No, I'm not about to become a charter member of the Robert Samuelson fan club, but he does get the basic story right in his column this morning. The robots are not taking our jobs, or at least not at an especially rapid pace. As Samuelson correctly points out, robots are just a form of productivity growth and productivity growth has been very slow in recent years. This is 180 degrees at odds with the robots taking our jobs story.
In fact, we should want more robots taking our jobs. That would allow more rapid wage growth and/or longer vacations and more leisure, assuming of course that the Federal Reserve Board did not deliberately slow the economy to create more unemployment.
There are a couple of other points worth mentioning on this piece. Samuelson is dismissive of the potential impact of self-driving cars. He tells readers:
"Consider. An opinion survey by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan found that only 16 percent of respondents wanted self-driving vehicles; 39 percent preferred “partially self-driving” and 46 percent wanted no “self-driving” features. Safety is one anxiety. Cost may be another. Presumably, car prices would be higher, reflecting the costs of software, sensors and electronics. Will drivers pay the premium, especially when today’s cars last longer than ever? (The average age of today’s vehicles is 11 years, up from five years in 1969, reports the Transportation Department)."
This one completely misses the potential of self-driving cars. If cars are remotely driven, there is no need to own your own car. You can summon a car to meet your specific needs at the time you need it. In other words, if it's just a short trip by yourself, you would presumably summon a small car that uses very little gas (or electricity). If you're going on a longer trip with friends or family, you would summon a bigger car that would allow everyone to be comfortable. Not owning a car could lead to enormous savings, in addition to not needing parking spaces or garage space to house your car.
It's not surprising that people grabbed for a quick survey would not have a clear idea of the potential of this technology. It's unlikely any of us can fully grasp the potential of major innovations. I remember Paul Krugman dismissing the value of the iPad when it first came out. I say this not to trash Krugman, but to point out that even a very insightful economist, who had time to reflect on the topic, had no clue as to use of this new product. Anyhow, put me down as a big optimist on self-driving vehicles.
The last point is one that needs to be repeated endlessly. If the spread of robots leads to an upward redistribution to the people who "own" the robots, it is because our government has decided to redistribute income upwards. Owning technology is not a fact of nature, it is the result of patent laws created by politicians. If we had shorter patents or open research, then robots would be extremely cheap and no one would get rich from owning robots.
If we are worried that some people will get very rich from this technology then we should get very mad at the politicians who wrote the laws to give these rich people monopolies over the technology. The problem is not with the technology, it is with the politicians and the people who own them.