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What's Causing the Growing Income Gap That's Gradually Undermining Our Democracy & Economy? And What Can We Do About It

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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, civilian-oriented production.

Instead, however, it was WWII that absorbed all that money, all those potential wages, and all that work.

So here's the crux of the matter

Robots 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.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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