The Real Reason I’m For $15/hour

It’s no secret to anybody who hangs around me that I’m for the $15/hour minimum wage. But you may not understand all the reasons I’m for it. It may not be why you think.

I truly believe in the concept of The Singularity. We are approaching a society whereby people don’t actually “need” to work to get by. We grow enough food to feed the entire planet (so much so that we can write 40% off of all the food we make as “spoilage” in transport) and we do it with about 2% of the population involved in agriculture.  Automation has turned the family farm into a machine, growing uniform crops that are picked, packaged, and trucked to market with ruthless efficiency, ever in mind of the commodity status of most of the foods we eat.

And the amount of automation that can still be performed is staggering, and increasing.  Because, let’s face it, farm work sucks.  It’s a lot of drudgery and back-breaking work.  Fuck it, let a machine do it.

Increasing the minimum wage to $15 has the effect of making human labor too expensive to waste.  It forces the issues of “how do we support a society where there isn’t enough work for everybody” to the forefront.  Because regardless of what you might think, there isn’t.  I strongly disagree with those who say “well, automation took jobs before, and look what happened: better jobs came along”, and while that might be true for some that’s rapidly changing.

I call this the “third wave” of automation going on now.  There’s a big difference between the automation of the first two.  The First Wave of Automation was the “leverage” phase.  That phase was dominated by using machines as “leverage” of human labor.  The human operator was still highly involved in the process… think of a farmer using a tractor pulling a hay bailer.  You still needed the human to drive the tractor, and typically humans still needed to handle the hay to load it.

Second wave automation went beyond leverage.  Second wave automation was when we started to make machines “think”, at least at a primitive level.  Telephone exchanges went from a human operator to a meshed network of machines that not only handled calls based upon numbers dialed but actually made decisions about how to route around damage and congestion.  Computers started talking to each other over this network, and started automating deliveries.  As products were sold at stores, the computer could order more all on its own.  “JIT” (Just In Time) manufacturing and delivery techniques are the pinnacle of Second Wave Automation, and is the herald of the Next Wave.

Third Wave Automation combines the two: the muscle leverage of the First Wave and the thinking leverage of the Second Wave.  We are now building machines that do.. well, anything.  You want to build a machine to make burgers?  Totally doable (and you can bet McDonald’s already has one in their labs).  3D printing technologies have created that Third Wave: if you can draw it, you can “build” it.  Machines to self-drive?  Here they come.  Machines that program themselves?  Yes, what do you think Watson is, anyway?

Third Wave Automation is coming for your job.  It’s coming for mine, it’s only a matter of time.  What jobs will exist in the near future?  How many people do you think need to fix these robots, and how long until they simply fix themselves?

Here’s an example that should scare you if you think “you have to work to eat” is how the future economics are going to work out.  How long until you can live in San Francisco, hail a self-driving cab, it breaks down on the way.  No problem, self-driving car is aware enough to know it’s not moving, it hails you a replacement car, and you ride away in the second car.  What happens to the first?

A self-driving tow truck picks it up, drives it to the recycling yard where it is dismantled (automatically, of course) for parts, and the factory JIT delivers a new “disposable” self-driving cab to town.  They maybe even predicted this failure based upon a MTBF model and have the replacement already there.

Before you get home from your little jaunt to the Embarcadero the car that broke down has already been dismantled and the replacement is the one that takes you home.

This is possible TODAY with the technology we have.  The only thing stopping it is that at the moment it costs less in human labor to deal with the broken cab, the tow truck, and in some cases even the driver.

Guess what the $15/hour minimum wage does.  It makes human labor less competitive with robotic labor.  And it should be: humans can be injured, suffer long-term disabilities and repetitive stress, and overall a lower quality of life when forced to do drudge work.   As a human being, I (and you, and even the Hispanic farm worker) are worth more than $15/hour, period, and we’re worth having a quality of life free of such drudgery.

Is your life worth $15/hour?  Mine isn’t, it’s worth a lot more than that.  So I’m willing to let the machine do the work for me, and I will rejoice on the day I can order a cheap burger and have a robot gleefully fling out that hockey puck that has never been touched by human hands.  That’s one less person subjected to the indignity of wage-slave labor.

What does this mean for jobs is an exercise left for the reader.  But I feel it is going to escalate the arrival of the robotic Singularity, and it’s a future I welcome.

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