Must-Read: Willem Buiter: Transferring Robot Incomes to the People

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for photographers at a preview of the film ‘Terminator: Genisys’. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

Must-Read: The distribution of wealth; the distribution of income; the distribution of utility–and, possibly, the distribution of eudaimonia, of lives worth living if we reject the hardline Benthamite pushpin-as-good-as-poetry position. For example, Milanovic, Lindert, and Williamson (2010) convincingly paint a picture in which (a) pre-industrial inequality in wealth is very large, (b) pre-industrial inequality in income is moderate, and (c) pre-industrial inequality in utility is very large indeed. I think that this is a large part of what Willem Buiter is groping towards:

Willem Buiter: Transferring Robot Incomes to the People: “I’m more an optimist on technological change than some…

…who argue that the low-hanging fruit on the Tree of Knowledge has all been plucked. That we’ve done fire, we’ve done the wheel, we’ve done horsepower, and, you know, coal, electricity, chemicals, and all we have now is the tail-end of the boring ICT revolution, robotics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology, that is just a big yawn. I think this is completely wrong….

We haven’t begun to scratch the surface yet of many of the applications of ICT, robotics, artificial intelligence, and everything that goes with it, is going to create huge social, political problems. But in terms of wealth creation, you know, it’s the ultimate thing if you do this right. If you get the distributional aspects right, and don’t turn the world into an economy where the owners of capital and a few winner-take-all entrepreneurs are with all the money and the rest starve, I think technical progress is not the issue….

It’s always true that existing jobs are wiped out in a hundred years, but it’s going to go much faster now, in twenty years time, maybe half the existing jobs in the service sector, the white collar jobs, are going to be gone. Because the scope for automation is actually greater, probably, in cerebral work than in physical work. It’s very hard to get robots to walk properly. It’s much easier to make them think really fast. So I think this is going to be the real challenge. You know, unless we blow ourselves up in religious extremism…. This is going to be the real challenge we have to face, avoid the Piketty nightmare, although he got his analysis wrong…

November 30, 2015


Brad DeLong
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