So, real economists generally agree that NAFTA didn’t kill or create US jobs, technological change occurring within a neo-liberal regulatory context was mostly what demoralized our workforce, gradually hollowing out the US middle class, contributing to skyrocketing income inequality even as productivity rates per US worker grew continually.
Certainly, breakneck deregulation played a part in the hollowing out of the American middle class, regressive tax policy and a corrupt financial industry, but underneath it all, ‘creative destruction’ was eating away at that old post war dream, like a well metastasized cancer waiting to explode. Globalism was also a kind of green-fielding, part of that creative disruption, a way to circumvent the old rules and get at greater efficiencies, no matter their cost to workers. The two went hand in hand; teasing them apart is hard to do; but mostly, I think, it’s the tech part that was inevitable, and that we now have to learn to deal with.
My brother in law, decades ago, worked on a program that scanned addresses on envelopes and sent the scans to low paid operators overseas, so they could puzzle out the address and then type it back in; a bar code was printed and slapped on the envelope and the envelope was routed back into the pre-existing systems. Union rules forbid the mail from being touched by non-union people. But nobody touched the envelopes. Robots sorted and scanned and readdressed them, and the scabs were overseas, working for pennies on the dollar.
So here’s the thing. They don’t use these people much anymore–because the software has gotten much much better. A stronger union might have kept some of that work around for a few more years; but its gone now, either way.
The CEO of Uber recently admitted the future was driverless; all the driver jobs were going away eventually. The hip, happening ‘flexible’ gig economy has zero long term commitments to anyone or anything but a narrowly defined bottom line. Worker hours are bought a la cart, on the cheap, with the federal government being forced to pick up healthcare costs, disability costs, retirement costs, etc.
“The world isn’t always great,” Kalanick said.
The world isn’t always great?
So… Donald says he wants to make American Great again?
Take him at his word, peel away the 40 or 50 percent of his supporters who truly are beyond any redemption, the basket cases, and you’re still left with that troubling percent of Trump support; those 60-70k a year people who aren’t really suffering all that badly compared with, oh, say, over half the planet’s population.
Those are the people who are hearing what Kalanik at Uber is saying, about the future not being great. It’s their future that isn’t great. These are the people who are figuring out that they have nowhere to go but down. Down to the level where they need public assistance—like the people they love to hate.
So democrats talking about public assistance doesn’t feel good. It feels TERRIBLE. Because the Democrat isn’t seeing them as a protean self-sufficient, continent taming, aboriginal slaughtering superman. He’s seeing them as being like the people that many of them have been trained to hate for a century. The poor. The chronically underemployed and incarcerated. Oh. And a lot of them are dark skinned, too, say that gently and quietly and walk away from it quickly because oh, that isn’t helping…
The only solution anyone has come up with for a seriously job-reduced future that isn’t just bandaids and coupons for re-education that most people refuse to engage in, is base income.
Base Income isn’t public assistance; you don’t get it by proving you’re helpless, by proving to a bureaucrat you’re down on your luck. You get it for being a member of a species which has split the atom and put a person on the moon and created computers which can beat us at Chess and Go. It’s your fair share of the income generated by the collective intellectual property of our ancestors, whose genetic inheritance we all share.
The Base income people sure hope that one day people can see it this way. It’s the Star Trek future. We know what that is, now. The singularity has been a long time coming.
At the knee of the curve, as the linear looking part of the graph bends into the feedback loop explosion, the changes will come more and more quickly. Capitalism was a pretty good system for directing human activity, in part because the entire bell shaped curve of human ability slotted in somewhere, creating value, and being allowed to keep some fraction of that value to survive.
We obsoleted jobs and certain kinds of workers and brains and made new ones, generation by generation.
Saw a recent article, about how we didn’t need to worry about tech getting rid of jobs, which noted that it toook really, 50 or 60 years for the wealth of the industrial revolution to really trickle down onto the line workers who made all that stuff.
In other words, it took a lifetime.
A generation worked in those factories and died in them and never saw anything get much better. Now, jobs are obsoleting themselves decade by decade. Soon, it will be year by year. Eventually, I suspect, skillsets and professions will have lifespans measured in the months, or perhaps, days, with most of this work being done by AI with thoughts that move much closer to the speed of light than our sluggish electrochemically powered slabs of convoluted meat.
But back to the present, to the world where a full featured pick and pack robot like Baxter costs 20k, where a dozen individuals and machines can harvest commodity crops that will feed ten million, where machine learning and neural nets stand poised to decimate the professional trades, we will need to get to a new system, or patch Capitalism drastically.
In short, a consumer economy requires consumers with disposable income. We’ve been trying to fuel our markets with booms based on… nothing, for a few decades now. The housing bubble? When housing prices suddenly skyrocketed? For no reason?
Because median wages were stagnant? You know, the money that pays for houses that determine what houses should cost and are worth?
A kindergartner could do the math! As a culture, we were flabbergasted. I mean, come on. Did we think people from other dimensions were buying those houses? Aliens from Zeta Reticuli? My God we’re idiots.
Now, Kalaknik says, we’ll need a lot fewer cars, in the car sharing future, and that has a lot of positive traits. Less pollution, lower total cost of ownership–it also represents, of course, a ripple effect, another catastrophic loss of jobs.
Throughout history of course, Luddites have wailed at the loss of jobs to machines, and labor force participation has remained roughly constant. Human brains figure out how to exploit the resources trapped in other human brains and bodies.
What do we do when thought, and muscle, is cheaper by the instruction cycle and by the horsepower than anything our meat brains and bodies can deliver?
I wrack my brain. I don’t come up with many solutions. And the transition, from what we have now, to any of the workable sounding solutions, seem even more impossible than the solutions themselves.
It’s going to be interesting, in the Chinese curse sense of that word.
Maybe the people who say capitalism survives this roughly intact are right; maybe a generation into the Gig economy, new norms and institutions will materialize around the new business as usual. Maybe lifespans just keep getting longer and infant mortality keeps dropping and even as median income falls or stays flat and the richer become unimaginably richer, that stagnant income buys more; more computing cycles. More entertainment. Cheaper healthcare, unmediated by expensive humans, dispensed by AIs and self-administered.
We’re gonna find out.
Assuming of course, we survive the coming die-off.
If that’s a thing