Friday, April 8, 2011

What Are People Good For? (part 6)

6. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Leeds Woolen Workers Petition, 1786

So are we condemned to live in the dystopian world of Player Piano or Manna? Perhaps, but, of course, the choice is ours. This article is more about dealing with the right problems and raising the level of discourse than coming up with easy answers. I may not have the answers, but at least I know the questions. As for our political leaders, the honest truth is, they simply don't know what to do. They just assume the invisible hand of the market will somehow sort it all out, or that returning the economy to growth will magically take care of things. Obama's "jobs council" has 16 CEO's, two labor representatives and an academic. The head of this council is Jeffrey Imelt, the CEO of General Electric, the very company whom Vonnegut worked for and whose automated plant provided the inspiration for Player Piano back in 1952! It can safely be said that their jobs are not at risk.

Jeremy Rifkin devotes the last section of his book to some ideas of how to deal with the decreasing labor opportunities. He emphasizes reduced working hours, shared work movements, and de-emphasizing the commercial economy in favor of the social economy, with governments empowering people to be able to earn an income working with this "third sector". Paul Krugman writes:

So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.So what will the future look like? Here are a few possible scenarios:

1. The Dystopian Scenario – We continue to insist that we can "create jobs" for everyone. Unemployment continues to climb ever higher, depressing consumer spending and therefore, profits. Lowered profits spur a drive for more automation. Unskilled repetitive jobs continue to be performed by uneducated workers in low-wage foreign countries who have no hope of social mobility. Once their wages start to rise, they are summarily discarded. Millions of displaced agricultural laborers in the third world head to cities to look for work, where they will find none, leading to riots and mass starvation. Entry-level jobs disappear. Children of wealthy families around the world who are able to defer earning an income for a decade or more and can afford the massive costs of education become a hereditary global elite class, along with a small sliver of people with unique talents (professional athletes, actors, musicians, etc.). The owners of the robotized industries, now fabulously wealthy from no longer having to pay salaries and health care costs, spend their money on ostentatious overconsumption and paying off the political class to ignore the growing social dysfunction caused by mass unemployment. The wealthy refuse to pay any part of their profits to offset the social costs of unemployment from outsourcing and automation, insisting that any such "redistribution" is immoral, and that they "earned it." The social safety net is portrayed as a creating "dependency" and is dismantled entirely. The only jobs created are police officers and prison guards to protect the wealth and property of the elites from the desperate masses. Intense competition for the remaining high-wage jobs causes education to be more and more expensive and exclusive. Masses of unemployed workers put downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Abject poverty explodes as politicians look the other way and continue to insist that anyone without work is "lazy" and that some unspecified "innovation" will turn things around. Social benefits, including health care, remain tied to job status, thus becoming inaccessible to nearly everyone. The middle class vanishes, the gap between the rich and everyone else becomes astronomical, and a massive hereditary underclass abandons any hope of social advancement, turning to an underground economy of violence, drugs and prostitution. After enough time, total social breakdown ensues.

2. The Utopian Scenario – We reform our social institutions and stop insisting that everyone either has to have a job or face utter destitution. The benefits of an automated economy are distributed broadly across the population, leading to extensive free time and to work that is voluntary and does not need to be coerced. Non-alienating labor is performed freely. Ownership of machines is distributed to the workforce rather than hoarded by a miniscule class of capitalists. Income differentials flatten, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is reduced drastically. With the abundance produced by automation, social conflicts are removed, and freed from drudgery, individuals are free to engage in acts of creativity, leisure, travel, and self-actualization. Everyone is provided a basic income. With our extra time, we are able to spend more time with friends and loved ones, leading to more happiness and emotional satisfaction. Stress levels decline, and poverty is eliminated. With everyone’s basic wants and needs fulfilled, there is no longer social dysfunction. Engineers and scientists, not politicians, bankers, and business interests, manage the economy and government, and money exchanges are no longer necessary. The economy is intelligently managed for the benefit of all citizens based around available resources rather than stock market gambling, permanent growth and debt. This was the vision of the Technocracy Movement (and of Star Trek).

3. The Shared-Work Scenario. We realize that massive productivity gains enable everyone to work less. The remaining work is divided more fairly by restrictions on hours worked, and the workweek shrinks, with increased vacation time. People still work, just less. We realistically assess what can be automated and what cannot, and guide workers accordingly. Because low-level jobs will still be automated, we make sure everyone has access to a high-quality education, regardless of income. If some cannot find jobs, useful work will be provided for them to do. With the additional free time, we are able to spend more time with family, and look after our health. There is also a great deal less stress. The share-the-work movement gained extensive traction during the Great Depression, when the 40-hour work week became law. A number of countries in Europe are currently experimenting with shorter work weeks and shared-work movements.

4. The Restriction Scenario— We choose not implement automation to the fullest extent, and decide to use human labor instead, of our own free will. We delegate certain unpleasant tasks to machines, such as producing millions of parts and processing meat, and voluntarily choose to manually do tasks like building houses, growing crops, and driving trucks, even though it is less efficient and more error-prone. Face-to-face service is retained, though more expensive, simply because we prefer human interaction. We realize that we as a society need enough jobs for people to make our economy work properly, and place restrictions on the use of automation. We create millions of mundane jobs just to "get people working again."

5. The Dismantlement Scenario-Similar to above, except we dismantle what automation we have achieved, in the hope of providing jobs for everyone. We keep hours and job requirements exactly the same, or even increase them, along with our insistence that everyone work. Uses of automation are severely restricted to dangerous jobs like bomb disposal and nuclear plant work. We hope that once this is done, the sheer amount of labor now necessary, including in factory and service jobs will absorb population growth and prevent further upticks in unemployment.

6. The Peak Oil Scenario – There are some observers who contend that with looming energy shortages from peak oil production, we will not have enough energy resources to pursue automation and globalization, and will instead find a greater need for manual labor. With additional economic growth prevented by energy shortfalls, capital will not be available to invest in automation. Furthermore, the soaring cost of fuel will stop global supply chains from being economically viable, and mechanized agriculture will become too expensive to continue, leading to the economic necessity of producing closer to home at smaller scales. Lowered standards of living from economic contraction will cause people to work for themselves, becoming more self-sufficient and eschewing large-scale manufactured goods and commercial services in favor of hand-crafted and do-it-yourself methods.

7. The War Scenario: Elites in the United States, Asia, and possibly the Middle East realize there is no realistic way to expand the economy fast enough to provide jobs for their millions of displaced workers. They decide on a pretense to go to war, and full employment is achieved at the cost of millions and millions killed, with the resulting property destruction. Similar to the end of World War 2, a sufficiently reduced workforce is put to work rebuilding their shattered societies.*

I think it is obvious from the above as to which road we are currently on (option 1). I would prefer option 2, but would be satisfied with option 3. At times, I fear we are headed toward option 6.

Many of the proposals for how to deal with widespread automation and the loss of jobs deal with some variation on what is called the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), or Universal Basic Income (UBI). Basically, it means that the productivity of society is broadly distributed to give every single person a basic income sufficient to meet their needs. Most schemes allow work over and above this. Sometimes it is framed as a "negative income tax" where it given to those who do not earn wages, and phased out as wages are earned, where it becomes more of a supplementary income. After a certain level, income is taxed normally. European governments are considering shortening the amount of hours worked, which even now are considerably lower than those worked by Americans.

It is hard to imagine any circumstances under which this could happen in America**. American thinking is fundamentally based on the austere grim doctrine of Calvinism. Under Calvinism, man is inherently fallen and lazy, and without the whip and the lash of utter destitution, he will not lift a finger to help himself. Unceasing toil is a form of salvation, and having more wealth than others a sign of God's favor. People at the top of the pyramid have earned it by working harder than others and being part of the "elect" - chosen by God since before they were born. Nothing can or should be done to help those whom God in his infinite wisdom chose not to save. This is the philosophy that underlies the Tea Party movement, along with the "every man for himself" doctrine of total selfishness as the path to a better society promoted by the late Ayn Rand. Such ideas are only gaining in popularity even as jobs are being lost and poverty is exploding. Any collective action, no matter how beneficial to society, is derided as "Socialism," as opposed to "freedom." Sadly, a form of Social Darwinism prevails among the American ruling elites who occupy the corporate boardrooms and political offices of America. They believe that a social safety net encourages laziness and creates "dependency" and that those who are not "fit" enough to make it in the market deserve their fate. They believe that only "onerous regulations" and "government waste" are preventing prosperity from trickling down to the masses, and one these are removed, a golden age of prosperity will ensue. At least, this is what they tell their supporters. It’s not confined to the United States – austerity measures are being implemented worldwide, even in countries with the most generous social benefits, all to pay off the claims of an investor class that is already wealthier than at any time in world history.

Sadly, the insistence upon coerced work and profit as a necessity for progress is sorely misguided, and betrays a misunderstanding of scientific history. Many of the great discoveries were made by the European aristocrat class precisely because they were the only ones with enough free time on their hands because they didn't have to work. They didn't make these discoveries with any hope of profit, and they didn't make any money off them. In fact, they didn't need the money in the first place because they were aristocrats! Their motivation was entirely intrinsic. Students in research universities are constantly making promising new discoveries without being expressly told to do so, or even getting paid for it; in fact, they pay for the privilege. And besides, a basic income is just that - basic. it does not obviate the possibility of pecuniary reward over and above that for new discoveries. In fact, promising scientific discoveries are just often held back by lack of funds. Many creative people have to pursue their passions outside of what they need to do to earn money. All sorts of people want to grow their own food, start their own business, make their own movies, act in theater, host a podcast, fix their house, but they can't because they’re too busy working and can’t make it pay enough. Volunteer organizations abound, trying to take care of desperate social needs that are left out of the market calculus. Such essential work is always strapped for time and funds. There are all sorts of free ideas and creativity on the Internet. People give their time freely for work that they want to do.. To say that no one will do useful work without money is idiotic. There is plenty of work to do, it's just that the work we actually want to do doesn't pay. There's that pesky creative surplus again.

Open-source software proves that people will invent and collaborate to get things done, even in the absence of remuneration. There are all sorts of similar open-source movements in many areas. These could provide a model for how to collaborate and get things done in a money-free economy. One question that always crops up with Internet businesses is, "sure it's great, but how will you make money from it?" This should not be a concern. It has led to silly things like paywalls, pop-up ads, and selling of personal information a la Facebook to try and make money off of things that ideally should be free. Free content is provided all the time (you're reading it), but such content providers still have to worry about making money somehow. Crazy digital copyright laws are put in place to try and keep things artificially scarce just so some corporations can make more money. So much time is spent trying to make things profitable that it is simply not done. Yet, making money is supposed to spur creativity and innovation? I don't get it. Studies have shown that money is less of a motivator than we think. And even if some of the "fallen" just sit around and gather dust, who cares? If that's all they want out of life, so be it. It takes nothing away from you.

The point is, there are alternatives, if only we choose to implement them. The Ancient Greeks saw labor-saving devices as a way to get more free time. The fact is, the social impact of inventions is almost never considered at the time; inventors just go ahead and invent. The inventors of the automobile had no idea that it would lead to inner-city ghettos and oil dependency. The inventors of television had no idea it would lead to millionaire athletes and billion-dollar elections. Technology leads to social change, just like the factory system led to vast social changes. We have continued to operate in a factory model paradigm of long-hours, long commutes, repetitive jobs and cubicles long after the factory system has moved offshore and been automated. We even operate our farms and schools like factories.

Social institutions have shown themselves to be remarkably static and slow to change, even in the face of economic and technical innovation. For thousands of years, slavery was a normal social institution. The Greeks had it, the Romans had it, the Middle Ages had it, we had it, and it's even mentioned throughout the Bible. When coal and oil started to do the work for us, we saw slavery for what it was - an abomination, and it started to fade from history. Many historians see the invention of Eli Whitney's cotton gin as the beginning of the end for slavery in the United States. Maybe with breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and automation we could be seeing the beginning of the end of wage slavery.

So the next time you hear a politician pontificate on the need to "create jobs" you need to realize he or she is a clueless boob, and you should stop listening immediately. It's time we stopped lying to ourselves. Things will not get better until we do that. We need to think differently if we are ever going to seriously deal with the world's problems. Einstein once said that we cannot solve problems by utilizing the same level of thinking that created them. It’s high time we realize that our old social order and institutions just don’t work anymore. The choice is ours. Technology never "forces" us to do anything. Out future will be of our own design. Let’s all hope that we make the right choices.

Please read Part 1 of this article

Please read part 2 of this article

Please read part 3 of this article

Please read part 4 of this article

Please read part 5 of this article

* Some do not believe such a cold calculus would ever be considered. I think those who dismiss such a scenario outright are hopelessly naive. Some commentators argue that capitalism is entirely dependant on wars - first to open markets, then to destroy enough production to allow growth to continue perpetually.

** One notable exception is the Alaska Permanent Fund – money from Alaska’s oil wealth is distributed to all the citizens of this "Red" State. Everyone hates Socialism until they have it.
How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families; and what are they to put their children apprentice to, that the rising generation may have something to keep them at work, in order that they may not be like vagabonds strolling about in idleness? Some say, Begin and learn some other business. Suppose we do; who will maintain our families, whilst we undertake the arduous task; and when we have learned it, how do we know we shall be any better for all our pains; for by the time we have served our second apprenticeship, another machine may arise, which may take away that business also; so that our families, being half pined whilst we are learning how to provide them with bread, will be wholly so during the period of our third apprenticeship.


  1. OK, you have clearly laid out the various possible paths, and Kurzweil posits that technology will inexorably take us toward Drexler's 'radical abundance', so the best personal strategy is probably to hunker down, be frugal with your money, and work towards a sustainable (low cash) lifestyle, centered on local relationships.

  2. Hello! See my post of October 20th for a reply. The comment actually jogged loose a lot of thoughts.


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