Let them farm

Tim Gowers recently lectured on the possibility and reality of machines proving theorems. Higher mathematics is one of the human endeavors that we think defines us as a species and hold it dear. Increasingly though it appears we may not be as special as we thought we were.

While Gowers stands at the edge of human thought, the real impact of machines on our political economy was detailed by Andrew McAfee in his book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. McAfee’s basic point is: this time it’s different. And that unlike all technological progress of the past which resulted in greater prosperity and more jobs eventually, the coming automation will actually kill jobs. An odd thing for an Economist to claim. He even proposes the masses rendered unemployed thus be paid salary for doing nothing. His arguments, whether or not true for mankind, have a very important bearing on India

India’s problems, Mihir Sharma’s analyses in Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy suggest, stem from factor markets and bad laws governing them. Sharma then goes on to suggest reform in these areas to address said problems. That’s accurate if the next 30 years are similar to the past 30 years. But what if the option that was available to China is no longer available? Whether there can be another export/manufacturing driven large country is a question for Economists. But a simpler question that the rest of us have is: the imperative for moving manufacturing to low wage destinations becomes moot if humans are no longer needed to perform semi-skilled or even skilled factory jobs, does it not? What then? How does labor reform matter when productivity doesn’t depend on people?

Even Computer Scientists can’t predict what will be automated in economically viable ways in the near or medium term. Politicians stand no chance. So to invest in skill development programs that train people for semi-skilled jobs when those jobs may well be done by a machine in the next 10 years seems a worse option than subsidy for fossil fuel.

What does a politician  in India then do? Tell the populace its strength is the over-educated upper caste/class which will at least participate in the global economy unlike in some other countries? And that the lower caste/class farmer in an unproductive piece of land with almost no access to education might as well stay that way? What we can say with reasonable certainty is: elections are going to be difficult and anti-incumbency is likely to be an explanation for many future election cycles in India.