Nouriel Roubini may not be a name you’re familiar with, unless you follow business and financial matters much. If you watched TV much during the 2008 economic collapse, you probably saw him being interviewed on CNN, Fox News, NBR, even the big three networks. Usually on one of their weekend talk shows, but even the weeknight stock market shows invited him regularly to comment on what was happening, how it happened, and how it would “play out”.
Maybe you are aware of him and don’t like him. Maybe you disagree with his economic views, or his unusual social life (for an economist).
Regardless of your awareness or affinity towards him, he was one of very few to predict the impending market collapse. Even fewer who predicted when and how. He droned on about it for months ahead of it, earning the nickname “Dr. Doom”. But even his critics shut up and turned to listen when it finally happened.
Roubini has a very dry wit. Some have compared his demeanor with Mr. Spock. He remains a deadpan, matter-of-fact voice that is listened to, and quoted heavily today.
So, enough yapping about Mr. Roubini, the man. Last night, however, he tweeted a link to an article he published in the New York Times, “After the Jobs Dry Up, What Then?
The article is brief, but presents a stark, bleak, and sobering question about something that’s been predicted for a very long time: What happens when automation reaches a point where more humans are unemployed than employed? When enough are unemployed as to pose a serious problem for society to sustain.
Nearly half a century later, that disconnect is coming to a head. Economic growth, even where it looks impressive, seems to be creating fewer jobs than in the past, and for the most part, poorly paid ones. The main metrics for economic success now appear to be decoupling from labor markets, the main source of income and meaning for citizens.
Read that last sentence once more. This is from a person who is paid (and paid very well) by people that make market-changing decisions, to provide them with insight and advise about what to do, and when to do it.
Think about how often you pass a homeless person standing on a corner holding a sign asking for money. Easy to ignore or make yourself distracted. What happens when that corner is filled with people you know? Your own family? What happens when your argument for poverty is lack of motivation, runs directly into unavoidable “lack of opportunity”? Easy enough to ignore from other places, but when it lands in your town it will likely be different for you. Ask anyone who had to relocate due to local employment collapse.
Society can only function when the components of a society function. As soon as they start to break down, shit goes sideways pretty quick. Just watch how people behave in traffic when everything stops for a long time, especially on a hot day.
Just take a look at places like Lebanon, Greece, Mexico, or Nigeria. All of them were once economically stable, prosperous places that tourists flocked to visit. Not so much anymore. Why? Because their economies collapsed. Regardless of the various factors of civil unrest, natural disasters, and resource shortages, it always comes down to employment. If you can’t find work, you can’t earn a living and pay for a home, food or maintain a family. Society can endure a lot of things, but massive unemployment is usually the melting point.
The recent protests in Hong Kong fell apart because it was halting the economy, and eventually the protesters needed to pay for things like rent, food and transportation. Yes. They killed their own pursuits of democracy for the almighty dollar (or whatever currency they use).
“Some speak of a third industrial revolution; others call it the second machine age. With the processing speed of computers doubling roughly every 18 months and machines becoming ever smarter, paid work for human beings could become a lot scarcer — and soon.” – Nouriel Roubini
As a former software developer, I saw areas where the “creative works” I had pursued ended up part of a wave of retail industry, ending the need for the custom solution, or at least the lucrative opportunities. It seemed like mowing a lawn that didn’t grow back. The best potential for most developers these days is to sell a few copies of a phone “app” to help pay for groceries. That, or shovel coal into the corporate development machinery that keeps unexciting processes moving. But it’s only a matter of time until the corporate machinery finds a more cost-effective way to feed the coal than by using humans.
As with most things, we as a society, will wait until the very last minute. The 59th minute of the 11th hour, to figure out how to deal with this. There will only be a few options by then:
- Social welfare programs
- Artificial constraints on automation
- Society collapse and war
The first option will never pass public approval due to political differences. The second option might work for a while, but won’t last long because big business (who owns America anyway) won’t stand for it. That leaves the third option. I’m hoping for 1 or 2 myself, but my pragmatic side is hoping I’m dust before the moment arrives that this becomes a crisis.
Maybe The Walking Dead premise isn’t so much fiction after all.