private property and capitalism is that the outcome for society is better than any alternative system. If private ownership and capitalism plus technological change lead us toward an unbelievably wealthy 1% and a desperate, hungry 99%, then society can and must re-write the rules. Besides, accumulating wealth is possible only in a society that provides advantages like police protection, courts, roads, trains, an educated workforce, etc. So, society has some claims on “private” assets.)

Years ago, I felt it inevitable that democracies in which most citizens were falling further and further behind economically would demand the rich share their new, ungodly wealth. How ironic, I chuckled, that the end game of capitalism would be an ideal socialist society.

Instead, in America, we’ve seen the political system cater to the ultra-rich to an extent I couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago. We’ve further cut taxes on the rich, and even in 2009 we can’t pass the lousy, totally-watered-down healthcare bills under consideration. Corporate lobbyists own the American political system.

Societies in which inequality has spiralled skyward and the ultra-rich have continued refusing to share “their” wealth have come unglued. (French Revolution, anyone?) Societies reach a breaking point at which open class warfare breaks out. But with all the new militarized robots (plus tasers, sound weapons, EMP, etc.) on their side, will tomorrow’s ultra-rich just choose to cordon us off into ghettoes or wipe us out rather than share? I hate thinking such horrid thoughts, but we have witnessed such selfish disdain by powerful Americans toward ordinary Americans this decade that Soylent Green feels more and more like Orwell’s prophetic 1984.

Posted by James on Monday, November 23, 2009