Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Slavery, technology, and the future of the weak

Reading 9th grade world history as an adult I read over the names of the wicked and the great. I round years to centuries, and nations to regions.

Other things catch my eye. Reading of slavery in ancient Rome and Greece, I think of India's untouchables. The theme of surplus built upon slavery runs constantly through human history, until it blends into an industrial model of market utilization of the "The Weak".

Yeah, progress happens. I'd choose a minimum wage job in Norway, or even in Minnesota, over slavery.

So what's next? In a globalized post-industrial world, does the labor of the "Weak" have sufficient value to support a life of health and balance? If it does not, if within the framework of the post-AI world 20% of the population is effectively disabled, then what do we do?

Slavery was one answer to the problem of the weak. Industrial and agricultural employment was another. If we are fortunate, we will provide a third answer.

See also:


Anonymous said...

I think that slavery and the modern plight of the weak are distinct in an interesting way. Slaves were 'the weak' in the sense that they were exploited and the wealth they created was systematically taken from them.

But 'the weak' as you describe them in modern times are not necessarily exploited. Instead, they are unable to support themselves. To some extent we already have programs to try to bridge this gap (SS, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.).

One fundamental problem with these kinds of systems is that there are a lot of hoops that must be jumped through to prove you 'qualify' and of course many that would be qualified are for that reason unable to jump through the hoops. In addition, there is the political problem that these programs help the undeserving "them" rather than the deserving "us".

One solution that I would favor would be a universal stipend. Instead of the social security administration mailing out monthly checks to those over 65, they mail out checks to everyone. This is paid for by a tax designed so that for the median income the check is the same as the amount taxed with those over the median income paying more in tax than they receive via check and vice versa for those earning less than the median income.

The biggest advantages of such a system are (a) there are no perverse incentives where increasing income causes somebody to be worse off because they stop qualifying for some benefit, (b) there is no need to try to solve the difficult problem of discovering who the weak actually are, and (c) since everyone gets the same check every month there is no stigma or special hoops or self-abasement to go along with it.

Obviously, such a scheme would fail via inflation if the stipend was too large and would be pointless if it was too small.

JGF said...

That's a great comment and correction. I had similar thoughts after writing.

Slaves were very profitable in pre-industrial societies, probably so profitable that if they had been paid a "minimum wage" they'd have still been profitable. In our world the 20% aren't productive enough to be profitable at minimum wage rates.

The current practice for the cognitively disabled is subsidized labor. I think we'll do something like that ...