The story of Ned Ludd — a fascinating 18-minute Planet Money from 2015, relevant today . . .
. . . because, as suggested earlier this month, the future holds two daunting but potentially self-canceling problems:
> Huge numbers of jobs lost to automation and artificial intelligence;
> Huge numbers of workers needed to do the work Biden’s $4.5 trillion investment in physical and human infrastructure will require.
To the extent there turns out to be more work than people, an easy solution will be to welcome more immigrants dying to come do it. Prior waves of immigrants only made the U.S. stronger and more prosperous.
To the extent the opposite proves true — more people than jobs — there could be measures to encourage people to work fewer hours and spread that work around. If that strikes you as un-American, ask yourself whether “weekends” or “the 40-hour work week” or “child labor laws” were un-American? All served to spread the work around. Perhaps someday a 35-hour work week and the four-to-six weeks of vacation routine in Europe might not seem so bad in the U.S. Not to mention higher wages and the Universal Basic Income likely to become standard in advanced nations over the next couple of decades. Because: if America can feed, clothe, clean, house, power, transport, amuse, and otherwise care for itself with less effort, thanks to technological advance — isn’t that a good thing?
It won’t be all smooth sailing — change disrupts lives. But the future is coming, and in the main, the country has prospered and living standards have improved even as technology has put millions out of work (remember the “information” lady?). Forty years ago, when inflation-adjusted wages stopped rising, how many middle class families had iPhones or GPS or endless entertainment choices?
Our biggest challenge is not technological but political: finding sensible ways to reverse the enormous wealth inequality those 40 years have wrought as we’ve become a plutocracy with ever more families living paycheck to paycheck.
The President’s Build Back Better investments will begin to address this problem, especially to the extent they’re paid for with higher taxes on those at the very top who saw their tax rates slashed again and again — and again — under the most recent Republican administrations. (Only Bush 41 had the good sense and decency not to slash taxes on the rich, instead raising the top rate slightly.)
Hurray for automation. Hurray for productivity.
Have a great week!
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