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The Great Looming Job Crisis That Libertarians Have No Clue How to Solve (and Challenges Progressives As Well)

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The USA use to be known as the Great American Job Machine. Year after year, with only brief bumps during recessions, the US economy churned out millions of jobs, keeping up with rapid population growth (the population more than doubled since it won World War II), and sustaining high employment levels and upward socioeconomic mobility. Although envied by much of the world, this reputation was somewhat exaggerated -- some other countries actually had even higher employment, and the unemployment "norm" tended to edge upwards over the years. But even so, the ability of a combination of private and public employment contributed to the concept of American Exceptionalism that saw the USA as unusually blessed when it came to putting folks to work. 

That really started to slip in the Bush II years, when job growth even during the Great Economic Bubble of the Bush 2 era was rather sluggish as the nation increasingly became a services and finances economy configured to direct most of the economic growth to the top 1% -- exposing the financiers are fundamentally profit creators not job creators ( click here ). Since the beginning of the Great Recession the USA has slid further down in employment levels than any other prosperous democracy, leaving it in the lower tier of western nations when it comes to job numbers and generation, and with many long term unemployed. And the USA now has a highly stratified class society ( click here).

There is a lot of the usual, conventional debate between libertarians at one end to progressives on the other about what to do about this. But perhaps under appreciated -- especially by conservatives -- is that the forces of science and technology that have created the modern industrial-consumer world seems at long last to be doing what it has long augured. To displace most people from jobs that can, and increasingly will, be filled by intelligent machines able to perform tasks at less cost and with higher quality and safety than can we big brained apes. 

So far we have been winning the dance with technology, until the turn of the century the rise of automation did not eliminate jobs to the degree that major portion of populations were unable to get jobs. But as I (with co-author Earl Cox in Beyond Humanity) and others have been pointing out, that happy circumstance has worked only as long as the machines are so inept and especially dumb enough that there are lots of things that only Homo sapiens can do. But while the later are not getting brighter, the machines are fast getting so smart and sophisticated that they threaten to cut ever deeper into the job market.

Automation has long been good at doing things that do not require much skill and are repetitive. Factories have long been packed with such labor saving machines. Even ye old grain mills powered by wind and water were doing that. For decades after Henry Ford developed large scale assembly lines the line workers were essentially repetitive robots, doing the same simple thing again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and a". all shift long (it was because such work was so mind numbing that laborers would quickly quit that was the real reason Ford doubled wages). It was a no-brainer to replace the robo-humans with outright robots. Yet there are still hundreds of millions of low wage assembly jobs out there that give folks at least some income to get along on. Such as the countless millions count on sweatshop textile jobs, But word is that robots are beginning to sew clothing with greater skill and even less cost. How about athletic shoes as sweatshop work? They can now be created by 3-D printers (click here). What sweatshop workers can do so can robots. And with a lot less tribulation for the corporations. Apple would love to replace all the abused Chinese workers it is catching flack for with robots that do the job at least as good and at less expense. Robots that no one cares whether they are taken advantage of or not.

We are all hearing about how American manufacturing is enjoying something of a revival, what with managers bring back production to the states as wages rise in other lands along with long distance transportation costs. But the new high productivity factories are not packed with people putting together stuff. As the Atlantic article "Making It in America" observes, the plants are eerily empty of human beings ( click here ). They are called "lights out factories" in that they are less brightly lit than plants in which people need enough lumens to see what they are doing. Nor do factory wages tend to be as high as they were.
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Take the robo-cars we have been promised since the New York World's Fair of 1939. The original idea was that roads would be rigged to guide cars with magnetic stripes and the like, but that would be too expensive and not safe enough. Not that people driving cars is a at all a good thing, being prone to errors and diversions we kill 30,000 in the USA and 1.2 million globally each year -- it's a road war out there. With the advent of small computers the paradigm shifted to making the vehicles themselves smart enough the drive themselves on any ordinary road at any legal speed at any time and in any drivable weather. And with greater safety than can be achieved by phone texting people.

As late as the late 1980s so little progress had been made with robovehicles -- university built machines could barely navigate college pathways and avoid coeds, it was pathetic -- that skeptics started citing the failure as further evidence of digital over promising. But by the 1990s vehicles were doing pretty well on test roads, and a Carnegie Mellon robocar drove itself across the nation on interstates. Progress was still incremental until DARPA held a contest in the last decade in which vehicles were required to navigate many miles over backroads to a common destination. The first year no robovehicle made it. The second year so many of the driverless carriage aced the contest that DARPA moved onto a much more rigorous urban road contest that required the vehicles to not hit other moving items. That went so well the first year that they did not bother repeating it. 

Google has digitally surveyed all the nation's roads. Originally thought to be the purpose of Google Maps, that was not the real reason. Google has developed robotic cars that can and do drive themselves on regular roads without running into things or people. Aside from the onboard sensors and GPS, the smart cars use the Google maps to know the detail of every road -- including the speed limits.

Here is the thing. Aside from being fantastically unsafe, the people driven car system we now have is fantastically inefficient. The typical privately owned automobile does nothing 95% of the time, which is why parking is such a hassle. It is also a massive cost for the car owner, and there is the hassle of keeping the vehicle running. Part of the cost is insurance, which is as high as it is because accident prone humans are driving the things.

The marketing plan is to get most folks to stop owning cars. Instead, when ready to go somewhere use your cell phone to order a robocar, which will show up in a few minutes. Tell it your destination and off you go. Take a nap on the way if you like. When finished off it goes to serve another customer. Far greater safety, far less total expense, much less bother, and residential streets freed from endless rows of parked cars. Also reduced will be traffic congestion, much of which occurs when cars get too packed together for klutzy Homo sapiens drivers to maintain speed. The cross communicating robotic carriages will not be so skittish about keeping the highway moving during rush hour. There is evidence that the newest generation of adults is already losing interest in the automobile as the great American status symbol, they being more ecoconscious, urbanized and enthralled with digital tech than horsepower and body styling.

So what is the problem? Specifically job-wise? Think about it. What is a basic way for those without much in the way of skills or education to earn enough money to at least get along? Like the Ignatowski character in the sitcom Taxi, drive a cab. But when the robocars take over hacking will go the way of nonavian dinosaurs. Who will want to ride in a car driven by some human being when the robocars are so much safer. And no rental company -- or their insurers -- will risk placing customers in people driven vehicles. Also eliminated is the risk of cabdrivers being robbed or worse. If and when robocars arrive in a big way there goes about a quarter million American jobs.  

(Less clear is what will happen to automobile production. The number of vehicles in existence at any moment should decline sharply, but those that exist will be used nearly 24/7/365 so they will have to be rapidly replaced. By robofactory workers of course.)

Lots of jobs are so dangerous that they are begging to go robotic. Mining, assembling power line and communication towers, firefighting, soldiers -- you get the drift.

Another great digital job killer is the Internet/Web. Once upon a time there were myriads of little mom and pop stores selling multitudes of items that were hard to get otherwise. Nowadays we can all get the same stuff cheaper via computer. So far the number of jobs lost has outpaced those created, and it is only likely to get worse as smart machines increasingly take on the jobs (such as warehouse item sorting and retrieval) so far created by the Internet shopping system.

Once upon a time papers, magazines, books, broadcast radio and TV, records used to provide jobs and incomes, but internet and web alternatives that few can make a living from are making it hard to get along as a journalist, author or illustrator. The idea that many can make good income by selling stuff over the digital network is a joke for most -- we can't make a living by selling each other T-shirts and nicknacks.

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Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. His scholarly work (more...)
 

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The first is an unrecognized mortal threat fro... by Mark Goldes on Friday, Aug 10, 2012 at 2:27:12 PM
Yes, automation is taking over the grunt work but ... by June Genis on Friday, Aug 10, 2012 at 4:19:40 PM
when there is no opportunity available for the wor... by David Chester on Sunday, Aug 12, 2012 at 12:51:47 PM