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RETURN OF THE LUDDITES? (PART II)

August 7, 2015

 

RETURN OF THE LUDDITES? (PART II)

Sachs writes that “Machines do indeed eliminate jobs, but that on the whole, we should be grateful; that humanity was condemned to hard labor per the Book of Genesis, that machines have offered us some respite by easing our burdens and raising living standards, that the armies of robots and other smart machines now on the horizon can ease these burdens further. . . . “

After such rah-rah for robots and smart machines that have relieved humanity of heavy and dirty work, Sachs alludes to the questions I have raised in the earlier part of this essay and asks “if we humans are smart enough to act so that the benefits of these technologies are widely shared.” He then outlines some of the steps we can take to distribute the wealth created by such new technologies, which I will discuss later in this part. He points out that while the new smarter machines and systems have displaced an expanding swath of routinized work, they have all demanded new skills to manage the smarter systems and have resulted in higher earnings for the higher skilled workers, but, tellingly, he writes that “on the whole, however, more and more workers are being left behind.”

I think he is right that more and more workers are being left behind, and I note here that those newly left behind are joining millions already left behind. It appears that unemployment is destined for systemic rather than cyclical description and that our response must be systemic as well. We cannot leave such a permanent economic dislocation of millions of Americans living in perpetual recession or depression to the political vagaries and ideological whims of congresses who are elected from time to time. We may have to seek constitutional amendment to protect distribution of wealth created by a smart machine age to protect the tens of millions of would-be American workers who have no work available and no credentials for the relatively few skilled jobs that may be available now and then.

Sachs points to some relief on the job front by writing that the economy “will need millions of additional workers trained in designing and operating smart systems in manufacturing, e-commerce, e-education, e-health care, transport and logistics, renewable energy, and e-governance.” “Millions more,” he writes, “will be needed to provide nursing and personal support services for the rapidly aging population, and in an era of increased leisure time, the entertainment, travel, fitness, and other leisure industries are very likely to expand.” I agree that we will have more leisure time, but by necessity rather than choice, and I have to wonder who is going to pay for all of these new jobs he is projecting in our smart machine age.

Looking at the obverse side of his hopeful equation, let’s consider the following: Clerical workers in this digital age are being replaced by computerized business processing (as in letter openers laid off because people pay their bills on line), sales workers by e-commerce; maintenance workers who are being displaced by smart systems that can be monitored remotely or may be self-correcting; surveillance workers who are replaced by remote monitoring, and remote monitoring in my personal experience.

I used to have meter readers come to the house and record my electrical use – now it is done remotely. At least dozens of meter readers for my electrical utility company have been displaced, and presumably, tens of thousands more have been displaced as well as remote readings of meters are installed across the country. Even Wal-Mart greeters are at risk. There is a picture of a pale-faced and kimono-clad and permanently smiling lady greeter who serves as an automated receptionist at a department store in Japan in Sachs’ piece under the heading “The Robot Will See You Now (And she never goes on break).” Silicon Valley is now teaching emotional intelligence to robots so I suppose the next to go will be therapists and with more such sophistication in teaching, psychiatrists.

Is nothing immune? Have we outsmarted ourselves? Do we have an economic tiger by the tail? Time to join present-day Luddites and outlaw not looms but innovation itself, i. e., time to “dumb down?” Can we afford novelty and innovation, or more precisely, the effects of novelty and innovation in a society and economy unprepared for the disruptions they thrust upon us? Is anyone working on possible policy choices as the tsunami nears shore? There are many questions and few answers as we plod along with yesterday’s answers to tomorrow’s problems. Perhaps it is time for think tanks to get off their ideological perches in advocating tax cuts and other such pedestrian measures and start “thinking” about an economy that may itself be headed for oblivion on the junk heap of history.

Sachs outlines some of the steps we can take to redistribute the income and wealth created by such new technologies, noting that capital owners are likely to benefit more than workers as the share of national income going to capital will increase at the expense of labor. That will be nothing new (See Piketty’s r > g formula). He writes that government policies are needed to ensure that workers have the rights and opportunities for flexible time away from work, such as paid parental leave, vacation time and sick leave, all routinely guaranteed in northern Europe but not in the United States. He also rightly calls for profit-sharing within companies with redistribution of some of the capital windfalls paid back to workers, a return to higher rates of unionization, an end to runaway powers of CEOs and their outlandish leeway to pay themselves outlandish salaries, patent law excesses in new drug pricing and monopoly-pricing in the health sector, all good ideas long in need of implementation.

However, and with all due respect due to the great economist, Jeffrey Sachs, it seems to me that the foregoing recommendations address yesterday’s problems and assume a level of employment I do not foresee in tomorrow’s economy. The problem as I see it is not among the employed but rather the tens of millions of Americans who will not be employed or even employable. How do we distribute the economy’s income and wealth to those who are not involved in the production of such income and wealth? He correctly writes elsewhere that the government can and should ensure that the new productivity windfall is broadly based and suggests taxes on windfall wealth and high incomes, but it is far from clear to me that such is possible, and Sachs himself correctly writes elsewhere that “Our political system, drenched in special-interest campaign financing and the lobbying of self-interested billionaires, has increasingly rejected the idea of redistribution, and that today’s mega-winners tell the losers, “Tough luck, that’s just progress.” Really? Progress for whom?

So where are we? Would Republicans tolerate a total redo of our tax code now  grossly slanted in favor of their patrons so that unemployed and unemployable Americans could survive, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing redistribution of the income and wealth provided by our economy to the tens of millions of unemployed and unemployable Americans displaced by innovation etc.? Don’t bet the farm on it. Retaking democracy from the plutocrats is our first order of business. Let’s start there, and let’s start soon at our next electoral opportunity to effect change sans pitchforks.  GERALD    E

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