14 January 2019

Growing Income Inequality and the Real Policy Solution of Popularizing Entrepreneurship

The effects of automation are accelerating as algorithms grow more sophisticated and a global market means more people who might come up with that one killer app or manufacturing process or delivery trick that quickly obsoletes 2 or 3 people or even 2 or 3 industries steadily grows by millions every month.

How does one counter that? Income vulnerability seems inevitable in a world of growing disruption. The good news is that the team who creates the new solution to obsolete the old one(s) will get rich; the bad news is that there is a whole swath of people will lose income and wealth as they become obsolete. If we want to ride this wild horse of automation to higher productivity, we need to acknowledge that our safety nets need to be good. How this happens will ultimately involve a mix of unemployment insurance, universal healthcare, affordable or free education and retraining for any age, and perhaps a variant of guaranteed income. But those are mere bandages on the body politic, merely a way to mitigate the pain of disruption. The solution that is essential to couple with more rapid automation is more rapid entrepreneurship and innovation.

When we no longer need 90% of our people to grow our food on the farm, we can use them for other things. Some can get into food preparation and serving, letting us enjoy a wider variety of foods that people in 1790 America (when 90% of the population was in agriculture) would have never imagined: foods like sushi, adoboda tacos, spaghetti, and liquid nitrogen ice cream. Others can design and make cars, legos, barbie dolls, and new drugs. If there is nothing else to do but grow food, reducing the percentage of our workforce needed to grow food from 90% to 1% (which is roughly where it is today) is a catastrophe. 1% of the population would be incredibly rich and the other 99% would literally need credit just to buy food. But we innovate and those 99% come back with cool stuff that entices the farmer to give up his food. (Or, more precisely, he sells his crop for money he can use for the cool stuff.)

The problem with wealth and income inequality today is not that people are getting rich automating jobs. The problem is that we have not learned how to balance that rate of automation with an equal or even better rate of innovation and entrepreneurship.  What this means will involve everything from even more money poured into R and D to more funding even within Fortune 500 companies for entrepreneurial efforts that simultaneously allow employees and the company to create new wealth.

As mentioned, programs to mitigate income and wealth inequality seem both necessary and inevitable. But to stop there is not enough. The real question of economic progress should be: how do we create the new so rapidly that it feels like the old industries are not automating jobs fast enough to free up workers to enter the new industries and companies? 

Economics makes a big deal of supply and demand and equilibrium between them. It's a beautiful and powerful concept. But just as important to prosperity is understanding the balance between automation and innovation, destroying the old while creating the new. What is the solution for automation obsoleting jobs? Popularizing entrepreneurship: making it easier for more people to be more entrepreneurial and even changing the definition of work as much as the information economy has or the industrial economy before that.

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