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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Robots make the perfect employee. They don’t complain, they don’t get sick, and, as of this writing, they don’t have babies. When robots can do the job in today’s economy, they get the job.

When they can’t, a human must suffice. You still need a human to make the perfect latte, ask security questions at the airport and, for the time being, drive a taxi.

That hasn’t stopped many employers from trying to robotize the people they can’t do without. Many have built business models in which they can, in effect, dust off a human when its labor is required and ignore all its other needs.

This is the famous gig economy. It’s app-based cab services insisting that their drivers are private contractors not entitled the traditional benefits of employment. It’s national chain stores calling employees to duty at a moment’s notice, the heck with any schedule.

Some good people are challenging such employment policies, but there’s a more long-term approach: Give up defending a traditional model of employment that’s dying and come up with a new one. Any realistic solution would require a lot more government intervention and sharing of the national wealth.

I can already hear my conservative friends blowing their tops, but they should hear out the arguments.

A paper out of Brookings Institution — “What happens if robots take the jobs?” — describes the stakes and offers responses. (I’ve taken the liberty of shortening the title.)

“We need a way to provide health care, disability and pension benefits outside of employment,” author Darrell West writes.


For starters, provide a guaranteed income for all. Think of it as an expansion of the earned income tax credit now supporting many low-wage workers and their families.

Isn’t there something socially debilitating about living on government “handouts”? Well, that’s a good question.

An answer, West told me, could be to attach some kind of work requirement to the checks. (Many states already do that with welfare benefits.) The work could be an existing job or government programs that pay people to do something useful.

It’s been done before. The Works Progress Administration was created during the Great Depression to employ armies of out-of-work Americans. The fruits can be seen today in some of the country’s most gorgeous courthouses, zoos and libraries — and great works of art, theater and music.

Some propose paying for volunteer activities having humanitarian value. Examples could include working for the Red Cross, a hospital or a school.

Our Social Security system allocates benefits on the basis of work credits. We could extend credits for certain volunteerism, as is already done in Britain.

Those conservative friends are moaning that the expense would be borne by the most productive Americans. It would “kill” the jobs they create. Well, some of those entrepreneurs did create jobs, but taxes were a lot lower then.

And contrary to ideology, many of our most successful business minds have become unimaginably rich finding ways to get rid of workers, certainly the Americans ones. They’ve cut pay and benefits and are no longer sharing the profits generated by rising productivity.

Small-government conservatives must ask is whether they have a better way to pull America’s working class to safety, out of the path of oncoming tsunami of robotic competition.

They should be mindful that machines don’t have the vote yet. Also, a big crowd of jobless humans hanging out on street corners leads to crime and social unrest. “If you have a large number of unemployed people,” West said, “the United States starts looking like Egypt.”

We Americans have a lot to talk about — things that really matter.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at COPYRIGHT 2015 CREATORS.COM

Image: Bill Dickinson

7 Responses to Facing The Robot Tsunami

  1. Republicans would be plenty happy to let 99% of the USA be homeless as long as their 1% masters own all the robots that do all the work.

    The robot revolution IS a topic that is coming up faster than most people realize. Most people aren’t talking about it or even thinking about it. There will come a time, sooner rather than later, that robot technology will replace the need for a very large portion of our working population. What happens when 50% of our jobs are being done by robots? 60%? 90%? Most all manual labor jobs will be a thing of the past. We will eventually get to the point where there is basically no longer a need for the working class. There will be only so many people needed to maintain the robots and the robots will be the ones building more robots.

    It seems like to me that the only options will be to either give the population some kind of guaranteed income or let them be homeless. I really don’t see any other way around it because the fact is, there just won’t be jobs anymore for the majority of the population.

    Technology has a way of drastically changing how we live our lives. I can envision a future, within most of our lifetimes, where most people are free to lives their lives how they please without being slaves to the workforce. It’s crazy to think about now but it could become a reality in just a few short decades.

      • Well, what I know is that they won’t relinquish that control willingly. It CAN be taken by force, however. History is full of examples of mass uprisings that topple oligarchies. That’s probably what it’s going to take in this country too. Point being: it’s going to have to get much worse before it gets much better.

        Staying with the topic of robots, what will happen is, over time, the jobs will get scarcer and scarcer, while no reasonable progress is made to keep up with the demands of the living population. Poverty rates will skyrocket. Right-wingers will continue their same old tired rhetoric of bootstraps. As already pointed out, there simply will be no jobs. No amount of bootstraps in the world will create enough jobs in a future where so much of the work is being done by robots.

        The middle class is already collapsing. It will take a complete collapse of the middle class to get enough people on board the revolution train to make these changes happen. We will get to the point where the only classes remaining are the oligarchs and everyone else. It’s going to have to get THAT BAD before we make the leap into the future.

        Then the pitchforks and torches get brought out. All the money and power will be stripped from the elite and passed around the people. Just speaking for the USA, there is more than enough wealth to go around for our entire population to live comfortably. The robots will do all the work and society as a whole will do well. That will last for awhile before the inevitable long, slow slide back into oligarchy. It’s a repeating cycle. All you have to do is look at history to see it happening. The starting point is a healthy population and the ending point is all the money and power at the top. Then it collapses and starts all over again.

        Seeing as how people, as a whole, are F’ing morons, they do not learn from history and therefore are doomed to repeat it. It’s a sad state of humanity but that’s our species. Whaddya gonna do? *shrugs*

        • What will be interesting in your scenario is; what will be the position of the police and the military?

          The Oligachic, a’hem, I mean Republican demonization of the USA Government ANYTHING as it trips over itself in the balancing act between moneyed, special interest and “we the people” to protect its citizenry from corporatists abuses

          • At the end of the day, the police/military and their families are a part of the people. Sure, there might be some loyalists to the elite but I cannot envision any scenario where the entire military/police force would turn on it’s own people. We’re not talking about BLM and a few racists cops killing black people. We’re talking about the entire population here. We’re talking about their own friends and families. They’d be getting screwed over by the elite as bad as everyone else is.

            I don’t necessarily think a full blown armed revolution is a certain outcome. It’s just the worst case scenario. The most likely scenario is a mass overhaul of our government by people using the democratic system. I still think the jobs situation due to robots taking up all the jobs will have to get pretty bad before we see that kind of revolution but when I speak of bringing out the pitchforks and torches, I rather hope that it is more metaphorical than literal.

            You’ve seen how stupid our population is. We already have large masses of low information voters as it is voting against their own interests. That’s why I think things will have to get really, really bad before we overhaul the entire system.

            Back to the original point: I do think we will see a future with robots doing most if not all of the manual labor. I also think we will be forced to go to a system that basically takes care of the people by spreading the wealth because the current system of working for pay and taking care of ourselves will become unsustainable. The real question here is how bad it has to get before enough people get fed up with it and demand a change. My fear is that it’s gonna get pretty damned bad before that day comes. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get all the way to armed revolution.

  2. Here’s one for capitalists…with a wry twist:

    If USA working class jobs are being offshore and robots are to replace what jobs that remain, who’s gonna buy all the stuff???

    If Corporations want competition to determine free market shares, and have arranged all the capital to be consolidated unto themselves, then the only solution the demand side of “supply & demand is to pay the groveling masses for consuming their products.

    Everybody gets their Corporate allotment, negotiated on by a representative panel of Plutocrat types that represent Corporations, and Union types, along with The US Department of “Labor.” Each side brings along with their teams of lawyers, beurocrats, and their leagues of expert panalists.

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