Robert Reich, President Clinton’s labor secretary, summed up the wrongheaded thinking a few months ago: “We will get to a point, all our societies, where technology is displacing so many jobs, not just menial jobs but also professional jobs, that we’re going to have to take seriously the notion of a universal basic income.”
This is a false premise. All through history, automation has created more jobs than it destroyed. Washboards and wringers were replaced by increasingly inexpensive washing machines, while more women entered the workforce. Automated manufacturing and one-click buying has upended retail, yet throughout the U.S. millions of jobs go unfilled. With Amazon’s proposed purchase of Whole Foods , the online giant is primed finally to bring efficiency to the last mile of grocery shopping—but don’t count on all grocery jobs to disappear.
The economics, which they apparently stopped teaching at Harvard, are straightforward: Lowering the cost of goods and services through automation allows capital—financial and human—to attack even harder problems. Wake me up when we run out of problems.