Steven Mnuchin, one of Trump’s best people, is not worried about mass worker displacement due to automation. Said so at an event hosted by Axios. I’d love some of whatever he’s been toking.
In the near term (and evidently that’s all business execs or government types care about these days), sure automation and AI will drastically increase profitability. But I foresee the trend following a similar path as off shoring … great for individual businesses, but at some point capitalism mandates people have some money to buy the stuff and neither offshoring or wide-scale automation is sustainable. Offshoring at least provided alternate jobs for enough people to float enough debt to sustain the market near-term. We’ve got “knowledge workers”. But what percentage of those can be turned into AI programs? A significant number. I automate 80% of IT work. Chat bots could provide at least half of legal and medical consultations — the routine stuff. Robots make products, load the truck/train/drone that drives itself. Right to your door, or even inside if you have the Amazon lock. There aren’t a lot of jobs where some portion couldn’t be automated today. And budget cuts and productivity demands essentially require it. Some lucky few own doomed companies and profit for some time, another really lucky few are AI programmers and electronics engineers (although self-building AI/robots are totally a thing too). Maybe automation will beget a whole new industry that will provide good jobs for billions of people. Maybe the capitalist system will collapse and everyone will have more than they need (the Star Trek series, I guess). But I don’t know that I wouldn’t worry about the impact automation has on employment and the economy.
A descendant of Walt Disney — one whose family has a load of cash and stands to inherit a load of cash herself — has a video on the Facebook page of NowThis … it is generally similar to their other videos with rich people saying “this tax bill gives me a HUGE percentage gain, might give you a little bit until your provisions sunset, and generally is a bad idea and you’re about to be screwed over with ‘needed to reduce the deficit’ cuts to social safety nets, education, infrastructure, research funding, small business funding, farm assistance programs, etc”. She, however, says that individuals voting for their own interest over a common good isn’t democracy. It’s anarchy. That’s an interesting distinction. And it made me think of how people often conflate free market capitalism and democratic governance.
The “invisible hand” principal of free market capitalism — not the phrase as it was actually used by Adam Smith but the generalized colloquial usage — is that the whole is optimized by each individual seeking to assure their own self-interest. A bit like maximum k sums in set theory – the largest possible sum of k numbers from a set is the sum of the largest k numbers in the set. While a specific individual may suffer misfortune, this assertion of optimization is microscopically reasonable. The economy grows when most individuals increases their value simultaneously.
Can the same be true of democracy? Does advocating for one’s self-interest promote societal optimizations as well? Or does looking only at one’s self-interest delve into anarchy? I believe the answer depends on how narrowly one defines one’s own self-interest. Abigail Disney offers a ironic example of this in her video – fuck over enough of the middle class and there won’t be Disney customers anymore. Maybe they’re rich enough to not care financially, but family members’ social standing is diminished by losing the company. The family legacy is lost. How does the individual weigh “keeping the fortune in the family” against “sustaining the company my grandfather helped create”? One problem in American politics is an incredibly narrow view — don’t believe in climate change, whatever. But you do breathe air and drink water, right? Why would you want companies to dump mining sludge into rivers and spew petrochemicals into the air? (Answer: Because you are thinking so narrowly that you concern yourself only with the natural resources within a few miles of your house … neglecting to consider how these things move around the globe.).
Unfortunately, “self-interest” is defined narrowly (e.g. a single issue voter), ignores long term consequences (e.g. anti-environmentalism), and fails to consider the realistic complex multi-variable picture (e.g. the interconnectedness of all things means Disney lady saves a couple hundred thousand on her taxes, but their company goes through reorg bankruptcy as disposable incomes drop in a few years).