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Money for Nothing August 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy.
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If the problems of health care and global warming are not sufficiently difficult to solve, there is another issue looming on the horizon that I have been worrying about for some time. Gregory Clark in the Sunday NY Times gives it some exposure.

…the economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology’s role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.

The battle will be over how to get the economy’s winners to pay for an increasingly costly poor.

As Clark points out, despite the steady advance of technology during the industrial revolution, unskilled labor was still very important to the economy and was paid rather well, especially in the late 20th century. Machines have not been able to replace human communication skills or fine motor skills.

But in more recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.

We can now carry out complicated transactions by phone with no human interaction and machines are increasingly able to perform routine physical tasks. ATM machines and automated food service kiosks are only the tip of the iceberg. There are now fully automated factories in the U.S., and with increases in computer processing speed and improvement in the software to drive voice and vision recognition systems, there seems little doubt that the workplace will become increasingly automated.

Clark asks the important question:

So, how do we operate a society in which a large share of the population is socially needy but economically redundant? There is only one answer. You tax the winners — those with the still uniquely human skills, and those owning the capital and land — to provide for the losers.

It is hard to imagine our current ethical and political systems, which presuppose a work ethic, individual responsibility, meritocracy, and powerful resistance to taxes, adapting easily to these changes. We must learn to think otherwise, perhaps along the lines of an ethic of care.

Some people, such as Robert Reich, see the increasing importance of symbol analysts as a source of new jobs but Clark is skeptical that everyone will have the cognitive ability to perform this work. The number of people dropping out of high school or finishing high school with few literacy or math skills supports Clark’s view.


In the end, we may be forced to learn to live in a United States where, by stealth, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” becomes the guiding principle of government — or else confront growing, unattended poverty

I hope Clark is wrong about this, but he is not obviously wrong. The increasing importance of robotics looks inevitable to me.

It is impossible to predict how soon this will come about. But it is worth noting that today it was reported that in the second-quarter, non-farm productivity rose at a 6.4 annual rate, during a time of burgeoning unemployment. This means firms are squeezing more out of the workers they have. Many will be reluctant to hire those workers back—especially if new technology can replace them.

This brave new world may come sooner than we think.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com



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