If Software Eats Everything, Why Can’t It Eat Government?
The past decade has seen an amazing amount of wealth creation and innovation. Much of it is invisible, happening “in the cloud” which compels critics of capitalism to say this has been a revolution of uneven progress which they claim hasn’t touched society as a whole.
The irony, of course, is they report all of this from their Twitter and Tumblr accounts, whilst sharing photos of their protests against the gentrification of Jersey City on Instagram and Facebook before catching a ride home to Brooklyn via a ride-sharing app. All of these tasks were done on their smart phones. They return home to their apartment, where they order takeout, and they don’t look at the takeout menus slid under their doors (those are for the collage); they simply go on Yelp. By their doors are several boxes from Amazon, some boxes containing basic grocery items, and in one package is a book that has been out of print for decades that it took only one Google search to find and purchase. Friends soon arrive, music is played straight off of Youtube, and the few hipsters who have never heard this band before whip out their phones to download their songs from Siri and Shazam, then upload them to their iPods. Instead of having to walk to a Blockbuster, they pull up a movie from Netflix, Amazon or a free streaming site. None of this happened ten years ago; none of it was possible.
The greatest amount of innovation has been concentrated in software. The phrase “Brick and Mortar” was hardly used a decade ago, and now it is a synonym for dinosaur. What Marc Andreessen said is true: Software is eating the world.
Resumes and job postings are no longer mailed to individual businesses and newspapers, but to online job sites where they are viewed and shared across the country. Garage sales are no longer something for early birds on Saturday mornings. Thanks to Craigslist, anyone with internet access can buy used patio furniture and lawn equipment. Free tutoring is now found on Khan Academy and Youtube. Against the background of the screams from the high priests of the Ivory Tower there is now talk about moving all education online, which would make it cost next to nothing and universally accessible.
These trends are starting to be felt everywhere and sadly breeding a whole new generation of Luddites and economic protectionist feelings on both the Left and the Right who see thousands of people left unemployed instead of millions of people who now have access to goods and services that before were unaffordable or non-existent. Many on the Left don’t think that tech companies pay enough in taxes or employ enough people, whilst Donald Trump thinks there would be no economic consequences to shutting down portions of the Internet. If anything, the tech revolution isn’t out of control, it’s been too hindered. Its efficiency has touched and transformed commerce and media.
If software can eat everything, why can’t it eat government?
Carly Fiorina promised to bring a tech CEOs perspective to government. She brought bold speaking to the podium, but no new ideas that would actually shake up the status quo. What she should have said was, “I will make government efficient by automating as much of it as I can.” I doubt this revolutionary idea would have given her the Presidency, but it would be an idea that would be swiftly copied and repeated faster than you can say, “The Department of Education, Department of Commerce, and I forget the third one.”
Liberals shriek with horror when Rand Paul says he’ll close the IRS. At this time it is politically impossible as there are too many interests on both sides of the aisle that would fight to protect it: well-meaning progressives, highly salaried IRS workers, highly paid lawyers and accountants that use to work for the IRS, and the large companies they now represent that worked hard to lobby for a tax code that favors them. What can be done, and which no one should really oppose, is to automate large portions of the IRS. Simplify the forms and develop better software that could read them and compare them to bank data. Less paperwork means fewer pencil pushers; there are nearly 95,000 IRS employees, and you could cut that number down to 70,000, then to 50,000 and downward.
I’m shocked that more libertarians haven’t been promoting this idea. “End the Fed!” has become the signature rallying cry within the Liberty movement, but instead of “End the Fed!” we should shout “Automate the Fed!” Milton Friedman himself did not advocate ending the Fed, but replacing it with a computer that would “would print out a specified number of paper dollars to augment the money supply…Same number, month after month, week after week, year after year.” Naturally this raises questions if such a treasury program could become hacked, or badly programmed.
However, a computer doesn’t care about its popularity. It doesn’t have highly connected friends that vouched for its position as Fed chairman who it has to answer to when it plays god. The Fed Computer won’t give in to George W. Bush urging it to take Paul Krugman’s advice of replacing the NASDAQ bubble with a housing bubble. For the robotic Fed Chairman to be corrupted it would have to be reprogrammed by an outside agent, most likely on the orders of Congress or the President. If this created a crisis who would be to blame? Our elected officials couldn’t blame Alan Greenspan, the ghost of Ayn Rand, or the board of advisors they appointed and could make hot under the collar with questioning. For once it would be their fault because they shook the wheel while the Fed was doing just fine on cruise control.
There would be strong opposition against this, but the only way to stop it would be to defend the idea that public servants are members of the First Estate and deserve special treatment and have more of a right to keep their cushy, highly paid jobs than the lawyers, truck drivers, cashiers and other members of society that they are supposed to serve who are seeing their career prospects change as software becomes more complex. The myth of the underpaid bureaucrat is something even Democrats these days are having trouble defending now that there is more wealth along the Potomac than in Manhattan. Frank Underwood’s Washington D.C. has more lavish parties than Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The movement to oppose efficient automation would be similar to the 19th century Jacksonian defenders of the Spoils System who thought that democracy meant hiring the supporters of elected politicians and that the hiring of civil servants based on merit was inherently elitist. The way to fight this would be raising the prestige of Civil Service, similar the gentleman scholars of Ancient China, by making it more selective, prestigious and highly paid. If working as a bureaucrat meant requiring the same amount of expertise as being a doctor or a lawyer, then like those professions they would naturally create barriers to entry to keep out peon pencil pushers whose $60K salary with benefits and retirement would make their $200K salary impossible. The people left unemployed by this process would be the ones who were replaced because their skills weren’t essential and could easily be replaced by machines. No one is going to feel sorry for the DMV teller; they worked there to begin with because they had next to no marketable skills and weren’t driven to acquire them.
The America Navy recently introduced the Zumwalt-class destroyers, sleek stealth vessels that are highly automated. Most ships of its size need a crew of nearly 300, but the Zumwalt only has a crew of 140, and theoretically could operate with a crew of only 40. The Zumwalt-class destroyer is an apt symbol of the direction our government should move in.
Instead of being comprised of institutions of sterile floors, florescent lights and long lines, government could actually be efficient, answerable and uncomplicated. There is a lot of talk about requiring police officers to wear body cameras. That’s a good start, but what would be great is an open public destination where arrests could be livestreamed and monitored by justice watchdog groups. Instead of mass incarceration for minor crimes, ankle monitors requiring petty criminals to attend webinars and Skype with their parole officers would drive down costs and close prisons. Court rooms will always be necessary for major crimes, but why not allow litigants in divorces and small claims cases to Skype into the Judge’s chambers, so that only their lawyers have to be physically present?
Talk of having elections online is met with accusations that it will create fraud. If anything, it would make fraud less common and more difficult to commit because so many of our politicians have trouble handling basic email; searching for new voters through Google obituaries would prove a Herculean task for most of them! The Athenian idea of mass participation in democracy would be possible; Congressmen could actually speak for their constituents by studying online polls done minutes before they have to vote.
Justin Amash is a prime example of an Internet savvy politician who live tweets his votes and explains them on Facebook. Even though he stays in D.C., he is more connected and reachable than many of his colleagues that fly home to their district every week, only to rub elbows with golf buddies. Amash has begun a trend that within fifteen years will be the norm.
There are many people that are reading this article and thinking of the technological dystopia of Robocop, of rigged Internet elections and elite bureaucrats that will act not as agents serving the public but stewards of their own high salaries and privileges. In the case that my dream turns into a nightmare, how would it be any different from the government we have now in which police are practically unanswerable even when they kill someone on camera? Those that aren’t even semi-fluent with legalese have trouble navigating government procedures. Currently, your call to your congressman’s office has a human being answering the phone who then politely deflects your question. Why not automate?
Adopting my proposals will mean a less crushing tax burden on its citizenry, because less money and resources would be stolen from the people to support it.
Technology has made the world smaller. It can make government smaller. These days both celebrities and primary candidates are forced to respond to questions on Twitter from the rabble who decades ago would be pushed to the back of a staged rally and denied the opportunity to even approach the microphone. Technology isn’t predestined to create a utopia, but the software revolution has the potential to level our whole political hierarchy in the same way that during the end of the Renaissance volleys from muskets wielded by common men ripped through the gilded armor of aristocrats and their stallions and made the whole professional feudal order obsolete.
I don’t think there will be a robot president during my lifetime, but I hope for a mechanical Fed Chairman.
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