Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Road to Serfdom: Where the Robots Are Taking Us

Not Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom". Rather this is a journey back to medieval society where all income is subject to taxation by the Church or the manor or both. At least in the current case it is freehold rent which is paid in cash rather than the labor rent that villeins and serfs owed their liege.

Let me explain.
On Satuday Worthwhile Canadian Initiative had a post "Capital-biased technical change vs low interest rates?" about the flow of income from productivity gains accruing to capital in larger and expanding proportion rather than to labor:
Paul Krugman says that recent technical change has been capital-biased. That robot story sounds plausible to me too. But if so, why are real interest rates so low? (Yes I know there's a global recession on, but real interest rates were falling even before the recession). Maybe we are forgetting a third factor, land, and land rents are rising?

Suppose there were a new technology that caused both wages and interest rates to fall. Why wouldn't capitalists and workers say "Stuff that, let's go back to the old technology!"? Any individual firm, or group of firms, that went back to the old technology, while borrowing at the new low interest rates and paying the new low wages, would make super-normal profits. And all the other firms would eventually choose to, or have to, follow it back....MORE
One of his commenters made a very sharp observation:
This is right (and krugman is right). Asymptotically, when robots do all the work including the development and manufacturing of robots, all rents will flow to the owners of land just like a few hundred years ago. At that point the prescriptions of Henry George will be self evidently true. Until then a great deal of rents will flow to the owners of non-land capital. Watch for ever broadening, ever lengthening IP protections, and continuing income polarization.