Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ubiquitous Robots

A month or so ago I had a long conversation with a relative by marriage who I have interacted with about 10 times over the 30 years or so we have been acquainted.

I have always thought he was very smart and the conversation did nothing to change my mind.

He is working on a book, a policy statement really as I understand it, with the goal of providing a pathway to constructive and productive living in the coming era of ubiquitous robots.

He asserts that without strong leadership and intervention by scientists, including psychologists (not scientists, in my opinion), many young westerners will be without jobs in the relatively near future.

I was somewhat disappointed that a person as smart as he is (something of a scientist himself) would still be in thrall to the Wilsonian notion that well educated people should be given the reins of power so that they can shape the rest of us into a productive society. This sort of thing has never turned out well. The remnants of this "progressive" thinking are still haunting us today, 100 years later, in the form of credentialism, which I have written about before.

There is another school of thought about the impact of ubiquitous robots on employment and it is very positive.

While the potential problem described is the same, our young workers will have to have more skills in order to have meaningful employment in the robot era, the prescription on the right to address the issue is not a cohort of technocrats issuing directives from on high but the marketplace rewarding those who acquire the right skills.

The marketplace is rarely wrong. Among its most endearing features is that when errors occur the market itself forces corrections, when it is not interfered with by the credentialed. The "New Coke" fiasco of the 1980's is one high profile example of the market being allowed to do its job. Every business that fails and almost every one that succeeds are proof of the market's limited fallibility. It does not reward failure and does not wait long to make its conclusions felt.

The automaker bailouts of 2008 are examples of the credentialed interfering with the marketplace. Chrysler, which was bailed out in the 1970's, had to be bailed out again. General Motors was bailed out as well. GM will go broke again too, just as soon as it uses up the advantages that the cancellation of 60 billion dollars of debt produced. That is a lot of advantage so it will take a while but will certainly happen.

The mortgage debt bailout of 2008-9 had the predictable and undesirable effect of prolonging the agony for years. Arguably, it still is. The credentialed again stepped in to prevent the market from correcting its error.

Markets correct errors quickly and completely if they are allowed to function. The market will solve any employment problems caused by ubiquitous robots and we will all be better off for it, if it is allowed to function.

Unfortunately humans often react poorly to the immediate pain of market-style corrections and if we all cry loudly enough the credentialed will step in to ease our pain.

What they fail to understand, or choose to ignore, is that humans do not learn meaningful lessons from being forgiven our transgressions. If there is no pain associated with our misdeeds the odds of our repeating them are markedly higher. Without being made to feel the consequences of our actions we soon forget that we did anything wrong or stupid at all. Human nature never stops working.

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