In a hopeless world hope is better than resignation

There’s really nothing one can say anymore about what Hugo Chavez did to his country, No Food, No Medicine, No Respite: A Starving Boy’s Death in Venezuela. But now in France a left-wing politician is on the rise who praises Chavez, Left-Wing Politician Shakes Up France’s Presidential Race:

That man is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, sworn enemy of NATO and high finance, and candidate of his own “France Unsubjugated” movement, who has been drawing tens of thousands to his rallies, especially the young, as he did here Sunday at Toulouse on the banks of the Garonne River. They came to hear a veteran French politician give them a dousing of old-fashioned Robin Hood-revolutionary rhetoric, with promises to tax the rich hard, give to the poor and start a “citizen revolution.”

There is a serious chance that this will be the next president of the French republic. This man, who has no problems being called a Communist. If there is one political system where the experiment has been done, it is command economy socialism. There may be cases of market failure where the state needs to intervene, but by and large an economy dominated by the state has not done good for the common man.

And yet the reality is what alternatives are the people being given? They are looking Left and looking Right, because they want hope that the future will have some of the promise that the past had. Sober realistic centrists with broadly liberal views only offer them only hard truths.

Truths such as this: Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs. The far Left anti-capitalist program in economics really doesn’t offer a long run path to prosperity. But capitalism itself only leads to individual and broad-based prosperity as a side effect of market logic. If returns to capital could accrue without labor inputs, then that would be even “better.”

29 thoughts on “In a hopeless world hope is better than resignation

  1. “If there is one political system where the experiment has been done, it is command economy socialism.”

    lol no it hasn’t. Number one, Marx would have been the first person to have said that Russia was not a good choice to try communism, which requires (black letter) an already stable capitalist state that has experienced the infrastructure and development of that economic system. Second, Russia had just lost TWENTY MILLION PEOPLE in World War II, and had a huge portion of its most important infrastructure destroyed by war. Meanwhile the United States was virtually untouched and enjoyed the massive economic stimulus of (wait for it) what was essentially a command economy. Read a little bit about how the war-era economy functioned; it goes quite a bit beyond “intervention.” The greatest expansion of well being and economic development in this country followed a period of massive governmental investment and direct and powerful meddling in the economy.

    Also, countries that are subject to vicious embargoes and sanctions from the world’s most powerful countries have an immense confound when it comes to judging their economic outcomes. Do you really think you’ve accounted for these variables?

    It’s amazing how you posture as this free thinker but your economic views are just boilerplate conservatism, of the most unoriginal and thoughtless variety. You talk about standards of evidence and then cite a single anecdotal piece of journalism. Capitalism is riven by internal contradictions; meanwhile, you talk about standards of living, and children are still drinking poisoned water in Flint. Get outside of your priors for a year and come back to me and talk about communism.

  2. Mélenchon vs Le Pen. Nazis vs Communists. You think we had bad choice in our Presidential election?

    Our Parisian friend will stop writing to us with complaints about Trump.

  3. In an odd coincidence, I took one of those “I side with” tests twenty minutes ago, and Melenchon came out my number 1 choice. Admittedly only at 62%, edging out Hamon by a 1% margin. None of the candidates were good matches for my ideology though it seems, since I’m very far left on economics, pro civil liberties, pro GMO/nuclear power, etc.

    Regardless, it seems like all of the realistic options for the French suck right now. Filon is a Thacherite on economics who holds basically identical positions to LePen on social and law and order issues (other than being nominally pro-EU). Emmanuel Macron is young and charismatic, but he’s basically running on the same platform as the current French President, so it’s status quo neoliberalism with a more attractive face. Hamon should be in the top four – he’s discussing automation from a left perspective, and advocating basic income – but it seems like the left vote is drifting towards Melenchon.

    I’d probably vote for whoever the most viable left-wing candidate was in the first round if I were French, unless it looked like Macron might get shut out of the runoff in favor of LePen/Fillon (which looks unlikely now) in which case I might vote Macron in the first round. Either way, the French system shows us that while the candidate selection process in the U.S. leaves much to be desired, just because you increase the number of candidates does not mean you end up getting away from the “lesser of X evils” problem.

  4. The people I talk to on the left – at least younger people – have broadly been won over by the idea that replacement of the working class by capital investments is inevitable, and that some form of basic income (whether granted by the capitalist, gained via the ballot box, or after some “revolutionary” struggle) is inevitable. People over the age of 50 still seem mostly stuck in the “they can’t possibly automate job X” mindset, but I think this is a function of age, not ideology.

    When I get into deeper particulars of basic income which threaten left-wing shibboleths – like maybe minimum wage increases aren’t such a good idea any longer, because they penalize the companies which have yet to automate or offshore, but do nothing to collect and redistribute revenue from those that do – people tend to get more squirrely.

  5. And yet the reality is what alternatives are the people being given? They are looking Left and looking Right, because they want hope that the future will have some of the promise that the past had. Sober realistic centrists with broadly liberal views only offer them only hard truths.

    I don’t think this is esp. accurate.

    1) It was “sober realistic centrists with broadly liberal views” who are responsible for where we are today (or at least where we were on the morning of 11/8/16), and who brought forth policies that allowed the middle class in many western countries to be gutted. This led to the relatively widespread despair that has been documented by (among others) Case & Deaton, and which not only allowed Farage and Trump to triumph electorally in major parts of the Anglosphere, but also led to the collapse of the mainstream political parties in Greece and, I believe, Spain. This sequence of collapse-despair-massive political change was previously seen in 1920s Germany (& other European countries around the same time), 1990s Serbia, and so forth: You of all people do not need me to cite the relevant history. Nothing surprising about it today, however discouraging it is to the luckier (or more fortunate) among us.

    2) You can find sober realists across the political spectrum. What you are highlighting here are populists (the linked piece states that populists can be left, right or center; I cannot think of any examples of the last. This article uses Slovakia as an example, I would not know). As the title of post suggests, when we believe that our world is collapsing or at that our place in it is, we will grasp at straws. Think laetrile.

  6. Command economy socialism may be a failure (sorry, deBoer, a few years of war economy is not a very convincing counterexample), but in a post-scarcity information economy world, essential conditions for market economy (labor market, rival and excludable goods, etc.) become obsolete. I see this as the most likely Singularity: Competition for resources is a first principle that undergirds all economic, political, social, and biological history. Escape from this exigency would trigger a great and profound transformation of human existence at its most basic level. We are about to find out what people will do when they no longer have to work to survive. It’ll be the greatest and possibly most dangerous experiment in history.

  7. If we’re heading into a world of super-intelligent AI, a command economy may become more feasible. The main issue with command economies isn’t that the “free market” is smart, it’s that people are dumb. Once you have a decision-making apparatus orders of magnitude smarter than a human, it may well be turning over the economy to a linked group of AIs which coordinates to maximize human flourishing would result in superior outcomes to any human-engineered market.

    One issue I often see raised regarding the post-scarcity world is the “crisis of meaning” the end of work would bring. Essentially that basic income could fill our material needs, but not our instinctive desire to accomplish something. On a personal level, I don’t understand that, but I’m a low-conscientiousness, fairly lazy person who would be perfectly contented to fill the remainder of my life with family and reading. But on a broader level, I don’t understand the “idle hands” argument, because classes of people as varied as housewives, trust fund kids, and retirees do not engage in wage work, yet have not been noted for having intractable social pathologies. I think we’ll ultimately get along just fine if we can cross this Rubicon.

  8. You’re kinda underestimating Razib. Yeah, this post and some of the other recent ones look like they were outsourced (seriously Razib, these milquetoast mini-posts aren’t you at all) – but if you think that Razib has a simplistic view that can be popped by your discovery of WWI you evidently haven’t read, or at least understood, him.

  9. End of work will come long before AI utopia. I think in the next few years alone millions of workers in transportation and retail will be automated out of jobs. Wrt “crisis of meaning” and “idle hands”, we really don’t know which way things will go. Historically, idle classes have often descended into puerility. Sci-fi is full of speculation on this subject, everything from some version of high-tech couch potato world to “boldly going where no man has gone before.” One thing for sure, it will be different.

  10. so we’re both middle class. you can talk about flint. but i actually remember growing in bangladesh in the 1980s where physical stunting was ubiquitous, and some people were actual cretins. so spare me the ‘live among the people’ schtick.

  11. freddie has an excuse for thinking i might believe marx would accept soviet democratic centralism cuz i don’t know any better. what excuse do you have? i was clearly being sarcastic/ironic, as would be evident if you read my other stuff.

    yeah, the elites fucked the developed world working class. but no one has a solution

  12. I fail to be impressed by the progress of industry automation and pundit’s accompanying hype/doomsaying. Correct me if I am wrong, but to this day most of the automation is concentrated in old manufacturing jobs, like automotives(the Acemoglu paper linked in the NYT article entirely focuses on industrial robots). In a country like the U.S., manufacturing’s relative importance in terms of % of people employed or % of GDP has been declining for decades, correct? I thought that’s what economists have been preaching for years, we are a service economy. Apparently though an increasing share of robots in manufacturing industry is cause to project large job losses in the economy as a whole. Losses beyond anything we have seen in the past, when manufacturing employment, mostly not because of industrial robots, has been declining. Moreover many of the cities these industries are located in(Detroit being an extreme example) have had declining populations and are in bad shape in general. Also it is not like the U.S. has large #s of young people clamoring to work in factories.

    Call me crazy, but the U.S. and much of the world have gone through difficult transitions before, more difficult ones I would argue. It wasn’t that long ago that a substantial proportion of the population in the Western world were still employed in agriculture. That transition didn’t go entirely smoothly, but our answer was not to to put all agriculture laborers on welfare. At one time there even used to be this crazy idea that government can play a role in creating jobs, that the government could interect with economic life in ways other than deciding whether interest on reserves are too high or low. That idea is out of fashion nowadays, even with crumbling infrastucture in the country. Maybe current day low skilled workers are different than ones from generations past, but at least for me, it is unclear why economists and pundits both left and right are so certain that these people are totally unemployable. They remind me of the English Malthusians who said Irish just couldn’t help but starve to death. To hell with them.

  13. I agree with you that we’re going to hit the jobs crisis long before true post-scarcity. As I see it the inflection point for automation will be the 2020s. We then have a short window – a decade perhaps – to fumble our way toward an economic solution before reactionary populism picks an option for us. Perhaps I’m just bereft of imagination, but I don’t see many middle ground solutions between basic income (even if phased in gradually) or genocide of the (formerly) working class.

    I do have to say that while I’m optimistic about the ability to introduce basic income within the confines of the developed world, I’m very, very concerned about the impact on the developing world. We see the beginnings of this happening already, with Foxconn considering opening a (highly automated) iPhone factory within the U.S. Market capitalism has not been working well for the bottom 80%-90% in developed nations recently, but has been lifting living standards for much of the global south (outside of Africa). End of work would threaten this on a fundamental level. Without wage work, it could be back to the informal economy – or worse – for many of these nations.

  14. It’s not just about manufacturing any longer, automation is on the precipice of cutting deep into service jobs consider the following.

    1. Self-driving cars are less than a decade away from being commercially viable (e.g, not perfect, but better than a human being. Once the technology both viable and legal, most employment in the transportation industry will start to vanish. The single largest group under threat being the 3.5 million who work as professional truck drivers, but all sorts of other jobs – including those who drive taxis, public buses, and delivery vehicles – will see their jobs evaporate over time.

    2. Retail is in the process of a massive automation. The movement of shopping to online is effectively an automation process, replacing thousands of independent stores, which employed workers, with single websites like Amazon’s which employ a much smaller group of web designers. Amazon still employs warehouse workers in its back end business of course, but is quickly moving to automate this into oblivion. It’s even looking to set up stores with no human cashiers. Just enter, pick up what you want, and leave with your account automatically deducted. My reading is that if the technology can be perfected, it will muscle human stores out of business – not due to labor costs, but because it could all but eliminate shoplifting, which hurts retail margins considerably.

    3. With deep learning algorithms, we’re probably only a decade or so away from an AI system which can be fully responsive to human beings in a customer service situation. This would wreck havoc – particularly in parts of the developing world – for example, 10% of the Philippine’s economy is now call-center related. Around 3 million people still work in call centers in the U.S. however.

    These are just the tip of the iceberg though. I’ve read about robots and AI which are either in development or commercially available which can read X rays more accurately than a doctor, dispense medicine, pick fruit, perform accounting, scan legal documents for relevant citations, analyze insurance claims, lay bricks, and even write news articles (AI is already doing this for low-level sports and finance reporting).

    Sure, we could come up with replacement jobs for all of these industries, but even if it does happen, it likely won’t happen fast enough to maintain living standards, as it would require unprecedentedly strong levels to continue indefinitely. Even many of the white-collar jobs which aren’t going to be automated are expected to become “de-skilled” in the same way that manufacturing work has, with the easily automated portion dealt with and the remainder Taylorized into mindless tasks.

  15. Apologies, the sarcasm was not apparent to me: I guess I need a bit of a build-up. My contact with you is limited to this blog.

  16. Yeah, I’ve heard of this twitter-thingie. I don’t think I have the band width to deal with it: too old, etc., etc. I’m in the 25% of the US population that does not have a smart phone (my kids tell me that most of that is my age group, although most of my age group probably has smart phones); I recently upgraded to a phone with a slide-out keyboard only because my 13 y.o. Nokia candybar bit the dust. I do have a tablet, however, but that seems much more like a PC to me than a phone.

  17. The Golden Age of Soviet growth both economic and in living standards was in the 1940s and 1950s, right after the devastation of said war. That was when US economists were seriously wondering whether a command economy was better, and (in the early 1960s) when Khrushchev did the famous “we will bury you” remark. The farther the Soviet Union got away from the devastation of World War 2, the more it lagged behind the West technologically and economically, becoming increasingly reliant on oil exports to purchase the food and other goods it couldn’t supply itself. And as such, like many other countries, it was a sitting duck when oil prices collapsed in the early 1980s.

    Number one, Marx would have been the first person to have said that Russia was not a good choice to try communism, which requires (black letter) an already stable capitalist state that has experienced the infrastructure and development of that economic system.

    It was always one of the more amusing parts of his case, too, that the workers’ paradise required the capitalists to create a productive, first-class economic system and infrastructure for them to confiscate. But if you want a case example, just look at what Communism did to Czechoslovakia.

    You talk about standards of evidence and then cite a single anecdotal piece of journalism.

    Says the man who cites nothing. Even Jacobin has finally admitted that the Chavista regime is a disaster, and has been one for years.

  18. Same here. I can’t believe DeBoer showed up to defend Soviet Communism, although it is quite striking. Usually socialists try to run away from the 20th century Socialism-in-Practice by claiming it was really “state capitalism”, or that True Socialism would involve the abolition of hierarchies and democracies, etc, etc.

  19. Dean Baker was cited up-thread, and Baker has consistently made the good point that it’s a bit premature to talk about mass technological unemployment when productivity growth is so low. I’ve read some theories trying to get around that and posit technological unemployment with skewed productivity statistics, but I’m not totally convinced of them.

    In any case, it’s a hard topic to debate, because the potential job loss *seems* obvious, while what the Future of Work will actually entail is never clear. It wasn’t clear 50 years ago in the 1960s when we had a wave of fear about the rise of automation, and hasn’t been clear in earlier waves of fear about it as well. It could be there are tons of jobs will appear that we couldn’t have imagined beforehand, or that an increasing fraction of people will be employed in making sure the extraordinarily complex technological system underpinning our economy doesn’t break down (I’m thinking about how military ships have large crews who spend most of their time doing preventative maintenance). It could be that the definition of “employment” changes, like it did with the transition in industrialization.

    Personally, I’d like us to get to universal health care (with a public insurance plan or single-payer) and a Job Guarantee. The latter has historically had much higher support in the US, and it would be cheaper as well than a Basic Income you could live off of. We’ve come close to it, too, with the Humphrey-Hawkins bill in the 1970s before Carter’s opposition led to it being watered down. It could eventually be a bridge to a Basic Income if the technology and funding is there, with gradual reductions in work hours.

  20. Sure, we could come up with replacement jobs for all of these industries, but even if it does happen, it likely won’t happen fast enough to maintain living standards, as it would require unprecedentedly strong levels to continue indefinitely.

    This is the big question mark. How fast is this transition going to happen? How many people, for example, noticed how quickly a lot of office staff disappeared with computers, or jobs like the Milk and Ice Men? If it’s over 2-3 decades, that’s a lot of time for transition to new jobs to occur, particularly if the government runs a full employment policy when it comes to spending and inflation.

    Thinking about potential jobs, who is going to be maintaining this incredibly vast, interconnected technological infrastructure with increasingly little tolerance for failure because of the costs? Who will repair the robots, and repair the robots who repair the robots? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for mindless tasks.

  21. I don’t find Baker’s and Tyler Cowen’s arguments convincing. AI is a Black Swan event, so current trends are not really useful. AI has began to reach early stages of maturity in any meaningful sense only 2-3 years ago. It’s impact is not reflected in any existing economic metrics.

    The “future jobs we couldn’t even imagine today” line is often treated as self-evident. Of course we can’t imagine what we can’t imagine. However, we do understand human capabilities and can imagine worlds in which various sets of those capabilities are replaced by automation. Industrial revolution by and large did not replace human cognitive function (though it did some through deskilling of labor.) That’s why Navy ships can’t maintain themselves. But if we imagine a world of fully conscious–or at least Turing Test-passing–androids, by definition they would be able to do any job humans can do, so there will be literally nothing left for us. I actually think that world is pretty unlikely, but even without achieving consciousness, AI will certainly replace most cognitive and manual labor. What would be left for us to do? Perhaps innovation, creativity, emotional value, human interaction, authentic experience? So we’ll have some scientists, designers, artists, poets and explorers and the rest will be bartenders and baristas?

  22. >And yet the reality is what alternatives are the people being given? They are looking Left and looking Right

    This framing is totally off. When you look left from the center-right, which is where the global elite is today, you find the center. Capitalism needs someone to buy all the shit that is made in China, Bangladesh, Mexico, etc., and the only way that that is going to happen is a rebalancing between demand (worker wages) and supply (finance capital).

    You also are conflating what people are calling themselves with what they actually are and what they will behave as. Bernie Sanders said he was a socialist, but he’s probably a rightist social democrat in Europe and that’s being charitable. It doesn’t really reveal anything to use the label and then lump him in with Stalin.

  23. One of the underlying assumptions in the modern economic consensus is essentially that human capital is infinitely malleable. But any realistic understanding of the differing capabilities of humanity (and I’m not talking about even HBD here, I’m talking about natural variation between individuals within population groups) would lead one to the logical conclusion that some people have more inherent human capital than others, and no amount of “retaining” will alter this fact. We already see the edges of this today, with how the developmentally disabled are given make-work in “sheltered workshops” because they are not really capable of adding any economic value. To the extent automation creates new, skilled technical jobs which won’t quickly be automated, these will be jobs which require greater cognitive performance than many of the old service sector jobs being eliminated. No amount of retraining will make the average truck driver or call center worker the best qualified for these positions, which will fall to whatever remains of the middle class.

    Basically, the future looks dim for all wage workers, but particularly dim for wage workers of below-average intelligence.

  24. You also are conflating what people are calling themselves with what they actually are and what they will behave as.

    what the are you talking about? i said ‘command economy socialism’ to avoid people bringing up social democracy, which today tends to simply regulate market economies or redistribute.

    i do have a knowledge of world history beyond the level of an A.P. class.

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