Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

A thought experiment

Suppose my greatest fantasy is realized, and I invent teleportation. Several versions exist in sci-fi but let's say it's the kind where there are two capsules or chambers, and when you press the button the contents are swapped.

Distance doesn't matter, so I start by opening a service between Manhattan and LA. Ten people at a time, plus their luggage, can get into the machine at each end and badabing badaboom they're on opposite sides of the continent. Assuming they get on and off expeditiously, I can run it every sixty seconds. And it doesn't take a lot of energy. I can make an excellent profit charging 50 bucks a ticket. That's $1,000 a pop, 60 times an hour. I quickly have enough money to expand the service and create a dense network throughout the U.S., then go international, first to Mexico and Canada and then the whole world.

Apart from my own enrichment (not to be sneezed at), what are the consequences for humanity? It seems a great boon, not only because we save time and energy, and the world becomes more accessible and we all get to know each other and it ushers in a new era of peace and planetary cooperation (maybe, you can argue about that); but also because it creates an economic renaissance and stimulates a fabulous enlargement of prosperity.

Sadly, no. It will put the airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers pretty much out of business, along with the intercity trains and buses. It will substantially reduce automobile sales. You still need them to get around town, but there will be many fewer long distance trips. All of this means massive unemployment. Instead of two or three pilots, six flight attendants, and time of baggage handlers, ticket sellers, air traffic controllers, airplane mechanics and what not, I employ a ticket seller, two schmoes to push the buttons, plus security and administrative resources, but again much less than it takes for air travel.

So what I have actually created is massive unemployment and the worst depression in history. With no evident way out for a long, long time. And this is a real problem we face today, without the fantasy. Technology that removes inefficiencies from the economy, and replaces human labor with technology, puts people out of work. So far, other forms of economic activity have come along so we haven't had massive, long-term structural unemployment, but there is no law of nature that says that has to happen. And maybe it won't this time.

There is plenty of argument going on right now about this question, but I think it's a real danger. And it has many possibly terrible consequences I won't take time to specify now. There is a solution -- income redistribution -- but our politics is dead set against that. I'll have further musings on these issues anon.

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