Robot Welfare

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

Marshall Brain (founder of How Stuff Works) has written an article called Robotic Freedom, where he talks about the coming changes when complex and able robots enter the economy and take over human jobs.

The article starts out interesting enough. He proposes that by 2020, a huge segment of the service sector will be replaced by robot labor, leading to extreme unemployment that won't be easily self-corrected. Rather than giving people new levels of freedom and allowing an overall cut in average hours worked ("We would have to reverse a number of trends to move our society to a 30 hour work week, and corporations will resist these changes every step of the way"), he suggests that the efficiency of the robot labor is likely to just continue benefiting the CEOs, leading to an ever more extreme concentration of wealth, while the unemployed people are out of luck. The economy simply won't be able to create enough interesting, high-paying jobs that can't be done by robots.

As a society, and as a nation, robots give us a choice. We are entering an historic era that has the potential to completely change the human condition. Yet we enter it with an economic system that is unable to spread those robotic benefits to a large portion of the population.
This seems pretty much correct so far. If we get robots that can really replace the teenager behind the counter at McDonalds, McDonalds is likely to use such a robot; and it certainly won't benefit the people laid off, but rather the corporations themselves (those who "control the means of production", as Marx put it). How do we fix things then? Thankfully Marshall Brain has a plan. Unfortunately, it's a really bad one.

He calls it Turbo Capitalism. He suggests we need to build a strong, steady economy, which we do by increasing consumption. To do this, he suggests giving every citizen a $25,000 per year stipend to free them from normal labor and allow them the freedom to experiment (create new products, start their own businesses, go to college, etc.). Where does this money come from? He suggests the government should create a gigantic fund out of which every citizen would be paid equally. To fill this fund he gives a laundry list of ideas, like the following:

  • Ad saturation: put ads on the back of every dollar bill, on bridge overpasses, on road signs, on asphalt itself, even on public monuments.

  • Use state lottery proceeds, court fines, and other miscellaneous government money.

  • Auction off the radio spectrum, natural resources and other resources belonging to "we the people" to the highest bidder.

  • Allow purchase of exclusive-use copyrights on items already in the public domain.

  • Apply extreme taxes to those who make, say, half a million dollars a year; confiscate inheritances that are over a certain amount.

  • Force every business to automatically give a portion of its stock to the government, which in turn shares the profits with every citizen.

    With these dubious methods, he proposes we will find enough money to pull in the 7.5 trillion or so dollars a year that this program would cost, and in turn that means everyone will have enough money to get by and poverty will be completely eliminated (!) in no time.

    I'm skeptical.

    First off, we've got enough ads. People already complain about billboards clogging up every city street, and I doubt they'd go along with putting way more everywhere else (how safe are ads littering the pavement? Do you really want some guy talking on his cell phone to be looking down at the enticing Coca Cola ad while he dodges through traffic?). Lottery money and court fines are already applied to other programs, and these programs would have to find new sources of funding (maybe we could just sell more ad space?). It's bad enough that corporations are raping the environment and taking control of the radio spectrum - why put even more power in their hands? Copyright laws are already well beyond the bound intended by the founders - should we really allow corporations with deep pockets to take over the public domain? Higher taxes for rich people has been proposed before, and while I'm not sure it's a terrible idea, it would likely be shot down (especially since rich people tend to have a little extra sway). The government stock idea is intriguing, but I'm not sure how it would work in reality, and in essence it's just another big tax which would probably make it harder to start new businesses (whereas one of Brain's big goals in giving people their $25,000 is so they can start new businesses). I think he's grasping for straws here with funding proposals.

    However, even if we could find some way to pay for this huge program (even with drastic cutting of "defense"/war spending and using all of the current social security and unemployment money, we would come up extremely short of target), I'm not sure it would have the grand effects he thinks it would. "We will give every citizen the money he or she needs to be independently financially secure," Brain says.

    Yet how many citizens will do the same thing they did with Bush's "tax rebate" and just go spend the money on a new big-screen, high-definition T.V. or a new car? People always live as close to or as far beyond their means as possible, and giving them a bonus check from the government each year isn't likely to convince them to quit their jobs if they still have one - because they'll want to have *more* money so they can get better *stuff*. If we are trying to give people a stable assurance of the necessities (as opposed to the current limited unemployment system, which Brain thinks doesn't cut it), then why not provide free food and reasonably minimal housing with this money. In essence, why not let everyone live a minimal life on this new uber-welfare and make working for excess wealth optional, rather than letting them waste it on crap?

    Of course, what we're still talking about is finding money somewhere and giving it to people. Since government budgets are already pretty strapped, and taxing the rich isn't likely to be enough to pay for it all, chances are this money is going to come mainly from corporations. Now, under Brain's vision, these corporations are already profiting big time from robotic labor, so what he's basically arguing is that this extra robotic profit should be distributed back to the people - through the government - rather than going to the companies. The same amount of goods are being produced as when people worked, and people are still buying them, they just don't have to work for those goods thanks to the robots. It sounds nice, but I'm not sure how well it would work to impose this extra burden on corporations while still working under a capitalist system.

    We certainly should be trying to find a way for everyone to benefit from robot labor (through decreased work, if nothing else), but this proposal seems to be a long shot, and it seems to fall back on the same old ideas brought up in non-robot contexts: it relies on pretty traditional fundraising ideas (why haven't they been used already if they are so effective and safe?) and it looks toward the government to redistribute wealth from the rich to the masses. There isn't much here about directly taking advantage of the new robot labor aside from the program being prompted by the sudden increase in unemployed.

    He does briefly mention a robotic labor tax (that is, a tax on businesses who benefit from robotic labor), but I have trouble imagining that could possibly bring in the revenue he thinks it will without placing such a burden on companies that they would rather hire cheap human labor just to avoid the robot tax.

    Surely there must be a better way to take advantage of automated labor, especially as it becomes more able to do diverse tasks, but I'm guessing it's going to take a bigger change in the system (and by that I mean the ideology and assumptions of people as well as the actual bureaucratic structure of society) than just adding a new government welfare program.

    Originally Written: 12-13-03
    Last Updated: 01-23-04