Redistribution and the Worthwhile Life

Paul Krugman worries about the new Luddites - the masses of highly skilled workers about to be put out, or already being put out of jobs by machines.

In 1786, the cloth workers of Leeds, a wool-industry center in northern England, issued a protest against the growing use of “scribbling” machines, which were taking over a task formerly performed by skilled labor. “How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families?” asked the petitioners. “And what are they to put their children apprentice to?”

Those weren’t foolish questions. Mechanization eventually — that is, after a couple of generations — led to a broad rise in British living standards. But it’s far from clear whether typical workers reaped any benefits during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; many workers were clearly hurt. And often the workers hurt most were those who had, with effort, acquired valuable skills — only to find those skills suddenly devalued.

So are we living in another such era? And, if we are, what are we going to do about it?

That is exactly the kind of question I was trying to discuss with the anti-MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) opponents when I got unceremoniously expelled along with the horse I rode in on. These college professors feel the threat of the MOOC, but are still locked firmly in denial mode, and don't want to hear anything else.

Krugman goes on to note that because the advance of technology first punished less educated workers, education was thought to be the solution, but now even highly educated work is under threat.

Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.

Krugman concludes that education is no longer the remedy for rising inequality. His solution:

So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.

I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?

I am confident that they will (a)ignore the problem, (b)proclaim it doesn't exist, (c)propose doing nothing.

Even though I agree with Krugman, I don't think that really addresses one of the worst aspects of the problem. If hordes of ex-professors, ex-radiologists and ex-lawyers are suddenly on the dole, what happens to their self respect?


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