It can and should be stopped

There is an interview of Dr. Arvind Subramanian (AS for convenience), the Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India in FT. The interviewer is James Crabtree (‘James’). I know James a little better than I know AS. I had met the latter once in 2010 when we both were invited to the preparatory meeting for the Indo-Chinese Strategic Dialogue, by Mr. Shivshankar Menon, the then National Security Advisor to the Government of India. Of course, he had given a nice blurb to my co-authored book, ‘The Economics of Derivatives’ with Dr. Somanathan. He knows Dr. Somanathan well and respects him.

James now lives in Singapore and I have interacted with him in person and exchange emails from time to time. He is an easy-going chap. He was nice enough to tweet my critical analysis of his analysis of the Uttar Pradesh election results in India in March.

When AS was being considered for the post of CEA, I had checked my own blog posts that referenced him. There were quite a few. I had been blogging for little over six years then. Almost all of the posts had only approving references to his works or views or both. So, I mentioned it to some people whom I thought were closer to the powers-that-be in the ruling dispensation in Delhi.

He has done a very decent job so far. He has made very useful contributions to the progress of the Goods & Services Tax legislation in the country. His annual Economic Surveys are thoughtful and useful for the most part, although I disagree with the consensus view on this year’s Economic Survey, especially with respect to the idea of Universal Basic Income for India. India does not need it. India cannot afford it. Even for the West, it is more a romantic than a useful idea and it is a salve for the consciences of the technology billionaires who are facilitating its destruction of life and society, as we know them. Work is much more than about salaries and handouts are poor substitutes for them. I have more to say on technology later because AS had chosen to mention it, in the interview. Indeed, that is the main and  a large portion of this post.

The only time I disagreed with him and sharply too was on the joint column he wrote for ‘Bloomberg Views’ with Dani Rodrik on the ‘whining’ of Emerging economies on the spillover from the Federal Reserve monetary policy. I thought they were completely on the wrong path. Subsequent research, even from sources like the International Monetary Fund, had confirmed that spillovers are a painful and inevitable reality even for well-run and well-managed emerging economies with sound fundamentals.

Now, back to this interview. It has nice pictures of his pad in New Moti Bagh in Delhi. His Pooja shelf features Shri. Ramana Maharishi. Nice. He has cassettes. So, do I. I do not know what to do with them these days. Even CDs have quickly been replaced by other means of listening.

For the most part, in his interview, he hits the right notes on his boss. That is to be expected. He hits the right notes on India too. The interview is a bit thin on substance though.

James refers to Modi as a leader who brooks no dissent. It would be rather useful to know if any political leader brooks or has brooked public dissent. The real issues are about how they dispose of the dissenter rather than if they allowed them to thrive and that too in public view. So, I am not sure as to the point of it. No politician who makes it to the top in competitive democratic politics will be a front-runner in the competition for the ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ award. That includes the former U.S. President Barack Obama.

For the most part, journalists are either naive or take their readers to be so or it is a bit of both. I am disappointed that James is doing that here.

As for AS’ remarks,

“’Hyper-globalisation is dead, long live globalisation,’ is how I like to put it,” he says. “If you look crudely at the post-war period, 80 per cent of globalisation is driven by technology, 20 per cent by policy. And that 80 per cent, you can’t stop.”

I take issues with that. Well, I winced. At a very philosophical level, many things in the world are processes over which humans have very little or no control. We are mere cogs in the wheel. But, modern societies and governments are organised on the principle that humans are in charge. They choose and decide. Blaming technology is a bit like blaming terrorism or saying that the West is at war with terrorism. That is seemingly clever but a bit daft and stupid.

The world cannot be at war with terrorism. It is at war with terrorists. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. Narrowing it down further to geographical markers or specific religious markers is also necessary to focus efforts. Euphemism is part of denial and it helps to lull people into believing that something is being done while nothing worthwhile is being done. That is why my eyebrows went up when I read an article in Bloomberg that McMaster advised President Trump against using the phrase, ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ in his Presidential address to the Congress.

Back to technology from terrorism, even though both could be terrorising humans and societies. Technology is deployed and advanced by leaders – political, commercial and scientific – making choices. It does not advance by itself. Some technologies have been shelved and some have been abandoned because their negative externalities were judged to exceed vastly their private benefits or even public benefits.

Several examples would help. The decision by President Nixon to open up to China was a choice. The decision to admit China into WTO even before it became a ‘market economy’ was a choice. The decision to sign the NAFTA was a choice. The decision to repeal Glass-Steagall Act was a choice and so was the decision to legislate the Commodities Futures Modernisation Act in the United States. All of them had consequences. Financial and technological innovations amplified the consequences greatly. Some of the decisions were made without awareness of their fallout on communities, on families and on society. Only economic and commercial considerations, at the aggregate level, were the decisive actors.

That is why Bill Gates was right to propose taxing robots. Obviously, robots do not pay taxes but the companies that are behind them do. The tax may and could even be punitive enough to stop some of the research and advance in the technology. That is not being Luddite. That is being careful about consequences. That is about being honest and humble about forces that one is about to unleash, about which one has no ideas and over which one has no control. That is about recognition of human limitations.

“High-tech hubs were among the five metropolitan statistical areas where the gap between the highest- and lowest-income households expanded the most: two in California, San Francisco and San Jose, as well as Austin and Seattle.” [Link]. The article’s header is a tell-all tale: ‘America’s rich get richer while the poor get replaced by robots’.

Predictably, Larry Summers has objected to Bill Gates’ proposal. Mr. Summers is a very useful weathervane for the direction in which conventional wisdom is blowing. It is usually wrong. Summers’ views are useful for many of us to make up our minds – usually in the other direction. Here is another example. But, that is a different topic.

Political correctness prevents many from admitting to their inability to comprehend the present and the future, especially with respect to such obviously disruptive developments. There is more disruption than progress about them. Tyler Cowen’s article in Bloomberg in February is an example of this unfortunate political correctness. He concludes on that note despite advancing all useful and important arguments against precisely such a stance.

Perhaps, Tyler Cowen, AS and Summers should read an article that appeared in ‘Quartz’ last month. The article is headlined, ‘No one is prepared to stop the robot onslaught. So what will we do when it arrives?’.

The article notes, “In February, the European Union did consider rules that, while not stopping the robots, would have the force of discouraging automation by compelling companies to pay compensating taxes and social security payments for jobs that their robots wipe out. But, EU parliamentary members balked even at this, adopting much milder language that exacts no retribution on the robots or the companies that use them. A pivotal dynamic in the vote seemed to be a reluctance on the part of the deputies to expose themselves to possible ridicule as Luddites.”

That is the problem. Andrew Feenberg, who teaches the philosophy of technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, says, “Doing trade deals and robotics without consideration of the people displaced is insane. The backlash is understandable.”

Feenberg notes, “Societies do have choices with respect to technology.” He is very right.

In sum, this long post is a message to AS that it can be stopped and we, humans, would do well to make choices because we can make them. It is both fashionable and wrong to say that technology cannot be stopped.

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One thought on “It can and should be stopped

  1. sad to see even some of the best economists underestimate the rise of A.I. UBI is essential to counter balance the economic imbalance that is about to be caused by A.I at a micro economic level.

    Like

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