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Smart Machines and Long-Term Misery


  • Jeffrey D. Sachs
  • Laurence J. Kotlikoff


Are smarter machines our children's friends? Or can they bring about a transfer from our relatively unskilled children to ourselves that leaves our children and, indeed, all our descendants - worse off? This, indeed, is the dire message of the model presented here in which smart machines substitute directly for young unskilled labor, but complement older skilled labor. The depression in the wages of the young then limits their ability to save and invest in their own skill acquisition and physical capital. This, in turn, means the next generation of young, initially unskilled workers, encounter an economy with less human and physical capital, which further drives down their wages. This process stabilizes through time, but potentially entails each newborn generation being worse off than its predecessor. We illustrate the potential for smart machines to engender long-term misery in a highly stylized two-period model. We also show that appropriate generational policy can be used to transform win-lose into win-win for all generations.

Suggested Citation

  • Jeffrey D. Sachs & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 2012. "Smart Machines and Long-Term Misery," NBER Working Papers 18629, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18629
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Robert J. Gordon, 2009. "Misperceptions About the Magnitude and Timing of Changes in American Income Inequality," NBER Working Papers 15351, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Hernando Zuleta, 2008. "Factor Saving Innovations and Factor Income Shares," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 11(4), pages 836-851, October.
    3. Zuleta, Hernando, 2012. "Variable factor shares, measurement and growth accounting," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 114(1), pages 91-93.
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    Cited by:

    1. Prettner, Klaus & Strulik, Holger, 2017. "The lost race against the machine: Automation, education and inequality in an R&D-based growth model," Hohenheim Discussion Papers in Business, Economics and Social Sciences 08-2017, University of Hohenheim, Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences.
    2. Lankisch, Clemens & Prettner, Klaus & Prskawetz, Alexia, 2017. "Robots and the skill premium: An automation-based explanation of wage inequality," Hohenheim Discussion Papers in Business, Economics and Social Sciences 29-2017, University of Hohenheim, Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences.
    3. Seth G. Benzell & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Guillermo LaGarda & Jeffrey D. Sachs, 2015. "Robots Are Us: Some Economics of Human Replacement," NBER Working Papers 20941, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Abeliansky, Ana & Prettner, Klaus, 2017. "Automation and demographic change," Center for European, Governance and Economic Development Research Discussion Papers 310, University of Goettingen, Department of Economics.
    5. Fernando MESA PARRA, 2015. "An Overlapping Generation Model of Labour Productivity and Economic Growth in Colombia," ARCHIVOS DE ECONOMÍA 013009, DEPARTAMENTO NACIONAL DE PLANEACIÓN.
    6. Korkut Erturk, 2016. "Asymmetric Power and Market Failure: Power Hazard in Exchange," Working Paper Series, Department of Economics, University of Utah 2016_02, University of Utah, Department of Economics.
    7. Gasteiger, Emanuel & Prettner, Klaus, 2017. "A note on automation, stagnation, and the implications of a robot tax," Discussion Papers 2017/17, Free University Berlin, School of Business & Economics.
    8. David H. Autor, 2015. "Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 29(3), pages 3-30, Summer.
    9. Gasteiger, Emanuel & Prettner, Klaus, 2017. "On the possibility of automation-induced stagnation," Hohenheim Discussion Papers in Business, Economics and Social Sciences 07-2017, University of Hohenheim, Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D30 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - General
    • D60 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - General
    • D9 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics
    • F60 - International Economics - - Economic Impacts of Globalization - - - General
    • H10 - Public Economics - - Structure and Scope of Government - - - General
    • H21 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Efficiency; Optimal Taxation

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