Eight Ways Robots Keep Us Rich Or Will Make Us Richer

Here they are:

  1. Getting stuff from Amazon will stay within the price reach of consumers thanks to robots.
  2. Fast food will stay affordable due to automated touchscreen ordering.
  3. Clothes are coming more cheaply through the internet.
  4. Aldi’s quarter-return machines (not really robots, but that’s not my fault) mean prices can be lower because there is no cost to hire a worker to collect carts.
  5. Robots can drive trucks and thus keep the price of transport down.
  6. Farm equipment can be robot-driven to provide us cheaper food.
  7. Our iPhones can be made by robots rather than mistreated human labor.
  8. Robots can do lab work and thus reduce the cost of dealing with blood samples.

I got this list from Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post website. I was surprised she left out train systems or security. If some of the items on this list don’t seem robotic enough, blame her. But she had a different interpretation of her data. You can tell from her post title that she thinks this is all very bad: “Eight way robots stole our jobs in 2013.”

Seriously.

This is really simple:

  • Do “labor saving devices” subtract from human prosperity or add to human prosperity?
  • Was movable type a disaster for all the monks and other copyists who had been handcrafting books, or was it the cause of an explosion in prosperity and knowledge and the cost of literature dropped steeply?
  • Was the invention of the sewing machine a net loss for global wealth or a dramatic gain?

Let’s take the least robotic example on DePillis’ list:’

Not all labor-saving innovations are high-tech. The discount supermarket Aldi — which is owned by the same corporate parent as the more bourgeois Trader Joe’s — keeps payroll down by requiring a 25-cent deposit for shopping carts so employees don’t have to return them, and stocking shelves with boxes full of goods rather than placing the individual items in neat rows. Again, great for shoppers on a budget — at the cost of employment.

Aldi is how we eat in my family. We would be in a much worse financial situation if it was not for that retail chain. By what rule does DePillis authoritatively calculate that the person not hired to collect grocery carts or shelve items is more important than the money I save so that I am able to feed my children?

She doesn’t even attempt to frame the question. She simply assumes that all the people getting lower prices for goods and services don’t matter. All the people who could be hired at unnecessary jobs are the only people who count in the economy.

This is a toxic perspective. It would mean that make-work jobs are a sign of a productive economy. Instead of everyone striving to be as efficient as possible, and to offer the lowest price for the highest quality possible, everyone should be overpaid for unnecessary work.

Too bad government workers will never be replaced with automation.