Saturday, August 2, 2014

Jobless Future or Futureless Jobs?

In a Washington Post Innovations blog op-ed published July 21, Vivek Wadhwa wrote:
In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers revived a debate I’d had with futurist Ray Kurzweil in 2012 about the jobless future. 
He echoed the words of Peter Diamandis, who says that we are moving from a history of scarcity to an era of abundance. Then he noted that the technologies that make such abundance possible are allowing production of far more output using far fewer people.
Asking the wrong question again. There will not be a "jobless future." There may not even be a future. And that's the good news!

The bad news is that if machines replace enough people (and everything else remains the same) then wages will fall to a low enough level that it will be cheaper to use people to do the work that machines could otherwise do. Of course, everything else won't remain the same.

When writing about jobless futures, "futurists" seem to forget that using more and more machines requires burning more and more fuel. Burning fuel emits carbon dioxide and requires more and more work to find and get and refine the fuel. Reductio ad absurdum implies that all the fuel and all the work will be expended going after the fuel to enable the process of going after the fuel -- a sort of perpetual inertia machine.

We won't ever get there. But we might travel too far in that direction to allow us to turn back.

Wadhwa makes a suggestion the Sandwichman has long advocated: "The only solution that I see is a shrinking work week. We may perhaps be working for 10 to 20 hours a week instead of the 40 for which we do today." I don't suppose Wadhwa realizes how deeply embedded the antagonism towards this "only solution" is among the high priests of fookerism.

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