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Are computers & automation decimating the middle class & does access to elite jobs need to be shared more equitably?

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(Article changed on September 28, 2013 at 09:33)

In a fair and just society, what kind of benefits from the government must be our right?

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As in Alaska, should we not all be entitled to our share of the profits from the oil (and maybe even the coal & natural gas too) that's found under our common land?   And IF we are so entitled, then are we not also entitled to our share of the very generous unemployment benefits that filthy-rich big corporations should be paying for?

Over the last 30 years or more, the profits of big corporations have just kept going skyward.   Meanwhile, the middle class has been decimated and hollowed out, as computers and automation become ever more efficient at taking jobs away from practically everyone who for any reason cannot become some kind of expert with regard to the usage and/or management of these seemingly magical machines.

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Tyler Cowen is a well-regarded economist at George Mason University in Virginia.   His new book, "Average Is Over," describes what he believes is the inevitable and permanent gap between the well-to-do and everybody else in the United States and the world.

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Cowen says that "work" will become the next great American political issue:   Who gets to work (for an income that can support a family by middle-class standards) and who doesn't?   And for those who get to work at such elite jobs, for how many months each year should they be allowed to work at them?  

We talk and debate "unemployment" now, but the unemployment issue will soon come front and center, as continually expanding levels of unemployment continues to push down, down, down the life and comforts, even the reason for being, of people who lack the skills or ambition to find a useful (highly skilled, computer-literate, professional) job (40 hrs/wk, 50 wks/yr) that's capable of supporting a family at middle-class levels or above.

"Workers," Cowen writes, "more and more will come to be relegated to one or the other of these two categories:   The remaining middle-class, and the ever larger numbers who will soon be dumped from it.   The key questions that will determine which category you will be in, are these:  

1.    Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?  

2.      Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you?  

3.    Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you more than you are helping computers compete against them?"

4.    Worst of all, are you competing against the computer?  

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Cowen calls our attention to the statistics that describe big changes in work and compensation in our society:   high school and college graduates (including those with master's degrees) are earning from 5 to 20 percent less in constant dollars than they did only 10 years ago.   That is, if they can find work.   Then he goes on to explain how much worse this situation is very likely to get.

He describes a coming "hyper-meritocracy," in which those who can effectively interface with the magical machines of our time -- understand that today's iPhone is more powerful than the world's largest computers were in 1985 -- will quickly become (at least middle-class) rich, since they are essential to corporate profit-making and the economy.   But they would account for no more than 10 to 15% of the workforce.   The other 85% will find some servant-like work making these high-earners feel better -- for the most part they will work as relatively low-paid masseurs, chefs, drivers, gardeners, personal coaches, dog-washers, psychotherapists, prostitutes, etc.

So, is this a brave new world you are willing to accept?   Are you prepared to see the size of America's middle class shrink by another 50% or more?    And if Tyler Cowen is correct about what seems to be heading our way, how might it be stopped?   And can it be, unless ever more of the elite work is somehow shared?   And if ever more work were to be shared by ever more people (as the number of professional "temps' continues to increase), where is one's income going to come from when one's "turn' to work has passed (i.e. when the project one was working on has been completed) and one is facing unemployment for the next few months, until one's "turn' comes round again?

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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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