For more than 200 years, the Luddites have been wrong. Technological advances have created a far wealthier West and millions of new jobs. As machines became more capable, so did humans, moving up the value ladder. But must it always be so, specifically the impact of automation on employment? “There is no economic law that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress,” write MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee write in Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy.
The disconnect in recent years between, on the one hand, rising stock prices and corporate profits and, on the other, falling median incomes and lackluster job growth, seems to give some credence to the idea that the Luddites weren’t wrong, just early. Financial Times columnist Edward Luce, for one, seems persuaded that “the spread of the robots will leave a large and growing chunk of the US labour force in the lurch.” Health care and education are just two low-productivity sectors that seem fertile ground for the future penetration of both robots and digital technology.
Assuming the answer isn’t to smash the machines, or at least unplug them, what can we do to create an economy that provides plentiful jobs and rising incomes? The good news is that the right policies to deal with technological acceleration are pretty much the same as if you’re combating technological stagnation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee offer a list of ideas, mostly centered around education and entrepreneurship, that work either way and could appeal to both the left and the right.
Among them: 1) pay teachers more so better students want to become teachers; 2) hold teachers more accountable for performance by eliminating tenure; 3) encourage more high-skill immigration; 4) create special visas for entrepreneurs; 5) teach entrepreneurship throughout higher education; 6) create a database of “startup-in-a-box” templates; 7) lower governmental barriers to starting a business; 8) upgrade the nation’s transportation, energy, and communication infrastructure; 9) increase government funding for basic research such as that carried out by DARPA and NIH; 10) resist efforts to regulate hiring and firing; 11) lower payroll taxes; 12) decouple benefits, such as health insurance, from jobs; 13) don’t rush to regulate new innovation business structures such as crowdsourcing; 14) eliminate inefficient, crony capitalist distortions such as the home mortgage deduction and the Too Big To Fail big bank subsidy; 15) shorten copyright periods and increase the flexibility of fair use.
In addition, it may become more important for people to generate income from capital, not just labor, if machines depress wages over the long run. That’s right, a return to the Ownership Society. A good first step would be to transform the income tax into a consumption tax by no longer taxing capital income. And we should make it easier for average families to own stock. But that’s becoming harder to do with many companies going private. Noah Smith,a finance professor at Stony Brook University, recommends reforming regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley “that make it risky and difficult to go public.”
Another option, suggested by economist Tyler Cowen, are so-called universal 401(k) plans where government would help fund tax-free retirement accounts for lower-income Americans, matching personal contributions to those accounts. “A fiscally responsible universal 401(k) plan would not make everyone happy. Libertarians and conservatives would be suspicious of government-created accounts. Liberals might not like freezing or reducing future expenditures on Medicare and Social Security.”
If we are really racing against the machines, time to leave the starting blocks.