Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University has been working with a series of colleagues on an economic model of a world in which robotization both raises economic output and immiserates workers, pushing them out of their jobs. It is not a theoretical impossibility.
“The point for me is that these two scenarios — robots lead to nirvana and hell — can happen side by side,” Professor Sachs told me. “Generally capital wins and all labor can lose. It shows up as a fall in the labor share of national income.”
In that event, preventing a dynastic society of relentlessly growing inequality would require large-scale redistribution. It could even take the form of a universal income paid for with a hefty estate tax — using some of the vast profits accruing to the owners of robots to finance a living for everybody else.
Since most paid human labor would be pointless, the disincentive to work produced by a monthly check would be unimportant. People could devote themselves to unpaid creative affairs.
“Don’t destroy the robots,” Professor Sachs said. But recognize that “not everybody would be better off as a result of market forces. With redistribution everybody could be made better off.”
On the other hand...
A research paper published last month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development argued that even the occupations most at risk of being replaced by machines contained lots of tasks that were hard to automate, like face-to-face interaction with customers.
It concluded that only 9 percent of American workers faced a high risk of being replaced by an automaton. Austrians, Germans and Spaniards were the most vulnerable, but only 12 percent of them risked losing their jobs to information technology.
We hear from the always-interesting and rarely humble Larry Summers:
Last November, Lawrence H. Summers — a former Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, a top economic adviser in President Obama’s first term and one of the youngest people to earn tenure on the Harvard faculty — strode up to the podium at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and made an unlikely admission: Perhaps economists were not always the smartest people in the room.
He reminisced about his undergraduate days at M.I.T. in the 1970s, when the debate over the idea of technological unemployment pitted “smart people,” exemplified by the great economist Robert Solow, and “stupid people,” “exemplified by a bunch of sociologists.”
It was stupid to think technological progress would reduce employment. If technology increased productivity — allowing companies and their workers to make more stuff in less time — people would have more money to spend on more things that would have to be made, creating jobs for other people.
But at some point Mr. Summers experienced an epiphany. “It sort of occurred to me,” he said. “Suppose the stupid people were right. What would it look like?” And what it looked like fits pretty well with what the world looks like today.
For large categories of workers, wages are inadequate. Many are withdrawing from the labor force altogether. In the 1960s, one in 20 men between 25 and 54 were not working. Today it’s three in 20. The population is generally healthier than it was in the 1960s; work is almost uniformly less demanding. Still, more workers are on disability.
“Maybe the stupid people weren’t quite as stupid as I thought they were,” Mr. Summers conceded. “This was at least a serious concern that had to be thought about.”