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A useful reaction to the coronavirus and social distancing is to muse on whether we can automate more of life.
Of course, that those very two things will increase the cost of certain human interactions means certain things will be worth – well, more worth – automating, provides us with the incentive for both the musing and the action. As ever there is the counter-reaction – but won’t automation mean stealing peoples’ jobs from them?
The correct answer to that being yes, it will. And that’s precisely and exactly the point of economic development, to kill off jobs, to steal them away from those who currently do them. This is not just because economists are heartless scum who wish to see all starve, crustless, in the gutter, but because this is entirely the point of the game itself.
Economists note that we live in a world of scarce resources. We do not have infinite amounts of anything with which we can produce things that people like to have.
One of those scarcities is human labour. Yes, there are people unemployed but the number willing to cut my lawn for free is zero – thus there is not enough of that human labour out there to produce all that I might want. Given the preponderance of lawns in our green and pleasant land, not enough to provide what many would like.
Economists also note that the list of desires – not wants or necessities, which are more easily sated – among humans is infinite.
The game is thus to allocate those scarcities to the satiation of as many as possible of those desires. This is the process we call “getting richer”, for the fatter and happier we are – the more sated – the richer we are.
Automation is replacing certain human labour with that of a machine. We can indeed make humans but it takes time and machines tend to be employable earlier in their lifecycle. So, employ a machine to do something and we kill a job, making available that human to do something else. This is what gives the economic answer to what the newly unemployed will do now their job has been stolen by the machine – something else.
It is not true, as some try to insist, that the production of the new technology produces the jobs that the displaced take. Take, say, the tractor and use it as the catch-all for the mechanisation of agriculture. There was a time when 80% of everyone had to work the land to feed the 100%. This largely meant we had peasants, priests to protect their souls and warriors to protect both sets of people – often from the warriors next door but then that’s just a job creation scheme.
Add the machines and we now have 2% or so of all on the land. We do not have that 78% unemployed, nor do we have them producing tractors. They’re doing something else, staffing the hospitals, performing ballet, totting up accounts. To the extent that the beancounter for the Olympic dance to the NHS makes us richer, it is the tractor that has done so. The peasant has lost that job grubbing for potatoes, yes, but by doing something else we are now able to enjoy the something else that is thereby produced.
It is this which makes us richer, the switch of the now-redundant-because-automation-has-destroyed-the-job-labour into producing something else. That greater wealth being the new thing being produced that we can now enjoy.
We can even bring the intersectionality of gender into this. Using the “washing machine” as the catch-all for the automation of domestic life, the economic emancipation of women stems from the manner in which technology destroyed that job of domestic drudge. From this we gain that glorious feature of the modern world where women can have anything even if not yet all. We are richer by this process.
As to what the something else on the other side of automation will be, yeah, that is a problem. It is possible to have politics decide who should go and do what but that’s never really had a great deal of success. One reason being that those displaced are an extant political community, with power and voting weight, while those things as yet undone have no constituency.
It’s also true that we’ve no great evidence that Boris Johnson knows who should be doing what – and I say this as someone who knows those who have worked with him, observed him as a manager, which is what an editor is.
Enter the entrepreneur
Economists of a certain type again have an answer here - the entrepreneur. The correct definition of which is someone who organises extant scarce resources in a new manner. Possibly to do something old in a new manner, possibly to do something new. The point, the distinction, being that the entrepreneur is not the inventor, nor the capitalist, but the organiser of what already exists into some new form of production.
An excess of labour now having nothing to do as a result of the machines stealing the jobs is thus fodder for that entrepreneurial process. As the list of desires is infinite, as long as people are able to experiment on new combinations to sate further along the list those scarce resources, those jobless, will become employed.
What will the cash register ladies do once we all use apps to scan our own groceries? We don’t know but something else. When the bank branches all close because of online and ATMs, the cashiers will do something else but we know not what. If we ever do automate burger making – as several companies are attempting – what will all the arts graduates do? Ah, well, economics has never claimed to have an answer to every question.
True, transitions can be uncomfortable, we have no actual answer to what the jobs of the future are going to be, only an indication as to the system we need to be using to find out. But a complaint that automation kills jobs is missing the point entirely.
This is how civilisation advances, this is the purpose of the very game itself, to destroy jobs so as to free up human labour to be able to do other things. Even if – perhaps especially if – the thing that freed-up labour decides to do is say, sod this work stuff – I’m off to the beach. Being able to sate desires is indeed to be richer.