Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Growth, Slavery and the Curse of Fossil Fuels

A little over a week ago, J. W. Mason posted a wonderful critique of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century at Crooked Timber. In a digression from the theme of Josh's title and conclusion -- that the distribution of wealth is "bargaining power, it’s politics, all the way down" -- Sandwichman raised the issue that when the bargaining power of capital has been severely compromised, state-sanctioned coercion has been called upon to impose terms more favorable to capital. The extreme example of such coercion would be chattel slavery under the conditions specified by Evsey Domar in his 1970 article "The Causes of Slavery or Serfdom: a Hypothesis.”

Josh's friend and colleague, Suresh Naidu had also made the Domar connection in an earlier piece on Piketty at Jacobin:
The increasing elasticity of substitution between 'capital' and 'labor' may be as much determined by institutions and property rights as by technology. Think of the parallel with slavery. The robot economy and the slave economy may both have higher elasticities of substitution than industrial capitalism. Slaves could do virtually all the tasks of free labor, and were movable assets. 
In 'The Causes of Slavery and Serfdom,' Evsey Domar famously argued that it was a historical impossibility to have free labor, abundant land, and an aristocracy simultaneously. Free labor and abundant land would make aristocratic claims on labor impossible, abundant land and an aristocracy would require coerced labor, and only scarce land could depress wages enough to allow an aristocracy to coexist with free labor. 
Perhaps a similar trilemma exists with abundant robots, dignified employment, and unequal capital ownership.
Whenever Sandwichman hears the word "robot," he reaches for his revolver -- von Kempelen's automaton chess player, which Walter Benjamin famously dissected as follows:
The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. 
The robot is a puppet, as was the automaton chess player. Far from being a substitute for labor, it is a device for channelling labor in a particular way.

Someone is always inside pulling the strings -- designing the robots, building them, programming them, deploying them, repairing them, fueling them... extracting and refining the fuel, teaching the designers, programmers and repair personnel how to design, program and repair, etc.

Above all, robots run on electricity. To the extent that robots reduce employment, they must increase the combustion of fuel and consequently the emission of carbon dioxide (of course if Ted Cruz is elected President, none of this will matter because he will simply outlaw the hoax of climate change).