More and more news headlines and opinion pieces predict the end of jobs and the end of capitalism as we know it. The logic is simple: technology destroys more jobs than it creates. Automation is rapidly becoming cheaper and better than the labor of both blue and white collar workers, which therefore will be replaced by industrial robots and computer programs.
The number of new jobs that are created to develop new technologies is nowhere near the number of workers that the new technologies will make unemployable. For some time, skilled workers in sectors that require creativity and a personal touch will be relatively safe, because they can’t be replaced by automation – yet. But advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are likely to permit replacing nearly everyone with cheaper machines.
This is not a “weak signal” – a small trend hidden in the noise that some intellectual claim to have spotted – but a damn strong signal that everyone can see. The first “unmanned” factory is now operating in China, and companies are replacing stock analysts with computer programs. The end point of the trend is clear – someday in the next few decades nearly everyone will be out of a job in the traditional sense.
“Within 10 years, we will see Uber laying off most of its drivers as it switches to self-driving cars; manufacturers will start replacing workers with robots; fast-food restaurants will install fully automated food-preparation systems; artificial intelligence–based systems will start doing the jobs of most office workers in accounting, finance and administration,” writes technology and business expert Vivek Wadhwa on The Washington Post. “The same will go for professionals such as paralegals, pharmacists, and customer-support representatives.”
All of this will occur simultaneously, and the pace will accelerate in the late 2020s.
Capitalism in the traditional sense won’t survive the disappearance of jobs.
A new version of capitalism that benefits all
Capitalism has been under attack from the left, including left-libertarians, for decades. In his recent visit to South America, Pope Francis strongly denounced capitalism and called for a “structural change to a global economy that runs counter to the plan of Jesus.”
But calls for social justice have had very little effect so far. What changes the equation now is automation technology, which eliminates jobs and therefore destroys the ground on which traditional capitalism stands.
The question is, what to do with the masses of unemployable people. The raw logic of capitalism would suggest to let them starve, but hopefully that can’t happen in a modern society. The only viable alternative is to give everyone a guaranteed basic income with no strings attached, no ifs and no buts, sufficient for a modest but decent life. Wadhwa says:
The idea is to give everyone a stipend covering living costs and to get government out of the business of selecting what social benefits people should have.
How to implement the idea is still unclear, both the legacy political right and left hate the idea, but basic income seems really the only viable option. With basic income, many former wage slaves will become free agents with the time to pursue what they really want to do, including useful activities difficult to justify with the harsh logic of traditional capitalism, which could result in important benefits for society, difficult to quantify but important nonetheless.
Wadhwa conclude that we need to be prepared and to develop a new version of capitalism that benefits all.
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