Our Bedpan and Canasta Future

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 5:44 PM EST

I'll confess to sometimes succumbing to fairly grim feelings about our medium-term economic future. But apparently I've got nothing on Matt Yglesias. Check this out:

I see a lot of American political discourse dominated by two equal and opposite fears. One is fear of population aging, and the consequent transformation into a society in which a larger and larger share of economic output is dedicating to taking [care] of the elderly. The other is fear of automation and the consequent transformation into a society in which nobody can find a job. [That would be me. –ed.]

These two trends are simply two sides of the same coin....What will everyone do for work when everything is automated? They'll take care of old people and sick people, because people would rather interact with human beings if possible. How will we afford all this caretaking for the elderly? Because there will be so much automation that we'll enjoy lives of material plenty even with very little human work.

Raise your hand if this sounds like a wonderful vision of the future. Anyone?

Joking aside, there's a serious point here—quite aside from the fact that the elderly of the future might very well decide that the company of lifelike, infinitely patient robots is better than that of bitter young people dragooned into playing canasta with them. The serious point is this: what do we do in the meantime?

Here's what I mean. It's quite possible that, say, 50 years from now the production of nearly all goods and services will be automated. And this might usher in a golden age of solar-powered plenty that allows us all to reach new pinnacles of human potential. Let's just stipulate this for the sake of discussion.

But what happens while we're busy getting there? Answer: the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work. Liberals will continue to think that perhaps this can be solved with better education. Conservatives will continue to insist that people without jobs are lazy bums who shouldn't be coddled. The lucky owners of capital won't care. Their numbers will decline, but the ones who remain will get richer and richer. The rest of us will have no jobs, and even with all this lovely automation, our government-supplied welfare checks will be meager enough that our lives will be miserable.

This won't last forever. Eventually there will be a revolution, peaceful or otherwise, and the economic system will change. But until that happens, the next few decades are going to be mighty grim for an awful lot of people. Some of them will get $10 an hour jobs changing bedpans and pretending to enjoy the company of old people, while others won't even be suitable for that kind of work and will simply drop out of the labor force permanently.

My guess is that we started to see the first glimmerings of this around 2000 or so. It was small, and mostly masked by the housing bubble, but it was happening. Now it's accelerating, and we're going to have to deal with it one way or another. I just don't know how.