When all the jobs belong to robots, do we still need jobs?

Zeynep Tufekci's scathing response to the establishment consensus that tech will create new jobs to replace the ones we've automated away makes a lot of good points.

It's especially good on the subject of whether we have a "shortage" of humans to care for other humans, pointing out that what people really mean when they say this is that they don't value that work highly enough to pay a sum that would attract and sustain workers who do it.

This is an oft-overlooked point in arguments about "skilled labor shortages." Market economics dictates that real labor shortages are attended by rising wages — if workers are scarce, their value goes up — but in skilled industries in developed countries where there is such a shortage, wages are stagnant. What business means by "there are not enough workers" is "there are not enough workers at the price we're willing to pay."

But where Tufekci's analysis falls short is in her willingness to think outside the market box. She implies that the solution to this all is some kind of market reform, but doesn't suggest that, perhaps, markets can't efficiently organize abundant things — only scarce things. If we persist in the view that the dividends from robots' increased productivity should accrue to robot owners, we'll definitely come to a future where there aren't enough owners of robots to buy all the things that robots make.

Some economists I've spoken to tell me that they think this will lead to more redistributive policies — like Piketty's solution in Capital in the 21st Century — as a way of salvaging capitalism.

But as I said in my review of Piketty, there's a real scarcity of economists willing to think about the possibility that abundance makes markets obsolete altogether. Property rights may be a way of allocating resources when there aren't enough of them to go around, but when automation replaces labor altogether and there's lots of everything, do we still need it?

I don't know, but I think the unwillingness of economists and thinkers to even contemplate it tells us that we're arguing about what kind of railroad rules we should have once there are automobiles everywhere.

Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma [Zeynep Tufekci/Medium]

(via IO9)

(Image: Tesla Robot Dance, Steve Jurvetson, CC-BY)