Robotics + democracy => Basic income guarantee => Creative explosion?

At the gym last night, I noticed a CNBC show with video of Rolls Royce factory workers building cars by hand. I couldn’t hear, but it was shockingly clear the incredible amount of time, effort, and craftsmanship required to build a car by hand. Even without any options, a base model Rolls will cost you $246,000 to $447,000, and a good chunk of that money goes to the craftsmen who build those cars.

Thanks to robotics, a reasonably similar car built mostly by robots can be purchased for $30,000 or $40,000. So, robotics has squeezed roughly 90% of the cost out of automobiles. And robots have squeezed out at least 95% of the labor costs. Imagine how robust the automobile labor market would be and how wealthy auto workers would be today if all cars were still built by hand.

Many years ago, I realized robotics and computer automation were rendering more and more people’s labor less valuable and that this trend would continue. (Back then, it was ATMs and bank tellers, but now it’s cheap legal software and lawyers who do routine legal work.)

I then asked myself, “How would democracies respond to more and more wealth going to those who own and design/program robots/computers and less and less income going to everyone else?” The answer seemed obvious: Take a somewhat larger fraction of the income from those getting fabulously wealthy and guarantee everyone a basic living income. Everyone should be able to live a modest, frugal lifestyle, even if the market judged them unsuited to work. Anyone who wanted more than a basic living would have to find a job. But no one would go homeless just because technology had rendered their labor virtually valueless. Taking a bit more from the richest of the rich seems fair because the robotics and computing innovations their businesses are leveraging grew out of decades of societal progress in those fields. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not “earn” his $13.5 billion net worth. He created a very popular website, but that website would not exist without thousands of previous inventions Zuckerberg had nothing to do with. And a website quite similar to Facebook would probably exist today if Mark Zuckerberg had never been born.

The final step in my thought experiment was to speculate that some fraction of those people guaranteed a basic living would use their time in creative, socially productive ways. Some would create art or novels. Some would volunteer at community centers or serve as tutors. Some would write open source code. In fact, that’s exactly how Linux came about. The Finnish government pays university students like Linus Torvalds a modest income while they’re students. Torvalds used his government-paid time to create Linux, a free gift to the world that has created many billions of dollars of value for millions of corporations and individuals (like me… typing this now on my Linux laptop).

I was reminded of this reading Richard Kosinski’s insightful comment about Harry Potter author JK Rowling:

[P]arents and teachers all over the world owe a great deal of thanks… to the British welfare system which sustained her as a single mother while she created her little wizard and his magical world in a coffee shop, able to watch her own child with the knowledge that her and her child’s health care needs were covered.

Contrast this with the single mother you may know, working a minimum-wage job with no health benefits, having to rely on others for childcare with little energy to do anything else at the end of the day but fix dinner and put herself and her child to bed.

In return for its commitment to invest in its citizens, Great Britain yielded dividends from a multi-billion dollar industry, creating thousands of jobs, and more importantly watching millions of children in Great Britain and the rest of the world put down their iPods and pick up books to read again.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett appreciate that their success would have been impossible without society, and they’re giving away most of their wealth to benefit society. Government should take a little more from society’s luckiest to ensure society’s unluckiest do not sleep in cardboard boxes and scavenge for food in trash cans. And, as a bonus, I predict a creativity explosion that would benefit society and grow the economic pie further.

America has still not made what I consider the logical democratic response to humanity’s technological revolution. But I’m still hopeful.

Posted by James on Friday, July 15, 2011