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Monday, March 23, 2015

Reich Rages Against the Machines

Luddite inequality warriors attack technological progress

Former Labor Secretary (and serial doom-monger) Robert Reich is stoking the fires of paranoia about robots and automation as the latest, greatest threats to “equality,” prompting inequality warriors to turn against the machines, after they're through with the capitalists, the bankers, and the 1 percent.

But George Mason Economics Professor (and former FEE President) Don Boudreax offers a pointed rebuttal to the idea that we should fear mechanization and technology in his letter to Alternet:

In what is a prime candidate for the most economically mistaken essay ever penned, Robert Reich calls a future in which technology makes ever-more high-quality goods and services widely available at virtually zero cost “horrifying” (“In Our Horrifying Future, Very Few People Will Have Work or Make Money,” March 17).

Where to start? Perhaps with the fact that the history of such Luddite fear-mongering is as long (at least 200 years) as its batting record is low (.000%). Or maybe with the illogical worry about the unemployment created by an imaginary device that Dr. Reich uses to scare your readers – a device “capable of producing everything you could possibly desire, a modern day Aladdin’s lamp.” In fact, in a future filled with such devices unemployment wouldn’t be a problem because no one would have to work in order to acquire the means to consume lavishly. (Indeed, in such a future there would technically be no unemployment because no one would want to work.)

But Dr. Reich’s most wrongheaded claim is this one: “when more and more can be done by fewer and fewer people, the profits go to an ever-smaller circle of executives and owners-investors.” This claim is exactly backwards. By far the greatest part of the gains from entrepreneurial-driven advances in technology are, as they have always been, widely dispersed to the masses in the form of more and better consumption options available at lower and lower prices.

Examples include the factory production of textiles that clothed the masses, the mechanization of agriculture that saved the masses from famine, the assembly line that brought the likes of automobiles, kitchen appliances, telephony, and air travel to even the modern-world’s ‘poor,’ and the technology revolution that enables those yearning to read Dr. Reich’s economically uninformed commentary to satisfy their demands 24/7/365 by using their smartphones while sipping lattes and attending protests against the predations of the one percent.

Even as entrepreneurs and innovators grow richer, they will do so by lifting billions of others along with them. Work will be less monotonous and backbreaking. People will move into services and positions that require uniquely human gifts. And the world — especially the poor — will be better for it.

We don't have to guess, or hope, or speculate this might happen — it already has.


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