Monday, September 3, 2012
Way back in the 70s, when automation was really taking off, there was talk about what all the former workers would do with their time. There was serious discussion that the fruits of automation would be shared. People once tied to assembly lines would be free to pursue creative activities.
What we ended up with is all the wealth being concentrated at the top and the former factory workers either unemployed or reduced to working low wage service jobs. So much for Utopian dreams.
Even places like China are in the process of replacing people with machines. The leaders are worried as unemployment rears its ugly head, threatening societal stability.
Let’s bring the whole automation thing to its logical conclusion. Everything gets automated and there are no jobs. All wealth is concentrated in the the hands of the machine owners. Of course, before that would happen, there would be no one with any money to buy the products and services of the machines. Who knows, maybe by then consumption will be automated too.
While I’m at it, let’s take Capitalism to it’s logical conclusion. All the weaker companies lose to the stronger ones. Over time, there would be fewer and fewer companies, but those companies would be larger. Eventually, everything would be owned by one giant company. Then competition would end and everything would be crap.
In the real world, everything is not so neat, but my simplified explanations show the trends. Much of the disappearance of jobs has been hidden by an expanding economy and the creation of new jobs. As the economy has slowed down, the cracks in the system have become more apparent.
The economy was bound to slow down eventually. Nothing can expand for ever, especially when limited to the a single planet. Hard physical limits hit dreamy economists in the head. This is a wake up call.
What do we do about these problems? Some think everyone should be guaranteed a minimum livable income. It’s not as far fetched as one might think. That would not really be much more expensive than the system we have now. So many people collect government assistance in so many ways a simple direct payment to everyone would certainly simplify everything. People could then decide to do whatever interests them: art, writing, philosophy, theoretical physics, or they could just go fishing. Jobs that could not be automated or were really nasty would have to entice people with good wages and benefits.
There was some expectation that automated systems would fall victim to higher energy costs. Take factory farming for example. The idea was that small family farms would have the advantage. It turns out that as prices of inputs go up, the family farm suffers the effects even more than the factory farms. The large farms have the advantages of scale, volume, and political connections.
Political action could make life easier for most people. It’s done so in the past. There have been times when Capitalism had very few regulations. Workers suffered, monopolies formed, and the economy had huge boom and bust cycles. The political climate changed. Labor and health laws were passed. Monopolies were broken up. The worse abuses of the financial class were eliminated. The middle class grew.
Where are we now and where do we go from here? Some days I think the average Joe can wrestle political power back from the 1% and structure a more just society. Then I sober up. I hope to god that desperate people don’t go way the way of armed revolt. Then what we end up with is something like Communism, which we all know wasn’t really a lot of fun to live under. Armed revolt could give us a situation like the chaos of Somalia -something else that’s no fun.
What to do, what to do?
We know from Joseph Tainter that complex societies are prone to collapse. The more efficient they get,the less resilient they get. Maybe the only thing to do is to wait for the reset and rebuild from the ground up.
Of course, humans are smart and could decide their own fate, so nothing is set in stone.
Anyways, this has certainly gone on long enough for a holiday read. Your beer is getting warm. Enjoy the day off -a hold over from the last time labor gained a few concessions from the machine owners. If you have to work today, well . . . I guess that’s been lost too. It’s a trend.