Monday, December 12, 2011

When Robots Do all the Work, Who Will They Be Working For?

Timothy Travis gave a talk on Sunday, 12/11/11, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fayetteville entitled, When Robots Do all the Work, Who Will They Be Working For? A very lively discussion followed.

I agree with one objection that was raised during this discussion, robots will not be doing all of the work in the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding, this is a apt topic for discussion. Technology will continue to displace human labor while simultaneously enabling processes that will create tremendous new value. What should be done with this value (i.e., wealth) when far less labor is required?

The consensus of the discussion on Sunday is that democratic socialism is in order. It was pointed out that socialism has a bad reputation in America. I think this is primarily because it has been conflated with Soviet style totalitarianism.

American democratic socialism should be a DEMOCRACY, where the direction of the state is determined by the will of the people. And the private sector should not be abolished; au contraire, it should be encouraged. Valuable innovation can be expected to continue to occur there.

I think it is important to acknowledge that many aspects of the current organization of American life are indeed provided by all for all, consistent with the essence of socialism. I suggest that many of these should remain public, and that we should make deliberate choices going forward as to what aspects of our lives should be within the public sector, see specific suggestions below.

Can public sector enterprise be managed much more effectively than it currently is? Sure!
Can innovation and excellence happen in the public sector? Indeed!
How did humans get to the Moon? It was a public sector effort!
For excellence in the public sector to be a reality, we  need to cultivate an ethos of excellence and entrepreneurship in public servants. Why not? Greed is not the only motivation that humans can respond to! Look at this recent  research on altruism and empathy in rats. Do you really think that humans aren't also sometimes motivated by altruism and empathy? I think that we could expect much better behavior from individuals if we encourage them to act out of altruism rather than greed!

I. Some activities under state control that should remain under state control

        A. The military
Would anyone advocate for allowing the use of armed force to be a laissez faire situation (À la Mexican drug cartels)? Hopefully enough said!

         B. Transportation infrastructure
Should air traffic control be abandoned? Probably not!

Would many support the privatization of all of the nation's highways? I expect not.
To support the construction and maintenance of roads, I suggest that society should tax private vehicular travel according to the miles driven per month multiplied by the impact of each vehicle on the roads. I suggest below the abolition of  gasoline taxes which now partially support roads.

      C. Public Education
Public education. I think that it should continue to be public, and continue to be free - and should also be free at public colleges and universities through the baccalaureate level.

II. Some venues where publictization should be considered 
A new word is introduced here (for a new era) - definition - publictize: to convert a formerly private activity into a public enterprise. Note the contrast with the existing word publicize; e.g., we need some our best minds to publicize publictization.

         A. Fossil fuel extraction
It should be acknowledged that the private sector was vital to the development of the fossil fuel industries. But continued profligate combustion of fossil fuels now threatens the very existence of civilization (through carbon dioxide emission and consequent global climate change). Thus we should consider the publictization of the extraction of fossil fuels. Public management is appropriate for this new era where we must use fossil fuels very carefully to mitigate carbon emissions and to prolong fossil fuel availability. I think that we should stop burning them for energy as soon as possible. In addition to mitigation of carbon, this will provide for their prolonged future use for other critical applications (e.g., manufacturing of drugs, lubricants, plastics). This should be done in a manner that generates public revenue - so that the price can appropriately moderate demand. Also, this would allow the gasoline tax to be abolished.

Why should we allow the oil companies to continue to make hundreds of billions of dollars of profit each year from peak oil? Petroleum should now be viewed as a public resource while the external costs of its production and combustion should be viewed as the public liabilities that they actually are.

This public fossil fuel revenue would be subject to democratic control. I suggest public initiatives (see B&C below) which would require substantial public revenue.

The private sector should be encouraged to develop new sources of energy. The stable price for fossil fuel energy that would result from its publictization would lower the risk for the private investments required to develop alternative and/or sustainable energy.

        B. Health care
Public sector health care works well in many places, e.g., England, and Canada.
I think that basic health care should be available to all US citizens free of charge. Thought must be given to developing a process to specify what is "basic health care" and what is "elective" (to be paid for personally or with private insurance). And these specifications will need to change with time. I suggest that cosmetic surgery should always be elective, and that heart transplants should also be elective (at least for the time being). American health care professionals could focus their abundant talent on the development of effective and cost-effective medical procedures and on the promotion of wellness. Perhaps the provision of American medical procedures at cost to large numbers of medical tourists from around the world would become a major source of future international good will and national pride. This initiative would allow medicare and medicaid and the taxes that support them to be eliminated.

       C. Public stipend
I suggest that every citizen of the USA should receive a public stipend from the moment of birth to the moment of death. This is analogous to the Alaska Permanent fund (which payed each individual $1174 in 2011). This would allow Social Security and the pay roll tax that supports it to be phased out.

I think that this stipend should be sufficient to support the basic needs of the individual (approximately $1000 per month in today's economy). Desperation would thus no longer need to be a motivation for crime in America! 

Some individuals may thus choose to live a life of simple leisure. Why shouldn't they? Leisure seems to be basically what nature designed mammals for!

Others may choose to live simple, but expansive lives - perhaps making tremendous contributions to the arts or in public service.

Many will work for additional income or participate as entrepreneurs in various enterprises. No problem! They should not be discouraged! And their public stipend should continue - although I would suggest that their additional  income should be taxed. The 2011 1st quarter profit of the 5 largest oil companies was 31 billion dollars -  substantially less than the ~$1 trillion per quarter needed to fund this proposed stipend at the proposed level.

What do you think? Please let me know if you have concerns!

John Mattox, 12/12/11


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