Before I start with anything else, I apologize for the lack of writing. I work at a marketing agency and I just have not had much time for anything else recently. In fact, I haven’t been thinking much about economics at all. I’m stimulated when I read, and I haven’t found the opportunity to finish what I’m currently working through (The Order of Public Reason), so I’ve felt uninspired lately — I totally get where Nick Rowe is coming from, although my mean is well below his. Not being able to think or read about econ totally sucks, by the way!
I did, however, enjoy a “nice” economics discussion during last weekend’s Shabbat dinner. Someone asked me if I thought robots could ever completely replace workers. I said ‘no.’ I should have added the caveat that if it turns out the answer is ‘yes,’ we should all be quite happy about it. I, for one, am looking forward to the day that I no longer have to work, because we live in a world of superabundance. Of course, in order to imagine a world where robots replace the human labor force we have to assume superabundance, because as long as there’s something else to produce there’s always work to be done (and an income to make).
Bastiat put the case more-or-less like this. Does the home worker complain about replacing hand washing laundry with a washing machine? No, because that person now has time to do something else — the robot helped to complete two tasks within the same amount of time; it makes the home worker better off. The benefits of capital don’t stop at washing machines. The reason we employ machines is to increase our productivity and make us better off. The more we can produce, the more we can consume.
What about “labor saving capital?” Remember, there is a difference between partial and general equilibrium. McDonalds might have a touch-screen computer replace its cashiers, to reduce its payroll, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing else that cashier can do. That person can find work as a construction worker, or a bus driver, or a graphic designer, or whatever that person can find a demand for. Maybe one day someone will create a program to auto-write premium website content, which allows marketing agencies to let go of all of their content writers. While writing no longer be a skill in demand, there are still many other types of jobs content writers can do — “worst case,” they can bag groceries.
The day humans no longer have work to do is the day we live in superabundance. What does superabundance mean? I believe human wants are limitless, but let’s say that there is a point of comprehensive satiation, defined as Y. As long as capital, or robots if you’d like, produce less than Y, say X, there are Y–X goods that still need to be produced. That’s the stuff that humans can produce. Suppose X is a very large number which is actually not that far off from Y. To make it clearer, what if capital produced 95 percent of economics goods and humans only the other five? We can all agree that it would be pretty awesome if we had machines doing most of the work for us, so that we can enjoy the combined fruits of “our” (robots don’t need to consume, after all — Bender aside). At the point where capital produces Y, we have reached superabundance; there is nothing else we want. It’s what Nirvana would be if the Buddhists were materialists.
I’m all for robots taking our jobs. It makes us better off, because it allows us to consume more than we previously could (we can consume more for the same amount of labor we expend). What’s unfortunate is that we’re still a long way off from being completely replaced by robots in the labor force. Although, I did overhear my company talking about replacing its content writers with content generators (is there a content generator that writes as well as a trained copywriter?). What I find surprising, in any case, is that only one person at the Shabbat table agreed with me on this.