Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/09/19/say_what_you_want_about_marx_he_was_right_about_robots/

I, for one, welcome our robotic communist jobless future

Everything will be so cheap, you won't NEED a job

By Tim Worstall

Posted in Jobs, 19th September 2013 05:00 GMT

Comment Various of the concerned intelligensia seem to be worried at present that the computers and the robots are going to come and take all our jobs. None of us will have anything to do, we'll starve and the capitalists who own the robots will end up with everything.

Often, the solution offered is that we should therefore tax capital more and in some magical manner this will make everything lovely. The problem with all of this is that no one seems to be thinking through what might actually happen: or rather what will happen.

The first and most obvious point is that we shouldn't be fearing the robots coming to do the work. We should be welcoming it in fact, welcoming it with not just with open arms but hosannahs of praise. For think about it a moment, we all like doing work so little that they actually have to bribe us to turn up and do it. Work, a job, is a cost, not a benefit of our lives. We would much rather that there were no jobs that humans had to do at all - if we could find some other way of getting the things we want, that is.

It's also true that we don't particularly care about incomes. Or even that people have incomes. No, the thing we actually care about is that people get the opportunity to consume. And that can be done in different ways: we only need to look at the economics of a family to know that children don't need an income, they just need there to be a supply of stuff that they can gannet down their necks.

That we mostly do have jobs in order to earn an income so that we can consume is entirely true. But it isn't the only possible method of organising the world, just the most efficient at this stage of economic development. And Marx was indeed correct on at least a couple of points: in this instance, that the state of technology determines the structure of society.

The basic claim by the rage against the machine guys is that the AIs, software and robots are just about to become better than human beings at doing everything. Therefore there will be nothing left for humans to do and, erm, something and then we all die, I think.

The problem is that they're not thinking through the other side of the problem, the other side being the important side of it. So what is it that all of these machines are going to do? They're going to produce all of the goods and services that humans currently have to produce with the labour of their hands and brains. Which, obviously, are going to be used by someone, somewhere, to do something. Thus someone is consuming all these goods and services without having to have jobs: a most desirable situation I would have thought.

And we've actually seen this situation described before. John Maynard Keynes took us close to it in his Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren. As the world gets richer then we'll increase our production of goods and services and we'll be able to assuage the desire for them. As we do that assuaging we'll all start working less because we don't need to work so hard to satisfy our desires: we'll take more leisure. He predicted the three or four hour workday by about now as a result of this. There are those (the New Economics Foundation for example) who grumpily wonder where that increased leisure went. The answer is that it is here.

We must differentiate between unpaid work in the household and paid work in the marketplace. Keynes was talking about the paid work: that would shrink as a portion of our time. What has actually happened is that paid working hours have fallen for men since the 1930s. But they've risen for women. However, one recent survey claimed that back 80 years it took 65 hours a week of that household labour to run a household. Today that's two hours. OK, I think that last figure is undercooking it a bit but it is true that household production hours have fallen by about the amount that Keynes thought working hours would. So he was right about work but not about which type of work: Ha Joon Chang has managed to get just the one thing right when he said that the washing machine (standing in for all household technology) has done more for women's liberation than anything else.

The end and net effect of this reduction in household working hours has been that those for both sexes have diminished to near invisibility, men's paid working hours are modestly down, women's paid working hours are up a lot and leisure hours for all massively risen. We really are taking more of our new wealth as leisure.

And all of this has been going on because we have been mechanising tasks formerly done by human labour. So the analogy with what is going to happen as we mechanise more of said tasks is obvious: we'll be using more of the new wealth to take more leisure.

In fact, if we go to the extreme, we end up where Marx said True Communism would take us. Keynes calls it solving the scarcity problem, Marx, extremist that he was, takes the point rather further. To the position that industry has become so productive that there's just no need for anyone much to labour in it any more.

This is sounding a bit like the robots are going to take all our jobs, isn't it? And Marx thought this was just fine. For it would mean that human beings could go off and do whatever entered their pretty little heads without having to work for it. As I also think this is just fine, and Keynes did. As long as everything does indeed still get made and we all get to consume it then what the hell's wrong with the idea that we don't have to work to get it?

Over on the economists' side of this same story we've got people worrying that all the money will go to the capitalists. Since they own the robots that will be creating everything, they'll thus get all the cash from the things that are created. Which would be true if we had a system of monopoly capitalism (another thing Marx got right, monopoly capitalism is a very bad idea). But we don't have monopoly capitalism: we have capitalism combined with free markets. This means that there will be several firms making the robots and making the things that can be made with robots. They need to sell what they're producing to somebody and it's this competition for our business that will drive prices down. After all, they've not got to pay anyone anything, remember, and once they've made a robot that can make a robot then the prices really are going to come tumbling down.

The end result of the roboticisation of the entire economy is going to be that everything is as cheap as chips (and chips will be really cheap) so we don't need to do any work to speak of to get the things that we want. It'll actually be rather like The Culture as envisioned in the books of the late Iain M Banks: not all that much of a surprise as the economy of that universe is lifted directly from Marx's speculations of what it would be like once we'd conquered the scarcity problem.

Now you might start thinking that this is just speculation from one of those market fundamentalists. Glorying in the fact that markets will bring us that communist future and we don't have to shoot all the bright people this time. But I can actually prove it.

Think back to what happened with the mechanisation of agriculture. Yep, loads of people, almost everyone in fact, lost their jobs: but what happened to the price of food? It's been falling ever since, hasn't it? Food made up the majority of the family budget just as mechanisation started, well over 50 per cent of a working family's weekly cash. It's now down to 10, 11 per cent: and the diet is considerably better too. And if the-capitalists-are-going-to-get-all-the-benefits story were true then we'd have seen all the farmers becoming gloriously rich as we mechanised agriculture. Which isn't what happened at all.

Mechanisation reduced the cost of producing food considerably: competition between those who could do that drove food prices down, so much so that near all the farmers went bust and they've been living on the taxpayers' teat ever since. Far from the new robotic future meaning that the capitalists are going to be swimming in gravy it's probably going to bankrupt most of them. As should be obvious: the robots will make capital more productive which is the same as stating that we've increased the supply of capital. Things that rise in supply, by and large, go down in price: if we've a market, that is.

The robots taking all our jobs means that we get more leisure and everything made by the robots gets much cheaper. True communism will have arrived and nirvana is close at hand.

Bring it on, quite frankly. ®