Saturday, June 15, 2013

Keeping a Human Element in the Economy

The Added Value of a Human Element

                Labor will be mechanized wherever mechanized labor does a “better” job than human labor. “Better” is typically defined or conceptualized as price per unit of output—efficiency loving economists really go for efficient cost functions. However, clearly firms do not simply produce based on the cost of inputs, and the price they can charge for the output is just as important. Firms can charge a premium on a good or service for a variety of reasons unrelated to the obvious characteristics of that good or service. For example, consumers are willing to pay more for a product which is produced at an environmentally conscious factory than an otherwise identical product manufactured at a fountain of pollution. The same logic applies to pricing on sweatshop/no sweatshop, domestic/foreign production, and basically whatever aspect of a product that can be put into the consumer’s attention. Clearly, there are situations where the value of the output, as determined by human consumers, depends in large part on secondary qualities of that output.

                Certain industries likely then are not likely to be mechanized as the decrease in production cost might correspond to a potentially even larger drop in market price, because mechanizing the industry reduces the value of these secondary characteristics so much. These industries are those where a human producer adds some value to the final product that cannot be replicated by machine labor. Determining what those industries will be though is an interesting question—what exactly can a human do that other humans would prefer to be done by other humans? And why, exactly, would we prefer that a human does this work?

Audio technology has advanced in a really amazing way over the last century or two, giving any individual the ability to hear world-class musicians at incredibly high fidelity wherever they are. Still though there is a demand for live music venues where surely less skilled musicians will perform. An audiophile might make an argument that there is some quality to the music at any live venue that makes it preferable to a recording of superior musicians, but this argument that the expressed preference for live music is due to more beautiful acoustics or a louder sound system seems inadequate.

Similarly, although it is easy to buy extremely accurate prints of paintings produced originally by masterful painters, people like to buy original, hand painted works by local artists. Again, the difference in quality between a mechanical reproduction and a hand painted version is negligible, and probably undetectable to most people. Even as reproductions of masterpieces get more and more accurate, it seems likely that markets for original artwork of ostensibly inferior quality will survive. However, like with music, it is difficult to answer why exactly we might prefer the more “human” product.

Approached from the other side of the market—there are certain industries that humans might prefer to engage in even if robots can do it. Artistic pursuits like painting and music almost certainly fulfill this requirement—hobbies seem poised to take up a significantly larger part of the average individual’s day as the amount of time they need to work in order to live a comfortable life decreases. But what of things such as child rearing, low intensity farming, and construction that under some conditions people are eager to outsource and in other conditions eager to participate in?

Child rearing is about as intimate and involved of an experience as a human can expect to have. So again, even as the ability of robots to perfectly mimic the duties of a parent increases, down to warm touches which condition the brain of the child to release oxytocin and artificial breast milk which contains just as many (or more) antibodies and nutrition as that from a human mother, humans seem unlikely in the foreseeable future to mechanize childrearing too much. While people are perfectly content to let a robot tend to the dishes, holding one’s baby and developing that connection cannot be outsourced. The general prediction then would be that the tedious and uninspiring will be mechanized, whereas the exciting and profound will still attract human effort, even if it can be characterized as labor. Such a prediction is less exciting after examination—how much of what we define as tedious or uninspiring is the result of our unique cultural moment, and what are the long term consequences of relegating dreadful labor to uncaring robotic? Many philosophical and religious traditions hold that there is value to the human experience or soul in thankless labor. The choice of doing away with thankless labor seems a good experiment for testing that hypothesis.