Just listened to Planet Money discuss subsidies for having babies, and thought, first of all, since I am now engaged to get married and both the fiancee and I are on the same page re: having a couple kids, I hope the United States institues such a policy! Maybe it could united pro-lifers (incentive to carry pregnancy to term) and progressives (it would largely be a very progressive redistribution of wealth)!

But more importantly the economic logic behind it sort-of-tangentially reminded me of a pet concern of mine:

This can be good for a little while. With a young workforce and fewer babies to take care of, a country can show enormous growth.

But then people start to get old, and governments say uh-oh.

"Who’s going to pay the bills? Who’s going to pay for pensions?" says Patricia Boling, a political scientist at Purdue.

In many countries, including the U.S., workers pay for retirees’ pensions. Fewer kids means fewer workers funding those pensions.

"And in countries that have really low fertility rates, that’s a very extreme problem," Boling says. It "makes what we have in the United States … look like peanuts."

All true! And yet one would think that overall economic growth could fund a higher retiree-to-worker ratio, right?

Here’s my vision for the future of the economy:

  • Robots replace humans at doing some job. A few humans are unemployed, but overall there is a consumer surplus.
  • Repeat.

Here is where my simulation diverges. Essentially, replacing a human worker with a robot is substituting capitol (the machine) for labor (the worker). On a small scale this will simply cause sectoral shifts; if it gets cheaper to buy some tchotchke because a robot made it instead of a human, when I buy the tchotchke I save some money which I will then use to buy coffee and when demand for coffee goes up it causes a commesurate rise in employment in the coffee sector. Yay! But on a sufficiently large scale you are faced with what I like to call the reverse-Ford problem:

Mr. Ford announced that he was doubling the pay of thousands of his employees, to at least $5 a day. With his company selling Model T’s as fast as it could make them, his workers deserved to share in the profits, he said. […]

The mythology around this story holds that Mr. Ford wanted to pay his workers enough so they could afford the products they were making.

In fact, that wasn’t his original reasoning. But others made the point, and, in time, it became part of Mr. Ford’s rationale as well. The idea became a linchpin in an industrial philosophy known as Fordism.

More production could lead to better wages, which in turn would lead to more spending by the public, yet more production and eventually even higher wages.

"One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers," Mr. Ford said years later. "Paying high wages," he concluded, "is behind the prosperity of this country."

So what happens to Ford Motors if making the same number of cars requires far less labor input, replaced by less-expensive capitol input? Well you get higher and higher wealth and income inequality as those at the top need not share their profits with a large workforce.

So what happens when there exist enough robots to basically obviate human labor from the fundamentals of the economy?

I see three possible futures:

  • Robot dystopia – a few scions of capitol control all the machines, make vast fortunes, and surrender as little as possible, leaving most of the rest of humanity living at subsistence levels.
  • Robot utopia – socialization of wealth through whatever mechanism, meaning the vast surplus is shared relatively equitably, meaning most people have most of their needs met and are free to pursue higher levels on the Maslow heirarchy.
  • Robot apocalypse – the robots rise as one to destroy us all.

I don’t know what to do about option #3, but I am concerned that ruling that out that option #1 is more likely than option #2. And the reason I think that has to do with, well, baby subsidies. To some extent we are facing a similar problem – the economy is producing more but finding that more and more of the humans in the system don’t have a great deal of utility but still require resources. In theory this shouldn’t be hard, but in practice it’s proving difficult. Even in Japan where they had some nasty economic times they have still passed their original peak GDP and are have a very high GDP per capita, though not nearly as high as the United States. Keep in mind also that a lot of Japan’s troubles here are culturally based; a different country facing similar demographics would probably not have such a difficult time. But looking at the United States where GOP scissors are already being aimed at Social Security despite being projected not to run into any trouble for the next 75 years because raising taxes on wealthier individuals is the dread socialism doesn’t necessarily leave me optimistic that we’ll be able to wrest sufficient control of the Great Robot Surplus from the hands of its nominal owners before they are able to consolidate control.