I was recently interviewed by Tom Ashbrook for NPR's "On Point" about the "jobless economy" - basically, the "rise of the robots" that everyone is talking about. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee, authors of the new book The Second Machine Age, were also on the program. You can listen to the audio here.
Erik and Andy had very coherent and well-prepared points, which is not surprising given that they've just written a book on the subject. I haven't yet formed a single dominant thesis about the "rise of the robots", so my thoughts were separated into a number of distinct points. Those points were:
1. Technology has not been as important a force behind inequality and unemployment during the last 15 years as many people think; up til now, the much bigger story has been globalization (especially China). This is supported by Mike Elsby's research on the subject. But going forward, the "rise of the robots" may be a much bigger worry, and we need to think about how to respond to it.
2. It's not yet clear if human labor will find a way to remain valuable en masse in the age of automation and the digital economy. That ended up happening in the Industrial Revolution, but there is no guarantee that it will happen again. We need to be prepared for the possibility that large numbers of humans are rendered nearly obsolete by new technology.
3. In the short term (~5 yrs), infrastructure spending can boost our economy and help people get more jobs and higher wages. But that opportunity will be played out and will not repeat itself.
4. In the medium term (~20 yrs), our culture of work and the dignity that paid employment provides can be partially preserved through a program of wage subsidies, which are similar to the EITC but easier to implement and will probably have a more positive psychological impact.
5. In the longer term (>20 yrs.), if technology continues to make more and more and more humans obsolete, we need to do two things. First, we need to find a way to distribute income more widely. Redistributive taxation and "basic income" is useful but it has its limits. Finding a way to redistribute capital income - by helping Americans to be small business owners en masse, and/or by finding a way to democratize ownership of most companies - will be essential. The second thing we will need to do is to transition from our traditional culture of work to a culture that values humans for their interpersonal relationships and self-expressive creative output - two things that will never be obsolete.
But remember, all this is contingent on the progress of technology, and that is something that economists and futurists alike have always found devilishly hard to predict.