Lots of people have been talking about “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
,” a book by MIT professorsAndrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson about the implications of the ever-accelerating mechanization of the American labour force.
On Friday, the pair were in Manhattan for a talk sponsored by MIT’s Sloan School Of Management to summarize their findings. We caught up with McAfee for a Q&A.
Business Insider: What is the story that people may have missed from your book?
Andrew McAfee: People still want to, for good reasons, concentrate on the pessimistic side of what’s going on — the real pressure on jobs and wages, and the fact that people are hurting. It’s absolutely true, and that’s a big part of reason we wrote these two books. But the optimism that we’re trying to convey I don’t think has gotten out there enough — the fact that we’re creating a more bountiful, bigger world. We’re growing the pie. I don’t mean that therefore we should all be pollyanas and that there are no problems. But this is what’s actually going on. We think this technological progress is the best economic news on the planet, bar none.
BI: What policies should be put in place to help the country make this transition?
AM: In the immediate term we use this phase ‘Econ 101 Playbook’ over and over just to get across that we’re not following it very well right now — to get across that whether you’re a right leaning economist or left leaning, we’re not even doing those very well right now. So: good infrastructure. Who’s gonna argue with that? We have lousy infrastructure in this country. A good climate for entrepreneurship — we put way too many regulations and red tape in way of entrepreneurs. Do we need education reform? Hell yeah. Most economists are in favour of liberal immigration policies and government funding of basic research. This is just the Econ 101 playbook, we’re very far away from it right now.
So our short-term recommendation is, let’s get the Econ 101 textbook off the shelf, and do what it says. It would stimulate economic growth and job growth and wage growth. We’re not saying it would solve all problems for all time going forward, but it’s the right thing to do tomorrow.
BI: Will technological progress spell the end of rural America — or could it somehow revive it?
AM: People move to cities because of greater economic opportunity — they don’t only go there because they want to escape farm life, they go there because that’s where the jobs and the opportunity are. I don’t know if that massive human trend toward urbanization is going to slow down or reverse because of technology — as I understand it, the trend is pretty steady, so I think that’s going to continue. But one of the things we can do with technology is improve life for people kind of in the middle of nowhere, by doing things like deploying really good bandwidth with blimps or balloons, or these weird things that we’re seeing. That’s going to bring a lot of benefits to people out there in the hinterlands.
BI: Will Malthus get his revenge if enough workers are displaced?
AM: We’ve got, what is it, 200 years of experience with Malthusianism? It doesn’t work. I’m the opposite: I’m a cornucopia-ist: I believe that we have this amazing ability to generate more and more material to generate affluence and and abundance for more people around the world. Malthus has put some intriguing ideas out there, and history has proven him, I believe, dead flat wrong. We put a quote in the book instead from Julian Simon, who’s one of my favourite economic thinkers, that people solve people’s problems. We underestimate it, we lowball it over and over. Amen.