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Is the Era of Work Coming to an End? Erasmus Lecture delivered at the Budapest meeting of the Academia Europaea, 5 September 2017

  • Andreu Mas-Colell (a1)

The question in the title is examined from the standpoint of economic thinking. Three ideas are sustained: (1) if made an objective of economic policy, the necessity of work could be minimized in the distant future; (2) this is not what is desirable or will tend to happen. Even in extreme scenarios of robot adoption considerable demand for human labor should persist in tasks related to the expansion of the knowledge frontier and in those where the humanity of the executor is of the essence for the definition of the task (performing, sports, care, companionship, and so on); (3) redistributive taxation may well be in order. Guaranteed income schemes, and the link with entitlement through work, are discussed.

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1.See, for example, D. Autor (2014) Skills, education and the rise of earnings inequality among the 99%. Science, 344, pp. 843–851.
2.For two recent popular accounts see E. Brynjolfsson and A. McAffee (2014) The Second Machine Age (New York: Norton) and M. Ford (2015) The Rise of the Robots (New York: Basic Books). For recent empirical studies see, for example, M. Arntz, T. Gregory and U. Zierhan (2016) The risk of automation for jobs in OECD Countries. OECD Social, Employment, and Migration Working Papers, p. 189 and D. Acemoglou and P. Restrepo (2017) Robots and Jobs, Evidence from US Labor Markets (Cambridge, MA: Working Papers, Department of Economics, MIT). An excellent account of what could be described as the current consensus in economics is given in D. Autor (2015) Why are there still many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), pp. 3–30.
3.For some estimates of future growth see A. Johansson, Y. Guillemette, F. Murtin, D. Turner, G. Nicoletti, Ch. De la Maisonneuve, Ph. Bagnoli, G. Busquet and F. Spinelli (2012) Long-term growth scenarios. OECD Economic Policy Papers, 3.
4. Ramsey, F. (1928) A mathematical theory of savings. Economic Journal, 38, pp. 543559.
5.See World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Finding and Advanced Tables (New York: The United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division).
6.A recent interesting contribution is H. Llavador, J. Roemer and J. Silvestre (2015) Sustainability for a Warming Planet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
7. Keynes, J.M. (1931) Economic possibilities for our grandchildren. In Essays in Persuasion (London: Macmillan), For present day comments on this contribution see I. Palacios-Huerta (Ed.) (2013) In a 100 Years (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
8.On this point see the survey paper of D. Autor (2015) Why are there still many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), pp. 3–30. For some rigorous analytics see, for example, D. Acemoglou, D. and P. Restrepo (2017) The race between man and machine: implications of technology for growth, factor shares and employment. NBER Working Papers, 2252 (Cambridge, MA: NBER).
9.This is a familiar test-case, see, for example, W. Bowen (2012) Cost and Productivity in Higher Education (CA: Tanner Lectures, Stanford University).
10.This is within reach, see J. Kontis, J. Bennet, C.D. Mathers, G. Li, K. Foreman and M. Ezzati (2017) Future life expectancy in 35 industrialized countries: projections with a Bayesian model ensemble, The Lancet, 10076, pp. 1323–1335.
11.See W. Baumol, (2012) The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
12.See D. Acemoglou and D. Autor (2011) Skills, tasks, and technologies: implications for employment and earnings. In: O. Ashenfelter and D. Card (Eds), Handbook of Labor Economics, Vol. 4b (Amsterdam: Elsevier), pp. 1043–1171.
13.For an early detection of the effect mentioned, see D. Autor, F. Levy and R. Murname (2003) The skill content of recent technological change: an empirical exploration. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(4), pp. 1279–1333. The reference to the race between education and technology is from C. Goldin and L. Katz (2010) The Race between Education and Technology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
14. Robinson, J. (1966) The pure theory of international trade. In Collected Papers (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 189. Less dramatically, this claim was also made by J. Meade (1995) Full Employment Regained (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).
15.More to the point, not even the ‘fair’ distribution of the overall gains from trade is guaranteed. The so-called equivalence theorems, grounded on cooperative game theory, reinforce this contention. See, for example, R. Anderson (1992) The core in perfectly competitive economies. In: R. Aumann and S. Hart (Eds), Handbook of Game Theory with Economic Applications, Vol. I, Ch. 14 (Amsterdam: North-Holland), pp. 413–457. Also, S. Hart (2002) Values of perfectly competitive economies. In: R. Aumann and S. Hart (Eds), Handbook of Game Theory with Economic Applications, Vol. III, Ch. 57 (Amsterdam: North-Holland), pp. 2169–2184.
16.Needless to say, the practical implementation of these formulas is fraught with difficulties. For illustrative analysis based on relevant American experiences I refer to the well-known contributions of D. Ellwood (1988) Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family (New York: Basic Books) and R. Solow (1998) Work and Welfare (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
17.See Ph. van Parijs (1995) Real Freedom for All: What (if Anything) can Justify Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press) and Ph. van Parijs and Y. Vanderborght (2017) Basic Income, A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Also, A. Gorz (1985) Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work (Boston: South End Press) and K. Widerquist, J. Noguera, Y. Vanderborght and J. De Wispelaere (Eds) (2013) Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research (Oxford: Wiley, Blackwell).
18.See N. Schneider (2015) Why the tech elite is getting behind basic income. Vice, 6 January, and P. Vallée (2017) Basic income. Google Docs, Retrieved, for publication 13 August 2017.
19.See S. White (2000) Social rights and the social contract: political theory and the new welfare politics. British Journal of Political Science, pp. 30–33. Fair reciprocity is defined by him as: ‘Those that willingly share in the social product have a corresponding obligation to make a reasonable contribution to the community in return’. For an early, broad, proposal along these lines see also A. Atkinson (1996) The case for a participatory income. The Political Quarterly, pp. 67–70. For additional discussion, J. Noguera (2002) Renta Básica o ‘Trabajo Básico’: Algunos argumentos desde la Teoria Social. Sistema, 166, pp. 61–85.
20.This is a term, and a concept, coined by V. Bush (1945) Science: the endless frontier. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Sciences, 48(3), pp. 231–264.
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European Review
  • ISSN: 1062-7987
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