Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Are People Good For, 1930's Edition

Many people (including myself) have pointed out the similarities between the 1930's and today. The 1930's were a time of vast mechanization and engineering improvements. Many of these were direct descendants of Henry Ford's assembly line which started up in the teens. The assembly line was a marriage of two previous inventions - interchangeable parts, which were first invented for rifles in France at the end of the eighteenth century, and the conveyor belts used in Chicago meat-packing plants, where carcasses were moved down a line with pulleys and each butcher performed a single task. These were combined with the ideas of the efficiency movement championed by Frederick Winslow Taylor to create something completely new in the twentieth century - mass production on a scale never before seen:
The full industrialization of the West took place in two stages. First the Industrial Revolution -- the rise of steam-powered manufacturing in England around the 1780s. Second was the wide development of assembly-line techniques using interchangeable parts. That occurred only 100 years ago.

The idea of making machine parts interchangeable is pretty old, but that was harder than you might think. Gutenberg's printing press absolutely depended on letters being completely interchangeable. To make it work, he had to couple remarkable ingenuity with his jeweler's skills.

It takes the skill of a jeweler to make precision parts interchangeable. And when the Industrial Revolution gave us machine tools that could work with a jeweler's precision, interchangeability quickly became a kind of holy grail for manufacturers. Even Boulton and Watt managed some degree of interchangeability in their steam engines.

But the first country that tried to manufacture parts that could be interchanged in factory assembly was France. In 1785 Benjamin Franklin told about a French gunsmith who'd managed to make muskets with interchangeable parts. Still, when Eli Whitney got American government support to do the same thing in 1794, he did it by convincing people the idea was unknown in Europe. Worse than that, he also did some hand-work and hand-selection on the parts he used in his demonstration.

Making guns with truly interchangeable parts was very hard to do. We'd made clocks with interchangeable parts as early as 1828 -- that was easier. But the military wanted to be able to interchange the parts of guns in the field. They never did manage to do that with their service revolvers, but their muskets and rifles could be made with looser tolerances. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, we'd achieved interchangeability in military rifles and muskets, but we were far from it in making handguns.

After the Civil War, the idea of interchangeable assembly spread quickly through American manufacturing. The small-arms maker Remington expanded the idea -- first to make sewing machines and then typewriters. By the time Henry Ford carried the assembly line to such a remarkable level in 1913, America was already established as the world leader in production. But getting there was the result of a dogged, hundred-year effort to make interchangeability work.
Engines of Our Ingenuity No. 101: Interchangeability

We sometimes forget how new these developments really are in history. Only two decades after Ford started up his assembly line, twenty-five percent of Americans were out of work. There was a feeling that the increased efficiency and mass production had obviated the need for most workers. This in turn caused a wave of fear that machines were taking over. That is the subject of a fascinating article in Slate magazine:

“A Robot Has Shot Its Master”: The 1930s hysteria about machines taking jobs and killing people (Slate).
But why were people so willing to believe that a robot had blinked alive and decided to turn on its master? What about the 1930s lent itself to a fear of technology that was made tangible through a humanoid robot? Predictions for the future are always a direct reflection of the times in which they’re created. During times of economic insecurity it’s hard not to be filled with anxiety about the future of your country, your family, or your employer—should you be so lucky as to be employed. Just as all politics is local, all futurism is now. Over the last few years we’ve seen Americans of all political persuasions flood the streets; concerned about the future, and more often than not, concerned about their jobs. At the same time, we’ve seen a renewed fear of robots invading the workplace. Earlier this fall, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo warned that even the highly educated—doctors, lawyers, scientists—could find their jobs outsourced to robots in the future; farm workers and warehouse employees are in more immediate danger of being replaced.

The Great Depression, like today, was quite obviously a dark time for the American worker. The unemployment rate hit nearly 25 percent by 1933, leaving 13 million people out of work. And people needed something to point to as the source of their woes. Rightly or wrongly, a great many things took the blame: the president, the weather, immigrants, the wealthy. But with the tremendous rush of technological advancement that was seen in the 1920s, there was a new and terrifying thing at which to point our unemployed fingers: the robot. Coined in 1921, the word robot was still relatively fresh to the national lexicon. But it was a great shorthand for something frightfully inhuman or dehumanizing.

Many feared that fewer workers in factories—factories that were replacing manpower with more machines—meant the utter collapse of an already depressed economy. Certain industries were seen as being at particularly high risk of a robot invasion. In 1930 the American Federation of Musicians spent more than $500,000 to fight the advance of “robot music”—prerecordings on records—with the Music Defense League. They ran a series of ads in newspapers across the United States and Canada that featured illustrations of robots. These menacing mechanical men represented the dreadful threat of recorded music that was seen as putting musicians out of work.
Of course, robots were just imaginary creations of science fiction authors back then; the transistor and silicon microchip hadn't even been invented, and computers were little more than glorified adding machines. What people were really scared of was that increased efficiency spelled the end of the economy as we knew it. I'm so happy that the Slate article discusses the Technocracy Movement. That movement was bold enough to point out that mass production was incompatible with the existing price system - the price system only functions with relative scarcity. The article gets something wrong - the Technocracy movement did promise abundance, but only if the economic order were reformed. It was as much concerned with economics as technology, something that is all too often forgotten. The article even has a link to Howard Scott's speech that supposedly did the movement in, something I haven't been able to find anywhere else. As the Technocracy Movement faded, Americans turned to conventional politics to solve their problems.

The New Deal's response was direct government creation of jobs, the scaling back of the workweek to 40 hours, promoting unions to boost purchasing power, and encouraging artificial scarcity of food by paying farmers not to grow. Was it the best response? Maybe not, but at least it was something, and it managed to preserve the price system and capitalist economy while improving living standards. There were even budding share the work movements that were ruthlessly suppressed after the war.

The creation of the consumer economy was a direct responce to mass production - rather than scale back production, people had to be convinced to want all the stuff that the factories turnend out. This was made possible by the unprecendented affleunce of post-war America, the television, the advertising industry, low food prices, cheap fossil fuel, and mass suburbanizition. Automation, mechanization and global labor arbitrage made food and goods cheaper and cheaper throughout the twentieth century, while pushing Americans gradually into low-wage service jobs. Wages declined, but so did the price of products and food. Now, all those high wages that made consumerism possible are gone, goods are as cheap as they can be, and costs of housing, health care, food and education are exploding, and unsold goods are piling up on shelves. What now?

There are also diminishing returns. The first car, television, refrigerator and washing machine were big deals - giving people more leisure time (which they filled with work), while doing things that were very difficult for an individual to accomplish before. Now we need to sell electric coffee grinders, espresso machines and salad spinners just to keep the economy growing. Those are hardly as necessary. Sure, we need to replace those refrigerators, cars and washing machines, but the economy as configured cannot get by on a replacement level of product sales.

The common response is that all the fear about automation taking over jobs is just as misplaced now as it was back then. This seems to be the attitude taken in the last paragraph of the article - it's all just another passing fad caused by a bad economy, and things will all work themselves out somehow. But were those fears misplaced? Are the fundamental arguments still sound? Now we have workers numbered in the billions all over the world, and capabilities to replace them that were unimaginable back then. Robots are no longer science fiction - they are a reality. Are we experiencing something more than just a temporary recession or debt crisis? Two years from now will be the hundredth anniversary of the assembly line, and mass unemployment and economic collapse is stalking the planet. Maybe it's time to take a serious look at those arguments from the 1930's and stop joking about it.


John Robb has a post on a forthcoming Joseph Stiglitz piece in Vanity Fair that examines that technological reasons for the Great Depression. That piece focuses on the displacement of agricultural workers rather than increased technological efficiency and mass production (both had a role). But it nonetheless exposes the futility of the "do nothing" (i.e. Austrian) school of fixing the economy. Our probelms are fundamental to the capitalist economy itself.

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