The robots are coming.
I can’t tell you exactly when I first heard that, but it was definitely when I was in grade school during the 1960s. It was the Space Age, and so the idea of better living through science was in the air, literally. The most popular cartoon of the early-1960s was “The Jetsons” — which accelerated every baby boomer child’s naive fantasies that our middle-age years would be spent tooling around in flying cars, served cool drinks at home by a humanoid robot muttering ironic sit-com punch lines.
Fifty-plus years later, and it’s clear that Hanna-Barbera cartoon robots were a lot more adorable than what was coming in real life. In the post-war idealization of an automated future, robots were just cool add-ons that made your everyday life easier — the maid that 1960s middle-class folks couldn’t afford, or maybe a friendly family dog. (“Hello, I’m Rags — woof woof!” went the annoying robot dog in Woody Allen’s 1972 flick, “Sleeper.”) Thanks to all the leisure time created when robots were doing so much of the work, George Jetson only went to work one day a week, for just two hours.
In the actual 21st Century, George Jetson has been fired — replaced at Spacely Space Sprockets by a robot that uses artificial intelligence to design new, better sprockets — and his flying car is up on blocks because he can’t afford the insurance payments. But his former boss Cosmo Spacely is doing better than ever — recently having purchased his fifth flying space yacht.
I was thinking about the robot fantasies of the 1960s and 1970s and the robot realities of the 21st Century this weekend as I read a remarkable report from the World Economic Forum in Davos by the New York Times' Kevin Roose. It described in detail how the world’s billionaires and their powerful friends are talking about an automated near-future in which millions of jobs from truck driver to bookkeeper to newspaper journalist are replaced by machines. It’s a development all but guaranteed to cause massive societal upheaval but the grand poobahs of technology are powerless to stop it...because, you know, shareholders.
Roose reported that the executives talked at the posh Swiss report in business babble about a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and even spoke with empathy — in public, anyway — of a “safety net” for tomorrow’s displaced workers, while in private “these executives tell a different story: They are racing to automate their own work forces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.” The Times columnist quoted Mohit Joshi, president of the information technology firm Infosys, as saying that CEOs who once had been thinking of gently trimming their workforce because of automation are now thinking bigger, that, "Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”
It’s hard to quantify how fast this is happening, but Roose made it pretty clear that executives under pressure to deliver high quarterly profits for their shareholders (and under zero pressure to worry about stuff like the unemployment rate) are movingly quick to to create a labor market where the hiring outlook is a lot better for robots than for human beings. The columnist even quoted one tech guru predicting that artificial intelligence, or AI, will eliminate 40 percent (!!!) of the world’s jobs in 15 years.
And you thought voters were mad in 2016?
Roose’s column stood out because there was less reporting from the annual confab of the world’s elite at Davos than in past years — Team Trump was grounded by the government shutdown, newsrooms and travel budgets are shrinking and the journalists who are still working have been swamped by the massive garbage slick that is the Trump presidency. They spent the weekend covering the ephemeral — the political body slam of Trump by Nancy Pelosi (or Nancy, as I call her) and Roger Stone’s Nixonian salute, on endless loop — while the world’s richest (mostly) men were plotting to change life on earth as we know it.
That said, and maybe it’s just my fertile imagination, but I believe the winds began to shift a little the moment that Trump’s hoped-for one term entered its second half on January 20. The shutdown fiasco — which made Trump look like a weakling, not a dictator-in-waiting — and the rapid flooding of the zone by 2020 Democratic hopefuls is starting to shift the focus to America after Trump. And the war over robots — and the wealth they create — may soon dwarf the Trumpian conflicts we are experiencing today.
Think again about why our cuddly thinking about robots in the years after World War II was so far off. It was a different time. Post-war modern appliances — vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and what not — was making life easier and giving everyday people more leisure time, so it was natural to think robots would be a positive extension of that, Politically, the New Deal welfare state was strong and (largely thanks to unions) the gap between rich and poor was shrinking. But by 1980 everything started to flip. Economic elites have gained steadily at the expense of the working class.
Working people are already mad. They’re mad at billionaires — just check out the venomous reaction to Starbucks ex-CEO Howard Schultz and his vain independent presidential run-to-nowhere. But increasingly they’re mad at machines; coincidentally or not. the New York Times also had an article this weekend about growing human violence toward robots — remember what happened to the hitchhiking robot that passed through Philly? — and their cousin, the self-driving car, which is routinely stoned or even smashed by other drivers, demolition-derby style, in greater Phoenix where a major test is underway.
So if the productivity gains and higher profits of automation make a few dozen people wealthy beyond measure while taking jobs away from tens of millions of people, it will be game, set and match for a civil society. That could make the contentious Trump years seem, in retrospect, like a paisley love-in.
A few people are thinking about the political consequences. One of them is even running for the Democratic nomination for president, but it’s doubtful you’ve heard of him. New York businessman Andrew Yang says the most critical item on his 2020 agenda is fending off a robot apocalypse such as the loss of 1 million U.S. jobs just attributable to the rise of self-driving trucks, which is enough to cause, in his words. “riots in the street.” His solution is a kind of guaranteed national income that he calls a “Freedom Dividend,” $1,000 a month that would be sent to every citizen aged 18-64, to cushion against the job-loss tsunami.
I’m going to go out on a wild limb here and predict that Andrew Yang will not be sworn in as our 46th (or 47th) president, not when he’s running against as many as 20 better-known Democrats. But I do think the idea of higher income or wealth taxes on multi-millionaires and billionaires — which have gained currency with the Democratic House takeover and the launch of the 2020 race — should be seen as a potential form of garlic to ward off any the invasion of the robots.
Higher taxes on the rich — with a top marginal income tax rate ranging from 70 to 91 percent — played a role in the economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s. The high tax rate inspired CEOs to invest in their workers, or in capital that created new jobs, rather than in themselves and their suppressed yearnings for multiple mansions and yachts. The government also had more tax revenue to spend on projects like infrastructure, which created even more decent middle-class jobs.
Yes, the 2010s are a different era, but taxes on the wealthy could definitely ease the impacts of automation. Our infrastructure needs, for example, may be even greater now than they were in the 1950s and ’60s. And — although few want to hear this — the loss of 40 percent of our jobs in 15 years would necessitate a massive expansion of the welfare state, either as Yang proposes or through some other method.
Last week, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — so far arguably the most innovative of the 2020 presidential hopefuls — proposed the fairly radical solution of a wealth tax that would likely affect the 75,000 richest families in the country, kicking in at 2 percent for wealth over $50 million and rising to 3 percent at $1 billion. This would help flatten income inequality while raising a whopping $2.75 trillion over a decade — money that could help smooth the rocky transition to a robotic future.
Even with the White House and the Senate in friendly GOP hands for now, America’s billionaires are starting to panic. Schultz has already admitted that his fear of the Democratic Party moving to the idea of Millennial icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70 percent tax on income above $10 million inspired his plan for an independent White House bid. Politico says Wall Street is freaking out about 2020, praying for a president who’s more stable than Trump but won’t raise their taxes.
Here’s a suggestion for Wall Street and all those other CEO’s still high on the Alpine air of Davos: Maybe stop obsessing over artificial intelligence and use some emotional intelligence for a change. The short-term sugar rush of quarterly profit margins won’t be worth a warm bucket of spit in an economy with Great Depression levels of unemployment, where the only guaranteed job is building the barricades of a social revolution. That means thinking about stakeholders, including workers, and not just shareholders.