Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Player Piano


That was Kurt Vonnegut's first published novel. It presents a dystopia in which automation has created massive unemployment. A few engineers and managers have jobs and with them a purpose in life, and affluence, but pretty much everybody else is pretty much useless. Oh yeah, they are geographically segregated as well. Which is also happening in the real world today.

Eduardo Porter, in the Gray Lady, speaks the hard truth to the presidential candidates. The disappearance of decent jobs in the United States has very little to do with globalization or international trade agreements. We can't bring factory jobs home from China or Mexico because that's not where most of them went. The jobs were taken by machines. Employment in manufacturing is declining globally. Quoth Joseph Stiglitz:

The observation is uncontroversial. Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount.

That's a fact. And it will continue. Porter notes that at the beginning of the 20th Century, 41% of Americans worked on farms. Today it's 2%. Stopping food imports from Mexico and Chile isn't going to solve our need for good jobs. It's the same story in manufacturing. This is a looming disaster for the developing world, because growth in manufacturing employment has stopped while they are far poorer than the U.S. and Europe. They cannot possibly get rich by building factories, because workers cannot compete with machines. So what are they going to do?

Porter says we have to make a shift to a service-based employment economy. The idea is that the few people who get rich will spend their money to be entertained or massaged or have their gardens tended, I suppose. But obviously they aren't spending enough on that to make up for the loss of good jobs and most of those jobs are lousy anyway. And many service jobs are being replaced by machines as well -- from telephone receptionists to bank tellers. (If the self-driving cares ever become real, so long country music songs about truckers not to mention Uber and Lyft.)

Of course, government could invest in physical infrastructure, scientific and biomedical research, renewable energy, education. That would put people to work and maybe help to build a sustainable future. Well we know that isn't happening.

Unfortunately not even Bernie is telling us the inconvenient truth. NAFTA and the TPP aren't what did in the middle class, and he is not offering the only real and urgent solution. We need to invest collectively, as a nation, to build a livable future. And that does not include border walls.

1 comment:

robin andrea said...

Over-population plays a big role in this as well. Seven billion people on the planet does not bode well for the future.