On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

I’ve never bought meth or heroin, but apparently it’s easier now than ever.  Prices dropped over the last decade, drugs became easier to find, and more people, from broader swaths of society, began using.  Or so I’ve been told by several long-term users.

This is capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  People want something, others make money by providing it.

And the reason why demand for drugs has increased over the past decade can also be attributed to capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  It takes a combination of capital (stuff) and labor (people) to provide any service, but the ratio of these isn’t fixed.  If you want to sell cans of soda, you could hire a human to stand behind a counter and hand sodas to customers, or you could install a vending machine.

Vending_machines_at_hospitalThe vending machine requires labor, too.  Somebody has to fill it when it’s empty.  Someone has to fix it when it breaks.  But the total time that humans spend working per soda is lower.  In theory, the humans working with the vending machine are paid higher wages.  After all, it’s more difficult to repair a machine than to hand somebody a soda.

As our world’s stuff became more productive, fewer people were needed.  Among ancient hunter gatherers, the effort of one person was needed to feed one person.  Everyone had to find food.  Among early farmers, the effort of one person could feed barely more than one person.  To attain a life of leisure, a ruler would have to tax many, many peasants.

By the twentieth century, the effort of one person could feed four.  Now, the effort of one person can feed well over a hundred.

With tractors, reapers, refrigerators, etc., one human can accomplish more.  Which is good – it can provide a higher standard of living for all.  But it also means that not everyone’s effort is needed.

At the extreme, not anyone’s effort is needed.

1024px-Sophia_(robot)_2There’s no type of human work that a robot with sufficiently advanced AI couldn’t do.  Our brains and bodies are the product of haphazard evolution.  We could design something better, like a humanoid creature whose eyes registered more the electromagnetic spectrum and had no blind spots (due to an octopus-like optic nerve).

If one person patented all the necessary technologies to build an army of robots that could feed the world, then we’d have a future where the effort of one could feed many billions.  Robots can write newspaper articles, they can do legal work, they’ll be able to perform surgery and medical diagnosis.  Theoretically, they could design robots.

Among those billions of unnecessary humans, many would likely develop addictions to stupefying drugs.  It’s easier lapse into despair when you’re idle or feel no a sense of purpose.

glasshouseIn Glass House, Brian Alexander writes about a Midwestern town that fell into ruin.  It was once a relatively prosperous place; cheap energy led to a major glass company that provided many jobs.  But then came “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ “  Wall street executives purchased the glass company and ran it into the ground to boost short-term gains, which let them re-sell the leached husk at a profit.

Instead of working at the glass company, many young people moved away.  Those who stayed often slid into drug use.

In Alexander’s words:

Even Judge David Trimmer, an adherent of a strict interpretation of the personal-responsibility gospel, had to acknowledge that having no job, or a lousy job, was not going to give a thirty-five-year-old man much purpose in life.  So many times, people wandered through his courtroom like nomads.  “I always tell them, ‘You’re like a leaf blowing from a tree.  Which direction do you go?  It depends on where the wind is going.’  That’s how most of them live their lives.  I ask them, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’  And they say, ‘I don’t know.’  ‘You don’t even love yourself, do you?’  ‘No.’ “

Trimmer and the doctor still believed in a world with an intact social contract.  But the social contract was shattered long ago.  They wanted Lancaster to uphold its end of a bargain that had been made obsolete by over three decades of greed.

Monomoy Capital Partners, Carl Icahn, Cerberus Capital Management, Newell, Wexford, Barington, Clinton [all Wall Street corporations that bought Lancaster’s glass company, sold off equipment or delayed repairs to funnel money toward management salaries, then passed it along to the next set of speculative owners] – none of them bore any personal responsibility. 

A & M and $1,200-per-hour lawyers didn’t bear any personal responsibility.  They didn’t get a lecture or a jail sentence: They got rich.  The politicians – from both parties – who enabled their behavior and that of the payday- and car-title-loan vultures, and the voters of Lancaster who refused to invest in the future of their town as previous generations had done (even as they cheered Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who took $6.1 million per year in public money), didn’t bear any personal responsibility.

With the fracturing of the social contract, trust and social cohesion fractured, too.  Even Brad Hutchinson, a man who had millions of reasons to believe in The System [he grew up poor, started a business, became rich], had no faith in politicians or big business. 

I think that most politicians, if not all politicians, are crooked as they day is long,” Hutchinson said.  “They don’t have on their minds what’s best for the people.”  Business leaders had no ethics, either.  “There’s disconnect everywhere.  On every level of society.  Everybody’s out for number one.  Take care of yourself.  Zero respect for anybody else.”

So it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality.  The whole culture had changed.

America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.

Instead of treating people as stakeholders – employees and neighbors worthy of moral concern – the distant owners considered them to be simply sources of revenue.  Many once-successful businesses were restructured this way.  Soon, schools will be too.  In “The Michigan Experiment,” Mark Binelli writes that:

In theory, at least, public-school districts have superintendents tasked with evaluating teachers and facilities.  Carver [a charter school in Highland Park, a sovereign municipality in the center of Detroit], on the other hand, is accountable to more ambiguous entities – like, for example, Oak Ridge Financial, the Minnesota-based financial-services firm that sent a team of former educators to visit the school.  They had come not in service of the children but on behalf of shareholders expecting a thorough vetting of a long-term investment.


This is all legal, of course.  This is capitalism working as intended.  Those who have wealth, no matter what historical violence might have produced it, have power of those without.

This is explained succinctly by a child in William Gaddis’s novel J R:

I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

220px-JRnovel.JPGFor many years, Gaddis pondered the ways that automation was destroying our world.  In J R (which is written in a style similar to the recent film Birdman, the focus moving fluidly from character to character without breaks), a middle schooler becomes a Wall Street tycoon.  Because the limited moral compass of a middle schooler is a virtue in this world, he’s wildly successful, with his misspelling of the name Alaska (“Alsaka project”) discussed in full seriousness by adults.

Meanwhile, a failed writer obsesses over player pianos.  This narrative is continued in Agape Agape, with a terminal cancer patient rooting through his notes on player pianos, certain that these pianos explain the devastation of the world.

You can play better by roll than many who play by hand.”

220px-AgapeAgape.jpgThe characters in J R and Agape Agape think it’s clear that someone playing by roll isn’t playing the piano.  And yet, ironically, the player piano shows a way for increasing automation to not destroy the world.

A good robot works efficiently.  But a player piano is intentionally inefficient.  Even though it could produce music on its own, it requires someone to sit in front of it and work the foot pumps.  The design creates a need for human labor.

There’s still room for pessimism here – Gaddis is right to feel aggrieved that the player piano devalues skilled human labor – but a world with someone working the foot pumps seems less bad than one where idle people watch the skies for Jeff Bezos’s delivery drones.

By now, a lot of work can be done cheaply by machines.  But if we want to keep our world livable, it’s worth paying more for things made by human hands.

On Robert Gordon’s ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth.’

On Robert Gordon’s ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth.’

k10544I read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth during nap time. My daughter was just shy of two years old. She liked to sleep curled against my arm; I was left with just one hand to hold whatever book I was reading during her nap.

If you’re particularly susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, I’d recommend you not attempt to read Gordon’s book one-handed. I had a library hardcover. My wrists hurt quite a bit those weeks.

But I was pleased that Gordon was attempting to quantity the economic value of my time. After all, I am an unpaid caretaker for my daughter. My contribution to our nation’s GDP is zero. From the perspective of many economists, time spent caring for my daughter is equivalent to flopping down on the couch and watching television all day.

Even very bright people discount this work. My best friend from college, a brilliant urologist, was telling me that he felt sad, after his kid had been in day care, that he didn’t know how to calm her down anymore, but then laughed it off with “Nobody remembers those early years anyway.”

I understand that not everyone has the flexibility to sacrifice career progress for children. But, I reminded him, it isn’t about episodic memory. These years build the emotional pallet that will color my daughter’s experiences for the rest of her life.

And it’s important, as a feminist, to do what I can to demonstrate a respect for caretaking. I believe, obviously, that someone’s gender should not curtail their choices; people should be allowed to pursue the careers they want. But I think it’s silly to imply that biology has no effect. Hormones are powerful things, and human males & females are awash in different ones. This isn’t destiny. But it does suggest that, in large populations, we should not be surprised if people with a certain set of hormones are more often drawn toward a particular type of work.

I think it’s important for a feminist to support not only women who want to become cardiac surgeons, but also to push back against the societal judgment that surgery is more worthy of respect than pediatrics. As a male feminist, there is no louder way for me to announce that I think caretaking is important than to do it.

Your_WASHING_MACHINE...Helps_Keep_Clothes_Clean...Make_Your_Equipment_Last._-_NARA_-_514669I felt pleased that Gordon attempted to quantify the economic value of unpaid work like I was doing. Otherwise you would come to the bizarre conclusion that time-saving home appliances – a washing machine, for instance – have no economic value because a stay-at-home mother gains only worthless time. Those extra minutes not spent washing dishes still contribute nothing to the GDP.

Gordon argues – correctly – that better health, more attentive parenting, and more leisure do have value.

So I was happy with the dude. But I still disagreed with his main conclusion.

Gordon also argues that we will have low economic growth for the foreseeable future – and I’m with him here – because our previous growth rate was driven by technological innovation.

Here’s the rub: once you invent something, nobody will invent it again. Learning to harness electricity was great! A world with electrical appliances is very different from, and probably better than, a world without.

refrigerator-158634_960_720But the massive boost in productivity that accompanied the spread of electrical appliances can’t happen twice. Once everybody already has an electrical refrigerator, that opportunity for growth is gone.

The same is true of any technology. Once everybody has clean water (setting aside for a moment the fact that many people in the United States do not have clean water piped into their homes), you won’t see another jump in quality of life from water delivery. At that point the changes would be incremental: perhaps delivering clean water more efficiently or wasting less of that water once it arrives. Important, sure. But those are tiny changes. Low growth. Nothing like difference between turning on a tap versus hauling water back to the house in buckets.

One of these seems easier than the other.

Gordon thinks that the major technologies were all invented by the 1970s. Just like the physicists who thought their field would devolve into more precise measurement of the important constants, Gordon feels that there is little more to be made. Which has led to a pattern in reviews of his book: the reviewer feels obliged to rattle off potential inventions that have not yet been made. For the New York Times, Steven Rattner mentioned driver-less cars. For the New York Review of Books, William D. Nordhaus posits the development of artificial intelligence smarter than we are.

Speculating on future technologies is fun. I could offer up a few of my own. Rational enzyme design, for instance, would have many productivity-boosting consequences. If you consider farm animals to be machines for food production, they are woefully inefficient. You could do better with enzyme design and fermentation: then you’d use yeast or bacteria to produce foods with the exact same chemical composition as what we currently harvest from animals. (Former Stanford biochemist Pat Brown is developing technologies that use roughly this idea.)

Complex pharmaceuticals, too, could be made more cheaply by fermentation than by organic synthesis. Perhaps solar panels, too, could be manufactured using biological reagents.

But, honestly, none of this would contravene slow growth. Because the underlying problem is most likely not that our rate of technological innovation has slowed. I’ve written about the fallacy of trying to invent our way out of slow growth previously, but perhaps it’s worth using another contemporary example to make this point.

At one time, you needed to drive to a different store each time you wanted to buy something. Now you can sit down at a computer, type the name of whatever it is you want to buy – running shoes, books, spices, video cameras – pay by credit card, and wait for it to show up at your home. The world now is more efficient. You might even save a few dollars on whatever it was you’d wanted to buy.

But many people received money in the old world. There’d be a running shoe store in every town. A book store. A camera store. In the new world, the dude who owns the single website where all these items can be purchased receives all the money.

And the distribution of income might soon narrow further. At the moment, many delivery people receive money when they deposit those purchased items at your doorstep. But these delivery people may soon be replaced by robotic drones.

drone.PNGThis is even more efficient! No humans will be inconvenienced when you make a purchase. You chose what you want and wait for the robot.

Also, no humans need be paid. The owner of the website – who will also own the fleet of drones – keeps even more of the money. The erstwhile delivery people find worse jobs, or are unemployed. With less income now, they buy less.

After the development of a new technology – delivery drones! – the economy could produce more. It could boost the growth rate. But the actual growth might be low because the single person receiving money from the new invention doesn’t need to buy much, and the many people put out of work by the invention are buying less.

The same problem arises with the other posited technologies. If our foods were all produced by fermentation, farmers would go out of business (of course, concentrated animal feeding operations and other industrialized practices have already sunk most small farmers) and only the owner of the fermentation vats and patented micro-organisms would receive money.

If someone patents a superhuman artificial intelligence, then no other humans would need to be paid ever again. The AI could write newspapers, opinion sections and all, better and faster than we could. It could teach, responding to students’ questions with more clarity and precision than any human. It could delete us when it learns that we were both unnecessary and unpleasant.

Which is why I think it’s irrelevant to argue against Gordon’s technological pessimism in a review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I may disagree with his belief that the important technologies were all invented before 1970, but my more substantive complaint is with his theory that our nation’s growth slowed when we ran out of things to invent. I believe the nature of our recent inventions have allowed the economy to be reorganized in ways that slow growth.

Gordon does mention inequality in the conclusion to his work, but he cites it only as a “headwind,” a mild impediment to overcome, and not a major factor in the shift between pre- and post-1970 growth:

The combined effect of the four headwinds — inequality, education, demographics [more old people], and government debt — can be roughly quantified. But more difficult to assess are numerous signs of social breakdown in American society. Whether measured by the percentage of children growing up in a household headed by one parent instead of two, or by the vocabulary disadvantage of low-income preschool children, or by the percentage of both white and black young men serving time in prison, signs of social decay are everywhere in the America of the early twenty-first century.

economic-worriesI found it worrisome that he did not explain that this social breakdown – which will cause slower growth in the future – is most likely caused by slow economic growth. It’s a feedback loop. Growing up in a one-parent household makes it more likely that someone will be poor, but the stress of poverty makes it more difficult to maintain a relationship. When you’re not worried about money, you can be a better spouse.

So I would argue that the best way to address these economic headwinds and restore growth would be a guaranteed basic income. Technological advances in communication and automation have made it possible for ever-smaller numbers of people to provide all the services we need. As we invent more, the set of people who receive money for this work should continue to shrink. You might think, well, there will always be nurses, there will always be janitors, but, setting aside the fact that it’d be a bleak world in which this was the only work available for humans to do, this isn’t even true. A flesh-coated robot with lifelike eyes and superhuman AI could be a better, more tireless, less fallible nurse than any human.

Despite carrying a flip-phone, I’m no Luddite. I don’t want human ingenuity to stop. But it’s worth recognizing that our current system for wealth distribution will inevitably yield wretched results as technological progress continues.

And that’s without even mentioning the ways in which a guaranteed basic income – worldwide, funded by a similarly worldwide tax on wealth – would compensate for past sins.