Automation and a Jobless Future

The greatest threat to American jobs in this decade isn’t foreign competition. Although companies shipping jobs to Mexico or China make an easy target for the Trumps and Sanders of the world, the real threat is automation.

In Silicon Valley and SF, self-driving cars are everywhere. Google, Uber and others are testing their fleets of prototypes on local roads every day. This wave is coming, and though it hasn’t yet crested and may take longer to get here than we might think today, when it comes it’s going to hit hard. 


Most common jobs in each state, 2014. Source: NPR

My lifetime will see a second radical change in the American jobs market. The first happened at the end of the 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs moved abroad or were automated themselves. This time, the pool of jobs at risk is far larger. Truck drivers, cab / ridesharing drivers and municipal transit operators may be the first affected. But any job that’s largely routine could come next, and that includes many white collar functions like certain routine surgeries and legal work.

We saw in 2017 the political and cultural ramifications of structural changes to the economy. This second wave could be even worse. Managing the economic and political fallout of what today seems like an inevitable event will be one of this generation’s greatest challenges.

How much would Bernie 2016 cost you?

In Thursday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton challenged Bernie Sanders on his spending proposals, suggesting that they were unrealistic and even irresponsible given the real challenges of turning proposals into policy. Sanders’ response was consistent and on message: his spending proposals will be paid for by the rich, Wall Street and large corporations. For the rest of us, he just describes the benefits: universal healthcare, free college tuition, expanded family and medical leave, etc.

Does that mean that the middle class will be unaffected by his tax increases? Probably not, according the Tax Policy Center and most other groups who have analyzed his proposals. But how much will you pay?

Over the past month, Vox and The Nation released calculators that predict how each presidential candidates’ tax policies would affect you based on your income. They’re both interesting and I’d encourage you to check them out. But they come to very different conclusions, despite being based on the same underlying research.

Continue reading “How much would Bernie 2016 cost you?”

The “Usefulness” of Patents and Copyrights

What does it mean to be useful?  IP law once provided protection for “useful” works of invention, innovation, and information.  Today, it is useful for preserving the interests of large, powerful rights-holders, often at a cost to creators, consumers, and the economy.  IP law should be made “useful” once more.

CopyrightWestern copyright finds it’s philosophical roots in two documents, the Statute of Anne and the U.S. Constitution.  The Statute of Anne, which was enacted by the British Parliament and predates the Constitution by almost eighty years, provides the protection of copyright “for the encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books.”  The Constitution, no doubt borrowing from the Statute of Anne, secures for authors and inventors the exclusive right to their work, in order “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”  These documents both explicitly qualify their protection as governing only those works that may be called “useful.”  Why?

Intellectual property law is designed to promote economic progress.  If the law can protect the right of innovators to profit from their work, there will be a strong incentive for future innovation.  It’s a sound theory, but modern IP law has lost its way.  The role of IP law in promoting useful innovation is diminishing.

Technically, there is still a usefulness requirement in U.S. IP law.  New inventions must be deemed useful to earn a patent.  But we ought to be asking, “useful to whom”?  Where patents were once used to reward innovators, they are now often used by large companies to restrict competition.  Is Apple’s patent of rounded corners on the iPad really useful to consumers or to future innovation?  Or is it just protection against future competitors, like Samsung?

The usefulness distinction is even more important in copyright.  Copyright incentivizes the creation of information goods in the same way that patents incentivize the creation of physical goods.  But there is an important difference between information goods and physical goods that should change how we measure the economic value of copyrights and their usefulness.

Information goods are non-rival.  If you know something and explain it to me, my new knowledge doesn’t diminish yours.  There are no marginal costs for distributing knowledge from one person to another (or to a thousand others).  Therefore, any cost imposed on the distribution of information goods is economically inefficient.  Copyrights impose such a cost, as they require payment to access information for which the marginal cost of distribution should be zero.

By pointing out this inefficiency, I don’t mean to argue that copyrights should be discarded.  Taxes are economically inefficient as well but there are strong arguments for reasonable taxation, and we as a society have decided that they are necessary.  But we have to consider the burden these costs impose on the production of new information goods.

The creation of information goods requires two things: the time and ingenuity of a knowledge producer and the input of other information goods.  By creating additional costs for access to information goods, like expensive fees to academic databases, we’ve constrained the production of future information.  This counterintuitive effect is one of the negative externalities of copyrights, and it’s all too often overlooked.

The time and ingenuity of knowledge producers needs to be rewarded; they deserve a mechanism to recuperate the opportunity costs of their work.  However, the copyright system as it exists today has been coopted by the interests of large, commercial rights-owners.  For example, the copyright on works published in the U.S. now runs for seventy years after the death of the author.  Copyright for that duration does little to reward the author; any royalties go to the rights-owner instead, which is likely to be a publishing label.  Instead, it imposes significant costs on the aggregate production of future information goods.

Again, we should ask ourselves, “useful to whom.”  Does a seventy-year copyright “promote the progress of science and the useful arts”?  Or does it present an obstacle to further progress?

Intellectual property law must be recalibrated to a standard of usefulness that prioritizes incentives for creativity and innovation.  Patents and copyrights should reward innovators and knowledge producers.  They should not be used as weapons in ever-escalating corporate feuds.  Nor should they be used to extend the ability of corporate rights-holders to profit from the creativity of others.  When that happens, when IP law is useful only to the large, well-lobbied few, we all suffer as a result.  In a global economy where innovation drives economic growth, getting this question right couldn’t be more important.

If interested, The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler and Remix by Lawrence Lessig are great books that include discussions of the shortcomings of today’s IP systems.  Benkler’s work informs my discussion of the economic inefficiencies of copyright and Lessig’s many books on the subject first introduced me to IP law.

First in His Class: Bill Clinton biography by David Maraniss [Book Review]

It was during the Democratic National Convention in September that I saw Bill Clinton work his magic.  He stole the show from President Obama that night; I’ve never seen a speaker connect with an audience like that.  For many my age, I think it was the first time we’d seen him demonstrate his political skill as adults.  Impressed as I was, I wanted to learn more.  So I picked up his biography by David Maraniss.  It covers Clinton’s life from his birth until the day he announces his candidacy for President.  The book was superb, and I’d highly recommend it.  Here are themes that stood out to me.


Bill Clinton was an extrovert.  I mean extrovert in the sense that he thrived on interaction with others; it’s what gave him life.  Where other politicians grew weary during long campaigns on the road, Clinton couldn’t get enough. Again and again one of Clinton’s acquaintances from his campaigns would confess to the power of his presence, that he was able to make people feel like they’d been friends forever.  This was one of his great gifts, and one that he used to his political advantage.  Clinton maintained extensive card files on everyone he met during his campaigns.  Over the course of his political career, this catalogue grew to include addresses, phone numbers, dates of last contact, donation amounts, and other facts for thousands of people.  It was both a compulsion and a calculated political move.

Curiosity about the people around him was one of his strongest traits, the main intersection of his gregarious, empathetic personality and his political ambition.


Clinton knew that politics was his calling.  From high school on, every decision he made was calculated to maximize his long term political viability.  In this respect, he was often calculating and hollow; a friend today might be sacrificed tomorrow if necessary.  The sense of purpose he demonstrated is exceptionally rare, I think.  Most of us take longer to figure out what we’re called to do, if we ever do.  It’s a fascinating thing to observe nonetheless–someone consumed with a single purpose.

Political skill

Time and again Clinton exhibited a masterful ability to negotiate difficult political scenarios.  The most telling example of this was his navigation of the draft.  Clinton received his draft notice towards the end of his first year at Oxford, where he was studying as a Rhodes Scholar.  He was adamantly against the war, but he always maintained a moderate disposition towards the anti-war movement.  Despite his convictions against the war, Clinton fundamentally believed in the system.

But his friends knew that he had invested too much time, hope, and ambition in his political future to abandon it by resisting. “Maintaining viability within the system was very important to him. Right from the start we all took his aspirations with real proper seriousness,”

He always believed that his best work would be from within the system, not from without.  His actions to avoid the draft, therefore, remained in line with his calling to lead a political life and lead from within the existing system.

There’s something our generation can learn from this.  So many of us are fed up with the political system as it is, and justifiably so.  We turn to business, or non-profits, or NGOs as we seek ways to make a difference.  In doing so, we leave a broken system unattended.  If the best among us abandon government, who then will lead?


Above all, Clinton was a conflicted person.  His life seemed full of contradictions.  Maraniss puts it best:

Then and always, these contradictions co-existed in Clinton—considerate and calculating, easygoing and ambitious, mediator and predator.

We have to consider Clinton in the context of his great ambition, his incredible political skill, and his very human weaknesses.  I think he recognized early where he wanted to go and where his skills might best be used.  After reading this book, I have little doubt that his intention to become President was rooted in a desire to do something good when he got there.  I’m inclined to respect that.

In a particularly memorable speech at the 1980 DNC, Clinton warned that the political and economic systems of his day were breaking down:

We have seen high inflation, high unemployment, large government deficits, the loss of our competitive edge. In response to these developments, a dangerous and growing number of people are simply opting out of our system. Another dangerous and growing number are opting for special interest and single interest group politics, which threatens to take every last drop of blood out of our political system.

Inflation notwithstanding, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it.

Why you should vote tomorrow, even if you live in California

Since recently becoming a citizen, how I follow politics has changed.  Not being able to vote allows you to examine the political debate in a detached way.  You can argue both sides, make abstractions, and never have to worry about making a choice.  It’s nice, actually.  From the sidelines, you can see more clearly the mad and infuriating genius of the American political system.

But as a citizen, the fantasy evaporates.  When we elect someone, we choose them over another.  We decide that one candidate is more deserving of an elected position than their opponent.  Making the choice can be difficult, particularly at a time when combative rhetoric and absurd amounts of money smother most real conversation about issues and principles.  There is much to be concerned with in how we elect our leaders, but our votes are important nonetheless.

That’s my thesis, at least, but not everyone agrees.  NPR ran an article this week about the “Other Abstinence Movement” — non-voters.  Many of the reasons given by non-voters for their abstinence draw on religious or cultural motivations for not voting, such as a Native American not voting as an assertion of their tribal sovereignty, for example.  These I can understand, but they apply to only a small proportion of the ~ 45% of American’s who don’t vote.  Let’s take a look at some of the other reasons given in the article, which I hear all the time.

“I do not vote because I believe that at the end of the day, money is more powerful than a ballot.”

Without question, money has become an enormously powerful force in politics.  According to the NYTimes, the Obama campaign has raised $934m while the Romney campaign has raised $882m.  That’s almost $2b dollars spent on the presidential election alone.  The Center for Responsive Politics estimates another $4b will go towards other elections, bring the total to nearly $6b.  For some perspective, that’s enough to build about 1000 elementary schools; for more perspective, that’s only enough to pay off less than 1% of next years projected budget deficit.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote.  In fact, it implores you to vote.  Money may influence politicians, pay for TV adds, or lobby for special interests, but as long as people vote, as long as citizens do their best to choose the candidate they think will be the best president (or congressman, or city council member), we might still have our say.  Only when we stop voting has money won.

“A simple understanding of statistics shows that my vote does not matter.”

It’s easy to suggest that a vote doesn’t matter.  There are 300 million people in this country, so at that level, yes, one vote is unlikely to make a difference.  And that’s not to mention the electoral college, which does more to disenfranchise American voters than any voter suppression measures.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote.  If the 2000 election teaches us anything, it’s that elections can come down to individual votes.  Moreover, the broken electoral college system is thrown into sharp relief in close elections, especially when the popular vote and the electoral college don’t align.  In those cases, your Republican vote in California or your Democratic vote in Texas do matter, because they expose our system’s flaws.

Your vote matters, for your country and, most importantly, for you.  It takes the concern of ordinary citizens to make change.  High speeches and promises by politicians won’t do it, we have to get involved.  Voting is the first, most basic, and most important measure of involvement.  So go vote tomorrow, even if you live in California.  Go now and vote.