My family recently attended a preschool birthday party at which cupcakes were served. I watched in horror as the children ate. Some used grimy fingers to claw off the top layer of frosting. Others attempted to shove the entire frosted top into their gaping maws, as though they thought their jaws might distend snake-like. These kids failed, obviously, and mostly smashed the cupcakes against their faces.
And then, a mere two minutes later, the kids all slid from their chairs to run off and rampage elsewhere in the house. The table was a wreckage; no child had actually eaten a cupcake. They’d eaten frosting, sure, but left the remnants crumbled and half-masticated on their plates.
Someone needed to clean up.
If I was a better person, I would have offered to help. But I didn’t. I just stood there with my mouth twisted into a grimace of disgust.
I wonder why it’s so hard for our family to make friends. Surely my constant scowls seem charming! Right? Right?
Even at our own house, where our compost bin ensures that uneaten food isn’t completely wasted … and where my own children are responsible for the entirety of any mangled remnants … I loathe scraping the plates clean.
And I don’t like washing dishes.
Luckily, we have a dishwasher. Slide dirty dishes into the rack, push a button, and, voila, a robot will make them clean!
Automation is great!
Also, automation is making our world worse.
Although official unemployment in the United States is low, the economy is doing poorly. The official statistics don’t count people who’ve given up, and they don’t count people who are stuck with worse jobs that they would’ve had in the past.
Low unemployment is supposed to drive up people’s salaries. When a company knows that there are few available job seekers, they’ll pay more to prevent you from leaving. But that’s not happening, currently. If a company knows that your life is sufficiently bleak, and also that no other company is planning to treat you better, then they can keep salaries low. Financial misery lets employers operate like a cartel.
Despite low unemployment, most employees are quite replaceable. If you won’t do the work, a robot could instead. Just like my beleaguered dishwasher, filled with plates and bowls too gross for me to want to touch, a robot won’t advocate for better treatment. And a robot draws no salary. If you have the wealth to invest in a dishwasher – or a washing machine, or a donut maker, or a legal-document-drafting algorithm – it’ll serve you tirelessly for years.
People often say that the jobs of the future will be those that require a human touch. Those people are wrong. Your brain is a finite network of synapses, your body an epidermis-swathed sack of gristle. In the long run, everything you do could be replicated by a machine. It could look like you, talk like you, think like you – or better.
And – after its initial development and manufacture – it wouldn’t cost its owners anything.
As our automation technologies improve, more and more of the world’s income will be shunted to the people who are wealthy enough to own robots. Right now, human delivery people are paid for dropping off the packages people buy from Amazon – but as soon as Jeff Bezos owns drones and self-driving cars, he’ll keep those drivers’ salaries for himself. As your labor becomes less valuable relative to the output of a machine, it’s inevitable that inequality will increase. Unless we implement intentional redistribution.
A recent editorial by Eduardo Porter for the New York Times advocates for a tax on automation. Perhaps this seems sensible, given what I’ve written above – if robots make the world worse, then perhaps robots should be made more expensive.
After all, the correct way to account for negative externalities in a capitalist economy is through taxation. That’s how capitalism solves the tragedy of the commons. If the cost of an action is paid by everyone collectively – like pollution, which causes us all to drink dirty water, or breathe asthma-inducing air, or face apocalyptic climate change – but the profit is garnered by individuals, then that person’s private cost-benefit analysis will call for too much pollution.
For every dollar the Koch brothers earn, the world at large might need to spend $1,000 fighting climate change. That dollar clearly isn’t worth it. But if each dollar they earn increases their personal suffering by only a nickel, then of course they should keep going! That’s what capitalism demands. Pollute more, and keep your ninety-five cents!
But a person’s private priorities can be made to mirror our society’s by charging a tax equal to the total cost of pollution. Then that person’s individual cost-benefit analysis will compare the total cost of an action against its total benefit.
A pollution tax wouldn’t tell people to stop being productive … it would simply nudge them toward forms of production that either pollute less, or are more valuable per unit of pollution.
But automation isn’t harmful.
Yes, automation is making the world worse. But automation itself isn’t bad. I’m very happy with my dishwasher.
If we want to use tax policy to improve the world, we need to consider which features of our society have allowed automation to make the world worse. And it’s not the robots themselves, but rather the precipitous way that current wealth begets future wealth. So the best solution is not to tax robots, specifically, but rather to tax wealth (with owned robots being a form of wealth … just like my dishwasher. Nothing makes me feel rich like that lemony-fresh scent of plates I didn’t have to scrub myself.)
And, after taxing wealth, we would need to find a way to provide money back to people.
World War II taught us that unnecessary production – making goods whose only value was to be used up and decrease the value of other goods, like bombs and tanks and guns – could improve the economic situation of the world. We ended the Great Depression by paying people to make weapons. And we could ameliorate the current economic malaise with something similar.
But an actual war seems misguided, what with all the killing and dying. There are better, kinder ways to increase wasteful government spending.
If I were in charge of my own town, I’d convert the abandoned elevator factory into a bespoke sneaker and clothing factory. The local university offers a degree in fashion design, and it might be nice if there were a way for students to have batches of five or ten items produced to specification.
As a business, this wouldn’t be economically viable. That’s the point. It would be intentionally wasteful production, employing humans instead of robots. Everything would be monetarily inefficient, with the product sold below cost.
It’d be a terrible business, but a reasonable charity.
With alarmingly high frequency, lawmakers try to impose work requirements on welfare payments. I obviously think this policy would be absurd. But it wouldn’t be so bad if there were government-provided work opportunities.
Robots can make shoes cheaper. That’s true. But by taxing wealth and using it to subsidize wasteful production, we could renew people’s sense of purpose in life and combat inequality. No wars required!
And no need for a tax targeting my dishwasher. Because, seriously. I’ve got kids. I don’t want to clean up after them. Would you?