“Jobs for every American is doomed to failure because of modern automation and production. We ought to recognize it and create an income-maintenance system so every single American has the dignity and the wherewithal for shelter, basic food, and medical care. I’m talking about welfare for all. Without it, you’re going to have warfare for all.”
This quote from Jerry Brown in 1995 echoes earlier fears that automation would cause mass unemployment and displacement. These fears have not materialized, due to surging economic growth, the ability of the workforce to adjust, and the fact that the extent of automation is largely limited to physical, repetitive tasks. This is beginning to change.
In recent years, before the current recession, automation in already well established areas has continued to make productivity improvements. “Robotics and other computer automation have reduced the number of workers on a line. Between 2002 and 2005, the number of auto production workers decreased 8.5 percent while shipments increased 5 percent. Assembly plants now require as little as 15 to 25 labor hours per vehicle.” The result of these productivity gains has been a higher quality, less expensive product.
As machines become smarter, less repetitive “white collar” jobs will become subject to automation. Change will come so rapidly, the workforce will not be able to adjust, with real opportunities for alternative work decreasing. The earlier fears of mass unemployment will become realized. This mass displacement could lay the foundation for civil unrest and a general backlash against technology. The full extent of this change is unlikely to happen for another generation, with strong growth in China and other emerging economies. Regardless of exact timing or mechanism, the fact is that this transition to full automation has already begun, and micro economics dictate that it will continue. The choice between an inefficient, expensive, human labor force and an efficient, cheap, automated labor force is clear at the micro level, which will drive the pace of change.
What is needed now is a new economic paradigm, new theories, and a new understanding for the new coming age. We are not far away from a time when it will be possible to provide every human with a clean, safe place to live, with excellent healthcare and ample food, through the provision of automated labor. If it is possible to provide these things as a birth right, while not infringing upon the rights of others, then it should be done. As long as we are human, no matter how virtual our world becomes, we will still have basic physical needs that should be accessible by everyone, as owners by heritage to this offspring of our species. The correct lessons from the failures and shortcomings of Marxism and Austrian Economics must be learned. The introduction of something never before possible, an intelligent omnipresent and free labor source (free once machines are able to replicate themselves from the mine, to design and manufacture, without any human input), is a game changer.
Jerry Brown was right. The trick is to not be too far ahead of your time.