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A World Without Work

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John Markoff’s Times feature from yesterday on robots replacing human labor left me deeply depressed. Increased advances in robot technology has begun to pay dividends for corporations who can replace industrial workers with fast and inexpensive machines. As Americans, I guess we are supposed to celebrate these kinds of things since we are in love with a vision of technological futurism that will make our lives increasingly perfect. And it’s not as if assembly line jobs are any great shakes. Unless you are unemployed.

To me, the future seems to be, in a world where bosses rule with total control, one of massive unemployment in the face of continued technological advancement. The 1% can get even more money while the masses suffer the long-term degradation of institutionalized poverty.

Of course, my pessimism flies in the face of national mythology. After all, as one electronics executive noted in the linked article, “At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan?” Hey, I can answer that question! My own pedantic forestry history would like to remind people that the modern chainsaw wasn’t developed until the 1930s, by which time the Paul Bunyan myth was already fully integrated into logging mythology. But whatever. The technological changes that rapidly changed the nature of work in timber beginning around 1890 did make many jobs obsolete. But there was a difference between the past and now, and especially the post-war period of chainsaws and now. Earlier technological innovations did throw people out of work but with growing industrial capacity, actual overall job loss tended to be mitigated by other factors. Long-term unemployment resulted more from rapacious capitalists throwing the nation into long-term depressions than technological displacement. In the end, and especially in the post-war Northwest, there were jobs for everyone in logging, regardless of technological displacement. We cut a whole lot of trees in those decades.

But we have reached a new phase in economic and labor history. The overall growth in the industrial sector simply doesn’t have much room for massive numbers of poorly-educated unemployed blue-collar workers. As we’ve seen with the huge employment disparities between college and non-college educated people in this country since 2007, the decline in industrial labor means that work options are severely limited for many people. That’s hardly going to be different in China, Mexico, Honduras, or any country where assembly line labor takes place today. What will happen to millions of Chinese workers when they are thrown on the streets? Their government certainly won’t take care of them.

We had decades of industrial growth thanks to Keynesian economics and unsustainable use of resources, enough to provide work for people displaced by technological innovation. When that era ended and when industrial labor was sent abroad, Americans managed to keep the charade of stability and growth going through cheap credit and ballooning home prices. That’s burst and we have no answer 5 years into a stagnation. The advance of robot labor hints that this is the future for the working-class around the world. The incredibly propulsive growth of robots in so many sectors of the economy suggests a world with less and less work. A utopian might argue this is good–if everyday people benefit from increased leisure time and the wealth the robots create. But that’s not going to happen. Rather, long-term unemployment around the world seems far more likely.

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