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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.