Robots, Patents, and Inequality

Dean BakerDean Baker is probably the most insightful economic thinker in the public discourse. But there is one area where I think he is wrong. He complains that we have nothing to worry about from automation because it will make our lives better. This is in contrast to those of us who believe that robots are like other forms of capital and will be distributed the way that capital is now: unequally and unfairly.

Of course, Baker is aware of this problem. He just prefers to use the automation story to highlight other problems in our society. This morning he wrote, The Scary Robot Story Stems from Confusion by the Story Tellers. In it, he argues the real problem is not the robots, but long patents protection. In a free market, robots will be cheap. “In short, the scary story is a story of patent policy designed to redistribute income upward. It has nothing to do with technology.”

I agree. But you could say the same thing about globalization. The problem isn’t globalization, it is all those other policies designed to redistribute income upward. Our inequality problem is the result of those policies and not the broader economic trends. But given that we do have these policies, globalization is a very bad thing for most people. And robots are a real concern. As Donald Rumsfeld might say, “You lose your job to robots with the policies you have, not the policies you want.”

Baker seems to be focusing too much on the theoretical here. This is not like him. But I suspect in his mind, discussions of robots and automation are a distraction from very real problems in the economy now and going forward. The inefficiencies of our intellectual property system are a big issue to Baker. And it is a big issue to me. But the problem with robots is much deeper than patents.

The real problem is continually increasing inequality. Our broken intellectual property system is a result of that inequality. After all, we didn’t get copyright lengths that are roughly a century long because writers and software developers were demanding it. We got them because powerful rentiers didn’t want to lose their ability to charge rents on really old stuff. The biggest example of this is Disney with Mickey Mouse. So the more robots we have, the more inequality will increase. And that would just result in longer and stronger patent protections.

So I agree with Baker that robots are a second-order problem. But they are still a problem given the unequal status of people in the nation and the world. And the fact that people talk about robots is indicative of the fact that they don’t see our system changing. Unfortunately, they have good reasons for being so cynical.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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