ECON: the abolition of work

Dan Fabulich (
Thu, 30 Apr 1998 00:15:00 -0400


Tony Belding wrote:

NOTE: Upon rereading this post, I've come to the conclusion that we're
talking about slightly different things. So I'll try to clarify wherever

Also, I've changed the subject line to include "ECON:". We've gotten
several complaints, and I think it's about time to start doing this with
all of our posts about the economy. Let's make this a better mailing list
for you and me. :)

>>While a substitution effect of that scale is theoretically possible, it's
>>somewhat unlikely. Even if capital DID become that cheap, we'd still need
>>people to program our non-sentient robots, people to "write the templates,"
>>people to advertise our products to other people...
>Non-sentient AI should certainly be able to handle those tasks.

Under my definition, "non-sentient AI" is oxymoronic. My understanding of
what we were talking about were robots which would only do what they were
programmed to do.

>I do not see why there should be any instances where labor has a comparative
>advantage over capital.

Go back and reread my post about comparative advantage. I'm not saying
humans would have absolute advantage over anything, just that in many cases
the ratio of goods they could produce in a given span of time would be
different from that of a robot. It is profoundly unlikely (read: pigs will
fly) that that the RATIO of different types of goods robots and humans
could create in a day would be exactly equal, across the board for every
type of good. (It's not even the same among individual humans!) So humans
will certainly have comparative advantage in some goods.

>That's insane! You're talking about a population bomb that's organically
>built into your economic system!

Well, yes. So, here's my case for population growth, taken mostly from
Julian Simon's "The Ultimate Resource 2."

1) Axiom. Promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number is an
important moral good.
2) Therefore. If the number of people in society increase, without
decreasing the happiness per capita, then population growth is a good thing.
3) Observed. Humans, on average, produce more than they consume.
4) Axiom. Production taxes resources; the more production takes place,
the fewer resources will be available.
5) Therefore. If resources do not run out, population growth will result
in greater wealth per capita.

>Anyhow, whether you like it or not, economic
>growth will stop whenever you run out of raw materials and energy -- in
>economic terms, when you run out of "land". Then you will have a solar
>crammed full of dirt-poor consumers and no hope of a better life. Malthus

Now, I put forward that humans have a unique and effective mechanism for
dealing with vanishing resources which not only tends to solve the problem
at hand, but add to total wealth in the process.

When a resource becomes scarce, its price increases. As a result of this,
fewer people buy the good, noting that it is not worth its price. As the
price rises, we observe that the resource is conserved, by virtue of the
fact that fewer people consider the good worth its price, so fewer people
are prepared to use it, waste it, etc.

Also, when the price of a good rises, it provides a window for new
technology to provide alternatives. Suppose some future energy resource,
say black holes, cost $5 per unit of energy extracted. Now let us also
suppose that a new technology, dilithium crystals, could be invented, but
that it might cost as much as $7 per unit of energy due to the cost of
inventing new tools to mine it, locate it, refine it, etc. Clearly, no one
will buy dilithium crystals at this price. But suppose black holes
suddenly become extremely scarce, and the price of energy from black holes
doubles to $10. First, fewer people will buy black holes, and second, the
demand for an alternative is great. Now it is worthwhile to invest in
dilithium crystals, invent the tools necessary to process them, and bring
them to the world. Scarcity makes money available to solve the energy
crisis. Furthermore, once the majority of buyers switch to dilithium
crystals, you'd have even more people working on the crystals, finding
better ways to refine them, etc. so as to make their own profit.

Best of all, in the meantime we will reap the benefits of increased wealth
per capita, allowing more people to buy an education and more people to
become scientists if they so wish. We do not see a movement towards
increasing poverty, but rather a trend towards an increasingly wealthy

Note that we have to assume that people must work in order to get more
money, if this process is to succeed. Otherwise, people will not bother to
seek cheaper alternatives. Similarly, I would call the invention of a new
resource and the seeking out of better refinement mechanisms "work;" and to
this extent I put forward that this sort of work will always be necessary.

When Julian Simon was writing, he argued that resources were actually
infinite, and that those who were arguing for finite "scarce" resources
were wrong. This may not be true, as written. However, it IS true that
the amount of resources which are available to us are determined primarily
by the technology which we develop, not by the remaining quantity of any
particular resource.

You may argue that there is an absolute limit to the resources which
technology can bring us; that eventually technologies which increase
available energies will run up against some physical barrier; that all the
technologies which would increase energy efficiency will eventually reach
some maximum limit determined by physical law. This may be true, but to
say this implies a great deal of knowledge about the universe and physical
laws which science does not claim to have. There are some limits which we
are pretty certain about. I don't anticipate any perpetual motion machines
in humanity's future. However, technology is pretty sneaky, and engineers
are a crafty bunch. So while we may not be able to get around this
particular limit, there are other mechanisms, other means of extracting
energy, which may do the trick for us.

I do not know if there is an ultimate limit to what technology can do for
us. I suspect that there might be; but then, much of the evidence for
ultimate limits which we have seen in the past have eventually been
overcome. So perhaps there is not. If that time ever comes, then I will
be willing to hear arguments for decreases in population growth, energy
conservation, etc. However, until that time, I stand ignorant as to the
truth of this point.


6) Observed. Resources will not run out if we do not run out of useful
7) Observed. As wealth per capita increases, spending per capita
increases, including on education.
8) Therefore. More wealth per capita will result in more educated people.
9) Axiom. If more people were educated, we would have more people able to
create useful technology.
10) Therefore. More educated people results in more useful technology.
11) Therefore. If technology does not run out, population growth will
result in greater wealth per capita.
12) Therefore. If technology does not run out, population growth results
in the greater happiness for a greater number.
13) Therefore. If technology does not run out, population growth is an
important moral good.

>That's what I like about them. Let's go back to our root principles again...
>Any economy is a system for distributing limited resources among people with
>unlimited (?) needs and wants. Adding more resources to the system is
>helpful. Adding more needs and wants to the system is HARMFUL. So, adding
>non-sentient robots is ideal: it increases the available resources without
>increasing the total needs and wants. (Actually, non-sentient robots have
>some needs, but no wants. And when a non-sentient robot is no longer useful,
>it can be destroyed and recycled, which could not be done to a sentient robot
>for ethical reasons.)

Under this understanding, yes. However, I was answering a different point
when I composed this. First, I was asked how the poor would keep their
jobs in the face of automation. I answered that so long as the robots were
sentient, more jobs would be needed, so we could expect that humans would
keep their jobs.

Now, I must agree that increased non-sentient automation would lead to
decreased prices and increased abundance, as you say. However, during the
transition period, wages and prices might not be as flexible as we might
like. If wages fell faster than the price level, or if wages couldn't fall
with the price level (due to unions, minimum wage laws, etc.) then what
we'd find is people starving in an age of plenty. Having sentient robots
would ease this transition a lot, because they would create jobs in the
process, rather than just filling them.

And finally, in the spirit of the post above, who is to say that the
happiness of a sentient robot is not as great a moral goal as improving our
own happiness? Presuming these robots would continue the human trend of
producing more than they consumed, (a trend from which I see no reason a
sentient robot would break,) adding sentient robots to our population would
have the same effect, if not an amplified effect, as increasing our
population would.

>We have been conditioned to think that adding workers to the economy is
>helpful, because they tend to produce more than they consume. This would
>be true of sentient robots, at least until you reach your limits of growth.
>However, non-sentient robots have a greater advantage. Because they have no
>WANTS, they will consume much less than the sentient robot while producing
>just as much. The net gain for the economy is much greater!

Unless the sentient robots are themselves considered part of our utility
calculations, in which case the utility which would be gained from having
sentient robots would be much greater than that which would be gained from
simple automation.

>>Non-sentient robots don't buy goods; and *because* they don't buy goods,
>>they don't add to the demand for jobs, so they don't CREATE jobs,
>GOOD! I don't WANT to create jobs, I want to ELIMINATE jobs! There is
>nothing sacred about jobs. There is no reason why our economy should be
>upon work, or why jobs should be equated with wealth. At least you haven't
>shown me any reason.

Well, it goes like this: as Lorrey will tell you, "There Ain't No Such
Thing As A Free Lunch." Even if we do decrease the price level to
something absurdly low, we should still expect to make micropayments in
order to receive our daily bread. Alternately, engines like advertising
could take over, but advertising applies only to people who COULD buy other
goods; if you're not working, then you have no income, and so advertising
to you would be pointless.

So I put forward that work must happen in order to keep things running.
Maybe very LITTLE work needs to happen (maybe people could be paid a living
salary for a tiny service, like some of the work
is doing), but work must happen, because it takes a little work in order to
feed you; even if it's just a very little amount of work.

If wages and prices were fully flexible, then I'd probably just agree with
you, argue that increased automation will decrease the compensation for
labor but at the same time make that compensation exponentially more
valuable, resulting in lots of people living on low wages and getting rich
in the process. I have made that argument here before.

However, I'd be a fool to claim that wages and prices are fully flexible.
The market has some sticky prices, and wages are some of the stickiest
prices of all. And even if it IS primarily because of government screw
ups, it seems a little heartless for me to just presume that simply because
it's the government's fault, we shouldn't do anything to make it better.

Sentient robots would provide us with plenty of labor, while at the same
time creating jobs, which would ease the transition a lot. They would also
have their own utility, which IMO is a moral good.

>>And as I've been trying to tell you, more consumers DO make us better off,
>>by creating more jobs for us to fill.
>How does "creating more jobs for us to fill" make us better off? Please
>explain this connection, because I sure don't see it!

Wages and prices are not fully flexible, so people may suffer greatly while
wages and prices readjust to the new price schema. Creating more jobs to
fill would ease this readjustment.

>>I'm not, but then, the qualitative distinction between sentient and
>>non-sentient is vague at best. I'd say that when you've got robots that
>>create art, you're definitely toeing the borderline of sentience.
>Art is based on emotions. This reminds me of that other post about an AI
>quoting Martin Luther King on TV. How do you distinguish an AI that has
>human-like emotions from one that's merely pretending to?

I don't claim to know the difference precisely.

>From a purely economic standpoint, my definition of sentience is very easy: a
>sentient being is one who /wants/ things. A consumer.

How is this different from an AI that "pretends" to want things? ;)

>Maybe art shouldn't even be done for economic reasons! Perhaps art should be
>the province of non-workers who make their living by other means, so they can
>indulge their creative urges without worrying about the bottom line.

Whoever is feeding the artist has to worry about the bottom line. So I'd
propose a different solution: if prices are so low that people can live
off of twenty minutes of labor a day, then the artists will be able to just
do that, and then spend the rest of their time creating art.

>Are you
>happy with the output of Hollywood these days? Do you like walking into a
>bookstore and finding whole shelves of Star Trek novels? All those newly
>minted cyber-capitalists, freed from the burdens of work, will have a lot of
>time on their hands to indulge artistic hobbies. It might result in a

Again, so long as some work is necessary to feed a person, work will never
go away; we should struggle to make this work as inconsequential as
possible, but it will never be zero.

>>>admitted that I don't want to work; why should I want my children to?
>>So they can add to their own wealth as well as the wealth of others.
>There are certainly other ways they can do that, rather than by working.

Such as? Some economists DEFINE the creation of wealth as economic "work."

>>So they can reap the rewards of their own investments.
>This does not require work.

What will they invest without wealth? Where will they get the wealth if
they're not working?

>>So they can learn to manage finite resources.
>This does not require work.

You think managing finite resources is fun?

>Circular logic... I should want my children to work so that my
>will have an opportunity to work?

So they don't just get fired and starve.

>I'm all in favor of
>hobbies, as long as I don't have to work for a living.

So long as it requires work to feed you, you will have to do work in
exchange. Maybe just a little, but some.

>>Shall I go on?
>By all means! Maybe you'll hit upon something valid.

Let's not get testy, now. :)

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