Monday, June 20, 2016

Social externalities

Was just reading The Economist's survey of the future of agriculture, in which it looks at a wide variety of new technologies impacting how food is grown, and I found myself thinking of how, in this field too, the economics are now tending towards providing disproportionate rewards to those who can intellectualize and in turn automate the fundamental processes of production.  The technology being thrown at farming is nothing short of amazing.

And so, even as locovorism for the elite and a back to the land ethos push a small number of people back into farming and provide a means of livelihood for some traditional farmers who can adapt themselves to a new supply chain, wealth in food production as in so much else will continue to concentrate itself in the hands of a corporate few.

This is something we are seeing in so many fields. Technology is eating everything, simple jobs are disappearing, honorable ways of earning livings for people of few intellectual and social privileges are slinking and sliding into the dustbin of history.  It all seems inexorable.

On the other side of this same coin, we see deep anomie, populations falling further into disarray as their paths toward betterment seem foreclosed.  Just in the USA we see declining mortality due to mental health issues and substance dependency, specifically opioids; afro-separatism expressed in generations of naming conventions (witness NBA players Dontae' Jones and Dahntay Jones, for one small example); racist hatemongering from Duck Dynasty to its logical heir, Donald Trump, and on and on and on.  In Europe we see neo-Nazism in lots of places, from Le Pinism to the Leave movement in the UK....

In the Islamic world, there's been plenty of analysis of how the fundamental inability of authoritarian petrokleptocracies to keep up with the West economically has created a class of young people -- and males in particular -- with no future who are ripe ground for terrorist recruiters.

Fundamentally, so much of this seems to be a response to an economic pie that is shrinking due to a worldwide dependency ratio that becomes increasingly unfavorable as populations age, and technology that appropriates a lion's share of what economic bounty there is to those who can dream up technologies to streamline production and distribution.

Which pisses people off and makes them sad.  And, in turn, violent and nasty towards one another.

What if all of this can be classed as an externality, in the same way that CO2 emissions are unpriced externalities of fossil-fuel burning?  Which is to say, what if the rolling up of profits to technologists messes up society and peoples' lives so badly that its repercussions should be classed as real costs?

In which case the real economic value is not provided by your Bill Gates / Sergei and Larry / Jeff Bezos types but by those who can figure out how to sort out the damage that they cause. In some sense, nobody would disagree that King, Gandhi, and in our day maybe Pope Francis or Temple Grandin are bigger, more important figures than your big technologists.  But it is hard to price and compensate them, particularly as they aren't the sort who really prize money.

In the abstract, this all sounds plausible. The difficulty is in pricing it all and administering it.  If Amazon or WalMart or Cargill/Monsanto etc. displace a bunch of people and make their lives utterly miserable, how do you quantify it?  By contrast, formulating and setting up a Carbon Tax is child's play.

Graham and Mary are now up and having breakfast.  Time to get ready to go out and see London!

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