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There’s a lot of chatter from the internetsia and on various econ-centric and forward-looking culture blogs (i.e. mediums hosting most of the interesting ideas you won’t ever hear discussed in the increasingly self-discrediting MSM) that automation and computerization are leading to impressive productivity gains, mostly concentrated among the high IQ elite knowledge workers who feign disbelief in the relevance of IQ (and other inheritable personality traits that are useful in a high-tech, interwoven economy, like conscientiousness). The thinking goes, and trend line evidence supports the notion, that vast swaths of humans will be left unemployable by their inability to grasp the language of abstraction. Unemployment rates that dwarf Great Depression numbers could soon be the norm.
Pursuing this line of thought, these Cassandras theorize that the end result of a bifurcating economy into machine overseers and redundant humans meant only to consume the products produced by the machines and their management consultant handlers will be huge wealth residing in the hands of a few, while pittances will drop like bread crumbs from welfare-issuance offices upon the benighted masses.
I happen to believe, based on the growing dysfunction I see organically emerging in my estranged country, that the theory has merit.
So I have two questions for any economists reading:
1. How is the present automation and productivity conundrum qualitatively different than ones from the past (for example, the classic case of the auto replacing the horse and carriage)? If you do not believe it is qualitatively different, explain how we escape the “zero marginal productivity” worker trap, especially in an era when human capital is shrinking due to a combination of dysgenic birth rate differentials and mass migration of unskilled poor? Note: “Humans are fungible” is not an acceptable cop-out.
2. If, say, most of the profits go to the top 10% in society, while the bottom 90% are unemployed or marginally employed, how is it exactly that those top 10% will be able to extract profits from a customer base that doesn’t have the income stream to afford more than the basic necessities?
There must be some self-regulating rebalancing dynamic that comes into play past a certain egregious level of wealth and employment inequality. I figure this rebalancing will happen in one of two ways: One, the government will step up redistribution (virtually guaranteeing a livable “income” for the left side of the bell curve). This option, naturally, confronts a bit more difficulty in a multiethnic society. Two, the profit geyser will dry up as the world comes to be increasingly dominated by a few elite essentially bartering amongst themselves. What good are productivity gains if no one is left with the cash to buy your products?
There is a third, albeit unlikely, outcome: goods will be able to be manufactured and distributed so cheaply that no more than a meager income stream will be needed to adorn one’s lifestyle with a slew of creature comforts.
Of course, riot-quelling Danegeld or sufficiently inexpensive goods say nothing about the devastation to the human psyche that would occur in a world of relegated uselessness. Unlimited consuming has a way of eating itself to death.
Please, spare me the singularity crackpottery. That, or genetic reengineering, won’t happen in time, if it happens at all, to stave off mass calamity.