Gaius Publius: Stephen Hawking on What Killed the World of the Jetsons. Prelude to Thoughts on a Guaranteed Jobs Program

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. GP article archive  here. Originally published at DownWithTyranny

The Jetson’s life in one is which so little work is done by humans that leisure time has expanded exponentially and no one is poor. In the image above, even the robot maid has robots to serve her. What’s the unspoken assumption behind the Jetson’s world?

the swarthy Furies stalk the man
gone rich beyond all rights

–Aeschylus, Agamemnon

I’m about to start writing about the new proposal from Stephanie Kelton and her colleagues at the Levy Institute on the guaranteed jobs program, a proposal, by the way, that’s starting to get some serious notice.

But ahead of that work I want to consider an extreme case, but not an unlikely one. What if, in the future, there simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone? What then?

Put more simply, what’s the underlying assumption behind the world of the Jetsons? The late Stephen Hawking, in his last Reddit AMA appearance, has the answer.

Technological Unemployment

Here’s what was asked of Stephen Hawking in that last AMA session by one Reddit questioner (emphasis mine):

I’m rather late to the question-asking party, but I’ll ask anyway and hope. Have you thought about the possibility of technological unemployment, where we develop automated processes that ultimately cause large unemployment by performing jobs faster and/or cheaper than people can perform them? Some compare this thought to the thoughts of the Luddites, whose revolt was caused in part by perceived technological unemployment over 100 years ago. In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done? Thank you for your time and your contributions. I’ve found research to be a largely social endeavor, and you’ve been an inspiration to so many.

A fascinating question. But first a note: Technological unemploymentis the term for exactly what we mentioned at the beginning, “the loss of jobs caused by technological change.” As Wikipedia explains, “Such change typically includes the introduction of labour-saving ‘mechanical-muscle’ machines or more efficient ‘mechanical-mind’ processes (automation).”

Wikipedia continues: “Historical examples include artisan weavers reduced to poverty after the introduction of mechanised looms. During World War II, Alan Turing’s Bombe machine compressed and decoded thousands of man-years worth of encrypted data in a matter of hours. A contemporary example of technological unemployment is the displacement of retail cashiers by self-service tills [automated checkout machines].”

It’s hard to imagine a world without enough jobs if you’re living reasonably comfortably in the U.S. But consider India, to pick just one example. What could possibly happen in the Indian economy that would allow its 1.3 billion people — a population four times the U.S. population — all to live “reasonably comfortably”? India already doesn’t have enough good jobs for its people — and that’s before considering the the pressures of automation.

Considered globally, there are already not enough jobs in the world for all the people in it.

But the problem posed by job-killing automation (robots, in the popular imagination) still needs a solution. What if, even in developed countries, the average number of working hours available is fewer than eight per day, perhaps far fewer?

This is Stephen Hawking’s answer, and it’s the same solution in the future case of mathematically too few jobs as in the present case (emphasis mine):

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

In a world where more and more people are squeezed by fewer jobs, lower-paying jobs, and the relentless flow of newly created wealth into fewer and fewer hands, the only solution is, as Hawking says, “wealth redistribution.” The alternative is stark: organized society will simply crumble into poverty — and in my view, rebellion.

The Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet: How Will Elites React?

I’ve been saying that both the U.S. and the rest of the world are in a “pre-revolutionary state.” Hawking, in an earlier Guardian article, says something similar. He calls the increasing inequality “socially destructive,” and for that and other reasons names this “the most dangerous time for our planet”:

The concerns underlying these votes [Brexit and the election of Donald Trump] about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.

We need to put this alongside the financial crash, which brought home to people that a very few individuals working in the financial sector can accrue huge rewards and that the rest of us underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed leads us astray. So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.

Hawking identifies the solution. He does not call for reaction and resistance by the ruled, since he considers the Brexit vote and the election of Trump already to be reactions to inequality. He calls instead for intelligent response by those with actual power, the elites themselves:

What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we [he considers himself, correctly, one of the “cultural elites“], in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.

I agree with his last statement above. I’ve been putting it this way:

It’s up to the rich to stand down. It’s up to police to stand down. It’s up to the predators to stop feeding on us, eating our money, our labor — and in the case of the torturers in our “security” community — our pain, which they give us to please themselves.

If the rich are determined to extract the last drop of blood … expect the victims to put up a fuss. And don’t expect that fuss to be pretty.

When all power belongs to the state and the rulers who guide it, the people can only make their needs known. And if those needs are ignored, all they can then do is destroy the world of their betters, prior, perhaps, to taking power themselves, an event which often never occurs. In the face of elites resistance, especially extreme resistance, only destruction of the old will allow the powerless to create the new, if that’s indeed what they do.

Prise de la Bastille, Jean-Pierre Houël, Bibliothèque nationale de France (source; click to enlarge)

The most orderly modern form of “taking power for themselves” occurred in 2016 — the electoral rebellion against the Clintonist-Obamist neoliberal rulers of the Democratic Party by people supporting Bernie Sanders. That revolt was put down, as Party elites pulled every lever available to retain control.

There may be one more orderly, electoral attempt in 2020 — or not; the choices may be miserable. But if it does occur, unless elites stand down, unless the next electoral rebellion is permitted to succeed, the popular response to failure won’t be electoral, and could be decidedly disorderly.

Hawking, the “enormous optimist,” puts the problem faced by the elites more politely: “We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.”

I, the less-thanoptimistic, nevertheless agree with him. It does indeed take “enormous optimism” to think that a class of people defined by their hubris will learn “a sense of humility.” Jamie Dimon, beware.

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  1. Oleaginous Outrager

    So just hope the “elites” will stop acting so, well, “elitist”? Great plan.

    Why exactly is Hawkling supposed to be an expert on sociopolitics and the economy?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Because economists are:

      1. Demonstrably terrible at predicting the impact of their policies and making forecasts, even though they hold themselves out as experts in both

      2. Overwhelmingly the business of justifying the market system to ward off Communism, socialism, and various calls for redistribution. The ones that do not hew to “mainstream” views are marginalized (as in have trouble getting academic appointments, particularly at prestigious schools, have trouble getting published at top tier journals, as Jamie Galbraith and others can attest, and have trouble getting non-academic work like op-eds published.

      By contrast, Hawking is an unquestionably smart man who has no ideological axe to grind. The fact that it is obvious to him what the issues are is telling.

      1. Lee

        Wasn’t it Einstein that identified compound interest as the most powerful force in the universe? An astute social observation by my lights.

    2. Alex V

      Please enlighten us as to which interesting and relevant thinkers we should be listening to instead…..

      Expertise in a subject does not establish that the knowledge that has been acquired is logically cohesive. The Catholic Church built an empire by asserting the authority and expertise of their clergy – the power of that of “knowledge” was largerly destroyed when it was questioned in a systematic way. The same will hopefully happen to “modern” economics.

      Hawking may not have trained in economics, but he was more than capable of the logical thought required to question dogma built primarily on a foundation of assertion and assumption.

      1. sgt_doom

        Definitely NOT Michio Kaku who I once heard describe the 2007 — 2009 global economic meltdown as a typical business cycle!

        (Reminder: From 1997 to 2007, $23 trillion in securitized debt was sold, making a select few quite rich. Between 2007 to 2009, US, Euro and Asian households lost $23 trillion in assets and wealth — a colossal wealth transfer to the .01 percent.)

    3. Carolinian

      I’m with you. Hawking is just stating the obvious. What isn’t obvious and what isn’t stated is how to get the elites to voluntarily move to a more equal society. If the world ran on pure reason we wouldn’t be in this mess.

      What we have in fact is not a technology problem but rather a human being problem. Technology has no agency. Perhaps it’s time to get serious about studying ourselves and acknowledge that much of what we do has nothing to do with thinking and is instead the result of pure instinct. This is Darwin’s true message and not the Randian superman theme favored by the elites.

      1. roadrider

        much of what we do has nothing to do with thinking and is instead the result of pure instinct. This is Darwin’s true message

        Huh? Please elaborate. I am not familiar with the connection between “instinct” and evolution,

        1. JE

          Instinct is non-learned behavior. Like your startle response to loud noises, like birds raised in isolation being able to build a nest. Those with better instinctual behaviors survive better, hence survival of the fittest. The fitness of various instincts vary with situation, which is one hypothesis for why human behaviors like psychopathy or extreme risk aversion persist. In good times, one may flourish (the feckless grasshopper) and in lean another (the industrious ants). And the domestication of the dog continues unabated….

          1. roadrider

            Well, OK, I guess there are some instinctual behaviors that aren’t learned that confer some survival advantage. But I question whether they’re actually more important than learned behavior and I think that its a real stretch to call that “Darwin’s true message”. Wasn’t he measuring the beak lengths of finches and things like that? I don’t get the impression that the majority of his work was based on behavioral adaptations.

            1. Brooklin Bridge

              I always thought Darwin’s theory revolved around species evolution via random mutations advantageous to environmental circumstances. Perhaps this included and/or explained instinct but I thought the latter was a combination of evolution and compiled learning (where environment is teacher rather than or in addition to random mutation) over many generations.

              Anyway, it doesn’t really change the point Carolinian (I think) was making about simplistic superman fantasies in the guise of behavioral theory by Ayn Rand or any other such goofball.

          2. Lee

            Humans are perhaps the most altricial of species, requiring years of guidance to become “independent.” At the same time we are intensely social to a point that our material survival is absolutely dependent on other members of our own species, most of whom we will never set eyes upon. In these ways we are a rather weird species. While the of bonds of evolution, both surly and salutary, still bind us, culture and technology increase their variety and the unpredictability of their expression and outcomes. And so we are left to ponder Rodney King’s koan: “Can’t we all just get along?”

        2. jrs

          I suspect the term instinct is really not being used correctly and that is precisely here. Psychology went down this whole black hole of what and what was not an instinct for awhile. It moved away from it.

          1. Carolinian

            Actually the notion that much of our behavior is inherited and universal is very much alive.


            And perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether it is literally inherited through genes or instead through culture (although common human behaviors throughout all cultures suggest the former). My point is simply that much of what we do is part of our natures–“human nature”–and this was Darwin’s belief as well even if many later disagreed. Instead “survival of the fittest” was picked up by crackpots, especially in the 20th century, so they could proclaim themselves the fittest, kill millions etc.

            I’m contending–and of course it’s just my belief–that we are all trapped by this thing called human nature and that’s what makes it so hard to follow Hawking’s reasonable advice and “get along.” Perhaps it’s our vanity that keeps us from realizing how much we have in common with all the other species. We should instead celebrate being part of the natural world, not constantly try to assert “dominion”.

        3. Summer

          He also talked about “artificial selection vs natural selection”.
          Economic “winners” fall under artificial selection, but the biggest con is the highly promoted view that there is anything natural about the economy.
          The other root of oppression is the idea the poverty is a sin and sinners must be punished. You can wrap a whole lot of prosperity gospel around that idea.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Remember those ads that said : ” when E F Hutton talks, people listen” . . . ?

        Well, when Stephen Hawking talks, people listen . . . maybe.

        Yes, it is obvious. Stephen Hawking was smart enough to know it is obvious. But he was also smart enough to know that the same elites who pish-posh the BrexiTrump voters might listen when Stephen Hawking talks.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Of course, the power-money elites might respond with Raytheon Oven Rays, LRAD eardrum-exploders, cancer-juice sprayed on millions of protesters at a time, etc.

          The power-money elites might simply decide to run the equation the other way: kill the masses down to the few actually still needed to do the jobs that only lower class people can do.

          Stephen Hawking would never think of THAT solution. He never had to learn about power and money and social system command.

          1. False Solace

            If the last 17 years have taught us anything, it’s that modern warfare is incapable of subduing a population. Armed forces and police can’t maintain order if the people want them out. It doesn’t matter how many toys they have.

            Repeatedly denying the will of the people is how you get a failed state. The elites are making a bet that the population will back down first. It’s a game of Russian roulette where the elites have the most to lose. They figure that if all goes wrong they can just escape to a place they haven’t destroyed yet. This is literally the plan. It’s why Thiel has NZ citizenship and various other billionaires own bunkers in Montana and private islands. They don’t care if the country falls apart. Whatever happens, they won’t be personally affected.

            1. Jeremy Grimm

              I think the last 40 years have taught us a direct assault on a military force with modern weapons is unwise, but a long bloody war of attrition can succeed after considerable carnage of the attackers. As for people like Peter Thiel, I like to believe people will not be forgotten and left to rot in their bunkers. I think they may find their air vents blocked off.

              1. The Prescription Was Clear

                A proper bunker relies on it’s own air and water purification, internal energy stores, supplies etc.

                These things were never developed to last very long, not even the ones made by the government.

                Note: if a bunker actually has an air duct to the outside world, then it isn’t much of a bunker in the first place as various weapons can use said channel as an access point. Also, be careful not to confuse military concept of protection, which always presupposes specific tactical conditions, with civilian concept of survival.

            2. Summer

              But all that money means nothing without the have nots to lord over.

              So the haves will have to make have nots out of some of the privileged.

              Then, at some point, people have to be able to leave a bunker. The best course of action is not to try to get in, make sure they never come out.

      3. sgt_doom

        Agreed! America, at least, was on a most progressive arc until the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

        The bogus Noam Chomsky (and the late Alexander Cockburn) love to say that their deaths didn’t amount to any significant change, which I greatly differ with!

        [But then, unlike the Chomskys (father and daughter spawn), I recall JFK’s Interest Equalization Tax, his attempt to end tax bonuses to corporations when they offshored jobs, his original Alliance For Progress (greatly altered after his murder), Executive Order 11110, which pumped $4.3 billion directly to the populace, doing an end run around the Federal Reserve, etc., etc.).]

        1. J.Fever

          What accounts for the last 50 years degeneration then? I always look at the movements of the 60’s and wonder WTF happened.
          If these Parkland students actually affect change could it be a new tilling of the countries soul?
          2020 ain’t looking to good, unless a true change happens in 2018,(Blue Wave). I don’t see it.
          Bernie IMO has no chance nationwide. Only because Bernie has to connect personally to people with his message. That’s a lot of connects.
          I’ve been waiting for 40 years for the “Old Guard” to be sidelined. But a new batch keeps replacing them.
          The message is right, something’s not right in the messaging, again IMO.

          1. Temporarily Sane

            And Bernie doesn’t have the ruthless edge required to slay his many opponents. He was far too “nice” to the Clinton camp and they took full advantage of his diplomatic nature.

    4. Temporarily Sane

      It is part of the prevailing myth that scientists are infallible, incorruptible, and inherently “objective”. Therefore they are invited to speak authoritatively about issues outside their areas of expertise. (The reverse is almost never true…English professors, city planners or sociologists are rarely, if ever, offered a soapbox from which to “explain” their take on physics or neuroscience to a lay audience).

      The rise of the internet in tandem with full on neoliberal capitalism has seen reason, “science” and binary thinking elevated to a kind of secular religion, with scientists/computer scientists, Silicon Valley tech billionaires and status quo friendly economists playing the role of the clerical class whose fatwas are accepted at face value no matter how ridiculous, redundant or destructive they might be.

      Hawking’s take on the political and economic crisis facing the global north is what you would expect from a smart guy who delved into this stuff during his spare time. It’s congruent and sincerely meant but tinkering around the edges and hoping the elites will throw the masses a few more crumbs while the system remains essentially unchanged is a temporary fix at best.

      Science is invaluable as a method of inquiry and when carefully and ethically applied it provides insights that are immensely beneficial and the closest humans can get to objective universal truths. But the current fetishizing of all things science and math as tools that can reveal “objective” truths about every aspect of life and existence is a dark Monty Pythonesque farce that can have serious unintended consequences. Neuroscientist and former Wall Street quant Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction shows how crafting “objective” public and corporate policies based on crunching the massive amounts of data and statistics collected via internet tracking and employee feedback questionnaires can devastate the lives of individuals and make life in already marginalized communities even tougher.

      Shunning and denigrating the humanities in favor of STEM disciplines as if they are engaged in a zero sum struggle for supremacy is extremely dangerous. What can physics and math teach us about friendship and sexual relations between humans? How can computer science be used to create social policies and address rampant income inequality and legalized corruption? How can biology help me appreciate music and literature and make sense of romantic love? They can’t of course because human behavior and the way we organize ourselves socially and politically do not follow the laws of physics and cannot be understood using C++ or studying the transmissions from a mountain gorilla’s radio collar.

      If the STEM fields were suited to studying humans and their affairs we wouldn’t as a species have created and nourished the disciplines collected under that humanities umbrella. STEM as an “objective” stand in for the humanities guarantees dehumanization and misery, or worse, on a massive scale.

      There is a place for STEM and a place for the humanities. In some instances they even overlap. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But to jettison one in favor of the other in order to satisfy the demands of an obscurantist ruling class ideology is beyond foolish. It won’t even pave the road to Hell because there is nothing virtuous or well intentioned about decadent living, unprecedented avarice and accumulating massive political and economic power for its own sake.

      1. Carolinian

        Well the traditional “humanities” don’t seem to have done much to curb bad behavior over the preceding centuries or in the present time so perhaps this is the moment to try a new approach. Those radio collars may reveal more than you think.

        Since I do know something about English majors I’d say the notion that literature or even great novelists have some special insight into the meaning of it all is dubious at best. We are all limited by our experience and can only contribute our own special insights (often valuable and interesting).

        Science is not a religion but at its best is simply a state of mind that remains open to all explanations until proved by the five senses and even then nothing is considered absolute. As you say it’s a method, not an ideology. Unfortunately I believe it’s the method that the humanities often seem intimidated by. The sciences are not attacking the humanities–in fact just the opposite in my experience. People are free to believe what they like.

  2. ambrit

    Thank the Furies!
    I am not alone in my concerns.
    Being by nature and training a cynic, I fear that the latter, more ‘robust’ response to the crisis will be the outcome.
    Combine this with the observation that despair, or the sense that ones’ standards of living are diminishing, drives more ‘robust’ responses to social crises, and we have the recipe for that ‘perfect social storm.’
    Publius’ observation that the election of Trump and the Brexit vote were clear repudiations of the status quo by the public at large leads to the inevitable conclusion that were the elites to ignore this trend, they would be seen, and rightly so, as impediments to ‘progress’ and swept out of the way on a tidal wave of fire and blood.
    In this scenario, the present ‘elites’ would fail of fulfilling the basic definition of an elite, (the choice or best of anything, considered collectively,) and instead be defined as and function as a mere clique, (a small, exclusive group of people.)
    History may not be a vast impersonal force, but it is a vast impersonal process.

  3. djrichard

    So just doing some thinking out loud. Imagine corporations are completely automated. How do they price their goods and services? Well it’s certainly not based on cost. It’s that good ol fashioned supply and demand.

    For instance, ISPs typically generate 90% profit margin (EBITDA) on high-speed internet service. Especially where supply is limited (lack of competition). And even where there is competition, there’s an equilibrium of pricing for a healthy profit margin. So just take an ISP and fully automate the rest of their recurring costs (in particular maintenance and repair, 1st and 2nd level help desks, marketing and advertising) and that’s presumably the future in a nut shell. 100% profit margin (EBITDA) instead of some sub-100% profit margin that they get now. [I’m ignoring non-recurring costs to simplify.]

    Anyways, we don’t even need technological unemployment to reach this future. This future could simply be reached by corporations outsourcing their entire supply chain (up to and including CXO positions) to other countries.

    You just need a lot more spending by the Fed Gov to fill the gap for the income that’s no longer coming from corporations. Income that would in turn be given right back to the corporation to give them their earnings.

    But if nobody is employed what does it mean to even pick up the slack? The slack for who? The corporations?

    It would all be a bit arbitrary. The Fed Gov could in theory reduce spending, and the corporations would just have to lump it, live with that being the limit on what they could hoover up. It’s still earnings. Why should the Fed Gov be obliged to give them the earnings that they’ve historically been used to, or some theoretical GDP growth in earnings?

    Well I can think of a couple of reasons the corporations would need growth in earnings. To pay debt and to provide forward guidance on stock valuations. After all, in this brave new world, we still have the banks indebting everyone (at least the corporations, if nobody else, though who am I kidding, the banks will still be indebting the JG recipients as well as the UBI recipients). Have to give the banks their profit on printing money. And in this brave new world, we still have people putting their money to use to “climb the wall of worry” (as if there was any real risk) to make even more money to separate themselves from the hoi polloi (this is where the JG recipients will separate themselves from the UBI recipients). Have to give these “risk takers” the profit on putting their money to work.

    We know how this future works. We’re already living it.

    1. ambrit

      The fly in that ointment is the fact that people, when they experience a falling standard of living have a tendency to want to blame someone or something for that fact. Being merely human, they don’t want to blame themselves. The next best thing to blame is either each other, or some ‘impersonal’ ‘heartless’ force out of their control. As peoples have discovered throughout history, they do have one manner of control; destruction. The desire to destroy that which one cannot possess is a common and recurring theme in human affairs. Smart elites learn to finesse that tendency. This had earlier been done through institutionally managed limits on individual and corporate rapacity; i.e. the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and later additions to same. Remove those limits, as has been done by the neo-liberal cadres most recently, and one reverts to the basic boom till you bust methodology.
      We’ve had the ‘boom.’ Now it’s time for the ‘bust.’

      1. sgt_doom

        Riiiiigggghhhhttt . . . . all Americans and others are to blame for the greatest and most diabolical insurance swindle in human history, the Credit Default Swap and global economic meltdown of 2007 to 2009!

        Riiiigggghhhhhtttt . . . .

      2. JTMcPhee

        I’ve gotten Pooh-poohed for repeating Frank Herbert’s observation that”A person who can destroy a thing, controls a thing. Engineers and social scientists recoil from the notion. But when the Crowd finally masses up and does it’s thing, when some Code pervert figures out the ultimate hack, or some kid with a CRSP-R cooks up that terminal virus or prion or customized bacterium, or some corporation deploys those swarms of Slaughterbots ™, those folks Rule.

    2. Summer

      “Anyways, we don’t even need technological unemployment to reach this future. This future could simply be reached by corporations outsourcing their entire supply chain (up to and including CXO positions) to other countries.”

      The elites of Asia and Africa aren’t any more willing to redistribute the wealth than their American counterparts. That’s the only thing that has made the middle class road to serfdom, here in the USA, a slow march instead of a sprint.

  4. makedoanmend

    The Steven Hawking quote uses a particular word in such a manner that its usage leaves an otherwise excellent observation open to dilution by today’s neoliberal thought hive, imo.

    I have a concern about the use of the term redistribution, as in “redistribution of wealth”. The word is not neutral in modern usage. In its modern context redistribution seems to inherently suggest that wealth naturally flows to those who own the means of production or guard the gates of services. Whilst I can claim in many instances that my labour value has been redistributed away from me both as a producer and as an end consumer, usually no negative connotation is implied to this redistribution of wealth. If, on the other hand, there is a negative connotation if we suggest that we tax the wealth accumulation by the 1% back into the hands of the general population. Many neoliberals suggest it is a form of theft and, more importantly, most workers wouldn’t disagree. Primary redistribution from workers is never mentioned whilst tax redistribution is almost a verboten topics these days.

    Just a quibble with an otherwise excellent article. (And really a bit of tangent to the main theme expressed in the article.)

    1. JBird

      I would say that most of the wealth created by the 99% has been redistributed to the 1%. When the actual wealth and income of most people is declining while a very few get all that extra, perhaps redistribution is needed. If you go to Oxfam, you can see that an actual small van can hold all the people who have as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire human race. That is less than 10 to close to four billion. Years ago it was an large shift, a few decades it would have been a airliner, then a bus, now it’s a van and soon it will be a car.

      Our system is seriously broken.

      1. makedoanmend

        Thanks for the reply JBird.

        Interesting analogy using vehicles to measure the “wealth affect”. It seems so apt these days.

        I’m not saying redistribution is in some way inherently tainted, but rather that its usage has been defined by a certain ideology (neo-liberalism) to accommodate their objectives. Its meaning is designed to be taken as good and natural when the gains of labour value redistribution accumulate to the wealthy but somehow bad if those same gains are taxed to stop rampant accumulation.

        As I was thinking about the situation with automation, I can better see why NC authors tend to support a jobs guarantee over universal income. By taking away our value as labour the neoliberals in tandem with the so-called progress of automation reduce us to mere consumption units. (The contention being that an individual makes wealth during work creation and also by buying the creations of work.) They can claim they are redistributing their wealth to us so that we can buy what they make, and thus claim we are sort of sponging off their good will. “We owe them”. Our autonomy as individuals is then reduced or eliminated. We become economic vassals on an individual basis without the means or meaning of supporting ourselves, families and communities.

    2. Lambert Strether

      I’m old-fashioned. I don’t think redistribution is the answer; redistribution doesn’t speak to power. I think putting capital allocation under more democratic control* is the answer; that does. Right now, the only reason we as a society ever do that is war. Well, why is that the only appropriate case?**

      * You can call that “regulation” if it makes you more comfortable.

      ** We might also rethink what “elite” means.

      1. makedoanmend

        I, for one, absolutely concur with your entire statement.

        Regulation is such part of everything we do and a well recognised phenomenon in our natural world. Regulation is a necessary social practice. Practice (as in continual and never ending ) imho being the operative word – over regulation seeming to be as harmful as no regulation.

      2. Ignacio

        I tried to posit something similar but it was lost in the wire. Empowerment of the people is more sexy that wealth redistribution in my opinion. For instance with new Unions or Union-like globalised institutions that do not exclude unemployed.

      3. pdehaan

        Redistribution does speak to power, if from the 99% to the 1%.

        And war is an incentive.

        For example, when the claim is made that the Iraq war cost much more to the US than it could ever hope to recoup in oil profits (as an argument that it was never about the oil), we need to consider who we’re talking about when we mention the ‘US’.
        The 2 trillion, or whatever the sum is, was paid for by the public. The profiting is done by private corporations. It also furthers the case to implement ideological and fiscal projects later (i.e. ‘safety net’ reform), when the bills are due.

      4. jsn

        While people do respond to prestige signals as well as brute power, elites can purchase both. As a result, as a rule it is only when the basis of elite rule faces an existential threat that elites reform. Existential war where two powers are fairly evenly met brings out the reformist tendency for the simple reason that when fairly equally matched the society best able to fully mobilize its resources, human and material, tends to win. Oppression and exploitation have real costs that are born by the victims until the elite need those victims to maintain the structure in which elites are elite.

        There are examples of elites reforming in pursuit of prestige rather than raw power, but they’re rare: Englands Glorious Revolution comes to mind, by and large an elite agreed to better behavior in order to preserve substantial and growing mutual gains to the society at large. I could be totally wrong about that, but that’s how I see it and other good examples don’t spring to mind.

        While Mutually Assured Destruction has prevented existential war for the participating states, it has also locked in a structural elite that has no fear. As the exploitation of the elite grows, that elite finds it increasingly necessary to create the illusion of existential external threat in order to justify its continued depredations. The question is how prestige can be used again as a basis for inter-elite competition to actually make the world better again, what are the stories we need to tell around MAD and Climate Change that will cause elites to compete to preserve what good we retain and make the world for themselves and everyone else better?

      5. Grumpy Engineer

        I’m old-fashioned. I don’t think redistribution is the answer.

        I’m inclined to agree. Redistribution makes the politics of resentment all too easy. And your comment about who controls the capital is right on target. However, the phrase “under more democratic control” needs more explanation. If you mean under control of Congress or Mao Zedong-style “committees”, then count me out. Replacing our corporate overseers with political hacks or useless busybodies would not be an improvement.

        However, if you mean under control of the employees, then I’m all ears. Right now, when a company goes public and sells shares of stock that give investors ownership rights to a company, that ownership lasts forever. Now I believe that early investors are entitled to some early compensation for taking a big risk with their money, but should they still be entitled to profits even decades after they’ve done anything useful for the company?

        I’d like to see existing shares of stock evaporate over time, and new shares be periodically issued to the people who are actively contributing to the business today (i.e., the employees). That way the benefits would go to those who actually make the business work.

        1. jrs

          If war is the “positive” example here of democratic control then I think more of things like the USSR as well. Governmental but NOT democratic (and I can critique bourgeois democracy and the old USSR both). Such are our wars as well, governmental but NOT democratic. The wars continue even when the majority of the populace is against them! And that’s how we want this to work? Count me out as well.

      6. freedeomny

        I tend to agree. My job was dealing with the very wealthy, powerful and/or famous. I communicated with them and underwrote their loans – and so – I knew most of their finances in and out. And they do not pay into the system (from a tax standpoint) in an equitable manner. Also any philanthropic activity is really more of a deflection/distraction from their real wants and agenda and/or a way to stroke their own egos. Maybe regulation should really be looked at as a redistribution of power….

        1. sgt_doom

          ” Also any philanthropic activity is really more of a deflection/distraction . . .”

          Actually, usually classified “philanthropic activity” by both Fox and NPR is simply the super-rich moving their wealth to their foundations for further tax avoidance, to shield their stocks from hostile takeovers and further hiding of wealth and ownership.

          Trust beneficiaries are still opaque to the public . . .

      7. Carla

        “I think putting capital allocation under more democratic control* is the answer” — you mean, like, re-creating money as a public utility?

      8. jrs

        I think war seldom puts things under democratic control for the simple reason that most wars are not voted on by the masses, NOT EVEN indirectly so. Our wars themselves are mostly originating from the elite. A truly democratic vote might decide not to go to war and thus not to use resources that way at all. I don’t know as that has never been tested.

      9. Susan the other

        Yes, Lambert. I was always grateful that the “elite” Mr. Hawking lived. I kinda think that the Great Financial Debacle taught us that the swarthy furies guard their social fiat jealously, as they should. And get very upset when money becomes a pointless synthetic value. Bec. fiat can only be a social value no matter whether it’s gold or paper. And it stands to reason that jobs can only be valuable socially. So we’ve got some maintenance to do. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who likes to dig in the dirt and shovel the driveway. There are as many good valuable jobs as there are people. All we have to do is organize them. And in the spirit of energy conservation I think we should promote good, clever mechanical devices to help us. We need to get back to a more mechanical world.

      10. Jamie

        I’m all in favor of democratic capital allocation. But that implies capital redistribution since the whole point of “owning” capital is to control how it is allocated. Telling the elites that they no longer control how “their” capital is allocated is tantamount to telling them they no longer own it. Whether control of capital allocation is given to workers or taken over by governments via taxation or simply “regulated”, it amounts to redistribution regardless. This is exactly why the right is so anti-regulation. Every regulation is an infringement of their “right” to allocate “their” capital as they see fit.

        makedoanmend is right that the conservative analysis of the current distribution rests on the legitimation of theft from labor, and that conservatives never acknowledge this theft, seeing it as a “right” of both employer and employee to enter into contract and therefore, ipso facto a “fair” distribution.

        But every economy has a wealth distribution, which changes over time. Wealth is constantly being “redistributed” from any given baseline distribution. Concentrating wealth and increasing inequality are redistributions from past baselines just a surely as taxing the 1% or regulating business activity is a redistributing activity. The word ‘redistribute’ does not in itself entail any given distribution as an end, such as an equal distribution. But makedoanmend is also right that, in the current political environment, the word connotes a specific redistribution from the wealthy to the rest.

        We can shy away from using that word given its current political connotation if we think that the majority are disposed to think it represents some form of evil (due to the success of the right in painting the current maldistribution as inherently “fair” and “meritocratic”), but we cannot escape the two underlying truths that our economy will have some particular distribution of wealth at any given time, and that the current distribution does not optimize the welfare of the majority of our citizens. In order to approach such an optimum a redistribution is necessary, whether called a ‘democratic allocation of capital’ or called something else. And whether it is implemented primarily through regulation, through taxation, through a job guarantee, UBI, or some other means or a mix of means, the political struggle to implement it will be the same, with the beneficiaries of the current distribution equally unwilling to give ground no matter what approach we take.

        I do not see how one can escape this fundamental reality. So, if I have misunderstood your vision of democratic allocation, I apologize. But can you then explain how democratic allocation is not the same as redistribution? And what hope you have for it if not the hope that it will, in effect, change the distribution of wealth… if not that, then what?

    3. Ignacio

      In my opinion redistribution is neutral. It can occur upwards downwards laterally or sideways. As you suggest, in the absence of counterweighting powers, “redistribution” will occur naturally upwards because the elites have the power to do it. In the past, unions could somehow counterweigth corporate elites but those have been desintegrated or have not adapted to changing capitalism.

      Somehow I agree with your quibble and think that redistribution or “redistributive policies” does not sound good. It sounds like a “gift from the elites” just to prevent revolution. I think is more appropiate to talk about “empowerment” of the people. Construction of institutions that would counterweigth the power of hierarchical corporations, the power of political elites etc. For instance, new Unions, adapted to the times, globalised as corporations, that wouldn’t exclude unemployed.

    4. Travis Bickle

      “Restribution” is one of those words that is loaded because of its association with Marxism, and hence there is a knee-jerk reaction against it by many. This sentiment is abetted by those who think they have earned what they inherited, or those who have actually become extractive renters on their own. The implication is that “retribution” means simply robbing them of their money: that it is an unnatural, ungodly act.

      “Communism,” similarly blows a fuse in many people’s ability to engage. As a word, the “socialism” practiced in Scandinavia carries the same linguistic baggage when you try to have a conversation about the proper role of government in constraining the invisible hand of greed and (frankly, unquenchable) greed that defines human nature.

      What one needs to do is recognize such trigger words and avoid them, opting for sometimes long but hopefully unambiguous sentences that keep the conversation focused. Even then, your interlocutor will say, “Oh, you just want socialized medicine” (end of discussion), so you have to stick to it, saying “no, we just need to find a way to appropriate pricing given consumers cannot effectively shop or avoid spending on healthcare.” This is awkward and takes discipline, but its the only way to keep a conversation moving productively. Dropping into a shorthand using words like ‘retribution’ and your engagement will simply evaporate.

      1. Jamie

        I think you are right about the bad connotations of the term, but I think the way to correct that (in the long run) is to teach children statistics since ‘distribution’ is a statistical term that need not have anything at all to do with Marxism. In the short term, yes, manipulate language any way you can to try to get through to closed minds. It is all the same struggle since the right is equally against education for the masses as it is against sharing wealth with the masses.

        1. Travis Bickle

          Yes, “distribution,” is neutral and has a neutral connotation, which makes my point. RE-distribution, even apart from its prior usage, implies doing something with an original, natural distribution: You’re tampering with that which was natural, you Devil you.

          Education really does become the key. People speak of a critical education, like a reasonably good liberal arts degree, or a JD. But, seems to me the element really lacking, and isn’t necessarily delivered by the above high-priced options, is a matter of people getting to know themselves. That line from the Bible about “knowing yourself, as in knowing your biases and blind spots; learning to listen to others and actually hear them; knowing when you’re being manipulated.

          The article about Uber and the New Yorker in today’s NC is a terrific example of demonstrating the appropriate logic and discrimination. I think someone with no more than a good High School education could be brought up to this level of discernment rather easily it the proper motivation existed and certain initial barriers could be gotten past.

          1. Jamie

            RE-distribution, even apart from its prior usage, implies doing something with an original, natural distribution: You’re tampering with that which was natural, you Devil you.

            I assume by your playful tone that you are playing devil’s advocate here, presenting an argument that some conservatives might make. But it is not a good argument. There is no “natural” distribution, so there can be no redistribution away from the “natural” and therefore no such implication actually accompanies the word. There is only a given distribution at a given moment of time, and to be precise, every single exchange is a “redistribution” and these go on all the time in both directions but, given our current legal arrangements, tend over time to concentrate wealth “upwards”.

            I think we agree that the average high school student can understand this perfectly well if someone takes the time to explain it to them. There is no reason that ‘redistribution’ should not be as neutral a term as ‘distribution’ other than that the right has adopted it as a dog whistle term. And while I agree that not using the term may be the best way to communicate with some people, I also think it is worth fighting to reclaim the term’s neutrality. Some effort must be spent on breaking their whistles. Ergo, education.

      2. JEHR

        I am confused by your use of “Restribution” and “retribution” and whether you mean “redistribution.”

      3. False Solace

        > What one needs to do is recognize such trigger words and avoid them

        Those “trigger words” didn’t create themselves. They were created by propaganda paid for by elites who don’t want change. Because of this the very field of argument is distorted. And historical examples like unions and socialist programs are the victims of campaigns by elites to weaken and destroy them until what’s left are weak versions of what could have been. Like conservative lawmakers who kick the USPS down a flight of stairs then say it’s useless because its back is broken.

        1. Travis Bickle

          Absolutely. But one on one, and with patience as I described, it is possible to get past the rhetoric and deal with the issues themselves. First and foremost, one has to lower the temperature and get into a problem solving, collaborative mode. Otherwise, people are just jousting with you and their only concern is putting points on the board.

          I’ve found that with demonstrably bright people (say, successful lawyers), it is possible to get past mere rhetoric in short order. In fact, once you manage to get your discussion into a more critical mode these people practically take the lead, words being their business after all. The problem is getting past those initial knee-jerk reactions.

        2. Travis Bickle

          PS: Regarding lawyers. Good faith, of course, is the key here: If anyone’s got a client, employer, or a personal interest in going one way or the other, all bets are off.

  5. David May

    I would say that countries with a strong tradition of social democracy or collective identity will deal with technological unemployment a lot better than the Anglo -Saxon world. I expect the US to continue its slide down to full third world status. It has achieved it already in large areas (see UN special report). Anyone who thinks things are going to improve for the average American is sadly deluded. The failure is baked into the cake.

    Can anyone honestly look at the evidence and tell me that things are going to get better?

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      Multiple, more or less simultaneous, systems failures.
      That’s why I’m a doomer,lol.
      The Kubler-Ross Model applies to the individual crises and dysfunctions as they’re discovered, as well as to the overall picture.
      We watched, “I am not your negro”(bio about James Baldwin,+1000).
      Baldwin’s major point—the one that leapt at me, at least–was that the fundamental problem with “white america”(which can be expanded to include all of mainstream culture=”racism is not a black people problem…it’s a problem with white people”-more or less, from memory)) ….was their secret awareness of all the atrocity it takes to get where we are(genocide, chattel slavery in various forms,imperial excess,hyperabstract econ-political systems), and their heroic efforts to then deny that awareness.
      40 + years of seeing the growing disconnects, yet being gaslighted at every turn…tv, family and friends, bossman…”no, you fool…everythings Great!”
      But it gets harder to ignore.
      A lot has happened in the last 16 years to make it exponentially harder.
      So there’s this fog of social malaise and ur-confusion…but concurrently with all this other stuff, Authority over truth was sort of haphazardly democratised…there’s folks who believe the earth is flat, and they have found each other, and thus empowerment(!?)when commonality has retreated even from the issue of a roundish planet, on what, exactly, are we basing a civilisation?
      Neitszche’s 200 years of Nihilism tolls on the wind,lol.
      “….the horror….”
      Folks peek into the Abyss, and run straight away to the Ball Game…or the Borgspace…anything not to look in there, again.
      God’s corpse, and all…

    2. jrs

      I think so too, they seem to do things like job preparation and job retraining (due to technological changes) better then the U.S. now.

      See Sweden:

      If the jobs simply can’t be retrained for at all, they will probably do a UBI for the displaced and do it well or have the best chance of anywhere of doing so, at least that seems where things are heading. The U.S. though, oh my, what is to be done (and no we haven’t done retraining well and wouldn’t do a UBI well in all likelihood because the powers that be here care about profiteering rather than society).

  6. JBird

    Do we work to live or live to work? :-)

    Sometimes, even today, the hunter/gathers, slash and burn farmers and others, often don’t need to work more than twenty hours on average each week. The primary reason for all this misery is the hoarding of resources, and the refusal not to fund needed work like all the transportation maintenance/repairs/expansion. In the future, automation will almost certainly remove most workers, and for which we must have real discussions about, but we are a long way from that.

    1. vlade

      “we are a long way from that”. Likely (just look at Tesla), but that doesn’t mean we should not start thinking of it now – as the “long way” may be just a few decades.

      If nothing else, the total automation will bring out questions that are hard to answer, because they deal with distribution of productivity gains, which at the moment was very vaguely said should be shared between entrepreneur/innovator, capital and labour – but disputes were how exactly. If you remove the labour from the equation entirely, but still have the actualy humans, it raises the question how they should be cared about. Where you really have only a few options, especially if you acknowledge the fact that if you want to sell something, you have to have customers who are able to pay.

      And the options are quite stark in terms of humanity, as in say reducing (almost) everyone to a happy (maybe) blob via VR and opioids, or actually giving them enough resources to lead a reasonable, if not luxurious life etc.

      Main problem I see is that for more than 2000 years we have had the “in the sweat of thy brow” cultural attitude, which puts a moral brake on not working. Added to that is the fact that most people have a need for feeling being part of something, easiest option for which is contribution to that “something”, so you actually have to solve two very different problems. And that’s why I believe it’s better to starting the debate now rather than 20 years from now.

    2. HotFlash

      In the future, automation will almost certainly remove most workers, and for which we must have real discussions about, but we are a long way from that.

      Well, it really seems to me that we should be having this discussion like 30, 40 years ago. Oh, maybe we did, I give you Warren Buffet: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” and on the other hand we have E F Schumacher, Economics as if People Mattered.

      They have implemented, we, mostly, have not. Revolution rarely works out well. Perhaps we can get some benevolent extraterrestrials to adopt us as pets, you know, come in and run the place since it seems we are unable to?

  7. Fey

    I’m afraid that in posting this, NC hasnt paid attention to this post by MMT professor bill mitchell – “Countering the march of the robots narrative” – . In it he refers to and elaborates on a report by the ITIF (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) titled “False Alarmism: Technological Disruption and the U.S. Labor Market, 1850–2015”. Here’s the short summary from their website – “Contrary to popular perceptions, the labor market is not experiencing unprecedented technological disruption. In fact, occupational churn in the United States is at a historic low. It is time stop worrying and start accelerating productivity with more technological innovation.” .
    Another relevant paragraph from the longer summary – “As the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has documented, such grim assessments are the products of faulty logic and erroneous empirical analysis, making them simply irrelevant to the current policy debate. (See: “Robots, Automation, and Jobs: A Primer for Policymakers.”) For example, pessimists often assume that robots can do most jobs, when in fact they can’t, or that once a job is lost there are no second-order job-creating effects from increased productivity and spending. But the pessimists’ grim assessments also suffer from being ahistorical. When we actually examine the last 165 years of American history, statistics show that the U.S. labor market is not experiencing particularly high levels of job churn (defined as new occupations being created while older occupations are destroyed). In fact, it’s the exact opposite: Levels of occupational churn in the United States are now at historic lows. The levels of churn in the last 20 years—a period of the dot-com crash, the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008, the subsequent Great Recession, and the emergence of new technologies that are purported to be more powerfully disruptive than anything in the past—have been just 38 percent of the levels from 1950 to 2000, and 42 percent of the levels from 1850 to 2000.

    Other than being of historical interest, why does this matter? Because if opinion leaders continue to argue that we are in unchartered economic territory and warn that just about anyone’s occupation can be thrown on the scrap heap of history, then the public is likely to sour on technological progress, and society will become overly risk averse, seeking tranquility over churn, the status quo over further innovation. Such concerns are not theoretical: Some jurisdictions ban ride-sharing apps such as Uber because they fear losing taxi jobs, and someone as prominent and respected as Bill Gates has proposed taxing robots like human workers—without the notion being roundly rejected as a terrible idea, akin to taxing tractors in the 1920s.”

    It would be interesting to compare this report against Hawking’s answer.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      There are many other reports that reach the polar opposite conclusion, to the degree that that article is an outlier. McKinsey ALONE has produced multiple reports that conclude otherwise, see and before that, this chart from a 2055 study:!/vizhome/AutomationandUSjobs/Technicalpotentialforautomation. That suggests, frankly, that it is artfully constructed to reach the headline conclusion so as to undermine concerns about automation displacing jobs.

      1. Fey

        I dont think its right to judge it on the basis of being an outlier. NC often posts concepts or authors like MMT which are considered outliers but when judged on its own merit are found to be correct. As for other criteria, isnt McKinsey currently pro-business class and if my memory serves correctly, pro austerity at one point?

    2. djrichard

      I do agree that the “robots are coming” narrative does serve establishment interests. Interests which have benefitted while the economy has been getting hollowed out. In my mind, that hollowing out has been coming from two sources:

      – trade imbalances with other countries, which started in the 1970s
      – attempts to mask the hollowing out with asset inflation, which while successful as a stop gap, resulted in “bad debt”, forcing the US policy makers to make a choice: whether to the mask the issue of the “bad debt” by doubling down on asset inflation policies vs letting the “bad debt” go bad.

      I’ve long felt that letting the “bad debt” go bad would have resulted in a huge reset for the US economy, but afterwards would have resulted in a more vibrant economy, one with a greater velocity of money. As FDRallOverAgain (who posted elsewhere) used to say, “price sans volume is the wrong price.” What has been the Federal Reserve’s approach to doubling down? Making sure the price remains wrong, to protect the bad debt. Hence home prices are relentlessly kept insane. And since that conduit is essentially maxing out, we need other conduits to inflate the economy, e.g. college loans, which in turn drives up the price of college education.

      Anyways, this to me correlates with the labor participation rate: . The trend in growth from 1965 to 1990 was amazing. My speculation is that it was the combination of deficit spending from the Reagan years and simply from us hamsters wanting to run faster on the hamster wheel to get all the goodies that were being dangled in front of us (e.g. more women entering the work force). And we were able to keep it up until 1990.

      After that is when started to hear the recurring narrative of “new normal” every time a boom came to an end:
      – after 1990, the trend line is less positive. This is when we first started hearing about “the new normal”.
      – after 2000, the trend line is negative. The “new normal” narrative is trotted out again.
      – after 2007, the trend line is even more negative. Yet more “new normal” narrative.

      You just know that the next time the “new normal” narrative is trotted out again we’re going to be in some serious pain. But the thing about a “new normal”, there’s no alternative but to adapt. “What do you want, an outcome that is not normal?”

      Anyways, this “robots are coming” narrative should be able to provide some juice when we have our next down turn. And when we’re consoling our selves with that narrative, the Fed Reserve and Fed Gov will be looking for the next great conduit for propping up asset prices, to double down again.

  8. HotFlash

    Considered globally, there are already not enough jobs in the world for all the people in it.

    Let me break that down. A ‘job’ consists of
    1.) spending/putting in time,
    2.) doing work (for whatever definition of work), and
    3.) getting paid.

    Lumping it all together does not help us think about this well. Not enough of 1.) and 2.) — hurray!!! Freedom, leisure, ease! The problem is with not enough of the ‘getting paid’ part.

    A corollary to jbird’s comment above is that much current employment — that is, paying jobs, esp ‘good-paying jobs’, is misemployment. Unnecesssary, soul-destroying, hurtful to the earth and life on it, eg food processing, fast food, fast fashion, big pharma, FIRE, much of edu and much of tech. The list goes on. Meanwhile, much neeeded and constructive work is not done, because markets.

    1. Marco

      A quick theory of elite culling of surplus labor. Thanks for making this point of misemployment. I think the “jobs” will always be there (at least for the top 20%) but they will be of the bullsh*t kind ala David Graeber. One must manage hierarchy and fear and status-acquisition. The bottom 80% will be slowly liquidated such as they are now and via impending climate change disasters.

    2. Kurtismayfield

      I would correct the definition for a job to be one that with full time wages you could reasonably support yourself in the area you live in (food, water, shelter, health care). With this definition a lot of jobs out there cease becoming jobs and are just a trade of labor for some money.

  9. Lambert Strether

    Hawking doesn’t really define “elite.” I think the step from meritocratism to essentialism is a very easy one to take, and it leads us view elite membership as a product of personal excellence, when we also ought to be talking about factors like luck, legacies, and the nature of the greasy pole that elites have optimized themselves to climb.

    Not only will elites change — this is enough for liberals; if the executive leadership of Amazon “looked like America,” then exploiting its workers and its monopoly power would be jake with the angels — but the structure of the elites and the nature of what it means to be elite will change. If I recall my Crane Brinton correctly, the Jacobins and the Girondins were the parties of provincial lawyers, who were only local elites, if that, until 1789 and after.

    We might remind ourselves that today in America there is enormous wastage of talent. Very few win the tournament and claim the enormous rewards; there are only a few academic rainmakers, for example, and millions of poorly adjuncts working the gig economy. And yet those adjuncts are also highly educuated and not dumb; fully capable of exercising leadership — if that is the definition of elite — in different circumstances.

    Obviously, I’m not an egalitarian, but I am a meliorist, ad I do think the insane power differentials visible in our society can and will be flattened, one way or another. And when that happens, we can but hope that everybody will be more content, including those for whom the exercise of power for its own sake is a goal.

    1. Steve H.

      “An “elite” is an entity that can tie up more than its share of energy of the field.”

      “The evolution [of the human biological species] seems to stem from the capability to create extensions, both internal and external. Internally, man develops role playing. He wires himself together- first as a controller, than as a habituated regulator- into the playing of roles. He manipulates the environment in these roles. The particularly energetic individuals- elites- polarize the society. Thus there emerges a differentiation of social function, a division of labor among individuals.

      …Particularly effective are the creation of new wants.”

      > Walter S. Iberall. Iberall was not speaking metaphorically.

    2. jrs

      egalitarianism is more right than anything else.

      But this always gets into strawman arguments of: should everyone get exactly the same monetary rewards. Uh has this ever actually been the case ever? Somewhat in hunter gatherer groups maybe? And what to do about global inequality? I don’t have those answers, I just think egalitarianism would be a healthy outlook for making this society better, even christian teachings on this were more right than wrong.

  10. Eric Patton

    Anything but acknowledge participatory economics, which answers all these questions quite elegantly. Anything but everyone doing their fair share of shit work.

    The present system is not broken. It is working perfectly.

  11. David

    It’s not a new thought, but it’s worth remembering that “jobs” and “work” are actually quite recent developments in human history. If politics had been otherwise, and not hijacked by a tiny minority, we might be looking towards the end of both concepts now.
    Our ancestors provided the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, warmth) for themselves, individually or in groups. As society became more complex specialists emerged to work metal, wood, leather and so forth. At a certain point they began to charge for their services and even have an employee or two, but these were not “jobs” in the modern sense. Later still, you got the rise of a professional class of lawyers, bankers, ecclesiastics etc. But the vast majority of people still provided for their own needs themselves.
    This changed with the rise of the factory system, where people were driven into towns, and found that they now had to pay rent, and buy food, clothing and shelter. To do this, they had to find “jobs” and do “work.” But even a hundred years ago, not everybody lived like that, and even in cities there were lots of self-employed artisans and small tradesmen. When I was young, mothers still knitted clothes for their children, and most families grew vegetables and fruit in their garden or on some leased land. It’s only in the last couple of generations that families (sometimes entire families) have had to “work” at “jobs” to earn enough money just to stay alive. At least it could be argued that, fifty years ago, most of the “work” involved the eventual output of some good or service that had a practical use, and that “jobs” paid reasonable wages. Now, most “work” is simply the production of things that serve no purpose except the further enrichment of the rich, who in turn make ordinary people “work” harder at “jobs” to enrich them further. In some cases the argument has become perfectly circular: you borrow money to get an education to get a “job” in order to pay back the money you borrowed. As automation makes human beings more dispensable, but it still costs money just to stay alive, people will be pressured to “work” for less and less, just to have a “job.”
    It didn’t have to be like this. The science-fiction future that was imagined when I was a child saw technology being harnessed to provide things for free that once had to be “worked” for. At a certain point, you wouldn’t need “jobs” as we know them today. If the ingenuity that has been put into job destruction had been put into building this kind of society, we might be within hailing distance of it by now. The choice not to do that is a political one, not a matter of economics.

  12. Disturbed Voter

    Communist manifesto, without the revolutionary vanguard? Nyet! Revolutions only change who The Elite are, they don’t change the system of production. Marx was wrong, merely changing the means of production isn’t a game changer. Monopoly as a real game, is ongoing, and it does matter who is “banker”.

    You can make everyone poor, but you can’t make everyone rich. And per thermodynamics, there is no free lunch, because everything requires energy (and other stuff) and the energy (and other stuff) isn’t free. Without the hydrocarbon age, we would still be seeing plays at the Globe Theatre, not viewing plays thru YouTube.

    So as a result, some work, some do not. Some workers are paid much, some are paid little. And some people get paid without working at all (we all could, thru banking, until the neo-libs destroyed banking). The Elite are always with us, though they change personnel from time to time.

  13. marym

    Shouldn’t “What work needs to be done?” be the first question? Everyone knows there’s tons of work that needs to be done, that for-profit corporations will never do, or only do poorly to maximize profits.

    If the goal is a better life for the 99% we need to identify that work and commit to doing it, not for private profit but as a public project, for ourselves, each other, our communities, our country, and the planet.

    I believe answering this first question should itself be a public project.

    Until we do this, how can we say whether there will be good jobs; whether most people will be able and want to work and contribute; who will be left still unable to work; how much can be automated; how to accomplish and compensate the not-so-good, unpleasant, or dangerous work; how the means and the fruits of production should be owned and distributed?

    1. a different chris

      It would be the first question, and the American Elites know this, unless they can drown it out with fear. Thus we are always at war with Eurasia.

      The whole “problem” with Europe is that they tuned that out for awhile, as the wars were held in their front yards and the hoi polloi just finally said (family blog) that. Once they did, they got shorter work weeks, lots of holiday time on top of that, and healthcare. Sadly they got so comfortable that they allowed their Elites to become active again.

  14. Steve Ruis

    The biggest challenge is overcoming the greed of elites. To that end I argue that it is cheaper to pay a living wage to anyone willing to work that to try to correct for the ills created by poverty. Our current system simply transfers wealth from the government (us) to the wealthy. If we insist on a “pay as you go” culture, we need to provide living wage jobs. As to where those jobs will come from, I suspect that we need to change our thinking. Currently a “job” is any batch of work that creates enough wealth for the master to pay the person doing it. This criterion is minimalist and unsustainable. We need to look at jobs as work that creates value for the citizenry. Things like painting murals over graffiti generate no income but create value. Why cannot that be a “job” that gets paid a living wage? And please do not ask me where the money is going to come from. What is an economic system other than a system to distribute wealth and create value.

  15. KPL

    In a world where more and more people are squeezed by fewer jobs, lower-paying jobs, and the relentless flow of newly created wealth into fewer and fewer hands, the only solution is, as Hawking says, “wealth redistribution.”

    Wealth redistribution has always been the only viable solution if you wanted a society with low inequality. Hendry Ford $5 comes to mind. Unfortunately no corporate is interested. Lining one’s pockets in the norm! Bernanke’s “wealth effect” also comes to mind. His line of thinking was as wealth accrued to the few (which means increased inequality) they will throw a few crumbs. And we call Bernake educated! What is there to say!

    “The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people.”

    If fewer people are employed, fewer is the demand so fewer will be the production. If robots are productive then they could well be idle more than half the time and be able to cater to the demand.

    “This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”

    “We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.”

    That is some optimism indeed – Humility and elites!

    Media is also to blame. They pamper to these elites! Elites should be seen for the greedy and pompous lot they are. They can NEVER SEE beyond themselves. Their motto is simple– I, me myself!!

  16. JE

    As an engineer/scientist this is a fascinating topic to me. Having read my share of distopian fiction I have been exposed to a wide range of visions for this automated future and as an entrepreneur I have thought about this a lot as well. Best case in my opinion, the corporations of the future will begin to be organized increasingly around an employee owned cooperative model as people come to realize that mega-businesses (Amazon e.g.) are there to simply exploit their time and effort and their time and effort is important to make capital effective and by pooling their time and effort and limited capital they can cooperatively make economic hay. My hope is that the inefficiencies and unsavory actions of mega-corporations create opportunities for these smaller cooperatives. This is a model that has worked well to give people ownership, good stable income, and a healthy work environment when done well. The rub is that greed can derail this. While anecdote is not data, a close friend of mine started an employee owned company a decade or so ago and the company flourished as the employees were dedicated, the management benevolent, and business good. Recently a PE firm approached the employee owned business and through a variety of factors purchased it to glom it together with other similarly sized businesses in the same field to create a larger company that can be more effectively strip-mined. The offer was too good, and the employees went for the brass ring. Unfortunately, of course, the culture and work environment has completely changed and people are simply marking time until they can leave with incentive packages exercised as the conglomerate is stripped of assets, loaded with debt, redundant personnel liquidated, and the whole edifice circles the drain. But I digress. How does a robotic future play into all of this? Combining distopian visions and employee cooperatives, I can see a future in which having a robot is critical to employment. Basically where your general work droid (Rethink Robotics e.g.) works for you and you are responsible for maintaining it, updating it, upgrading it, training or programming it, etc. So for a small investment similar to that of an automobile, you work from home (when needed, otherwise leisure) to monitor your surrogate robot(s?) and depending on its abilities you can contract it out to any number of concerns, use it as entree into a cooperative effort, etc. Realistic? Probably not, but better than storming the Bastille!

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Apparently those employees all believed that making a killing was more important than making a living. That’s what the Culture Manipulators teach everyone within their magnetic brain-gravity field to believe. And many of their targets learn to believe it.

      One wonders whether certain train-of-thought stoppers could be posed, some as questions and some as statements.

      Would you rather make a living or make a killing?

      Would you rather get along or get ahead?

      stuff like that there.

    2. Jamie

      I’ll buy your book when it comes out… just make sure there is plenty of action and romance along with the science fiction… : )

  17. The Rev Kev

    I really don’t think that the elite will change, no matter how dangerous or precarious their position becomes. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his book ‘The Age of Uncertainty’-
    “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged also feel that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich.”
    If you could somehow access “The History of the 21st Century” ©2125, Oxford University Press, it would contain a section noting that the elites kept doubling down on their ruthlessness right up to the point that they discovered that Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons were not, in fact, defensible positions and how their body guards decided that the better part of valour was joining the mob.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      The banana, gorilla, and cage example where the gorilla simply can not let go of the banana to get it into the cage (no offense to the gorilla who probably doesn’t in reality share the fault as much as humans do) always strikes me as so sufficient as to be likely (at least as one of) a core explanation of the elite being unable to change (or any of us in the elite’s shoes).

  18. Brooklin Bridge

    Stephan Hawking’s postulates that God is not necessary for a working explanation of physics (and the universe?). If I’ve understood that in the sense that there is no guaranteed universal benevolence built into all, one has to ask: why the assumption that positivism in predicting future events has any more validity than pessimism? Perhaps there is a perfectly good reason or historical basis for such an assumption regardless of reason, but if so, is it beyond question?

    Even assuming we don’t blow ourselves to smithereens, or unleash some chain reaction of climate events that does us in, why is it always or at least generally assumed, for instance, that myriad cycles of collapse and rebirth – similar one to the other only from a broad view – will be the future?

    Do we have any historical example of our present level of population, or of our complete contemporary divorce from natural earth (that which is not human – such as nature’s seasons), or of our present -hard to grasp- level of technological and scientific knowledge and increasingly frantic juggling of such explosive fundamental power that seems so hopelessly far beyond our emotional ability to handle in a socially constructive or sustainable way? How can we assume we are not simply at or close to the final steps of a complete dead end of the human evolutionary experiment (a possibility posited by a recent post)?

  19. Eclair

    Great post and comments! So much to think about, and the images keep roiling through my brain:
    Lambert’s, ‘the greasy pole that the elites have optimized themselves to climb.’

    HotFlash ‘…unnecessary, soul destroying, hurtful to the earth employment …’

    Amfortas the Hippie ; ‘their secret awareness of all the atrocity it takes to get where we are(genocide, chattel slavery in various forms,imperial excess,hyperabstract econ-political systems), and their heroic efforts to then deny that awareness.’

    Grumpy Engineer: ‘I’d like to see existing shares of stock evaporate over time, and new shares be periodically issued to the people who are actively contributing to the business today (i.e., the employees). That way the benefits would go to those who actually make the business work.’

    makedoanmend: ‘Primary redistribution from workers is never mentioned whilst tax redistribution is almost a verboten topics these days.’

    Yves: Economists are ‘Overwhelmingly (in) the business of justifying the market system to ward off Communism, socialism, and various calls for redistribution. The ones that do not hew to “mainstream” views are marginalized … ‘

    Lambert: ‘… today in America there is enormous wastage of talent.’

    In the days of dark confusion after I watched the Twin Towers burn from across the Hudson River, as the Patriot Act rose, fully formed, from the stormy waves, the phrase, ‘misallocation of resources,’ kept running through my mind. Not, ‘lack of resources,’ but ‘misallocation.’ Massive spending on the wrong things …. followed by the shunting of the resulting profits to fewer and fewer people.

    A few days ago I read of a person described as, ‘kissing those above him, kicking those below.’ Obviously, as he shimmied up the ‘greasy pole.’ We have become a nation of kissers and kickers. Or, rather, a nation of people who admire those who can do it. Or, maybe we have always been that nation and now, despite the ‘heroics efforts’ of the elite to deny it, the dim awareness of what our history has been is seeping through. We have to change.

  20. JEHR

    How depressing it all is that human beings are what they are! Maybe our fate deserves to lie with Fukushima radioactivity, denial of climate change, despoliation of the the environment and its creatures and the wailing increases of CO2. The unequal distribution of wealth is just another example of dreary human behaviour.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      The experiment of the flies in a closed bottle, with limited resources and degrading environment, combined with exponential growth of population … always ends the same way. Sorry, that is the way it is. If the dinosaurs hadn’t been so lumbering, they would have destroyed this planet before the apes even had a chance to evolve.

    2. Amfortas the Hippie

      Caprica Sharon to Bill Adama:”You said that humanity was a flawed creation, and that people still kill one another for petty jealousy and greed. You said that humanity never asked itself why it deserved to survive…. Maybe you don’t.”

      I reckon we should at least try to be so worthy, instead of just assuming that we are.(such thought exercises require no “higher power”, at all, it turns out.)

  21. Summer

    A long read, but with all the hype around machine “learning”, more necessary now than ever:

    “…The learning process wasn’t decoding, as he had originally thought, but something infinitely more continuous, complex and social…..
    He had discovered that human learning was communal and interactive. For a robot, the acquisition of language was abstract and formulaic. For us, it was embodied, emotive, subjective, quivering with life.
    The future of intelligence wouldn’t be found in our machines, but in the development of our own minds.”

  22. Summer

    “What could possibly happen in the Indian economy that would allow its 1.3 billion people — a population four times the U.S. population — all to live “reasonably comfortably”? India already doesn’t have enough good jobs for its people — and that’s before considering the the pressures of automation.

    Considered globally, there are already not enough jobs in the world for all the people in it.”

    But, but…”Slumdog Millionaire”…

    Maybe time to flip the phrase “if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer – you’re the product”.

    If you aren’t making a product, you are the product.

    Rent-seeking needs more and more people to exploit. Rent-seekers can never get enough, because it kills and demoralizes populations quickly and those populations are then encouraged to replenish for more rent-seeking. The bait is marketing hope that you and your soon to be exploited children will work really hard and win the economic lottery – right ticket, right place, right time…

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