If we spread the profits around, smart robots can work for ALL of us

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During his twelve years as New Mexico’s governor, Bruce King was known as a decent fellow and a pretty good public servant. He was also known for a personal trait that could confound the public, yet was endearing in a folksy sort of way: The governor’s tongue periodically disconnected from his brain, leading to a steady flow of funny-to-funky gubernatorial malapropisms and off-kilter comments. There was the time, for instance, when he rejected some ethically dicey legislation by explaining, “If we go along with this one, I’m afraid we’ll be opening up a big box of Pandoras.”

In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world. –JEREMY RIFKIN, The End of Work (1995)
Despite his garbling of the ancient Greek myth, King’s instinctive caution was the proper reaction, offering valuable ethical guidance for us today on how society should cope with the whopping level of technological transformation coming at us. Although few people have focused on it, our world is suddenly confronted by a rash of robotic “Pandoras” that promise economic and social devastation.

And they’re already out of the box.

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

As detailed in last month’s Lowdown, careless corporate giants are unleashing millions of “thinking” robots aimed at hiking profits through the “efficiency” of displacing human workforces. This new generation of algorithmic learning machines uses complex “neural networks,” much like those in the human brain, to analyze and sync vast amounts of data and then to make decisions and take action.

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With this radically heightened level of artificial intelligence (AI), the new breed of brainy bots can–on their own and without constant human reprogramming–watch and listen, develop and improve their abilities, and even produce and teach other robots. They are displacing not only laborers in factories and warehouses, but also professionals, managers, and creative workers–from doctors to food producers, teachers to musicians. The new robot economy threatens to decrease social mobility, increase inequality, and force us to find ways to replace a social order that has been largely structured around our employment.

Since the New Deal, America’s celebrated social contract (the tacit agreement that workers will do a good job in exchange for good wages and fair treatment) has been the chief means of preserving a basic level of class harmony. Over the past three decades, however, a cabal of corporate and political elites has been shredding that agreement, widening the wealth gap and spreading social disorder. Now, here comes a replacement workforce that requires no wages, no benefits, no rights, no collective bargaining … and no need for bosses even to pretend they care about workers.

It’s a corporate utopia! But it will be a precarious one, a vulnerable island of privilege surrounded by a seething dystopia.

Luddites redux

The Loyal Order of Ivory Tower Economic Royalists (LOITER) insists that absolutely every advance in technology, no matter how disruptive, ultimately creates more jobs, greater productivity, and piles of new wealth. So, no worries! That is, unless you ask: What kinds of jobs? Productivity to what end? And wealth for whom? Yet even to question the wisdom of the LOITERers’ technological dictum will get you ridiculed as a neo-Luddite, a fool trying to stop progress.

Last month’s Lowdown detailed how the 19th-century Luddite rebellion by British textile workers pitted industrial capitalists against cottage-based workers who, as journalist Clive Thompson wrote in January’s Smithsonian magazine, “had great control over when and how they worked–and plenty of leisure.”

“The year was chequered with holidays, wakes, and fairs; it was not one dull round of labor,” one textile worker noted. Thompson adds that some of the artisans “seldom worked more than three days a week,” yet still earned a pretty good living.

Then came the industrialists with their dreadful factory system, using unskilled, low-wage workers as menial assistants to dangerous, steam-powered looms. In a stunningly short time, thousands of artisans, plus their families and communities, were plunged into poverty and forced into the dark, lifeless factories they loathed. The workers lost not only their financial independence, but worse, their sense of community, their belief in the ethic of fair play, and their pride in producing quality.

So, yeah, they rebelled, destroying hundreds of factories in just a few months. Of course, panicky factory owners ran shrieking to the Crown, and the full vengeance of the king’s troops, spies, lawyers, courts, and gallows crushed the artisans’ uprising and way of life.

Do something

THE NOTION THAT WE MIGHT ALL SHARE the gains from galloping automation may seem far-fetched in the current political climate, but the concept of a universal basic income is attracting interest and support from across the spectrum. Even the Davos crowd worries about bots! Scott Santens’ “Why we should all have a basic income” (from the World Economic Forum site) speaks to the true cost of UBI, motivation when you don’t have to work, and the potential effects on civic participation.

In “The Case for Free Money,” James Surowiecki recounts a mid-70s UBI experiment in Manitoba, Canada. Recently crunched numbers suggest “Life … improved markedly. Hospitalization rates fell. More teen-agers stayed in school. [And] work rates … barely dropped at all.”

The Universal Income Project is researching and building progressive capacity around the common-sense idea of UBI. Join up with them here.

The Economic Security Project is supporting a UBI program which includes the likes of longtime activist Mia Birdsong, who is a Senior Fellow working on expanding the movement to include perspectives and leadership from communities experiencing economic and racial injustice.

The devil will be in the details. To do UBI right, progressives need to build serious grassroots political power–starting now.

But the Luddites had achieved an enduring victory by laying bare the avaricious villainy of the capitalist ethic at the very moment it was emerging from right-wing theory into plutocratic practice. By so explosively confronting the silk-stocking thieves, the rural artisans turned the newly coined word “capitalist” into a pejorative that still stings today. Moreover, the Luddites made clear that the destruction of their social order was not–as the ascendant laissez-faire establishment was asserting–the inevitable result of some mysterious, immutable law of technological progress. Rather, it was daylight robbery by the establishment itself.

The rebels were especially enraged that the capitalists were summarily discarding the cottage system’s core ethical principle of “fair profit”: a negotiated agreement on how workers and marketers would share profits. Under this principle, both parties welcomed and benefitted from new machines that improved output and profits. The capitalist elites, however, fabricated a novel, wholly immoral, laissez-faire property “right” that still haunts us today, asserting that all gains from a society’s technological advances belong exclusively to those who own and control the new machines. These capitalists feel no obligation to share the benefits with either the workforce or the larger public that makes innovation possible–and no moral responsibility to alleviate the pain of the many harmed by technological change.

Big questions

What the Luddites understood, exposed, and fought was not automation, but the motivation behind it. Two centuries later, we face the same sort of arrogance from the owners of a far more ex-plosive technology. All of us slated to be displaced and discarded must urgently (1) wake up to that reality, and (2) rise up against the plutocratic-robotic complex so blithely wreaking havoc on our lives–and on society’s uniting ethic of the common good.

Now is the time to raise hell–before the roboticists have completely welded their new technological order in place. To start, let’s demand an answer to Cicero’s millennia-old question: Qui bono? Who benefits?


THE ISSUE BEFORE US is not robots or no robots. They are here and spreading, like it or not, with everyone from Silicon Valley engineers to savvy Ghanaian teenagers designing ever-smarter versions. And then there’s this: Many of these bots are very beneficial, ranging from AI drones that analyze wildfires so firefighters know where and when they should move, to robot space explorers traveling for years into the cosmos, far beyond the reach of human astronauts. Further, many people around the globe are shackled to exploitative jobs so impoverishing, dreary, awful, or deadly that humans should not be doing them. Let the robots have them. Our goal, then, is not to kill all robots, but to reject the socially poisonous corporate ethic that prizes maximization of profits over human needs and egalitarian values. Machines are not stealing jobs from us (as intelligent as they are, they have no capacity to conceive such a move). Rather, what’s happening is that capital is displacing labor–or, more precisely, capitalists are displacing human labor with robots and then pocketing the paychecks of the employees they discard. The progressive movement should keep making this distinction–and keep the public’s focus on our real adversary.

Of course, the makers and adopters of these thinking machines clearly see themselves as the deserving beneficiaries of the glorious transformation. But will they ultimately benefit? Corporations steadily transferring trillions of dollars from employees’ pay to their own bottom lines will certainly increase profits and grow richer … at first. CEOs and big stockholders will wallow in a previously unimaginable bonanza … for a while. But then whammo! — economic reality will hit.

As more and more machines take over, more and more humans will lose their paychecks. And since robots don’t buy groceries, garments, gadgets, and such, who’s going to buy all the stuff those smart robots at Amazon, Walmart, Apple, et al. churn out? There aren’t enough CEOs and rich stockholders to buy enough mansions, luxury cars, and rare wines to sustain a consumer economy. So before the big shots cavalierly sweep a whole world of workers into the turbulent rapids of a jobless economy, they ought to pause and reflect on their own fate in a consumerless economy.

But contemplating the long-term cataclysmic consequences of rushing millions of robots into the world is not what they’re rewarded to do. Which is why you and I must force them (and their robot-infatuated accomplices in politics, media, and academia) to face extensive public grilling about the profound moral, social, and political effects of what they’re doing to us. We must demand that any robot economy works for ALL of us. Period.

Democracy matters


In Madhya Pradesh, India, a 2011 experiment with universal basic income produced some eye-popping results: Sanitation, housing, nutrition, and general health all improved in the villages receiving UBI, and many families spent more on their children’s education. The gender gap improved as well–school enrollment rose most dramatically for girls (they had farther to go to catch up with boys), and women engaged in new work (for instance, by finally buying that sewing machine their husbands had refused to purchase). Many households reduced their debt– with guaranteed monthly cash, fewer villagers needed to turn to usurious money- lenders for short-term needs. And in a wake-up slap to skeptics who believe that a regular, guaranteed income will make people lazy, earned income increased among villagers receiving the UBI. The only “employed population” that saw a decrease: children. More of them were in school.

Even more telling than qui bono is: Who decides? Up to now, practically all discussions and decisions of a robot future have been made in closed-off corporate boardrooms and at private tech conferences. Well, excuse us, but it’s our civic duty to intrude into the process, pushing back hard with the people’s ethic of The Common Good.

As we find ourselves on the brink of big, long-term change, we must demand equally big, long-term thinking. Sadly, the majority of political and corporate leaders today, at least in the USA, are picayune, self-serving thinkers. They’re unable to imagine a principled social restructuring to democratize the radical economic restructuring being forced by the unilateral robotization of work. The elites can’t even imagine that they ought to imagine a compensating social structure. Pathetic.

Luckily, we can think for ourselves–and be our own leaders. Visionaries and democratic thinkers like Tony Mazzocchi (the late, truly great labor/environmental leader) and Jeremy Rifkin (economist, social theorist, and sustainability activist), who first warned about a workerless world 25 years ago, have urged us to think about how society can adjust to and benefit from a post-work economy.

Good news: Many groups, some governments, and a few companies around the world have been experimenting with solutions. Here a just four ideas now percolating, some from past successes, others offering innovative concepts for a new social contract.

A permanent WPA. The New Deal’s Work Progress Administration literally worked for America. During its eight-year run during the Depression, the WPA created 1.4 million public projects that employed 8.5 million people, from park-builders to artists. A new WPA is needed more than ever today–not only to absorb hundreds of thousands of unemployed people (with many more to come), but also to begin the massive, ongoing job of rebuilding, expanding, and maintaining a 21st-century public infrastructure.

More time off. Why not spread available work around with full, living-wage pay for shorter workweeks–maybe four days or 30 hours? States, cities, and companies have done this in the past with great success, allowing people to have more time for family, education, civic participation, and community work. Also, provide more paid vacation time: In 1910, GOP President William Howard Taft argued that all workers deserved two to three months vacation every year. Let’s revisit that!

Redefine “work.” And let’s start compensating people who are presently doing socially valuable, but unpaid, jobs. For example, although we know that attentive parental guidance helps children, the US aggressively pressures low-income parents to take poor-paying jobs that require leaving kids in low-cost daycare facilities. Parenting is a job, and a very important one that ought to come with training, good pay, and essential benefits. Further, caregivers for the elderly, teaching assistants, mentors, interns, and others doing socially beneficial community work should be paid for their time.


“In the conservative state of Alaska . . . everyone received $2,072 [in 2015] simply for living and breathing [from Alaska citizens’ share of oil royalties]. In fact, they’ve been receiving an annual dividend of around $1,000 on average since 1982. Have decades of ‘free money’ eroded their social cohesion and led to a society full of social decay? To the contrary, Alaska’s rates of poverty and inequality are the lowest in the country, and individuals there report having the highest rate of well-being of any state in the US. …” –SCOTT SANTENS, writing in HuffPost

Universal Basic Income. This is a basic rewrite of the social contract between corporate powers and The People. Obviously, as AI technology “frees” the great mass of working folks from jobs, it also liberates them from their incomes. Universal basic income is a response to that radical and socially disastrous result, offering a simple, direct corrective: Tax the unearned windfall that corporations get as they zero-out their payrolls–then use this huge fund to give to every citizen enough money to live on. No strings attached. Everybody gets an income to spend, save, and/or invest as they see fit.

Rather than complex, mingy welfare programs, poor people would simply receive an income–as would the rich. The poverty stigma would fade. Women would get an amount equal to men. Single parents would have a level of income security. Small-government conservatives would see a shrunken bureaucracy. Silicon Valley mavericks (such as Elon Musk of Tesla and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar) who are concerned about the dangerous rise of inequality see UBI as a social harmonizer as well as a way to maintain a mass-consumer base. As the threat of mass joblessness looms ever larger, the direct payment idea is gaining adherents: UBI experiments are already underway in such diverse places as Finland, Uganda, Canada, the Netherlands, and even Oakland, California.

From a loss… to a win?

What is life about? The Luddites were asking exactly that question when they rebelled against the 19th-century capitalists forcing them from the generally pleasant, communal life of cottage work into the soul-grinding life of factory work. Two centuries later, here we are again, this time with millions of low- to upper-middle-class workers scheduled to be shoved by corporate powers into the abyss of no-work. We can protest in outrage, but we can also go on the offensive, using the corporate elimination of wage labor as an opportunity to push a whole-society remake. With concepts like UBI, rather than simply worrying about “getting a job,” people can focus on getting a life. It’s a chance for workers everywhere to get out from under the boss hierarchy and decades of a relentless 9-to-5 schedule, freeing them to build their lives and communities around the myriad of things they really want to do.

These watershed moments rarely come around, and we should grab this one to launch local, national, and international discussions about a new, egalitarian social order based not on our one-dimensional role of “worker,” but on the whole human. How ironic that a monstrous loss of jobs could be turned into a win for the people being discarded. We can reject the erection of a plutocracy … and begin to build the democratic society we want.

I’m making moves!

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