On the Late Show, Stephen Colbert has a recurring comedy bit he calls “Meanwhile.” Not part of the opening monologue, it’s a collection of brief–usually weird or ironic– items culled from the news of the day.

But “meanwhile” also has application to those of us who are fixated on contemporary threats to America’s Constitution and democratic norms. While we worry about the increasingly bizarre behavior of our fellow-Americans who live in a fact-free reality of their own devising, we ignore or just miss the daily challenges posed by technology–everything from the way social media is altering attention spans, to the mounting inability of the nation’s utilities to cope with the damage being done by climate change, to the rush to turn our highways over to self-driving vehicles.

That last item–the (debated) imminence of self-driving cars– is just one element of another under-appreciated threat: the loss of millions of jobs, and the issue of how we will handle the transition to a world where most labor (not just manual labor) is performed by machines. An enormous amount of research suggests that, sooner or later, AI–artificial intelligence–will replace a significant percentage of tasks that now require human performance.

It is easy to “pooh-pooh” those predictions, and to dismiss the likelihood of significant social disruption, by pointing out that someone will have to produce and program those machines, and noting that past technological progress has created as well as destroyed jobs. The cheery optimists insist that nothing is certain, so why worry? (Tell that to the estimated five million people who make their livings driving…)

The Brookings Institution has weighted in. In a paper aptly  titled “Preparing for the (non-existent) future of work,” the researchers write,

We analyze how to set up institutions that future-proof our society for a scenario of ever-more-intelligent autonomous machines that substitute for human labor and drive down wages. We lay out three concerns arising from such a scenario, culminating in the economic redundancy of labor, and evaluate recent predictions and objections to these concerns. Then we analyze how to allocate work and income if these concerns start to materialize. As the income produced by autonomous machines rises and the value of labor declines, we find that it is optimal to phase out work, beginning with workers who have low labor productivity and job satisfaction, since they have comparative advantage in enjoying leisure. This is in stark contrast to welfare systems that force individuals with low labor productivity to work. If there are significant wage declines, avoiding mass misery will require other ways of distributing income than labor markets, whether via sufficiently well-distributed capital ownership or via benefits. Recipients could still engage in work for its own sake if they enjoy work amenities such as structure, purpose, and meaning. If work gives rise to positive externalities such as social connections or political stability, or if individuals undervalue the benefits of work because of internalities, then there is a role for public policy to encourage work. However, we conjecture that in the long run, it would be more desirable for society to develop alternative ways of providing these benefits.

You can download the entire paper at the link.

The likelihood that much of world’s work will eventually be done by machines that don’t get sick, don’t need benefits, and can work 24/7 is part of what leads me to support a Universal Basic Income– an “alternative way” of providing a social infrastructure.

Analyzing America’s current polarization provides another argument for a UBI.   As political rhetoric makes clear, policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Currently, we’re stoking resentments. (Consider public attitudes toward welfare programs aimed at impoverished communities, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare–universal programs to which virtually everyone contributes and from which virtually everyone who lives long enough  benefits.)

I’ve previously observed that we don’t hear angry accusations that “those people” are driving on roads paid for by my taxes.  Beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma. If work disappears for a significant percentage of our population, an approach that doesn’t require lawmakers to pick and choose who deserves help would be far less likely to tear the country further apart.

Of course, the armed and dangerous Americans who currently live in crazy-town may make attention to these “meanwhile” matters irrelevant. They involve questions of governance that they disdain, because they involve how best to achieve the common good, and they have absolutely no interest in helping anyone but themselves.


  1. Interest in and concern for the public good is going to be a hard sell to crazy town. They have NO interest in the public good. Witness the return of polio and other deadly diseases because the crazy town folk refuse to participate in public health norms — IE getting the basic shots for kids. This is all going to be very difficult.

  2. Brookings does a decent job wording their study not to upset the reactionaries in society. The problem is we are about 40 years behind in having this discussion. As jobs began leaving our country, we should have begun creating supplemental income payments to citizens.

    Instead, we allowed the oligarchs to accumulate labor savings by going abroad in the form of profits. The oligarchs got to reduce their costs and increase their revenues while citizens were told to make do with lower-paying service-related jobs. How is this a “just society?”

    Why would citizens agree to this arrangement if we were an informed democratic republic?

    An informed society would not allow this to happen to itself. The only rationale is that we’ve been misled by the oligarchs, our political representatives, the universities, and the media.

    Another obvious view is why citizens are giving billions in subsidies to the semiconductor chip-makers so these industries can make chips in the USA as cheaply as they could buy from Taiwan.

    When the industry went overseas to exploit cheap labor, what did US citizens get in return?

    The way I see it, we are getting screwed over twice – going and coming. 😉

    It takes a lot of propaganda to get this passed without the people erupting in the streets. There should be planned marches every week in Indy. I’m not seeing them.

  3. “Meanwhile” we struggle to maintain our daily existence in the current political calamity of Trump’s world while those planning our future want to move us from the Flintstone age to the Jetson’s age with no opportunity to progress at a reasonable rate of speed. The predicted future of mechanized living will make man – and woman – obsolete; this will require lowering man’s worth to that of woman’s which they are reversing to the past century. In a Dictatorship that will not be a consideration; the Dictator, that man behind the curtain, will be the only one who matters.

    “Of course, the armed and dangerous Americans who currently live in crazy-town may make attention to these “meanwhile” matters irrelevant.”

    Those “armed and dangerous Americans”, with caribou-hunting Sarah Palin, who can see Russia from her back porch, reactivated in the political scene brought a nightmare thought to mind just this morning. An America with Trump as President and Sara Palin as Vice President. Laugh all you want but we didn’t believe till it was officially announced by the Electoral College that Donald Trump was President. The fact that Palin has enough followers to put her back in the running at any level is a frightening thought. Questions of governance, with no thought of achieving the “common good” will have no place at any level of governing in what was once America.

    I don’t know about any of you but, my “Meanwhile” is getting more and more difficult to deal with.

  4. Well, total automation and guaranteed income for doing nothing sounds like a formula for societal collapse. What will bored, intelligent people do with their days? What will bored, not-so-intelligent people do with their days? Oh, and how will the greedy operatives of corporate/banking America find ways to increase profits even more for their greedy investors who always want more every quarter?

    I see a scenario – not mentioned here – where there is a gap between full automation/labor dissolution and living income for everyone. Who/what will fill that gap while the knuckleheads we elect try to serve both masters? Maybe it’ll be the crazy town denizens who fear the loss of their ability to get another tattoo or buy more ammunition. Won’t that be a fun scene?

    I’m glad I’m old.

  5. Trump Palin ticket? Certainly possible and fun to imagine. But Trump does not like to share spotlight in front of cameras. Wow. Just think of all the new material for tabloids not to mention ‘Meanwhile’ with Stephen Colbert.

  6. What are we to do? We’ve already wasted the “Age of Enlightenment” and the “Industrial Age.” Not to mention “Iron, Bronze, and Stone.” Will we develop a new “Age of Leisure?” Most people need something to do. We frequently seek out mental and physical challenges. It will take a long time to adapt. I just hope we don’t adapt the way the Romans did and I’m equally glad I won’t be here to see it if we do.

  7. The same humans play multiple roles in the economy as labor, consumers, and taxpayers

    Combining labor, natural resources, and energy with infrastructure makes temporarily useful products and services, which very soon turn into waste needing disposal.

    Consumers pay for infrastructure either through the prices of individual products and services in the case of capitalism, or taxes in the case of socialism.

    In the past, the energy component costs included both infrastructure and fuel. In the future, at the cost of replacing much of the old infrastructure, fuel costs will be eliminated.

    The cost of the labor can be reduced by providing that contribution using additional infrastructure (automation).

    A measure of the strength of the economy is the resulting wealth distribution statistic relative to labor and infrastructure costs which provides insight into the sustainability of the system

    Those measures show that here and now our economy is dysfunctional in terms of what we pay for capitalistic infrastructure compared to the other factors.

    Other factors that have reached unaffordable cost levels are natural resource depletion ending up as waste disposal costs.

    We need a capable government to lead the necessary transition to the future state but, one of the consequences of our politics is that some of the extra expenses devoted to capitalistic infrastructure are spent buying incapable government to protect wealth redistribution up.

    This situation has to be remedied simply because humans do not collectively seem capable of doing that yet.

  8. Don’t worry, people!! Climate change will take of us before all of that.
    Why isn’t anybody talking about the societal collapse brought about by ever-accelerating climate change? With more and more record-setting fires, floods, blizzards and wind events (tornados & hurricanes), the strain put on the grid – what’s left of it and replacing what’s not — will be calamitous. Besides waiting on Hurricane Trump/Palin, I’m checking daily to see what cyclone is forming out in the Atlantic since I live 12 miles inland from the ocean. There’s only so much “emergency” service to go around. And the crops farmers are losing due to climate change and catastrophic climate events? And the people fleeing rising sea level? Not to mention that we are predicted to see the arrival of the 8th. BILLION person sometime at the end of the year! And we want to ban birth control?!?!?!?

    I’m thinking “too much leisure” might be way down on the “OMG!” list

  9. Kurt Andersen’s book, Evil Geniuses, has a discussion of the “extra people” problem.

    I highly recommend it.

  10. The fundamental issue is population control, both in terms of numbers and also in terms of quality (yes, I dared say it). Like it or not, backward sounding though it may sound, simply paying people to have babies is not a formula for a stable society. Living though the last 6 years has convinced me that the movie “Idiocracy” was not entertainment but prophecy.

    But, even if you could engineer a stable North America, for example, how does an automated utopia free of competitive ugliness protect itself from dystopian nightmares that will undoubtedly be more dynamic, innovative, and threatening?

  11. Over it asked very good questions. Here is the conclusion of Albert Einstein’s famous dictum in 1949 for the Monthly Review:

    “I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

    Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”

  12. Thanks, Kathy M, for so clearly articulating the response I would have crafted. Tragically, as noted by Paul Krugman in yesterday’s NYT, both environmental concern and science in general have become part of the culture war that is destroying America. So the likelihood of effective and timely action, even following passage of the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, seems virtually nil and societal collapse inevitable.

  13. We are subsidizing chip manufacturing so that China has that much less of a stranglehold on us, ans need to do more of the
    We are at least 40 years behind moose western democracies.
    Vernon, that’s one hell of a nightmare, indeed! Crazytown seems to keep growing, and our culture is on a descending
    trajectory. See Chris Hedges’ recent opinion piece :
    The “Meanwhile…” issue presents a heck of a challenge. A guaranteed income sounds like a needed part of the solution,
    but work is one way in which people derive meaning for their lives, and boredom can be torture. Animals in zoos, need
    stimulation, whether vertebrates or invertebrates, such as octopuses. (See “The Soul of an Octopus,” by Sy Montgomery.)
    And, as mentioned above, then there are, of course, the greedy.

  14. Anyone ever read Looking Backward: 2000-1887? Seems like life would be a lot better had we worked toward that starting in 1888

  15. I remember reading Popular Mechanics/Science from the late 50’s and early 60’s about self driving cars. Those usually involved following a magnetic strip in the roadway.

    The other issue of the decline of available employment will require a sizeable shift in society’s view of value of adults. Now it is tied into what is ones employment and if a larger portion is “on the dole” receiving minimal payments from the government it will have to change. Good luck with that as I can only imagine how the “makers” will react.

  16. The key is in the first word: universal. This should be true of many programs.

    When programs have rules about who qualifies, it obviously creates resentment for those who don’t, especially if they are near (but on the wrong side of) some arbitrary boundary. It creates a lot of stress for people who really need the program but are having a hard time proving or maintaining their eligibility. It makes those programs a lot more expensive because of all the bureaucracy needed to administer, monitor and police them.

    If it’s absolutely necessary to try not to give benefits to people who already have a lot of money, then the simple solution is to take it back in taxes, maybe make the higher tax brackets a little tougher, for example.

Comments are closed.