Automation needs to be tackled with the economics of the 19th century

Marx versus the robots.

Since covering the strangely unimaginative way the economics establishment treated the effect of automation on the economy, I've been looking for economists who do seem to get it.

Responding to a piece by Paul Krugman (a back-of-the-envelope demonstration of how neoclassical models could show technological improvements leading to a reduction of the real wage), Fred Moseley, Professor of Economics at Massacheusettes' Mount Holyoke College, gives an overview of the Marxist approach to the problem:

Marx’s theory predicted in the early days of capitalism that technological change would tend to be labor-saving… and this labor-saving technological change would cause increasing unemployment (the “reserve army of the unemployed”) which in turn would put downward pressure on wages and the wage share of income (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25). He called this important conclusion “The General Law of Capital Accumulation” (the title of Chapter 25). One does not have to use the very dubious marginal productivity theory to explain these important phenomena. Marx’s theory provides a perfectly adequate explanation without the extremely problematic concepts of marginal products of labor and capital.

Marx is obviously relevant to the end stage, of a world in which automation replaced the bulk of work. That world would struggle to continue to arrange things along a capitalist order, as Noah Smith's contortions demonstrated. Ownership of the means of production — the robots, algorithms, computers and everything else replacing human labour — becomes more and more important the closer to that stage we reach.

Moseley's point is that Marx is probably relevant to the whole thing far earlier. The labour theory of value (Marx's key economic idea, that value — which is distinct from "price" — is determined exclusively by the human labour a good takes to create) has always been a lens through which technological improvement in the means of production leads, eventually, to immiseration of the labourer.

(The flip side of such an argument is that immiseration is offset by the fact that technology also reduces the amount of labour required to live a good life. The balance between those two tendencies is, in essence, the answer to the question of whether or not capitalism is sustainable or not.)

No matter how accurate it may have been in this situation, it will take a long time for most people to begin taking the Marxist economic analysis seriously. (Part of that might be that it's got that frightful déclassé word "Marxist" in it.) But if economics doesn't adopt some of its lessons, it seems doomed to spend the next decade reinventing it from scratch.

A man poses in front of a bronze statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.