Wealth, Not Robots, Makes Us Lazy

Tyler Cowen adapts his forthcoming book, Average Is Over, into a NYT essay:

Self-driving vehicles threaten to send truck drivers to the unemployment office. … There are even computers that can grade essay exams with reasonable accuracy. … Who will prosper and who won’t in this new kind of machine economy?

Who will do well? THE CONSCIENTIOUS … PEOPLE WHO LISTEN TO COMPUTERS Your smartphone will record data on your life and, when asked, will tell you what to do. … PEOPLE WITH A MARKETING TOUCH … MOTIVATORS … Managers who are motivators of first-rate talent will see their earnings continue to rise.

Who will be most likely to suffer from this technological revolution? PEOPLE WITH DELICATE FEELINGS Computing and software will make it easier to measure performance and productivity. It will be harder to gloss over our failings and maintain self-deception. … PEOPLE UNLUCKY IN HEALTH CARE … PEOPLE WHO DON’T NEED MONEY … people who are bright, culturally literate, Internet-savvy and far from committed to the idea of hard work directed toward earning a good middle-class living. … have the incomes of the lower middle class and the cultural habits of the wealthy or upper middle class. … POLITICAL RADICALS: … We’re … aging rapidly, and that tends to make society more peaceful, less violent and less extreme in all directions. (more)

Tyler has the pundit style of trying to make everything seem as if it turns on today’s fashionable worries. Since one of today’s fashionable worry is automation, Tyler talks as if that caused all these trends. But in fact, while most of these trends are real, they have much more to do with increasing wealth than increasing automation.

Because we are richer, we are healthier and live longer. Older folks are less inclined to political radicalism, and those unluckily in health look all the worse compared to the healthy. Rich folks are also more inclined to be lazy and arrogant, as the threat of starvation fades into non-existence. So among the rich there are bigger gains to retaining strong inclinations to work hard even when rich, and an ability to similarly motivate others. There are also bigger gains among the rich to listening to others, especially about the quality of your work, and resisting the lazy inclination toward arrogance.

I disagree that it is getting easier to measure performance and productivity overall, or that smart phones will give useful life advice anytime soon. Yes smartphones and other machines may measure your heart rate and keystrokes more easily, but as we work in larger and more coordinated organizations, it gets harder not easier to measure individual performance. For example, when video games were made by small teams, individual contributions were much easier to discern than now when hundreds work together.

Someday robots will make a huge difference. It is important to foresee and prepare for that eventuality. But it will only get harder to take that distant prospect seriously when pundits keep crying wolf and blaming automation for trends caused by other things.

Added 3 Sept: I’d say most long-term trends can be understood reasonably well as due to increasing wealth and lifespans. These include less monogamy, religion, work ethic, and violence. See my forager vs. farmer story.

Instapundit and Marginal Revolution linked here.

Added 27 Sep: Maytt Yglesias agrees that tech isn’t the explanation:

In Stagnation, Cowen reviewed the previous generation and concluded that despite substantial progress and catch-up in poor countries that the median household in rich countries had suffered stagnant living standards thanks to a slowdown in technological progress. In Average, Cowen looks ahead at the next generation and concludes that despite substantial progress and catch-up in poor countries, the median household in rich countries will suffer stagnant living standards thanks to a speedup in technological progress.

Curious. Which is to say that while each book offers a brilliant exposition of income stagnation and how it intersects with the technological progress of its era, read in conjunction it’s clear that in neither period was the stagnation actually caused by the pace of technological change.

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  • Tyler has the pundit style of trying to make everything seem as if it turns on today’s fashionable worries.

    Good thing it’s Labor Day Weekend, so the “lunch group” won’t be meeting for a couple of days. Excellent rebuttal!

    Automation must be a fad topic, since Eliezer Yudkowsky has recently written about it. (“The Robots, AI, and Unemployment Anti-FAQ” http://tinyurl.com/n796syu )

    My own effort to explain the effects of automation (on employment and social status) is at “The dismal employment picture: A demographic, social-status-theory explanation” — http://tinyurl.com/lg3daub )

    Both Tyler and Robin would abhor my proposal.

    has the pundit style of trying to make everything seem as if it turns
    on today’s fashionable worries. – See more at:

  • John Goulden

    I’m not yet ready to welcome our new robotic overlords. Driving a semi is far more complex than sweeping floors or flipping burgers, and we see no robotic threat to those simple physical tasks. But as an adept programmer my future is assured anyway.

    • roystgnr

      Google is successfully testing self-driving cars. A robotic burger flipper was publicly demonstrated last year. The first robotic floor sweeper was unveiled more than ten years ago, and millions of units have been sold.

  • roystgnr

    “today’s fashionable worry is automation”, as if the choice between constantly-improving machines versus static biology cycled back and forth like hemlines. Perhaps horses and oxen will be making a comeback soon too?

  • Robert Koslover

    “…but as we work in larger and more coordinated organizations…”

    Question 1: Why should we expect such a trend? Question 2: Do you consider that to be a good trend? (Note: I’m talking only about near-future times, i.e., prior to any huge AI/singularity or similar transition in the basic nature of human society itself.) Personally, I greatly prefer to work in/for a small organization!

    • Bigger orgs is one of the main causes of our increasing wealth. It is near the essence of the industry era.

      • Robert Koslover

        No argument with that. But should that be “is” or “was?” Isn’t there a limit where greater size becomes a disadvantage?

      • Salem

        And don’t we now live in a post-industrial era? My impression is that, compared to 30-50 years ago, fewer Westerners work in huge, vertically-and horizontally-integrated super-organisations. Instead production takes place across contractually-linked networks, where the organizations are small – in part so that performance can be measured more easily.
        But I admit I don’t have data on this. Does anyone have relevant statistics?

      • IMASBA

        Businesses are merging into loose conglomerates, but that doesn’t mean the average employee “feels” a bigger organization. In the end it comes down to how you define an “organization” because in a sense everyone except hermits have always been part of the organization that is society. Conglomerates are more linked than overall society, but just barely and not nearly as linked as what we traditionally think of as an organization (a farm or a factory).

  • M_1

    “Rich folks are also more inclined to be lazy and arrogant”

    Wow, really?

    • xbox361

      maybe he is projecting

  • M. Report

    A technology creates heaven-on-earth and religion fades away
    the old and powerful become more inclined to irrational behavior,
    including violence; They have little left to lose, and not much time
    to regret it.

  • Cambias

    The conventional wisdom is that old people aren’t politically radical, but is that really true? I see a lot of gray heads at political protests in my New England college town, and photos of the Occupy performances include a lot of aged hippies among the young hippie-reenactors.

    People tend to lock into one style of politics in early adulthood, so young radicals become old radicals, especially since “radical” politics hasn’t really changed at all in half a century.

    • IMASBA

      Yes it’s true: older people are grossly underrepresented at political rallies (except when it’s about something mundane that directly hurts them financially). Older people also never go beyond peaceful (physically), sanctioned demonstrations.

      Young people are not only naturally more adventurous and open to new things, they also lack the vested interests of older people (a house, an expensive car, a retirement fund, kids) so they have much less to loose in the event of major societal change.

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