What will happen to most workers as
automation and robotics find ever more applications in ever more areas of work? And need we be apprehensive about this? Not according to The American Prospect's
Robert Kuttner, who explains why we actually need not fear the continuing advance of
robots and ever-more sophisticated computer applications. He begins by pointing to the 1930s, when
there was the first 'automation' scare, and many economists, even then, blamed
high unemployment on machines taking human jobs. At that time, John
Maynard Keynes explained that the problem was NOT new,
labor-saving machines -- rather, it was simply the ever more depressed
purchasing power of the majority of people-- an issue that could and should
be addressed, he said, without
getting rid of labor-saving machines -- just increase the purchasing power of the general population.
How could that be accomplished today?
Answer: By beginning to break the all-to-rigid correlation
between the amount and value of private-sector
work done by an individual, and the amount of basic resources available to that
individual. In other words, there needs to be ways
alternative to the private sector, to provide everyone with housing and food staples, healthcare and quality
education. And the massive public sector investments of the 1930s
and 40s, proved the feasibility of this simple goal. New, labor-saving, automated
technologies continued to be invented, produced, and used, but ALSO produced (as
many younger people today may not know) was ever more in the way of public works jobs that benefited and
improved the commons. The Civilian
Conservation Corps was an early example. Hundreds of parks were created by millions of
workers, and were steadily improved. Three
billion trees were planted. Hiking trails were created, picnic tables and
grills were built in those many hundreds of parks, as were a good many public
swimming pools and tennis courts.
Meanwhile, the Works Progress
Administration also put to work millions of
unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) who constructed public buildings and
roads. In a smaller but more famous
project, the Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists,
writers, actors and directors, many working on media and public literacy projects.
Almost every community in the
United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by this agency. The
WPA's initial appropriation in 1935 was for almost $5 billion (about 7% of the
1935 GDP), and in total it spent $13.4 billion.
At its peak in 1938, it provided salaried jobs for three million
unemployed men and women -- as well as youth, in a separate division, the
National Youth Administration. Between
1935 and 1943, the WPA provided a total of almost eight million jobs.
Also very helpful in reducing
unemployment in the mid-1940s (to virtually zero), was of course all the
government-ordered production of -- quite sadly -- the weaponry for WWII. Enormous numbers of new jobs (primarily for
women and anyone else not thought to be fit for war) were created this way, as most
people know. And by this means we had way
more than enough consumer demand (by way of all that new paid work) to buy
everything that was for sale. So, if by
some miracle Hitler had been quickly assassinated -- let's imagine this for a
moment, WWII could conceivably have been avoided. And
if our government, by way of yet another miracle, had then been able to order
factories to produce, instead of the
implements of war, plenty in the way of manufactured housing, public transportation,
new and rebuilt infrastructure, and modernized/beautified cities, and
could also have, say, doubled the median wage, then there would have been more than enough money in the pockets of
worker/consumers to buy and pay for all of this magnificent new,
Instead, however, it was WWII
that absorbed all that money, all those potential wages, and all that work.
here's the crux of the matter
are a threat to our economy only if
we DO NOT have a national economic
policy designed to produce more in the way of broad-based, effective consumer
demand. That is to say, we simply need to somehow put more spending money in the
pockets of the bottom 90+%, especially the bottom 50%, which would automatically
create even more jobs, as ever more people looked for ways to spend that extra
money. So today, just as Keynes said way
back in the 1930s, it's not the automation and robotics we should fear; it's the right-wing economic policies that will accompany it if wingnut
politicians remain in control.
Long story short, robots and computer applications are allowing us to become so efficient in doing all the work that society has set out to get done, that, in spite of ever increasing production and consumption of the maximally marketed superfluous, decently paid jobs are disappearing at an ever increasing rate -- so fast that there are, now, well over 3 million Americans living in poverty or near poverty who are currently seeking a job. (Link)
As a result of this massive
unemployment and poverty (which it totally unnecessary), and the poor educational standards that accompany it
in our poorest neighborhoods and communities, huge numbers of men and women
turn to crime, if only by selling marijuana, and millions of them end up
behind bars, which has a devastating
effect/ on their families and communities.
Meanwhile, ever fewer workers even get an opportunity to help do the basic and
most important work (e.g. in housing, healthcare, education) the accomplishment
and achievement of which is absolutely essential to their success and the success of our society as a whole. In turn, this is leading to a situation where
the traditional requirement (that each
worker, in order to maintain his or her membership in the middle class, must
put in a full 40 hours of work each week, 50 weeks/yr, for 40 years or more), is rapidly becoming obsolete. So here's the kicker: Given the ever advancing power of ever more sophisticated robots and
computer applications, the only way we can even BEGIN to keep all members of the middle class busy these days, for that many hours of their lives, is if
ever more of their work-hours are devoted to the production, marketing and sale of ever more in the
way of superfluous luxury goods.
Problem is, it's the production, marketing and sale of these very things that are not only wasting the world's
resources (especially oil and coal) but also fouling our environment, raising
CO2 levels, poisoning the oceans, raising sea levels, and causing ever more extreme and
destructive weather events.
This is capitalism running a muck.
In today's economy, as jobs steadily disappear, it is therefore literally insane
to require 40 hours of work from
each and every individual, in order for the "successful" ones to get the money
it takes to remain in the middle class, i.e. to be able to afford a decent
home, good healthcare, high quality education for their kids, and high-quality
food on their table, day in and day out.
When three people are looking for every available job that pays more than the minimum wage, why continually force two of those three (i.e. the " un successful" ones) into poverty or
near poverty just because they can't find a job helping to produce ever more of
the superfluous crap that's killing our planet?!
If, because of congressional
Republicans and Blue Dogs, it is unrealistic to try and bring back organizations
like the CCC and the WPA, to provide the additional employment opportunities we
need (as robots and automation steal ever more of our jobs), then for God sake,
let's find some way to let anyone who needs a job . . work part time, sharing the ever-reduced amount of work it
takes to produce basic goods and services for all. And then find some way to allow each and every one of these people a fair share
of the basic housing, food, healthcare and education they help produce! Otherwise we will continue to spend $50,000 a
year, on average, keeping each of more than 2 million of them behind bars -- most of
them who would never have found themselves behind bars if they had been blessed by a
decently educated and employed father and mother, and a neighborhood and
community that was not dominated by unemployment, poverty, the resulting crime, and those
community members and family members who are missing because of imprisonment.
According to Martin Ford, in his
new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology
and the Threat of a Jobless Future, America's economic Goldilocks period
has come to an end -- unless we are able to democratically act
to correct the tragic situation just described.