PRINCETON – A specter is haunting the world economy – the specter of job-killing technology. How this challenge is met will determine the fate of the world’s market economies and democratic polities, in much the same way that Europe’s response to the rise of the socialist movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shaped the course of subsequent history.
When the new industrial working class began to organize, governments defused the threat of revolution from below that Karl Marx had prophesied by expanding political and social rights, regulating markets, erecting a welfare state that provided extensive transfers and social insurance, and smoothing the ups and downs of the macroeconomy. In effect, they reinvented capitalism to make it more inclusive and to give workers a stake in the system.
Today’s technological revolutions call for a similarly comprehensive reinvention. The potential benefits of discoveries and new applications in robotics, biotechnology, digital technologies and other areas are all around us and easy to see. Indeed, many believe that the world economy may be on the cusp of another explosion in new technologies.
The trouble is that the bulk of these new technologies are labor-saving. They entail the replacement of low- and medium-skilled workers with machines operated by a much smaller number of highly skilled workers.