Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Amnesia, Automation and Job Loss

I would say that when technology is contributing to greater inequality of incomes, as it  seems to be doing in recent decades, then address the inequality directly. -- Timothy Taylor
Having lived through "recent decades" (along with a couple of less recent decades) I can't imagine how Timothy Taylor can blame greater inequality of incomes on technology and then go on to talk about addressing inequality directly through public policy.

Whether or not it was the intention of public policies, greater income inequality has been a direct outcome of  those policies. As a matter of fact, increasing income inequality wasn't a stated objective of the policies. The stated objectives were promoting economic growth and controlling inflation. That was supposed to make everybody better off. Technology is just an alibi for what went wrong.

Is Timothy Taylor against economic growth? Does he favor accelerating inflation? If not, how does he propose to design public policies to somehow counteract the presumably unintended inequality effects of the policies that inadvertently brought about those outcomes, while simultaneously continuing those policies and pretending that some vague "technology" was the culprit for the undesired effects? I think he's got himself a bit of a dilemma there.

Might I suggest that his narrative doesn't jibe with itself? We already have "corporatist public policy" in a form that insulates elite decision making from democratic oversight or input. How we transition from that to something better is a mystery to me but I'm pretty sure that the solution is not to pretend that individuals' insatiable desires are what ultimately determine the mixture of leisure and income. Especially after three decades of stagnant incomes for wage earners. I remember the promises made in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Those promises were broken. Nobody believes them any more.

What people do believe is not necessarily true, either. But it conforms to their experience. Given a choice between abstractions that have been discredited by experience and illusions that validate that experience, most people will choose the illusions. Hello, Rough Beast, slouching toward Bethlehem.

The "reduction of the average work week in manufacturing from 67 hours in 1870 to somewhat less than 42 hours" that Leontief cited, quoted by Taylor, was not just something that "happened" as a result of individuals choosing to take more of the fruits of their increased productivity in leisure. It was the outcome of political struggle that was viciously opposed at every step along the way. At. Every. Step. The compromising and subsequent defeat of the labor movement that fought for shorter hours is not unrelated to the subsequent increase of income inequality over recent decades.

In the view of some economists, such as Milton Friedman, labor unions were a parasitic impediment on the smooth functioning of free markets. Free to choose entailed a "right-to-work," in the Taft-Hartley sense. Hooray! The debilitating leisure is all gone; we can bask obesely in our insatiable glut of shoddy goods and huckster services. Climate change? What... [glug, glug, glug]

Economists are all too modest when they act surprised at the ill effects resulting from policies that they had insisted would make everyone better off. "If only they had listened to us," they moan.

Oh, but the leaders did listen. And they did what their economists told them to.

By the way, the analysis and arguments put forward by advocates during that long struggle for shorter working time are very relevant to some of the most seemingly intractable policy dilemmas that we face today. And no, they weren't based on a false belief in a fixed amount of work. Unfortunately, the actual views have been so slandered and sidetracked by the propaganda that economists would rather contemplate the lint in their own belly button than marginalize themselves by engaging with these "fringe" ideas in an ethical debate.

1 comment:

reason said...

Basic Income.

i.e. DIRECT redistribution. It works REGARDLESS of the source of the problem.