Automation is Here to Stay
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
Throughout our journey in the United States as Marshall Memorial fellows, from Washington to Los Angeles, the grim reality of job loss and its effect on the social fabric of the American nation was a recurrent theme. Some blamed the free market for the delocalization of production, but most pointed the finger at robots, which silently and diligently out-worked humans and made their jobs increasingly irrelevant.
The debate in Baltimore descended from the high planes of academic arguments into the concrete reality. In this city, one very important clothing company runs the Lighthouse, a high-tech facility that tests promising ideas to streamline production. Their creativity is channelled not toward designing new models, but toward finding more efficient ways to produce those models. In the words of the company’s founder, “We want to re-invent the manufacturing process.” Efficiency, speed, and economy of materials are all problems to be solved and the solution seems to be, invariably, automation. Machines promise to revolutionize production — they make it easier and faster to build factories in more places around the globe, producing cheaper goods that can be transported much faster to their clients. The cold logic of economics makes this a sure path to success and, as such, the model seems poised to become generalized.
The negative social impact of automation is now becoming more apparent, but cannot be derailed. The challenge is not how to stop it, but rather how to manage it and how to mitigate its negative effects. In this respect, history offers us parallels and we would be wise to consider its lessons.
The easiest comparison is with the dawn of the industrial revolution, but I would like to draw attention to a much older crisis that Rome faced 2,000 years ago. As it grew into an empire, the Roman Republic acquired vast wealth and untold numbers of slaves. By the first century BC, large agricultural properties using cheap slave labor had forced small farms out of business. Inequality was acute and this, in turn, fuelled civil unrest up to the point of civil war between the popular and the aristocratic factions. Throughout this period, the leadership in Rome struggled with the need to find ways to restore civil order and solidarity.
Julius Caesar, for example, passed a law capping the number of slaves who could be used on pastures, meaning that at least one third of personnel had to be free people receiving wages (Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 42). While enforcing this quota is impossible in modern factories, Bill Gate’s idea of taxing robots goes in the same direction.
Another measure taken by Roman leaders was the free distribution of grain to citizens. The satirical poet Juvenal may have mocked the practice with his famous phrase “bread and circuses” (Satire X, 81), but by this time — roughly 100 AD — it had become an essential tool to maintain social cohesion. Today, 2,000 years later, we are starting to consider the value of universal basic income. This alone, however, is unlikely to be a comprehensive solution. When the emperors liberally offered entertainment for the masses (not only in the form of games, but also numerous religious and civil festivals), they were actually addressing the various layers from Maslow’s pyramid of needs. To match that, we should aim to create more jobs in the service sector, where the value of a person is unlikely to be completely matched by machines.
There are several other developments that today’s political leadership might want to take into account. The first is a possible reform of the taxing philosophy. A study about the taxation of labour undertaken by Jan Rutkowski and Mateusz Walewski on behalf of the World Bank found that “high labor taxes have a negative impact on employment” and “confirms the significant relationship between tax rates and employment.” Therefore, one possible policy to mitigate the loss of jobs to automation would be to unburden labor and transfer some of the costs for social services to other types of taxation, such as consumption or property.
The second long-term trend to consider as artificial intelligence becomes pervasive is machines gaining personhood, with everything that entails with regard to employment. From our perspective, this seems far-fetched, just as the emancipation movement must have seemed an unlikely development for Aristotle, who in the 4th century BC was utterly convinced that slaves were “property” and “instruments” (Politics, 1254a).
Automation is a phenomenon that is here to stay. It is our leaders’ role to be at the front of this change and make sure its positive aspects do not outweigh the negative ones.
Cristian Ghita, Parliamentary Advisor to the Partidul National Liberal in Romania, is a Spring 2017 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.