Thursday, March 2, 2017

On Obsolete Occupations

We're sorry. But you're no longer needed.
Or wanted. Or even cared about here. 
Machines can do a better job than you.
And this is what you get for asking questions.

- “Soup is Good Food,” The Dead Kennedys

It’s pretty easy to imagine how Gray Lady scriveners would greet my last three skewers of them - that is, in the highly unlikely event they ever saw them. These famous, globe-trotting sweatshop apologists would probably brush them off as emotional and woefully uniformed about the beneficial realities of world markets.* They would feign obligatory empathy for the affected while advocating callous policies and argue that the thing they agree is terrible is actually quite wonderful.

But since we are imagining things, let’s pretend they had one valid argument. Let’s pretend they mentioned automation. If they ever did, I missed it. After all, their focus is on globalization and we can build robots here. Plus, it is harder to paint robotization as Kiplingesque missionary work.

It's funny how often they accuse their critics of being Luddites without mentioning machines. Instead, "the future" fulfills this rhetorical function: They say their critics hate and fear The Future. As with Stalinists of yore, the future excuses all atrocities. IMF Structural Adjustment Programs that plunge poor countries deeper in debt are like Stalin's infamous Five Year Plans. If you don't want to be crushed under The Future's tractor treads, you should get out of the way. These heralds of the inevitable are authoritarians promising that the state will "fade away," except it will be replaced by transnational corporations rather than local communes. Their article of faith is that more commerce will solve all social problems when unfettered by government regulations. 

Yeah, tell that to the Congolese children slaving in cobalt mines to to make the lithium-ion batteries in our smart phones. The pure pursuit of profit is the cause of their poverty, not the solution to it. The "magic of the market" is actually sleight of hand. It's a pity Penn & Teller are with the charlatans on this one. They are not skeptics where the free market religion is concerned.

Automation is absolutely costing jobs. This isn’t to suggest that overseas outsourcing isn’t: Both are. Outsourcing is just another wound to bleed from. As this New York Times article arguing that automation costs more jobs that outsourcing candidly admits:
Globalization is clearly responsible for some of the job losses, particularly trade with China during the 2000s, which led to the rapid loss of 2 million to 2.4 million net jobs, according to research by economists including Daron Acemoglu and David Autor of M.I.T. People who work in parts of the country most affected by imports generally have greater unemployment and reduced income for the rest of their lives, Mr. Autor found in a paper published in January. 
But Autor adds that automation would have "eventually eliminated those jobs anyway." It is easy to see why. As I wrote in my previous post, "To management, employees are just machines." Twas ever thus. Whether the human robots live in China or the U.S. makes no difference to them.

There is no questioning that we are in a period of transition, but it can be cushioned or it can be bruising. Corporate globalization’s cheerleaders would prefer it were 
pulverizing. They want to crush unions and punish the poor for daring to aspire to equality. If that sounds outlandishly melodramatic or improbable, you have not yet read my previous post. 

Their attitude basically amounts to: “If laid-off autoworkers don’t learn to become dot com entrepreneurs, they have nobody to blame but themselves.” These columnists are not just bankrupt of compassion but of any realism beyond their bubble of privilege. The have not honestly grappled with the question of what all these cast-off people are supposed to do now. Tisking improvidence is insufficient. Which is unfortunate because scolding the poor is where they really excel

Obviously, I advocate some cushioning. But I also insist on some realistic talk about the end point of this process. Neither globalization nor automation is a never-ending process: At some point, you run out of planet. There will be no more foreign shores to relocate to. There will be no more jobs to automate. Globalization is touted as the new frontier; but eventually every frontier closes because you have taken all you can from the natives and you have nothing left to do but write a musical boasting about how "The corn is as high as an elephant's eye." It isn't pretty.

Case in point, this current form of globalization depends on cheap oil. You cannot make products with components and assembly stages scattered all over the world once we hit Peak Oil. Transportation costs will make that prohibitively expensive. Indeed, some companies are already bringing factories back home - unfortunately, they are doing it with more automation so job prospects are not much improved. From the same Times story:

When Greg Hayes, the chief executive of United Technologies, agreed to invest $16 million in one of its Carrier factories as part of a Trump deal to keep some jobs in Indiana instead of moving them to Mexico, he said the money would go toward automation. “What that ultimately means is there will be fewer jobs,” he said on CNBC. Take the steel industry. It lost 400,000 people, 75 percent of its work force, between 1962 and 2005. But its shipments did not decline, according to a study published in the American Economic Review last year. The reason was a new technology called the minimill. Its effect remained strong even after controlling for management practices; job losses in the Midwest; international trade; and unionization rates, found the authors of the study, Allan Collard-Wexler of Duke and Jan De Loecker of Princeton.
If only the New York Times' columnists were as thorough and fact-driven as its reporters are. 

At least we have more perceptive and reflective voices out there giving their perspectives. For example, David Simon, the creator of the HBO show "The Wire," has helpfully pointed out that economically obsolete people do not conveniently disappear. Note that. It will be relevant shortly:
And that's what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow. That's the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we've managed to marginalize?
Fortunately, that question already has an answer. For his introduction to a reprinting of Paul LaFargue's 1883 book The Right to be LazyJoseph Jablonksi wrote an essay in 1989 entitled "The War on Leisure." It recalled a problem we never had but feared having:
Sometimes I have the feeling I am the only person who remembers a certain popular sociological clich√© of the late fifties and sixties about the imminent arrival of the Age of Mass Leisure. Yet many more could probably unbury, if they tried, some dusty and yellowed books, popular magazines and scholarly journals containing alarmist articles and quotations pondering whether we are really ready for the inevitable utopia of almost total leisure. Such concerns and conclusions were pretty much an article of faith among young urban social scientists and graduate students doing “participant observer” fieldwork among “hippies” and others in those days. “Automation” was not only coming, it was here! Millions were already living height on freebies and throwaways – or so it was written and reported. Work was becoming a peripheral aspect of daily life. Leisure was the new frontier. Were we equal to it? What could “post-industrial man” fill the void in his life caused by his economic obsolescence?
That sounds like a good problem to have. Alas, we escaped that calamity. Instead, automation meant more people competing for fewer jobs. And on top of that, the first wave of overseas outsourcing began making things even worse for workers.

This was a disastrous decision that we made as a society but we can unmake it. As Abraham Lincoln said, we are free to change our form of government at any time and our economic arrangements are no different. Automation was supposed to provide comfort, not poverty. It still can. We just have to decide to use it that way. Nothing is inevitable. Forget the far right's invisible historical forces.

One possible way is the universal basic income currently being tested in Finland. Instead of welfare, people get a base monthly check, which they do not lose if they find work. This check would replace most social services - except their universal healthcare. Interestingly, some conservative critics of the welfare state are enthusiastic about it, which gives me some pause. Indeed, racist author Charles Murray has even advocated it in the Wall Street Journal. Did I mention my wariness?

I don't think Finland has insidious designs, but vigilance is always necessary because no good idea is immune to being distorted or poorly applied. For example, Charles Krauthammer has endorsed reparations for slavery in exchange for ending affirmative action for all minorities. As I wrote before, this is a transparent attempt at divide and conquer. Still, that should not taint a just or good idea. Again, all good ideas can be distorted or misused.  Should we thus chuck all good ideas?

People fear de-industrialization for a variety of reasons. Some are cultural and tightly bound up with identity. This is the "existential crisis" that both David Simon and Joseph Jablonksi spoke of. Many enjoy working with their hands and getting them dirty: They don't want to become cubical drones. 

As a homeowner, I totally get this. But the universal basic income will not end that. Factory jobs or no, there is a ton of 
long-neglected work to be done. As I wrote in a earlier post, human need does not automatically create markets. Thus, government must intervene to correct such blind spots. Our infrastructure is crumbling. For example, eleven percent of our bridges are structurally unsound. Think about that next time you cross a river. Also, read this and memorize it.

Other forms of deterioration are no so dramatic, but they still need to be fixed. So many solutions kill two birds with one stone. A lot of our architectural heritage is threatened. It will need skilled masons and carpenters to restore. Electricians and plumbers are needed to bring old buildings up to code. To repurpose Georges Clemenceau's famous quip, architectural preservation is too important to be left to yuppies. We can enliven devastated areas without the gentrification which drives the poor out of their own neighborhoods. A preservation-oriented Works Progress Administration may be necessary.

It’s just a question of priorities. Skilled manual labor will never go away entirely, but the repetitious work will disappear leaving the interesting work. People who think it is "just a job" can do other jobs to supplement their guaranteed income.

Moreover, most hobbies are also forms of work, such as woodworking or working on cars. Even unconventionally productive pastimes like sports and music can become careers - which is what a lot of people would rather be doing than their day job. Most people don't sit around for long. We have to do things. We have to make things. It's what humans do. "Filling the void" will not be a problem.

No, we do not quite live in the era depicted in "The Jetsons" - flying cars are probably never happening. But the wholesale replacing of people is here. As that Times article explained:

The changes are not just affecting manual labor: Computers are rapidly learning to do some white-collar and service-sector work, too. Existing technology could automate 45 percent of activities people are paid to do, according to a July report by McKinsey. Work that requires creativity, management of people or caregiving is least at risk. 
Yes, existing tech. Roombas are now vacuuming floors. Working prototypes for drone package delivery and driverless vehicles are already here. Thus, truck drivers, bus drivers, and taxi cabbies will soon disappear as job options - and Uber drivers too, if the company still exists then.

Will Nicholas Kristof lecture these displaced workers as well?

I'm not saying everything will be okay. We can keep fucking this up as we have been. There are plenty of people who are happy to let the swelling ranks of the unemployed starve. That's not an option - not only because it is totally unconscionable morally, but because raising a resentful army of jobless, desperate Americans isn't exactly the apex of far-sighted civic wisdom. The shocking election of Donald Trump is but a taste of what we will face if we continue to ignore the forgotten. 


The dystopia portrayed in the rest of Dead Kennedys song probably cements the impression in this particular cri de coeur. But it is a lot more accurate than the hellscapes Nicolas Kristof portrays.

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