On AI-generated art.

On AI-generated art.

Recently, an image generated by an artificial intelligence algorithm won an art competition.

As far as I can tell, this submission violates no rules. Pixel by pixel, the image was freshly generated – it was not “plagarized” in the human sense of copying portions of another’s work wholesale. Indeed, if the AI were able to speak (which it can’t, because it’s particular design does not incorporate any means to generate language), it might describe its initial training as having “inspired” its current work.

The word “training” elides a lot of detail.

Most contemporary AI algorithms are not wholly scripted – a human programmer doesn’t write code that says, “When given the input ‘opera,’ include anthropomorphic shapes bedecked in luxurious fabrics.”

Instead, the programmer curates a large collection of images, some of which are given the descriptor “opera,” all others being, by default, “not opera.” Then the algorithm analyzes the images – treating the images as a grid of pixels, each with a particular hue and brightness, and also higher-order mathematical calculations on that grid, such as if there is a red pixel in a location, what are the odds that other nearby pixels are also red, and what shape will that red cluster take? From this analysis, the algorithm finds mathematical descriptors that separate the “opera” images from “not opera.”

An image designated “opera” is more likely to have patches with vivid hues that include bright and dark vertical stripes. A human viewer will interpret these as the shadowed folds of fabric draping an upright figure. The algorithm doesn’t need to interpret these features, though – the algorithm works only with a matrix of numbers that denote pixel colors.

In general, human programmers understand the principles by which AI algorithms work. After all, human programmers made them!

And human programmers know what sort of information was provided in the algorithm’s training set. For instance, if none of the images labeled “opera” within a particular training set showed performers sitting down, then the algorithm should not produce an opera image with alternating dark and light stripes arrayed horizontally – the algorithm will not have been exposed to horizontal folds in fabric, at least not within the context of opera.

But the particular details of how these algorithms work are often inscrutable to their creators. The algorithms are like children this way – you might know the life experiences that your child has been exposed to, and yet still have no idea why your kid is claiming that Bigfoot dips french fries into ice cream.

Every now and again, an algorithm sorts data by criteria that we humans find ridiculous. Or, rather: the algorithm sorts data by criteria that we would find ridiculous, if we could understand its criteria. But, in general, we can’t. It’s difficult to plumb the workings of these algorithms.

Because the algorithm’s knowledge is stored in multidimensional matrices that most human brains can’t grasp, we can’t compare the algorithm’s understanding of opera with our own. Instead, we can only evaluate whether or not the algorithm seems to work. Whether the algorithm’s images of “opera” look like opera to us, or whether an AI criminal justice algorithm recommends the longest prison sentences to people whom we also assume to be the most dangerous offenders.


So, about that art contest. I’m inclined to think that, for a category of “digitally created artwork,” submitting a piece that was created by an AI is fair. A human user still plays a curatorial role, perhaps requesting many images using the exact same prompt and then choosing the best, each generated from random seeds.

It’s a little weird, because in many ways the result would be a collaborative project – somebody’s work went into scripting the AI, and a huge amount of work went into curating and tagging the training set of images – but you could argue that anytime an artist uses a tool or filter on Photoshop, they’re collaborating with the programmers.

An artist might paint a background and then click on a button labeled “whirlpool effect,” but somebody had to design and script the mathematical function that converts the original array of pixel colors into something that we humans would then believe had been sucked into a whirlpool.

In some ways, this collaboration is acknowledged (in a half-hearted, transactional, capitalist way) – the named artist has paid licensing fees to use Photoshop or an AI algorithm. Instead of recognition, the co-creators receive money.

But there’s another wrinkle: we do not create art alone.

Even the Lascaux cave paintings – although no other paintings from that era survived until the present day, many probably existed (in places that were less protected from the elements and so were destroyed by wind & rain & mold & time). The Lascaux artist(s) presumably saw themselves as part of an artistic community or tradition.

In the development of a human artist, that person will see, hear, & otherwise experience many artistic creations by others. Over the course of our lives, we visit museums, read books, watch television, hear music, eat at restaurants – we’re constantly learning from the world around us, in ways that would be impossible to fully acknowledge. A painter might include a flourish that was inspired by a picture they saw in childhood and no longer consciously remember.

This collaborative debt is more obvious among AI algorithms. These algorithms need fuel: their meticulously-tagged sets of training images. The algorithms generate new images of only the sort that they’ve been fed.

It’s the story of a worker being simultaneously laid off and asked to train their replacement.

Unfortunately for human artists, our world is already awash in beautiful images. Obviously, I’m not saying that we need no more art! I’m a writer, in a world that’s already so full of books! The problem, instead, is that the AI algorithms have ample training sets. Even if, hypothetically, these algorithms instantly drove every other artist out of business, or made all working artists so nervous that human artists refused for any more of their work to be digitized, there’s still an enormous library of existing art for the AI algorithms to train on.

After hundreds of years of collecting beautiful paintings in museums, it would take a hefty dollop of hubris to imagine immediate stagnation if the algorithms lacked access to new human-generated paintings.

Also, it wouldn’t be insurmountable to program something akin to “creativity” in the algorithms – an element of randomness to allow the algorithm to deviate from trends in its training set. This would put more emphasis on a user’s curatorial judgment, but also lets the algorithms innovate. Presumably most of the random deviations would look bad to me, but that’s often the way with innovation – impressionism, cubism, and other movements looked bad to many people at the beginning. (Honestly, I still don’t like much impressionism.)


There’s no reason to expect a brain made of salty fat to have incomparable powers. Our thoughts don’t come from anything spooky like quantum mechanics – neurons are much too big to persist in superpositions. Instead, we humans are so clever because we have a huge number of neurons interconnected in complex ways. We’re pretty special, but we’re not magical.

Eventually, a brain made of circuits could do anything that we humans can.

That’s a crucial long-run flaw of capitalism – eventually, the labor efforts of all biological organisms will be replaceable, so all available income could be allocated to capital owners instead of labor producers.

In a world of physician-bots, instead of ten medical doctors each earning a salary, the owner of ten RoboMD units would keep all the money.

We’re still a ways off from RoboMD entering the market, but this is a matter of engineering. AI algorithms can already write legal contracts, do sports journalism, drive cars & trucks, create award-winning visual images – there’s no reason to believe that an AI could never treat illnesses as well as a human doctor, clean floors as well as a human janitor, write code as well as a human programmer.

In the long run, all our work could be done by machines. Human work will be unnecessary. Within the logic of capitalism, our income should drop to zero.

Within the logic of capitalism, only the owners of algorithms should earn any money in the long-run. (And in the very long run, only the single owner of the best algorithms should earn any money, with all other entities left with nothing.)


Admittedly, it seems sad for visual artists – many of whom might not have nuanced economics backgrounds – to be among the people who experience the real-world demonstration of this principle first.

It probably feels like a very minor consolation to them, knowing that AI algorithms will eventually be able to do your job, too. When kids play HORSE, nobody wants to be out first.

But also, we have a choice. Kids choose whether or not to play HORSE, and they choose what rules they’ll play by. We (collectively) get to choose whether our world will be like this.

I’m not even that creative, and I can certainly imagine worlds in which, even after the advent of AI, human artists still get to do their work, and eat.

On taxing robots.

On taxing robots.

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.

Image by Farcaster.

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?

On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

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 productivity, and the risk of accidentally making the world worse when we’re trying to make it better.

On productivity, and the risk of accidentally making the world worse when we’re trying to make it better.

The United States economy has been growing more slowly than it used to. By itself, this wouldn’t be such a big deal — for many decades our economy has been doing well enough that, if we chose to, everybody could be pretty well off.

Image by Images Money on Flickr.

Unfortunately, we have massive spending obligations from our ill-designed, pyramid-scheme-esque Medicare program (which very clearly cannot be sustainable in a society that keeps investing in costly biomedical innovations — as time goes on we’ll have the ability to keep people alive longer and longer, at higher and higher cost — and refuses to discuss how long people should expect to live). And we have dramatically unequal income distribution, such that many people are struggling to survive amidst abject poverty.


My description probably makes clear that I think the underlying problem is philosophical, and that the optimal solution is a change in policy. But, ha, fat chance! It’s hard to make changes if you need a senatorial supermajority for any meaningful decision.

Read more here.

So economists are betting on technological change to save us. The underlying idea here is sound: new technologies can make the world better. Modern city dwellers would be horrified to wake up to the sights and smells of the 1800s. Particularly relevant to the problems described above is the fact that new technologies often increase productivity. Here’s a passage from Steven Rattner’s article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review:

Without increases in efficiency, workers can’t get paid more and the economy can’t expand. And of late, productivity growth has been woefully light.

But achieving reasonable growth is well within our grasp. Not everything that can be invented has been invented. The countless hours that would be saved by a single, now imaginable idea — driverless cars and trucks — could alone reverse disappointing productivity figures.


In the United States, there are something like 3.5 million truck drivers. Shipping costs are currently higher than they would be if all those truck drivers were replaced by robots. Robots work more cheaply than humans.

In addition to lowering shipping costs, though, a switch from human to robot truck drivers would make the world worse. Maybe this is somewhat counterintuitive. Everyone who buys things on the internet would have to pay less money! How could that possibly be worse??

Consumers would pay slightly less money. But truck drivers would earn much less money, and the owners of shipping companies would earn much more money. Currently the shipping company has to share revenue between its owners and the humans employed to drive trucks, but robots don’t ask for a cut.

Same with many other industries. News organizations will become more productive as more articles are written by algorithms instead of humans. Even an algorithm that can’t pass the Turing test could conduct a reasonable telephone interview. After this shift, consumers will have access to news more cheaply, the owners of major news organizations will earn more money, and journalists will get canned.

Legal work, software development, entry-level bench jobs at pharmaceutical companies — robots can (& soon will) be able to do all of that. Which is great news for potential productivity. Robots, I’ve heard, are hard workers.


All those changes will coincide with a shift in earnings away from the people doing that work, toward the people who own robots. An unfortunate consequence of this shift will be to drive net spending down. Capital owners are wealthier than their employees. They spend a smaller fraction of their income.

I do think that a lot of people in the U.S. spend too much money. I think it wouldn’t be so bad if fewer snazzy gadgets were bought and sold. But it’d take a pretty mean-spirited Luddite to think that the best way to accomplish this is for everybody’s income to dry up. I’d much rather see people want to look at & listen to the world around them instead of staring at tiny screens with plastic beads shoved in their ears. Choosing not to buy a gadget is empowering. Being broke feels crummy.


Driverless cars & trucks, article-writing algorithms, pipetting robots… all these technologies will increase potential productivity. But by exacerbating the income equality between workers (now unemployed) and capital owners (earning even more money now that they’ve bought a legion of robots), demand will fall. The net outcome of new productivity-enhancing technologies could very well be even slower growth.