ask zompist

Is there any advice which you used to give to conlangers but now
consider misguided? What was it, why did you think it was good advice,
and how has your attitude changed to make it not-good?


This is going to be pretty boring, but: nah, not really. My stuff is mostly not advice per se; it’s just introducing linguistics to people. When I do have regrets, it’s usually that I haven’t covered somnething, and the solution is usually to write another book.:)  So a lot of things that didn’t get into the LCK got into ALC instead.

I did take the opportunity to revise the LCK to give a better introduction to aspect, though.

I always wanted to give a better overview of transformations and how they revolutionized syntax. I studied that a lot in college and found it fascinating.  On the other hand… well, I can’t really say a conlanger has to know that stuff.  Plus the field never reached a consensus on the best way to handle syntax.  (My Axunašin grammar attempts to do justice to transformations, though I think it’d have to be three times as long, and include lots of cumbersome trees, to really explain the concept.)


What’s your opinion of [Gregory Mankiw’s] response to Piketty?


It’s very weak; it seems like he hasn’t read the book. Even skimming the diagrams would have helped.

First, he says “r < g could be [a problem]. If the rate of return is less than the growth rate, the economy has accumulated an excessive amount of capital. In this dynamically inefficient situation, all generations can be made better off by reducing the economy’s saving rate…we should be reassured that we live in a world in which r > g…” Yet Piketty shows that r < g was true in our world, in the postwar period— precisely the period when there was not an excess of capital; capital was at a historical low. And they were golden years, precisely because r (growth) was so high and so widely shared. (Sadly, one of Piketty’s lessons is that they were also a fluke, not easily repeated.)

Mankiw notes in passing that “the average growth rate of the U.S. economy has been about 3 percent”. Ugh, no. Krugman recently provided a chart of the last 57 years:


The average growth is more like 2%— and it’s plummeted in the last few years. Rates over 2% are generally due to high population growth or developmental catching-up; developed nations will be lucky to get 1 to 1.5% in the next century.

Next, he says that a rich person faces three obstacles to passing on his wealth:

  1. he consumes a good deal of his income
  2. his wealth is divided among his descendants
  3. governments tax estates

I don’t have Piketty at hand, but I’m pretty sure he covers all three points.

  1. He shows that capital is dramatically increasing, going back to 19th century levels and showing no signs of stopping.  So consumption does not reduce the accumulation of capital.
  2. Mankiw actually assumes that “the number of descendants doubles every generation”. Seriously, does he not remember that in developed nations population growth is negative?  Or that to have a family you have to have a couple, and thus 2 children do not double the number of wealth-holders but only maintain it? To make an error this gross is a sign of flailing desperately to avoid unwanted truths.
  3. Is Mankiw really unaware that his party is in favor of reducing or eliminating the estate tax?

He proceeds to argue against Piketty’s capital tax, again ignoring that we already have capital taxes (we call them property taxes), as well as Piketty’s argument that an enormous virtue of a tax on wealth would be making wealth visible. Mankiw is pretty sure that great capital is fine, but we can hardly know for sure since capital is so easy to hide.  Before Piketty’s research people mostly focused on income because we actually have data there. Without Piketty would it have been widely realized that there is no country where capital, as opposed to income, is widely distributed in society?  The Nordic countries come close to a fair distribution of income, but they are still highly unequal in the distribution of capital.

Finally he moves on to some moral arguments.  He says “Piketty writes about such inequality as if we all innately share his personal distaste for it.” And at least Mankiw is up front about being in favor of inequality!  He certainly doesn’t have to share Piketty’s morals. But the same can be said for the rest of us about Mankiw’s morals!  Mankiw writes about inequality as if we all innately share his personal enjoyment of it.

He doesn’t see anything wrong with the present state of plutocracy, but, well, he’s certainly in the 10% who gains enormously from it. For the 90% of Americans who don’t, we’ve been watching for 35 years as the gains of productivity no longer lift us up, but go only to the 10%.  Morally, he’s just wrong: it’s immoral to make the lives of the majority of the population crappier.  And intellectually, he’s ignoring Piketty’s carefully accumulated evidence that the situation is getting worse.  Is there really never a point where the rich have accumulated so much that it’s slightly bothersome to Mankiw?

And pragmatically, he’s a shortsighted fool.  Short-changing 90% of the population works only so long as the 10% have a really good story to fool the majority with. Maybe in 2014, when he wrote the paper, he could be satisfied that the Republican con was working.  Surely it’s a little harder to think so in 2016. A huge swath of Republican and Democratic voters are rejecting establishment answers— Trump and Sanders both speak to the people who feel they’ve been left behind by the 10%.  Is Mankiw happy with either a populist-nationalist or a socialist reformation?  And if inequality continues to rise, does he think the popular response won’t get far worse?



I notice that Verduria feels a bit European, which I like. What are some ways that I can replicate that Euro feel in my own stuff?


This was asked on Twitter, but it’s hard to answer in 140 characters.

282 72 Fiesole.jpg

For Westerners creating fantasy worlds, it’s hard not to make it European. The Standard Fantasy Kingdom is mostly European (from medieval to steampunk). The more of these elements you have the more European it’ll feel:

  • A large temperate agricultural zone, sometimes threatened by nomads
  • Kingdoms (with a smattering of republics)
  • Parliaments (especially as a counter-power to the king)
  • A division into multiple ethnic states
  • Powerful nobles who ride horses and live in rural castles
  • Towns, dense in population, without city planning, with a high degree of autonomy
  • At least some maritime nations, with a lot of ship-borne trade
  • Advanced in technology compared to other nations, or at least not dominated by larger civilizations
  • Large forests where you can hide the trolls or nymphs
  • Lots of pretty stone buildings
  • A single religion that crosses national boundaries
  • Monogamy
  • Clothing runs to shirt + pants for men, dresses for women

Visually, you would expect to see gothic cathedrals, big stone castles, Renaissance palaces, pleasant hobbitish villages. Buildings are rectilinear; roofs are either flat or A-framed. Animals, plants, and food are all recognizable to Westerners. Armies consist of horse cavalry, sailing ships, infantrymen wielding swords, bow and arrow, or pikes, with catapults as artillery; the upgrade path is to steamships, muskets, and cannons.

Linguistically, the languages could be directly influenced by Europe (as Verdurian is), and don’t stray too far from European languages.  Thus, mostly—

  • Standard Fantasy Phonology (English plus kh)
  • SVO
  • nominative-accusative
  • Verbs marked by tense, and possibly number + person
  • Articles
  • No gender, or masculine/feminine
  • Prepositions
  • Decimal number system
  • Adjectives may be like nouns, definitely aren’t like verbs

Perhaps more subtly, Europe is old. Everywhere has at least two thousand years of history, and things were probably very different 500 or 1000 years ago— different nations, different languages or religions. (By contrast, China is even more ancient, but as far back as you go, it’s still ethnic Chinese. With India,  whenever anyone invaded or started a new religion, the old peoples and religions are in general still there. And of course the US is by European standards young and low-density).

Now, in all of the above, I’ve not only downplayed differences between European nations (it makes a difference if you’re aiming at England, Italy, or Poland), but also I haven’t been too concerned with actual medieval history, which often differs from the tropes that we get from fantasy and even from medieval literature. If you really want a European flair to your conworld, my usual suggestion is to read less fantasy and more history. Reality is always far weirder than imagination.

Now, Verduria started as a Standard Fantasy Kingdom, and is certainly affected by my own affection for Europe and European languages. Plus I’ve more or less tried to make Almea stranger the farther you go from Verduria, which means Verduria itself is supposed to seem familiar to Western readers.  Still, it’s not designed as a mask of Europe— e.g. particular nations of Eretald are not simply caricatures of particular European nations. It does have some elements that aren’t European at all, and hopefully its history is coherent on its own level— things happen because of their internal logic.

It may be relevant that I aimed at something like 1750s Europe, and if anything pushed that toward 1800 in later work. So one thing you may be noticing is that Verduria is a little more like modern Europe than many fantasy kingdoms— it has steam power, colonies, cannons, universities, joint-stock companies, printing, religious conflicts, and parliamentary politics.

For Americans, Europe has a certain attractive quaintness, fading at the edges into eccentricity or annoyance. We see ourselves as straightforward, pragmatic, and business-oriented, Europeans as alternately charming, hidebound, and arrogant. We imagine that a duchess is somehow much more interesting than a billionaire. Harry Potter’s crumbly old castle of a school is as fantastic an element for us as his magic; Samwise’s forelock-tugging deference to Frodo as alien as the elves. These things would all read very differently to actual Europeans.

I hope that helps— I don’t know exactly what you’ve read about Verduria, and perhaps I haven’t captured what you notice about it at all!

(The picture, by the way, is of Fiesole, Italy, and was taken by my father in 1972.)


Events in the Ukraine had me wondering about fascism, and I remembered your essay on Bush. I went back to it, and read through nearly all of Neiwert’s essay you linked. It’s interesting to read material a decade on from those events leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It was a different time.

Both your piece and Neiwert’s extended essay haven’t aged very well, no offense. We know Bush fizzled out as Iraq devolved into genocidal bloodletting and he lost serious alignment with the far right wing before the end of his second term. Frankly, coming from the extreme right background I have, I was never very worried about a Bush dictatorship. I guess my reasoning was something like, all my childhood I’d heard horror stories of how Clinton was going to hold onto office, and now as a much more liberal adult, I couldn’t put any weight to the liberal fears of a similar thing happening with Bush.

Anyway, we know Bush let his hubris and idiocy destroy the right tidal wave. But how do you view the danger of right-wing American fascism today?

It’s been 6 years of increasingly bizarre conservative extremism. It’s been easy to pass off as racists and old people, but Neiwert’s essay in particular has me wondering if this is mistaken. Certainly, it’s hard to downplay the real world successes of the extreme fringe, and the rightward track of the Republican Party is hard to ignore. And the fact that Tea Partiers and militia men are still around suggest to me that this isn’t as fringe as we on the liberal side of things would like to believe.

The question of marginalization is seemingly obvious, but by 2016 there will have been 8 years of contentious Democratic rule, an economy that hasn’t fully recovered, potentially unpopular wars in Syria and Iraq, a devolving (and increasingly fascist) climate in Europe, and the potential for a Clinton candidacy. These are all things which could push the electorate towards the GOP.

Is that GOP more likely to move further along Paxton’s five steps of fascist movements than with Bush? Violence was the missing piece for both you and Neiwert, and that hasn’t exactly changed, but a lot else seemingly has.


I think you’ve put your finger on a paradox: the right has become crazier and crazier, and yet the threat to democracy seems less. There were some worrying moments in 2009— wingnuts fantasizing about military coups or assassinations.  But they turned their attention to winning the House in 2010.

So, the basic answer to why they haven’t turned to violence is that they haven’t needed to. They have the House and a good chance at picking up the Sentate this year. They have 29 Republican state governors, 28 state legislatures, and 5 of 9 Supreme Court justices.   They can’t get everything they want, but they can bust unions, shut down abortion clinics, punish the electorate with austerity measures, stop gun laws, restrict voting rights, and obstruct a liberal agenda in Congress. 

As you say, times change— ten years ago they not only held the whole federal government, but it seemed (to them and to their enemies) as if they might be settling in for a long haul of governing.  But the demographics, and their own zealotry, makes that seem less and less likely. Their message is out of date and they’ve systematically outraged every constituency but straight, old, white, Christian males.  And yet there’s nothing pushing them to change in the short term. I don’t see how they can continue on this path for twenty more years… but they can easily keep going as they are for five or ten years.

I’m not too worried about the other things you mention. I don’t think Obama has any intention of restarting the war in Iraq. European politics never affects the US.  And though a Clinton presidency looked in 2008 like it would be horribly contentious, well, that’s business as usual today. 

But 2016 will be interesting. The GOP generally nominates the most centrist guy they can find— though they hate themselves for doing it. But do they have any non-crazies left?  

Edit: Forgot to add that though the vehemence of the extreme right always seems surprising, actually it’s been that way forever. You can easily recognize the Tea Party and the birthers in Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics“.

Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy list changes over time, but the style remains. 

I read an article on New Scientist [link requires free registration] a couple of days ago about programming languages. The writer thinks most of them were poorly designed, that is, hard to learn, hard to use, and difficult to debug. He said that there were about 15 to 50 errors per thousand lines of code, and huge systems like Windows accumulated masses of them. “As more and more of the world is digitised”, the problem will get worse, with the potential for fatal accidents in areas such as aviation, medicine, or traffic. One solution is “user-friendly languages” which let the programmer see what they do “in real time as they tinker with the code”. Another is to design programs that write themselves, based on google searches.


So I’ve got a couple of questions for the guru.


One, what is your opinion of the article, the problem, and the suggested solutions, as an expert?

And for my second question, what qualities make a programming language good or bad? Can you rank the languages you’ve used in order of usefulness? Or is that a pointless endeavor? Are there any which are stellar, or any which you wouldn’t advise anyone to mess with?


The article is a bit misleading, I think. Brooks gives some examples of geeks trashing computer languages, but it should be understood that the geek statement “X IS TOTAL SHIT IT SHOULD DIE IN A FIRE” just means “X was about 95% what I like, but the rest disappointed me.” 

Like any geek, I love the opportunity to trot out my opinions on languages. When I was a lad, Basic was supposed to be easy, so everyone learned it.  It’s total shit and should die in a fire.  That is, it was disappointing. The early versions gave people some very bad habits, such as not naming variables, using numeric labels, and GOTOing all over the place— most of these things are fixed now.  Fortran is honestly little better; Cobol adds tedium for no good reason.  A lot of modern languages— C, C++, C#, Java, Javascript— are surprisingly similar, and inherit their basic conventions from Pascal.  I liked Pascal a lot (haven’t seen a compiler for it in twenty years), and I like C# almost as much. I haven’t used Ruby or Python, but looking briefly at code snippets, they look a lot like (cleaned-up modern) Basic. An experienced programmer can always learn a new language, and how crappy their programs are depends on them, not the language.

There are, of course, lots of little stupidities that have caused me a lot of problems. To take one at random, C uses = and == with different meanings, and it perversely uses == for simple equality. Pascal got this right. There are also amazingly clever bits in languages that I’d hate to do without (data hiding, for instance).   

One thing the article misses is that what’s really a pain to learn is not the mechanics of the language, but the libraries and UI frameworks.  The C family and Java are very similar, but the libraries aren’t, and that’s what will take you months to pick up.  (Unless you use .NET, which is designed to use the same library across multiple languages, so the languages themselves become a set of syntactic skins you can pick by personal preference.)

Programmers have realized before how tedious and error-prone their work is, and there have been many attempts to help, including:

  • Smarter development environments, like Visual Studio. These take care of indenting for you, they’ll check for mismatched braces and such, keywords are highlighted. You can rename a variable program-wide, or break out a section of code as a separate routine, or insert commonly used code fragments, with one command. This not only saves time, but keeps you from making common errors.
  • New paradigms— as when we switched from procedural to object-oriented programming about twenty years ago, or to Agile about ten years ago. When you’re in your 20s you get really excited about these revolutions. Crusty middle-aged people like me are a little more jaded— these methodological changes never quite live up to the hype, especially as they don’t address the management problems identified fifty years ago by Frederick Brooks: too much pressure to make impossible deadlines with inadequate tools.  (Which isn’t to say change is bad.  Object-oriented programming was an improvement, partly because it allowed much better code re-use, and partly because if it’s done right, routines are much shorter, and shorter code is more likely to work. But good lord, I’ve seen some horrifying OO code.)
  • Higher levels of abstraction. This is largely what the New Scientist article is talking about.  Earlier forms of the idea include specialized string processing languages (Snobol), simulation languages (Simula), and database specs (SQL). When I was doing insurance rating, I created an insurance rating language. Someone always has a vision of programming by moving colored blocks around or something.

A lot of programming is incredibly repetitive; all programmers recognize this. The bad programmer addresses it by copying and pasting code, so his programs consist of endless swaths of similar-but-confusingly-different routines. The good programmer addresses it by abstraction: ruthlessly isolating the common elements, handling common problems the same way (ideally with the same code), making UI elements consistent, moving as much detailed behavior as possible out of the code itself into high-level specifications. All the libraries I mentioned are just earlier programmers’ prepackaged solutions to common problems.

Often the idea is to come up with something so powerful and easy to use that it can be given to the business analyst to do. (that is, the non-programmer who’s telling the programmer how the real-world thing works).  This usually doesn’t work, because

  • the programmer’s idea of “easy” is not that of ordinary people, so the business analyst can’t really use the tools.
  • most people don’t have the programmer’s most important learned skill: understanding that computers have be told everything. Ordinary humans think contextually: you remember special case Y when Y comes up.  Programs can’t work like that– someone has to remember Y, and code for it, long before Y happens.

The reason that programming takes so long, and is so error-prone, is that no one can work out that everything all at once, in advance. The business analyst suddenly remembers something that only happens every two years on a full moon, the salesman rushes in with a new must-have feature, the other guy’s system doesn’t work like his API says, field XYZ has to work subtly differently from field WXZ, we suddenly discover that what you just wrote to the database isn’t in the database, no one ever ran the program with real data.  Abstraction in itself will not solve these problems, and often it introduces new problems of its own— e.g. the standardized solution provided by your abstraction vendor doesn’t quite work, so you need a way to nudge it in a different direction… 

Again, I don’t mean to be too cynical. When it’s done well, code generators are things of beauty— and they also don’t look much like code generators, because they’re designed for the people who want to solve a particular problem, not for coders. An example is the lovely map editing tool Valve created for Portal 2.  It allows gamers who know nothing about code or 3-d modeling to create complicated custom maps for the game. Many games have modding tools, but few are so beautifully done and so genuinely easy.

But I’m skeptical that a general-purpose code generation tool is possible.  One guy wants something Excel-like… well, he’s right that Excel is a very nice and very powerful code generator for messing with numbers. If you try using it for anything more complicated, it’s a thing of horror.  (I’ve seen Excel files that attempt to be an entire program. Once it’s on multiple worksheets, it’s no longer possible to follow the logic, and fixing or modifying it is nearly impossible.)

The other guys wants to “allow a coder to work as if everything they need is in front of them on a desk”.  I’m sure you could do some simple programs that way, but you’re not going to be able to make the sort of programs described earlier— an aircraft software suite, or Microsoft Word.  You cannot put all the elements you need on one desktop. Big programs are, as the author notes, several million lines of code.  If it’s well written, that probably means about 40,000 separate functions.  No one can even understand the purposes of those 40,000 functions— it takes a team of dozens of programmers.  Ideally there’s a pretty diagram of the architecture that does fit on a page, but it’s a teaching abstraction, far less useful— and less accurate— than an architect’s plan of a house. (Also the diagram is about two years out of date, because if there’s anything programmers hate more than other people’s programming languages, it’s documentation.)

So, in short, programmers are always building tools to abstract up from mere code, but I expect the most useful ones to be very domain-specific. Also, lots of them will be almost as awful as code, because most programmers are allergic to usability.

Plus, read this. It may not be enlightening but it should be entertaining.


In less than six hours from the time I type this, if Congress cannot get its act together (which at this point is seeming certain), the goverment will go into shutdown. What do you think will happen next, both immediately and over the next few election cycles? Do you think the GOP will have the cojones to force default?


In brief, get ready for doom.

The Republicans apparently didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons, so they never saw Schoolhouse Rock and never learned how a bill gets passed. So they’ve had the crazy idea that whatever they pass in the House will somehow become law— thus the 40 motions to repeal Obamacare.  And then, because they can never get crazy enough, they got it into their heads that the Senate and Obama would go along with an attempt to get rid of Obamacare— after they lost the election and lost the Supreme Court case.

The shutdown, stupid and nasty and wasteful as it is, is nothing to the next bit: defaulting on the debt, which comes in about two weeks. Again, they’ve convinced themselves that they have leverage— that they can get Obama to enact Mitt Romney’s entire agenda, and more, in return for… nothing.

The thing is, when you ask for the moon, you have to be willing to provide something in return.  And “not kill the economy” is not providing something.  Defaulting on the US government’s obligations would be a suicidal move that would bring back another recession, or worse.  Needless to say, it doesn’t bring about the beautiful libertarian dystopia they dream of.  It doesn’t even get rid of Obamacare— that’s classified as an entitlement, like Social Security, which is why it’s continuing now during the shutdown.

For five years, anytime they’ve actually wanted to negotiate, Obama’s office door has been open.  Too open, really.  But to negotiate you have to be willing to give the other side some of what it wants, and for five years they’ve thought that they could skip this part.

The grand thing is, the base actually seems eager for a default.  They think it’ll be fine!  After all, “raising the debt ceiling” sounds like a bad thing— voters don’t really understand it, so many of them are against it, though they might not agree if you asked them directly “Should the executive branch refuse to spend the money Congress told it to?”

In 2011 Obama was eager for a long-term deficit-reducing deal, so he stupidly made some concessions on the debt ceiling thing.  That only emboldens the GOP now.  Obama seems to have wised up; he says he won’t offer any concessions in return for Congress doing its job.  And he has said, correctly, that if he gives in on this, it’s the end of majority government in this country.  They’d just increase their demands with each debt crisis.  And why would a future Democratic House play nice with a future Republican president?

So, will they do it?  I’m afraid they will.  They’re revolutionaries and nihilists; they don’t care what happens.  No one they care about is telling them not to do it.

The problem is, they have no exit strategy. Boehner is terrified of losing his job, so he went along with a plan he knew wouldn’t work. The Tea Party has worked itself into such a lather that it’s not going to go quickly to any sort of reasonable solution.

Normally at this point, you’d expect the grownups to step in and tell them to cool it.  But they’ve spent the last twenty years throwing out the grownups— there’s a moderate caucus, but it hasn’t even got the 25 votes required to get a vote on the Senate bill.  The more moderate national figures like McCain and Romney, who think the defunding moves are a terrible idea, have no influence on the House.

The money guys— Wall Street, the 1%— is going to get terrified at some point. Most of them are not crazed Tea Partiers— they don’t want to trash the government or destroy its credit rating. But they have very little leverage with the Tea Party either.  If they lean on anyone, it’ll be John Boehner— and Boehner can’t control his own party.

Now, the last few crises have ended with a deal at, or a few days after, the deadline. So the most likely case is that around Oct. 20, a deal come through that keeps spending levels about where they are, funds Obamacare, raises the debt ceiling, and contains some kind of sweetener so Boehner can claim victory.

At any point Boehner could end the crisis by allowing a vote on the Senate bill.  But he’d face a Tea Party revolt, so he’s not going to put his job on the line for a continuing resolution. For a deal that punts the problem for another year, maybe.

The worse case, and a series of steadily worsening cases, is that it takes the House a couple months after shutdown and default to realize that they’re not getting anything, and then they make a deal.

The Democrats, of course, are betting that the country will (very rightly) blame the GOP for the crisis, and for any pain that results.  So far they’ve been very firm; it’s the GOP that’s showing itself full of holes.

Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the Dish, is good for getting a handle on what all the pundits are saying. Crazier scenarios than the ones I’ve outlined are possible, and no one knows what will happen, except that it’ll be bad.

In the long term, as I’ve said before, demographics are against the GOP… to mention just one state, Texas may well go back to the Democratic column within ten years. Relying exclusively on old white rural straight Christian non-Northerners is a losing strategy, if not in 2016, definitely in 2026.

The problem is, again, the craziness has no exit strategy.  There is no mechanism for moderation in the party— quite the reverse, the primary system (and the very well-organized grassroots) keeps dragging the party more to the right.  The public and the media may be pissed at the House Republicans right now— but their districts aren’t rebelling.

Juan Linz, who died yesterday, was a political theorist who mostly studied Latin America; his major thesis was that presidential systems just don’t work as well as parliamentary systems— because they have multiple concentrations of power each with electoral legitimacy, and there is no way to end the standoff. For years the major challenge to his theory was the two-century history of the US.  It’s beginning to look like Linz was right after all.  He suggested that the US avoided the trap because its parties were broad coalitions, too loose to create real gridlock.  Well, the GOP has spent thirty years becoming an ideological monolith dedicated to opposing the Democrats at all costs.  So the worst case is, the GOP causes a depression and forces a collapse of the American governmental system.

Have a good day!

In your recent post, you noted that the (first) world is moving to a frivolity/art economy. What will that mean for employment? After all, robots are making our cars and, increasingly, our burgers— and, like it or not, those are jobs that in the past were filled by regular people whose natural talents were in menial work. Not everybody has the talent or desire to spend their time writing novels or direct avant-garde movies…and that’s OK; people shouldn’t be cut out of an economy because of their natural skill set. What will that mean for employment or the economy? It seems unrealistic to give everybody a $30k/year minimum income, for example, as I’ve seen suggested; that seems fiscally undoable.


There’s a grim meathook future answer and a nice answer, depending on whether we follow our current plutocratic path or not.

But first I’d just note that your question seems rather regressive.  It’s like Aldous Huxley assuming that the future must include a huge population of subhuman menials.  Dumb repetitive work is what machines do very well; those jobs just disappear.

The grim meathook answer is what’s happening today: lots of low-paid service work— call center employees, Wal-Mart greeters, nannies, waiters, nursing home attendants, home sales party presenters, bodyguards, flight attendants, SEO farm writers.  What humans do better than robots, for the indefinite future, is deal with other humans.  We need and value human contact, and anyway most of these jobs, even if they’re not exciting, require a generalist.  Humans deal well with the moderately unexpected.

Or to put it another way, automation targets expensive, repetitive jobs.  When you get rid of the $40/hour factory jobs, you have a large population that is forced to take $10/hour service jobs.  Even for Mr. Scrooge it’s not worth bothering to replace those jobs.

In the more optimistic future, we use the increased productivity that automation brings to improve everyone‘s life.  That’s what even the curmudgeonly old USA did in the liberal era, so it’s not unthinkable.  Poverty used to be universal; in mid-century America the vast majority were middle class; an even richer society could, if it chose, eliminate poverty entirely.  (That “we’ll always have poverty” is a myth to comfort the 1%.  We could end absolute poverty globally for a surprisingly small sum.)

I don’t think anyone has ambitions limited to factory work or bagging groceries.  Everyone has some dream that they’d love to be paid to do. In our economic system, maybe it’s too silly or specialized to pay well, but a world where the robots do all the heavy lifting is one where everyone can be a specialist or a frivolist.

But even in the more ideal world, it remains true that humans are better at making other humans happy.  When you’re 94, you probably don’t want to be surrounded only by robots.  So ‘elder care’ is still a human niche, but it’s seen as valuable rather than degrading and paid enough to make it attractive.

The SEO writer may not exist in the happier future, but only because he’ll be doing something far weirder.  In the Incatena, rather than a thousand different jobs with a million people in each— a situation that may be automatable— there’s a million different jobs with a a thousand people in each.

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