Sunday, January 13, 2013

But Robots Don't Buy Bread

The CBS show 60 Minutes ran an item tonight about how robots were displacing humans in America's work force.   The story featured great minds from MIT and elsewhere discussing how humans were becoming redundant to industry.

Fair enough.  Yes, we can replace human labour in a great many slots in the modern workforce.   And we can have robots do their jobs more reliably and at much lower cost.   What we can't do is make these mechanical marvels want to eat bread.

Ours is the ultimate consumer society.   Consumer spending drives our economy.   Without willing buyers able to part with disposable income to buy products we have no one to sell stuff to, plain and simple.

A robot consumes electricity.   It doesn't drive a car or buy a house or rear and educate a gaggle of kids.   There's a reason robotic labour is so cheap - because it doesn't contribute to the economy, only to the bottom line and, even that, only temporarily.

Are robots going to line up to buy crap from other robots?   No, of course not, we don't pay them.   Robots don't have capital (wages) to inject into the economy.   Once robots displace wage-earning consumers to a certain level they cut their own and their owners' throats.

Henry Ford knew better than  this.   He knew it was in his interest to pay his factory workers a wage sufficient to enable them to buy his cars.   He knew that an adequately paid workforce was essential to demand in a consumer economy.   Without that, Ford would have wound up with a yard full of unsellable cars.

That's not to say that business won't be bull-headed enough to press the point.   They're already doing that.  The 60 Minutes report, however, showed how robotic jobs continue to displace human employment.   But, until the factories find a way to get real wages into the hands of those robots and have them start buying bread, industry is on a dead end road.

9 comments:

ChrisInOtt said...

Won't more robots doing our work mean more leisure time (time to buy things) for humans? I suppose that won't be possible until we figure out wealth redistribution.

kirbycairo said...

As you know, for a long time Marxists (and other radicals) have been saying that the fundamental flaw of capitalism is that it drives to eliminate labour with no corresponding idea of how to run an economy without workers. And though radicals talked about the problem over a hundred years ago, it isn't going away - rather it is just getting deeper.

The Mound of Sound said...

Interesting comments, thanks both.

To tell the truth, KC, what I knew of Marxism I learned by reading "The Manifesto" in officer school and that was so long ago I might have been working from a 1st edition.

However you might find this interesting. It's Nouriel Roubini explaining how the transfer of wealth from labour to capital creates a self-destructive death spiral for capitalism.

http://the-mound-of-sound.blogspot.ca/2011/08/is-capitalism-self-destructing-was-karl.html

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