There are the different agendas at different time frames–say two years, ten years, and fifty years. The smart young whippersnapper Marshall Steinbaum reports on the growing consensus that dealing with the Rise of the Robots is on our fifty-year agenda, and not on our two-year or our ten-year agenda. On the two-year and ten-year agendas, he says, are dealing with and reversing the enormous upward redistribution that has taken place with the rise in the social, political, and economic power of the Overclass. That is:

  • Restoring full employment as a priority…
  • Rebalancing the corporation so that shareholders and the financiers top managers who can initiate corporate control transactions are no longer the only stakeholders that matter…
  • Restore long-run productive investment as a priority in public budgeting…

Underlying this position is a belief, perhaps, that so much of what is produced is so close to a joint Leontief product that something like the marginal product theory of distribution is profoundly unhelpful, and that questions of distribution are overwhelmingly resolved by economic bargaining power conditioned by social mores and politically-chosen institutions. Perhaps there used to be three sources of bargaining power, and thus three sources of durable advantage:

  1. Possession of the intellectual property and expertise needed to construct the high-throughput mass-production assembly lines of what used to be called “Fordist” capitalism…
  2. Control over the brands and other distribution channels necessary in order to sell the products of high-throughput mass-production factories to the middle classes of the North Atlantic who could afford to buy them at a good price…
  3. A blue-collar working class that had sufficient class consciousness to bargain for itself, and that was insulated by the requirement that the factories be located near to the engineers and to the corporate headquarters which needed to be placed so as to keep their eyes on the market…

And then, perhaps, over the past generation the third has dropped away, with the coming of globalization and the successful war against private sector unions. The rest are now themselves in flux. And perhaps they have been joined as a source of rent-extraction by those with the ability to tap into the savings produced in this age of the Global Savings Glut…

But I think that the sources of this enormous upward redistribution have not yet been properly sorted-out.

Marshall Steinbaum:

Marshall Steinbaum: The Future of Work Is Up to Us: “‘Big Thinkers’… are roughly divided into two camps…

…when it comes to the consequences of rapid technological change on the U.S. workforce… techno-optimist[s].. [and] the pessimistic view that better technology substitutes for workers and… harms them. A debate between the two… was probably what the organizers intended for an event last week hosted by The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project entitled ‘The Future of Work in the Age of the Machine.’… Yet the debate last week actually highlighted a third position. If either the techno-optimists or the techno-pessimists are right, then we should see a major positive impact on worker productivity. But it just isn’t there… [even though] we definitely see worker displacement, stagnant earnings, a failing job ladder, rising inequality at the top, ‘over-education’ (workers taking jobs for which they’re historically overqualified), and declining rates of employment-to-population and household and small business formation…. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers made this point forcefully….

So if not technology, what explains labor displacement?… Market practices and public policies that favor managers over workers, and those who make their living by owning capital over those who make their living by earning wages. That choice lurks behind the decline in full employment as a priority… a shift in the legal standards, mores, and incentives of corporate management in favor of the interests of [equity] owners over other stakeholders… the abandonment of long-term productive investment as a priority in public budgeting…. In 1988, Summers wrote an article fleshing out the idea that the division of rents between corporate stakeholders is what drives rising inequality. More than a quarter century later, he could not have been more prescient. The good news is that if such a profound shift played out over only three or four decades, then it’s reversible. That wouldn’t be true if it were the result of the technological trends detailed in [Brynjolffson and McAfee’s] ‘The Second Machine Age.’… We know what needs to be done and how to do it, because we’ve done it before…