Of Servants and Robots

When I read about some of the arguments regarding robots replacing people, and creating more unemployment, I shake my head and say to myself, “Nobody studies history.”

Most of human history has had a surfeit of people versus those that controlled capital and resources.  What did the excess people do (those that lacked resources and were unskilled)?  They became servants to those who were better off.

In such a situation, some servants would become critical to the success of the wealthy family.  They would become better paid as a result.

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First, the needs of people are unlimited.  Wealthy people could use help managing their vast enterprises, and reducing their own efforts at home that take them away from their profitable endeavors.

Second, people are more flexible and clever than robots — they can deliver personal services to those that need them.  Also, robots cannot deliver the “human touch;” regardless of how clever the AI gets, people will feel better receiving services from people who show that they care.

I realize that language like this may be offensive to many — that is not my intent.  My view is one of mean-reversion.  Income inequality has been the norm throughout human history.  Attempts at creating “equal” societies fail, because people aren’t equal — some are more talented than others, and deserve more as a result.  We are reverting to the norm — inequality.

That is part of the problem with the Eurozone — different countries are varyingly productive, but many expect similar abilities to consume.  Accepting inequality would be wise — abandoning the Euro would be genius; let countries manage their own prosperity.  The Euro allowed weak countries to take on too much debt.

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I do not think that robots bring unemployment in the intermediate-term.  People will adjust, and wages will adjust.  Some unskilled people will serve the wealthy.  That will be a good thing, because service is not shameful, and people are happier when they are working.

8 Comments

  • Conscience of a Conservative says:

    Agree with much disagree on a little, in no particular order of importance.
    1) Some income disparity in Europe is due to some countries doing a better job of both creating the infrastructure that is necessary for productivity and keeping taxes low.
    2) Some people in life are just plain lucky via genetics and inherit a business or an income stream
    3) All this talk in the U.S. of a manufacturing revival ignores the fact that factories continue to become more automated and require less unskilled and semi-skilled labor to run
    4)Education and opportunity are very important, An Einstein stuck in an impoverished village in Africa or a Buffet stuck in Feudal England would not have done what he did
    5) The information and technological changes mean that for people to be successful they will need to be in primary contact with their customer, this favors Doctors who treat patients, and bankers who meet their clients face to face but not the banker that culls through numbers in the back office(which these days could be anywhere or in some cases a computer) nor does it favor the guy fitting auto parts together.

  • effem says:

    I think humans accept, and even prefer, some inequality. It is the chase of better outcomes that keeps most of us motivated. But there is a lot more beneath the surface.

    As inequality grows, the hope of a better outcome narrows, as it is available to fewer and fewer people. At that point inequality begins to feel like a negative more so than a positive.

    Inequality becomes further demoralizing when the perception is that the game is rigged. No one begrudges Steve Jobs – he played the game well and “won.” On the other hand you have: 1) bankers being bailed out, 2) politicians rigging districts so they can’t be voted out, 3) a tax code that only the rich can manipulate to their benefit, 4) a Fed/government that fiercely defends the value of financial assets but chooses not to defend the value of low-skilled labor.

    The elites should understand that in a democracy, it is important that a majority of people are “bought in” to the system. Once the majority feels like the system no longer works for them, you are facing the potential for very radical change. And that should frighten those with the most to lose. The rich should be thrilled that the “have-nots” can be so easily kept tame with social benefits, etc. It is wildly short-sighted to begin attacking these benefits.

    Overall, my personal belief is that inequality is a positive up until the point that the gap grows so wide and/or the system is so controlled by the “haves” that the rest become demoralized and look for another way.

  • r says:

    Your narrative is only part of the story.

    “Excessive inequality” also does mean revert to reduced inequality.

    There are are plenty of examples of throughout the history in the form of crime, violence, csocial unrest, revolutions etc. I do not know what the right amount of inequality that could result in stability or peace.

    Most of the left wingers complain about “excess inequality” and not about some level of inequality.

  • effem says:

    I agree that we don’t know how much inequality is “too much.” Therefore I am certain we will simply repeat the process found throughout history of ignoring it until it bubbles over.

    The “haves” should be much more proactive in working to maintain the sense (illusion?) that the system is “fair” and that the opportunity for advancement is very high. Instead they still seem unusually focused on growing (or at least securing) their piece of the pie despite that piece being as large as it has even been.

  • Greg says:

    David — On a lighter note…

    Its the end of the world, again (for the third time this year?). That guy that looks like the crypt keeper said the apocolypse was May, but then he made a slight miscalculation and it was October. Now the Myans are (sort of) chiming in — although the Myans are long dead so its really the academics interpretation / assumptions about the Myan calendar…

    But smile, its the end of the world … again. The government really is bankrupt, and that doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the media

  • eg1 says:

    Yes, you are correct — servitude has been the lot of most of humankind for all of recorded history. However, this is not a “consummation devoutly to be wished”‘ if for no other reason than it is profoundly wasteful of human potential.

    There is great value in politically compressing civil systems to a mean somewhere between the pernicious extremes of feudalism and communism.

    The challenge is to counteract developments which push our civil system to either extreme. Sadly, given the dynamic nature of such complex systems, vigilance and effort must be eternal.

    • I’m not arguing for any moral rightness for feudalism. When the marginal productivity of labor is low for a large portion of society, inequality increases… there is still work to be done, though, and all sorts of service industries can come into existence to aid those who earn more, because time is short for them. That’s the trade — let those who need time trade money to those who need money but have time.

  • effem says:

    Agreed. However, I suppose the key question is when does the equation change?

    There may come a point when time is better spent being politically active to change the system, redistribute wealth, etc. instead of partaking in low-paying servitude. This may be especially true when you factor in non-monetary benefits (feeling like you “won” vs being a “loser”).