Dr. Robert Reich was kind enough to describe to us what he considers to be a horrifying future. Hint: you will probably respectfully disagree.
It’s now possible to sell a new product to hundreds of millions of people without needing many, if any, workers to produce or distribute it.
And you know what? IT.GETS.SCARIER.
A friend, operating from his home in Tucson, recently invented a machine that can find particles of certain elements in the air. He’s already sold hundreds of these machines over the Internet to customers all over the world. He’s manufacturing them in his garage with a 3D printer. So far, his entire business depends on just one person — himself. New technologies aren’t just labor-replacing. They’re also knowledge-replacing.
I went ahead and bolded that last part. This is what Robert Reich really and truly fears. When cars replaced buggies and rickshaws, I seriously doubt Robert Reich would argue times changed for the worse.* When microwave ovens eliminated the need for Zog The Caveman to rub sticks together to cook Reich’s supper, I doubt he wrote mournful missive decrying Zog’s loss of a meaningful existence. When it happens to Americans who don’t quite qualify for the tenure track at Old Ivy, this is called innovation and we see it as a social good.
Robert Reich had no problem with Seattle, Chicago and several other municipalities increasing the cost ratio of humans versus machinery by raising their minimum wage. Robert Reich had no problem with opposing Right To Work Laws in states where these ratios were already badly skewed against people who got their backs into a living at their local manufacturing plant. Robert Reich has never vocally gone on record when American employers flagrantly violated immigration laws to bring in visa workers under specious pretext and in some cases blatantly illegal workers to replace more expensive human capital that had to fill out a valid I9 to legally work here. In other words, the natural economic tendency to arbitrage against an artificially inflated marginal cost of labor never appeared on Robert Reich’s brilliant economic event horizon until he could truthfully say “If you think being a “professional” makes your job safe, think again.”
Like you and I both, Robert Reich loved him so modern conveniences until perhaps, he saw Deep Blue checkmate Garry Kasparov. So now he’s afraid of Terminator: The Rise of the Machines. He finishes by whining that redistribution has become a bad word. Well let me just deliver some news to you Robert.
When you get a lower price for your car because human workers get replaced by machines; that could be viewed as redistribution. When you get to have your dinner in 3:30 via a microwave oven rather than requiring a professional chef and three of his assistants to prepare your Chicken Kiev you save a solid $40. That could be viewed as a form of redistribution. When you get ten minutes of your life back because the local Kroger has an automated checkout line and you don’t have to wait on a clumsy, unmotivated human being, in a Reichian Marxist analysis of things, you’ve stolen that person’s wages. That’s redistribution. You’re welcome, Robert!
He tells us that “it may be that a redistribution of income and wealth from the rich owners of breakthrough technologies to the rest of us becomes the only way of making the future economy work.” For the love of Gawd, Robert. Could you be any more self-serving without destroying another guy’s job via enhanced efficiency? It’s not the future economy that will stop working if you willingly acquiesce to your professional obsolescence. It is you that will stop working.
I get mail from my alma mater all the time that talks about the lifelong learning process when they want to lighten my wallet by enrolling me in some post-graduate course. Here I’ve got a brilliant professor whinging about how hard it is to teach an old dog new tricks. If raging against the machine won’t end income inequality, then I’m pretty darn sure that lounging against it won’t turn the trick either. People who don’t like somebody else’s definition of change and innovation need to develop their own.
*- Al Gore would, so perhaps Robert Reich is just revanchist moderate instead of a true believer.