The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Avent
One issue has dominated the debate over the future of work in recent months, the role of immigrants and immigration. A new book, The Wealth of Humans, questions whether it is AI
and robots, or as the Economist described them "Immigrants of the future" who should be considered a threat.
Notwithstanding the apparent departure of Brexit voters from Adam Smith's central pillar of the "invisible hand", there are similarities between when the Wealth of Nations was written and today. We were at both time on the cusp of a significant social upheaval driven by technological change. For Smith's contemporaries in the 1760s, it was the manufacturing changes of the industrial revolution. For us, it will be machine learning, robotics and the 3D printing revolution.
Avent, who is the Economist's economics writer, disputes the idea that the digital revolution is different from any other. He believes it is very much like the industrial revolution but that when one combines the impact of the digital revolution with the billion new workers we are adding to the global workforce that the consequences may be more perilous. He believes it will cause something economists usually agree can't happen - a labour glut.
The book asks if we can align aggregate economic progress with a wealth distribution system that overcomes social conflict. Avent suggests that we should not expect to restructure the world without rewriting the existing social contract. As yet that hasn't happened. The world of work is rapidly changing, but society has yet to adapt. It is that omission which drives political themes of the type seen in Trump's presidential candidacy and the Brexit vote. The public is frustrated by a sense of powerlessness, rising inequality and the idea that "the elites" or "so-called experts" are out of step with the reality of life for the majority.
Avent offers questions on how a post-work world might look. Who should benefit? How should the wealth be shared by those with no part in its creation? What role does work play in mental well-being? Should leisure be funded?
For those of us who, like me, struggled through Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century (Ok - I barely made it through the précis edition) Avent's style is relaxed. His self-assured writing makes the book a pleasure even when he is examining complex issues. If I have a problem, it is that Avent offers few answers to so many questions, and so his uplifting vision of a technology-powered future is a little maddening.
The technology that powered the Industrial Revolution didn't remake the world economy until well after it was first developed but whether the immigrants are from other countries or the future this book is entire of its time.
This is an essential argument on a subject that will shape investment in the coming decades.
The Wealth of Humans: Work and its absence in the twenty-first century, Ryan Avent, Allen Lane; £25