by Patrick Appel

Over the weekend, Gregory Clarke imagined a future where nearly all low-skilled laborers are replaced by machines –forcing upwards of 100 million Americans to seek public assistance. Clarke argues that such a society would require very high taxes on the few citizens smart enough to compete with the supercomputers. Drum raises an eyebrow. Ryan Avent is skeptical:

[T]his is silly. Why? Machine and robotic resources aren’t free; they’re resource constrained just like everything else is resource constrained. We have the tecnological know-how to replace millions of human workers with machines right now, but we don’t because the expense of building, programming, operating, and maintaining the machines is too great. It’s not worth it. As demand for human labour falls, the price of human labour will also fall making the hiring of humans more attractive. Meanwhile, as demand for robot labour increases, the price of robot labour will also increase (since the stuff robots are made of is scarce), making the use of a robot for any given task less attractive. There will then be some market equilibrium which will, in all likelihood, involve plenty of employment for low skilled workers.

I'm with Avent. Most garments are sewn by hand. The technology exists to fully industrialize clothing manufacture but the equipment and programming costs are prohibitive. Will Wilkinson tackles Clarke from a different angle:

[T]echnological innovation over the past two centuries has been incredibly rapid, and workers have been repeatedly displaced by technology only to move on to different kinds of jobs. Why hasn’t technological change so far created much higher rates of unemployment? Does Clark think this is a historical fluke? Why does he think this pattern is about to be broken? Why does he think technological change is finally reaching a tipping point? His failure to address this obvious point at all is glaring. Is this whole conjecture really built on his experience with an automated phone call to United Airlines?

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