If The Robots Stole All Our Jobs

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In Meditations on Moloch, one of Scott's examples is robots pushing humans out of work:

In the earlier stages of the process, capitalism becomes more and more uncoupled from its previous job as an optimizer for human values. Now most humans are totally locked out of the group whose values capitalism optimizes for. They have no value to contribute as workers – and since in the absence of a spectacular social safety net it’s unclear how they would have much money – they have no value as customers either. Capitalism has passed them by.

Leaving aside my usual remarks on the subject ("This can't happen, because precise analogy to international trade and Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage"), let's take a gedankenexperiment where this has happened. Suppose that all goods are produced by robots, and so all humans (excluding the robot owners, who in the least-convenient-possible-world are few in number) are destitute due to their unemployability.

Now, these humans still have wants, but they are unable to buy the robots' produce, because they have no dollars. This means that the robots' produce is not able to compete with the product of human workers: an hour of human labour is worth zero dollars, but it's worth some nonzero amount of goods (at minimum, the goods that it produces). I may not be able to buy jeans from RoboLevis, but I can still paint my neighbour's fence in return for a pair of his homespun trousers, because he doesn't have dollars either and thus can't buy a DuPont fence-painting drone.

At this point, of course, we discover that barter is hard and settling on a common currency solves our double-coincidence-of-wants problem. But our currency derives its agio (value-over-and-above-inherent-value) from its value in facilitating exchanges with our humans-who-don't-own-robots economy; it is thus of no value (except the inherent value, the value of the metal (or other material) from which it is coined) to anyone in the robotic economy (because, per hypothesis, nothing of ours can ever be worth buying for them).

But this just means that there will be no trade between us and the robotic (dollar) economy, which means we will be unaffected by its existence (at least as long as it remains prevented from tortiously assaulting us; but I'm fairly sure Scott was going for the corporate robots take our jobs dystopia rather than the robotic killing machines enslave humanity dystopia), and no worse off than if it didn't exist — except that a tiny slice of human wants, those of the robot-owners, are cut out of our potential market, slightly reducing our division-of-labour gains.

We can still, without any problem of being 'outcompeted by robots', produce goods to sell to one another, because if none of us can buy from the robots, we are clearly not in economic competition with them for satisfying human wants. Scott's dystopic scenario, of Capitalist Moloch "passing [humans] by", solves itself!

Of course, we can now go back to 'my usual remarks', and observe that it makes no sense for our currency (let's call it the peso) to be worth zero dollars. That would be saying that no amount of human labour can ever produce as much value as one dollar's worth of robot, the ridiculousness of which is (I hope) obvious. To say that robots "can make anything cheaper than humans can" is a category error made more visible by our two currencies, because robot labour is priced in dollars and human labour is priced in pesos. It is, as I started out by saying (and then ignoring), precisely analogous to international trade, and Ricardo's Law applies for the exact same reasons.

To end with a cheap appeal to ethos: fearing job losses from international trade is what Trump does. You don't want to be like Trump, do you?

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