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Something that annoys me in the minimum wage debate is that the anti-minimum wage folks assume that labor markets (not “the labor market” – there is no “the labor market”) works like other markets.

It doesn’t.

And there are really, really good reasons for that! But let’s just look at one facet/outcome of that.

If you asked me “in an ideal world, what would be the price of [just about anything],” my answer would be “nothing!” Food? Free! Furniture? Free! Clothing? Free! Computers? Free! Because free implies a defeat of scarcity – that one day we will have replicators and 3d printers and servile robots and abundant clean energy and almost all goods and services will be without cost. That’s utopia.

But if you asked me, “in an ideal world, what would be the price of labor,” I would never, ever say free. Because what economists call “labor” most people call “time” – a finite, substantial quanta of someone’s finite time on Earth.

The right way to think about this is the Star Trek universe, where almost all goods and services are provided costlessly by machines but people still put their time and effort into creative or rewarding projects, the kind of stuff we call today “artisinal production.” That stuff still “costs,” but its mostly a gift and barter economy where people brew their own delicious beer and give it to friends or trade it for delicious, home-distilled bourbon.

Now, the price of labor in our own, non-utopian world, has effects, large and small, on lots of things, and its not obvious what the best balance between the returns to labor vs. capital are, or the best mechanisms for obtaining them. But we also shouldn’t be trying to ceteris paribus drive down the price of labor like we should the price of chocolate or power cords or other commodities.

And because of the totally different way “labor” is conceptualized, and because of the totally different implications and underlying meanings of labor markets, they just don’t work like normal markets in so many key ways.

Put it this way: nobody thinks it’s morally wrong to prefer a brownie to a blondie or white fudge to dark fudge, but people do think its wrong to hire based on skin color. In fact it’s illegal, for very good reason.

When individuals have to cut back on expenditures, they don’t like it, but they do it; but bosses (at least good ones) agonize over firing employees and really loathe doing it.

When individuals have the chance to bargain or get a great deal on a good, they leap at the chance; but even when the economy is bad, employers do not take the opportunity to renegotiate salaries downward. If they have to, they’d rather lay off 5% of their workforce then give everyone a 5% pay cut.

And, just to finalize, think about how much people invest their self-worth into their career. Not that they should. But inevitably many do.

So labor markets are just not really like markets for goods and services at all, and people who insist that “fundamental laws of economics” mean that increased minimum wages absolutely must ceteris paribus reduce employment are making fundamental errors.


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Kevin Drum’s fantastic piece on our robot future is best read in tandem with Peter Frase’s piece Four Futures. Whiel Drum’s piece is much more detailed on the likely path technological progress will take, Frase’s piece by virture of its author’s more heterodox perspective more easily grasps something Drum struggles with. Namely: work is not the point.

We (meaning those humans lucky enough to live in the developed world) currently live in a society where, to a large degree with some variation, the social contract is as follows: if you can work, you likely must; but in exchange, your needs will be met and above-and-beyond that you will be given claims on the output of our socioeconomic system, and if for some reason you are temporarily without work you need not fear the worst.

This system developed because it was optimal; it was optimal because, in a post-industrial world aggregate social wealth is a positive externality, ie, the product of everybody working was more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, while the system could bear a certain amount of free riding, too much and you lose the broad sense of stability and security that knits the whole thing together and therefore implosion.

However, systems that emerge for practical reasons often become reified into self-justifying ideological constructs; that is, when it is advantageous for humans to believe in something, they do, and once the belief system takes hold widely and firmly enough it tends to persist past its usefulness. And so it will be with work – the idea that hard work is in-and-of-itself a good, as opposed to merely a means to an end both individually and collectively, will die hard.

But, die it must. For when the robots and computers lead to prosperity not merely orders of magnitude higher than we currently experience but orders of magnitude of orders of magnitude higher, tethering the rights to claim a share of that prosperity with once’s willingness to toil, despite both the uselessness of the toil and it’s lack of meaning to the toiler, will be simply cruel. Therefore, when Drum says “we’re not prepared for [a future of mass unemployment]” and frets about redistribution of income and capital he’s implicity buying into the idea that employment is the end and not merely the means to broad-based prosperity. A world where nobody is employed and everyone has everything is utopian, not dystopian. This world will be so different from ours that it will be difficult to even apply the current frame of post-industrial early-informational capitalism to it.

This is not to say we are in for a future of couch potato-ism. While some will certainly opt for that, there will likely still be a value on participatory activity and a value on things created by humans. Which is to say, there will be a lot of artists and artisans, a lot of restaurants, a lot of informal sports leagues, a lot of therapists. People will still compete for status, always, forever. But what there won’t be is a necessity to sit in a cubicle or stand on a factory floor or behind a cash register for forty hours a week. And we’ll all be better off for it.


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.

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