Capitalism is a Game we Play

March 18, 2015

I’m not normally inclined to get really involved in politics or in the political sphere of concern (it mostly fills me with dispair), but it’s not something anyone can entirely afford to ignore. As a software developer and a proponent for elegant and efficient problems to our problems through automation, it is sometimes easy to assume that the benefits of automation are self-evident. Done right, automation means increases in productivity, decreases in costs and increased output. Job done, right? Surely this is an unqualified good?

Not quite. The other variable is where exactly any extra value produced ends up. Does it reach society as a whole, or is it captured by one or more interested parties? Put differently, how much of the savings from more efficient processes lead to falling prices - as opposed to an increased profit margin? It’s a difficult question, whose solution surely depends on the specific situation, so we can’t expect precise answers. Perhaps we can hope for a macro view.

Yhe core theme from Thomas Piketty’s very influential economic treatise from last year[2] was the simple fact that income equality is rising[3]. More precisely, capitalists get greater returns than non-capitalists. A priori, there is no reason to expect that the returns from automation differ from this overall trend.

What does this mean? Well, many programmers are in high demand and are living quite comfortably. Although those at the lower end are also vulnerable to being disrupted, if their skills don’t keep up with the technologies in vogue, those that have a more abstract understanding can be confident of staying in demand for the foreseeable future. But technically minded people more often fit into the worker bee archetype than the factory owner archetype. Most rely on earning income as an employee. Therefore, the developer class should be a strong advocate for action to redress the outsized returns on capital. And, moreover, since it is software that is doing so much of the disruption[3][4] there is also a moral driver to action as well [5].

It is to this aim that I put together some rough ideas on what we should be advocating - with the premises being that (a) we can continue to drive increases in prosperity but (b) these changes will not necessarily benefit everyone. Inequality is important, but it is not the primary concern here, we should instead be concerned with removing the primary impediments that people have. I would see these as the following:

  • Inadequate nutrition. How should the time, money and skill-poor get access to nutritious food? (ie varied & fresh vegetables)
  • Access to information resources. In the first instance internet access should be available to al, but there is also the more tricky question of determining useful and reliable sources
  • Sleep. How many people feel they have to stay up long hours working to get themselves into a position of security?
  • Access to opportunity. How can a subordinate or disadvantaged person find mentors or champions?
  • Shelter. Is the home environment physically comfortable? Can you afford to turn on the heater if it's freezing? And do you feel safe in your home - are you interrupted by shouting outside, or do you often see criminal or undesirable activity?

Next, some thoughts for how we should tackle these. I suppose I should say some of my ideas are quite paternalistic. This is for two reasons (i) people showing themselves to have made bad decisions shouldn’t be supported in doing so (ii) in many scenarios prevention is better than the cure. Anyway, policy ideas:

  • A guaranteed subsistence level income should be received by all. In a straightforward and non-stigmatized way! Something along the lines of a basic income or a negative income tax.
  • Everyone must have a registered current abode. If not, a residence will be provided by the government, with the cost deducted from the subsistence income.
  • Everyone must attend a full medical check yearly.
  • Sufficient evidence of a bad diet will result in a portion of the subsistence income being replaced by food tokens (Jamie's School Dinners for adults).
  • Everyone must have private access to the internet. We mainly rely on the schools to teach people how to use it.

Further Reading

  1. Related phenomenon: Bullshit Jobs
  2. Thomas Piketty: Capital in the 21st Century (2013)
  3. Tyler Cowen: The Great Stagnation (RE: stagnation in median income
  4. Software is eaing the World
  5. The Second Machine Age
  6. Developers are largely analogous to scientists in this way: although a developer is responsible for solving a technical problems, and not the nature of how the solution is to be deployed. Compare to scientists working on the Manhatten project: it is quite reasonable to believe that you might need to create this weapon before the Nazis do, and indeed for use as a deterrent. What is more open for debate is whether it was truly justified to drop not one but two atomic bombs on Japan (yes, it is said to avoided a ground war, tremendous casualties so forth, but still..). The point is, the developer, like the scientist, is not responsible for these operational decisions, but she cannot wash her hands of it either.