Consider this as well. Automation leads to centralization and centralization knows no boundaries. Just as corporations centralize, so do economies. Peter Drucker recently suggested what this should mean to Canadians. He pointed out that the U.S. is now the only country with sizable service exports. Soon the United States will be the hub of all automated, online, remunerated services. In the same way that companies squeezed out workers, so U.S. services will squeeze out "hinterland" economies.
Already our unemployment rate is typically twice that of the U.S. Expect the difference between the two rates to rise. Unless the trend towards automation is stopped, the only significant employment pool left may one day be in the United States. Just as the Canadian worker has been displaced from work, so may the Canadian economy.
Let me remind you of what Business Horizons magazine said in 1993: "We are moving rapidly toward a 'post-service' society in which most routine and repetitive service jobs are significantly reduced or eliminated. ... What appears to be happening is no less momentous than the end of industrial society as we know it and the dizzying arrival of a new type of society with a far different economic base. ... We are witnessing what may be the permanent downsizing of the human work force."
We're seeing our standard of living decline, our country getting poorer rather than getting ahead. None of us would have wished this upon ourselves had we known then what we know now. It was an unforeseen consequence of unwise decisions.
Automation is not a bug; it's a virus that will spread throughout our population, claiming people's jobs and eventually taking the corporations down with it. StatsCan reports that consumers are getting poorer and financing their consumption out of debt now rather than income. Because robots and "systems" don't buy goods and services, they may some day be producing them without buyers. Then corporations themselves will begin to fall. When corporations start clamouring with the rest of us, what then?
When that point comes, it'll be no easy matter to put our people back to work. They'll be technologically obsolescent, the frontier of productive knowledge having passed them by. The solution to the structural unemployment problem won't be as easy as a simple infusion of government cash.
If we undermine work, we undermine the entire basis of our peaceful existence together. It may be fine for other countries to raise coca leaves and opium plants and deal drugs on international markets, beg by the roadside, topple governments, loot and burn, or remain docile while living in poverty and fear. But Canadians don't live life these ways.
We've tacitly agreed among ourselves to earn our keep by working. An honest day's wages for an honest day's work, full employment - these have been the elements of our social contract. Take work away from us and it isn't clear how we will earn our living. This is really the new frontier, the uncharted territory, that the mixed blessing of technology has led us to.
Expect government revenues to continue shrinking. And, yes, expect the demands on government for relief (retraining, placement, medical services, unemployment insurance, welfare), to continue to grow. Governments will be left to handle their paradoxical finances until they find ways to raise revenue by either taxing those in whom wealth is concentrated or else putting people back to work.
The paradox that governments face is that the governed will demand more services even as governments' revenues are falling. Such is the result of putting one's population out of work. Robots don't pay taxes. But the people they replace still do and still require social services, even as they're less able to pay for them. After all, life will go on for the unemployed.
A trend is not a law. We'll permanently downsize the work force only if we allow it. If we stand firm in demanding that public policy not permit the permanent downsizing of the Canadian workforce, then we shall in time collectively find a way to reverse this trend. I urge Canadians to begin widely discussing this global problem.
I also urge Canadians to elect a government next time that can see clearly and has the courage to wrestle with this problem. If the government feels its hands are tied because it cannot contemplate taking a leading role that involves increased expenditure, then please, accept our thanks and step aside. If jobs are to be saved, then the next phase of things will involve a tighter rein on business practices and the expansion of government's role in the whole arena of work. I recommend that the voters of Canada in the next election insist that their party have a full platform addressing the technological capture of work and its impact on people.
I also invite the media to leave aside discussion of "recessions" for the time being and cover the impact of technology on work. If we don't zero in on this phenomenon, we'll face a situation eventually that is worse than the Great Depression and harder to get out of.
Sidebar: Automation in the Printing Industry
"Automating workflow has been one of the primary benefits of electronic prepress systems since their introduction. However, much of the prepress automation has been done piecemeal, producing islands of automation, each with its own type of workflow. In the early stages of automating the prepress crafts, the new digital workflows tended to mimic the steps followed by the craftsmen. Automation of estimating cost and price, prepress operations, printing, postpress finishing, shipping, and billing occurred more or less independently--digital files from one stage were seldom passed on to the other stages.
"There has been a growing impetus to develop a single, all-digital workflow throughout the prepress, printing, and postprinting stages. An industry consortium called CIP3 (which stands for International Co-operation for Integration of Prepress, Press, and Postpress) is developing standards for the transfer of digital data from one stage to another.