John Harris' little misunderstanding - trade is a technology

John Harris wants to tell us all that the right wing just don’t get how difficult this automation, AI, the robots taking all the jobs thing is going to be. He then contrasts this with the attention paid to trade and the terms upon which it happens. This thought having a certain problem to it:

So far, technology has not been one of the favoured themes of the western world’s populists, who are still much keener on talking about work and prosperity in the context of globalisation, trade and such supra-national institutions as the EU. But Frey’s book holds out the prospect of these politicians sooner or later floating the idea of somehow slowing the pace of automation so as to protect their supporters. History offers lessons here: given the convulsions of the industrial revolution led eventually to such liberating, job-creating innovations as mass access to electricity and the internal combustion engine, to do so would threaten things that, in the long run, will surely be to everyone’s benefit. Clearly, any convincing answer to technological disruption lies not in trying to deny the future, but coming up with the kind of ameliorative social programmes – housebuilding, huge changes to education, either a universal basic income or a system of basic social rights – that might both protect people and allow them to make the most of huge change. But when do you hear Trump, Johnson or Nigel Farage talk about any of that?

We don’t speak for those politicians of course. But as David Friedman has pointed out trade is just a technology. His example was, if only we had a machine that could turn corn into cars. Which, of course, we do (or did, when he composed the thought experiment). Japan. The US sent corn to Japan, it got back cars. That’s a technology for turning the veggies into the vehicles.

The point of the story being that there’s no real useful distinction between the two. Automation and trade are just two different flavours of the same thing, technologies.

As to what we do about them both of course the answer is the same. Let them play out and yes, as Harris suggests, then deal with the bits of the results we don’t like in the aftermath. We do already have a welfare state of course and while we might spit feathers about the specific details of it we’re not suggesting that there won’t be one.

We would though insist that we think hard on “surely be to everyone’s benefit”. Because yes, the increased productivity that comes from advancing technology - whether of the robot, AI, automation or trade flavours - is exactly what makes us all richer and yet richer again. Just as the last 250 years of it has got us to this peak, the richest human beings ever.

So far.