Monday, June 23, 2014

Supply Creates Its Own Demon: Marc Andreessen and "Textbook Luddism"

Marc Andreessen has a column in the Financial Times with the headline, "Robots will not eat the jobs but will unleash our creativity." Here are the first two paragraphs:
A growing number of people seem to fear that robots will eat all the jobs. Their worry boils down to this: computers can increasingly replace human labour thus displacing jobs and creating unemployment. Your job, and every job, will go to a machine. 
It is textbook Luddism, relying on a “lump of labour” fallacy – the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done in the world by humans. The counterargument comes from economists such as Milton Friedman, who believe that human wants and needs are infinite, which means there is always more to do.
Mr. Andreessen knows as much about Luddites and the lump-of-labour fallacy as I do about programming browsers. Ordinarily, it might suffice to cite the ONLY published scholarly articles on the history of the phony fallacy: "Why economists dislike a lump of labor" and "The'lump of labor'case against work-sharing: Populist fallacy or marginalist throwback?" both by a fellow named Tom Walker. But Andreessen's timing has caught me in the midst of a research/writing project that attempts to make sense of what Joan Robinson identified as "mumpsimus": the persistence of discredited arguments in the face of overwhelming evidence.

I'm about 20 pages along in my new piece, Supply Creates Its Own Demon. The demon in the title refers to Maxwell's demon and, by association, the chess-playing automaton (an elaborate hoax) built in the late 18th century by Baron Ludwig von Kempelen. I've just gotten to the section where I discuss Andrew Ure's 1835 The Philosophy of Manufactures. Ure's book contains a discussion of automatons, which includes the chess-player but doesn't mention its imposture. 

The third section of Philosophy of Manufactures, "Moral Economy of the Factory System," relies heavily on Edward Carleton Tufnell's supplementary report for the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children in Factories, which is one of the most sustained anti-union diatribes in English literature. Tufnell went on to write Character, Object and Effects of Trades' Unions. I have credited Tufnell's diatribe with "putting legs" on the bogus fallacy claim -- I could amend that to say Ure's appropriation of Tufnell's claim put wheels on it.

An article by Steve Edwards, "Factory and Fantasy in Andrew Ure," makes a convincing case for the influence of Ure's Utopian analysis of the factory on Marx's analysis of "real subsumption of labor" in the originally unpublished "chapter six" of Capital, "The Results of the Immediate Process of Production." Marx's analysis is, in a sense, an "immanent critique" in that it uses insights from Ure's text to highlight incongruities and contradictions in his argument.

Briefly, Ure argued both that workers delayed technological progress that would have benefited them through collective action and that collective action by workers accelerates technological advance, to the detriment of the workers. Or more simply: strikes delay and accelerate technological progress that helps and hurts workers. This is a "nice knock-down argument" to be sure but it couldn't be more arbitrary. 

Coming back to Marc Andreessen's column, his argument is a pale shadow of Ure's. For all its overt hostility to workers and unions, I prefer the original Philosophy of Manufactures because in its fantastic exposition it laid bare the essential incoherence of its premises.

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