Sorry for the prolonged absence. Not only has work been insanely busy, but for some reason my office's net nanny software has been blocking CogBlog, so I can't participate here even in those few moments that I can sneak from work. And at home, we've had a run of weekends where neither of our two excellent and usually quite available babysitters has been available to spell us for a few hours, so there's been no free time on the home front either. (Yeah, I know how lucky we are to have two reliable babysitters on tap most of the time. Trust me.)
As you know, I've got a higher opinion of Matt than most of you do. He's got his blind spots, but I've also picked up a number of powerful insights from him over the years. And when someone moves my own thinking forward, I appreciate it.
But this week has been Matt's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, the sort that really ought to have him considering a move to Australia. He's been bad every which way, without much to put on the positive side of the ledger, either.
Consider his squib on the state of the media:
As I've said before, when you take off the nostalgia-tinted lenses these are the glory days of American journalism. There is more and better stuff to read than ever before.
As Matt says in the piece at his own link, "This viewpoint is not
wrong, exactly, but it is mistaken." Matt confuses what's available with
what's influential, and with the news that most people actually
Not to mention, it misses the whole point of journalism, which is to inform.
Sure, the relative handful of us that are discriminating consumers of information who are willing to reach beyond the standard sources to find out about the world have a banquet of news sources that we couldn't have dreamed of 20 years ago.
But most people aren't like that. They're still getting news from the networks or their websites, and that news is of pretty crappy quality. Even worse, a substantial segment of America is getting its news from Fox and from Rush Limbaugh; they would probably be better off if they didn't get any news at all.
And finally, there's the question of what news sources drive the policy debates. Given the nature of Village conventional wisdom on most issues, it's clear that bad, slanted, dishonest news sources rule in Washington.
The electorate in general, and our policymakers in particular, are extremely poorly informed, and the latter group as well as much of the former believes many things that are factually wrong in ways that cause harm.
The very idea that these are the glory days of American journalism is, in short, ludicrous. Matt's said something quite true about the tallest tree in the forest, but completely missed the fact that the forest as a whole is in shitty shape in ways that have consequences for those that depend on it.
Which means that I think the right thing to ask is what scarcities remain in robotopia. Drum speaks of "capital-biased technological change" which could lead one to believe that the returns will go to the owners of the robots. But I don't think that's right. Robots themselves will be plentiful and not all that valuable. But all the robots in the world won't change the fact that some parcels of land front onto lovely beaches. In the richer world of tomorrow, more people than ever will want a nice vacation at the beach but beachfront land will be as scarce as ever. You want to be the guy who owns that beachfront.
The problem is, the ability to create widespread abundance doesn't mean abundance will actually be widespread. Right now, in the U.S.A. of 2013, we could have an economy where everybody's working, and where we're producing a lot more stuff than we are now. But we're not in that alternate reality, because many see the economy as a morality play where we've got to suffer for our previous (and largely imagined) excesses, and other movers and shakers are simply dead set against a world where people have better choices than to do their bidding. Many of the people who run our world are quite happy for our economy to run at well under peak efficiency, so long as it puts them and their interests in the driver's seat.
Robots aren't going to change that. They're just going to increase the number of people who don't have an income of their own, and those people aren't going to be much better off in robotopia than they are now. Maybe they can get a cheap taxi ride in an autonomous car, but they still need a place to live, and they can still get foreclosed on. They still will need food, and while maybe robot-grown food will be slightly cheaper than migrant-grown food, the reality is that labor is a pretty small share of the cost of the food you buy in the grocery store. Robots won't help much there, either. And robot-produced clothes probably won't be much cheaper than those produced by Bangladeshis in deathtrap sweatshops.
Unless we change things politically, Robotopia is likely to leave a lot of people on the outside of abundance, looking in, and new morality plays will be spun to explain why we shouldn't help them. Matt just kind of assumes the political change, but such change is always extremely hard when the interests of the people are on one side, but the interests of big corporations and the moneyed classes are united on the other side.
And finally, there's his post, "Seasonal Guest Workers Don't Create Low Pay, Low Pay Creates Seasonal Guest Workers."
I did want to respond to this cranky email received by Kevin Drum:
Farm laborers in Australia make much more than American ones. And yet they still have a functional agricultural sector. It turns out that allowing companies to import an unlimited number of foreign workers desperate to work at a wage of epsilon will create shitty working conditions and low wages!
I of course know what Drum's correspond means here, but he's dead wrong. It's not the foreign workers who create shitty working conditions and low wages, it's the shitty working conditions and low wages that make people willing to serve as imported labor. Prohibiting workers from working in the United States keeps them stuck in even worse working conditions for even worse pay.
OK, so low pay elsewhere creates seasonal guest workers here. No doubt about it. But they still pull down wages here. If you paid people $20 an hour to work in the fields, I guarantee you that plenty of Americans would be working in the fields. And it is the availability of people who are much more desperate than American workers are yet, and who are willing to work for much less than American workers will work for, that results in a system where farm labor pays well under what even poor Americans are willing to do it for.
Now, again, many people appear to take the view that immigration policy should be made without reference to the interests of actual or potential migrants. That's an interesting debate to be had. But people shouldn't talk about the economic consequences of immigration without so much as mentioning the consequences for the migrants. The impact of keeping seasonal farm workers out of the United States will be to take a very poor slice of the world's population and make them even poorer. I think it reflects something of an impoverished imagination if one can't think of any smarter strategies for benefitting low-skilled Americans than ones that involve simultaneously harming the economic interests of the global poor and the interests of America's food-eating middle class.
Actually, I do think aiding immigrants or guest workers in a way that undermines the well-being of Americans is ultimately self-destructive, even for the immigrants. There will always be far more people who want to come to the U.S. than we can help by allowing them in.
Since I don't have an impoverished imagination, here's my proposal: we allow immigration and guest workers at times of full or nearly full employment, when low-skilled Americans have no trouble finding better jobs than working in the fields. Then when we bring them in, everybody benefits. And the rest of the time, American farmers will have to pay what it takes to hire those workers who are already here, which will reduce unemployment, minimize the impact of recessions, and get us back to full employment faster, so that we can bring immigrants in to participate in a vibrant economy, rather than make a sick economy even sicker and increase the leverage that employers have over workers.
There were more ways that Matt was wrong this week, but these three suffice too well.
ETA: I just remembered that this is Matt's birthday. He can consider this his present. :-)
And on a more friendly note, happy anniversary, Kevin and Marian Drum!