In a previous article about ridesharing, I explained the different things people are pushing for when it comes to rideshare driver pay. Should they be contractors? Should they be employees? Everyone thinks they have the answer, and they all think it’s the best answer for everyone. I explained that the situation isn’t that simple, but one thing I briefly touched on was that it might end up not mattering. Robotaxis are increasingly looking likely to wipe out the whole rideshare driver career, so it could all be for naught.
In other words, arguing over things like employee vs contractor is kind of like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Sure, you might come up with a great deckchair layout, but in the end, all of the chairs end up on the bottom regardless. The smart rideshare driver isn’t working on setting up a rideshare drivers’ union. They’re looking for another career to get into ASAP.
But what happens when that other career gets automated? And the third one you were thinking about? And that one you thought might make a good plan C or D? In this article, I’m going to explore what happens to our economics and our politics when enough careers get disrupted that work effectively becomes optional like Elon Musk suggested would happen during the recent AI Day presentation.
It’s going to affect a lot more than people’s careers.
The Central Question of Economics and Politics
Let’s look at how each big brand of politics looks at economics. I’m going to massively oversimplify here, so don’t nit-pick me here.
Mainstream U.S. Democrats stand for things like a progressive tax structure, more services from government, and the reduction of economic inequality (along with many other forms of inequality). Democrats that are further left and even far enough left to be outside of that party tend to stand for higher and higher levels of wealth redistribution, with an aim to provide for the poor. Billionaires shouldn’t exist, and nobody should be dying from poverty while there are rich people. At the far end, you find things like communism and anarcho-syndicalism, where workers are supposed to distribute the wealth in some fashion without government.
Those on the right tend toward more of a “let the market decide” system of wealth distribution. Like those on the left, ideas differ from person to person, but in broad strokes, the general idea is that free people and free businesses should make decisions, and that letting people each make these decisions leads to the most efficient distribution of wealth. Republicans stand for less government control over the economy. Libertarians (only put in this category for economic stances) stand for even less, approaching zero. Minarchists stand for the bare minimum wealth redistribution to supply essential services that protect individual rights. Anarcho-capitalists stand for no government at all, and differ from agorists in that they want to achieve this by different means.
Again, keep in mind that this was an oversimplification, but also look at the common thread here. All of these schools of thought put a high priority on how to distribute the wealth.
It’s been a basic fact of life that human wants have always find a way to exceed the available supply.
Look at water, something many people don’t think is a big deal. People in Tennessee have too much of it right now, and want rid of the stuff. We need a certain amount to drink to stay alive, and we want farmers to have some to grow us food with, but once we have that, we’d also like to have some water to bathe in and stay clean. We want some to wash our house and dishes with, and preferably with a dishwasher, and that uses even more water. If we have all that, it’s also nice to have some to keep a lawn and/or garden up with. The car needs washing. Waterparks are also cool. We don’t want to drain the river, though, because there’s wildlife in there that needs water, as well as people downstream with the same needs and wants we have. And we also would like to—
Oh, oops, I live in the Southwest U.S. and we’re running out of water. So, who gets to use water? Can we have a lawn in New Mexico from river water if people in Texas, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas don’t have enough to grow food with? Nobody is worried about running out of water in the Mississippi River basin, so can we have some of their water? And, can the federal government pay to bring it to us in a big pipe? We need the stuff really bad, so can people in California and New York pay for it instead of us poor New Mexicans?
And that’s just water. All of the other resources people need and want are subject to these kinds of debates. That’s why distribution of wealth has become central to not only economics, but politics. Keeping people from literally going to war with each other over these issues is important.
What if, instead of paying a bunch of people to dig the big water pipes and ditches out for us, we instead use robots? Yeah, they aren’t free, but you don’t have to pay them a salary, you don’t have to pay for healthcare, and they never form unions, so we can move the water cheaper than ever. Labor is now not needed.
The price of buying a burger, an order of fries, and a soda has gone up quite a bit since I was in college. It used to be possible to get an OK meal for $5. Then it was like $7. Now, it approaches $10 just to get the same things. But what if a robo-food truck shows up that spits out burgers and only asks you for $3? Yeah, McDonald’s and Burger King can F off. BurgerMatic’s autonomous food truck is not only cheaper, but they don’t mess up my order and make it so my daughter didn’t get her fries when we get home.￼
Even if they do manage to mess something up, I only have to tell the app what happened and a Tesla robot or a little wheeled guy shows up with a replacement, along with some extra goodies for my kids to make up for the error, so everyone’s happy (except for McDonald’s).
This story will spread to most industries, probably even the one I work in, and at some point, almost nobody is going to be able to pay for the robo-goods and robo-services because the robots took too many jobs away.
So, how do we organize a society when nobody has jobs? Neo-luddites would say we need to ban the machines, and when that doesn’t happen they’ll probably form little towns out in the woods where people do manual labor because they think it’s spiritually important to waste your life laboring. Elon Musk (and many others) think everybody should get a monthly check just for being a human (Universal Basic Income or UBI). There’s also the possibility that we go the dystopian route and just leave everyone to struggle in an economy that doesn’t provide them with squat, but that can’t work if 90% of a country is homeless. They’ll revolt and take ownership of the robots by force, and we’d end up with something like UBI anyway if they win. If they lose, we can’t become slaves because nobody wants our labor, so what then?
Or, do we end up with a moneyless (or mostly moneyless) society like United Earth and the Federation in Star Trek? Captain Picard described this as “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Or without the need for government to provision all of these readily-available good and services, would we end up with more of an anarchist society?
The experts don’t agree on how that goes, or even how that should go. Some are even in denial that it could happen.
There’s a lot of theorizing, but we just don’t really know what this would all look like yet. It’s too far from the daily reality most of us live with to be imaginable. But, we’d better start seriously thinking about it and planning for it, because it’s coming, eventually.
Featured image: Screenshot from Tesla’s AI Day presentation, where these questions were briefly raised.