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Bring On the Robots

October 11, 2015

Advances in technology over time have greatly increased the productivity of workers both here and abroad. Often, fears are raised that productivity increases will become so profound as to lessen the need for workers, the hours they need to work or supplant many of them entirely to be replaced by automation and/or robots. The way our society copes with these changes has already affected the lives of millions and promises to affect even more in the future.

So far, distribution of the productivity gains among our population has been extremely unequal, to say the least. Minimum wage has not kept pace with productivity increases for many years. Neither has the median wage/salary. The main gains have been seen among the highest income earners. In the corporate world, that translates into CEOs and other high level executives, along with shareholders in the form of profit redistribution known as stock dividends. CEO/Average Worker wage ratios have reached record levels in this country, with no signs of being regulated anytime soon. ATMs and other automated banking mechanisms may be replacing some human bank tellers, but this has helped to increase profits and allowed for increasing income inequality.

Banks are but one small example of how increased productivity and technological improvements have enabled corporations to lower labor costs while increasing profitability. Free Trade agreements, improvements in transportation and communication technology (use of the internet playing a key role here) have also made it easier for corporations to move capital abroad to exploit labor there, often in nations which do not provide worker rights and workplace conditions which are prevalent here. The fact that moving money abroad is far less restricted than moving people has meant that often good-paying jobs in this country are being replaced by much lower priced labor in foreign countries, leading to the economy here and in other advanced economies shifting from a manufacturing base to more of a service sector base as manufacturing shifts to countries providing lower paid workers.

Companies which outsource and offshore production are often not only permitted to do so, but encouraged by tax laws and other economic incentives to move entire manufacturing operations lock, stock and barrel, leaving workers here jobless and with dim prospects for finding comparable future employment with similar pay and benefits packages. So called Free Market Capitalism results in a race to the bottom for workers who become pitted against each other as well as against workers in other countries competing for fewer jobs at lower wages. The fact that many corporate executives and/or shareholders feel any responsibility over and above a profitable bottom line means that often, jobs providing for a comfortable standard of living among the traditional working class have become more scarce.

Many excuses have arisen over the years to extol the virtues of such an inequitable economic arrangement. Capital takes risks. Higher pay is deserved by some over others because they possess higher level skills obtained by more intensive or higher level education and experience. People must learn to adapt to a changing economy by gaining new skills which are now in more demand. Much of this resides more in the realm of mythology and a deep-seated desire to glorify greed than it does in any form of economic reality. Many economies in this world chug along merrily without the egregious income and wealth disparity prevalent in the US today. Even here, some companies prove year-in and year-out that they can remain competitive and profitable without resorting to impoverishing their employees or totally decimating their voice in the workplace.

If technology does, in fact, reduce the amount and intensity of human labor in the production of goods and services needed to support an improving standard of living among all people, that should be reflected in how most peoples’ lives are led. If we can all be adequately fed, housed, educated, clothed, etc. using fewer human worker hours today than were necessary a year, decade or century ago, why should that positive benefit not be shared more equally among all of us, rather than hoarded primarily by a very small percentage of the human race, supported by the efforts of an ever-larger class of people struggling just to survive? In a land of plenty, why should some gorge themselves on delicacies on their yachts while others starve in hovels with inadequate nutrition and deplorable sanitary conditions?

Regardless of form of government, the world economy has come to be dominated by a huge disparity in economic and political power. So-called Communist societies have become as economically stratified as so-called democratic societies have become more and more authoritarian and rigid in the everyday workplace. Increased economic and political inequality has not served to inspire us all to greater heights of human accomplishment. Rather, it seems to have weighed down the vast majority of people into a dreary fight for survival to maintain the standard of living our predecessors took for granted.

Equality of opportunity has become more of a sham in this society than ever before. Education, long held out as the great equalizer for children of middle and low income upbringing, has become even more difficult to obtain in recent years. Student debt has reached record levels as the utility of college degrees as a means of upward social and economic mobility has markedly declined. A young adult entering the workforce with a college degree and a student debt load in the tens of thousands of dollars is in no way on a level playing field with the child of an Ivy League legacy with a huge social network of contacts among others who gained their education without incurring similar financial obligations. Spending future earnings to get a coveted degree also does not guarantee the ability to get a job that will even pay for it, much less catch up to those more economically privileged from birth. Yet the powers that be, in order to maintain their power and influence, will point to a few examples of people who prove that one CAN rise above one’s circumstances and succeed and claim that proves the system works as it should.

We do not need to fear that robots, or people from poor countries, will make us obsolete as human beings. Only people who do not truly appreciate our value as human beings can do that, and only if they have the power and the will to force us to accept subordinate status to them as human beings with rights equal to their own in every way. Since they do not have the power of numbers, they rely on keeping the rest of us divided and pitted against ourselves to maintain their wealth and power (with the help of some compliant folks willing to support them for a few scraps or delusions of their own influence, of course – politicians chief among them).

The form the world economy has increasingly taken in the last century is inherently anti-democratic. Average working people are far more valuable individually and collectively than political and economic institutions are permitting them to be. Our voices have been stymied in the workplace and in our own governance to serve the interests of greed for wealth and power. We all should be benefitting from the fruits of technological improvements in all aspects of our lives, and not just those who, through luck of birth or circumstance, find themselves with more than their fair share of the world’s resources. Bring on the robots. Just don’t let them be used as yet another tool for the few to use to subjugate the many.

 

Further Suggested Readings:

Pope: Unfettered Capitalism ‘Dung Of The Devil’ | Crooks and Liars

Hillary subtweets Jeb on worker comment

In Fiery Speeches, Francis Excoriates Global Capitalism

Now Finally Taking Shape: A World With Ever Less Decently-Paid Work for Most. But Must This Be a Problem?

The Best Ways to Fight Extreme Poverty

The automation myth: Robots aren’t taking your jobs— and that’s the problem

Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us—Revisited

Robert Reich: Are We Really Moving Toward an Age of Technological Abundance in Which No One Will Need to Work?

The rebellious spirit of Matthew Maguire’s first Labor Day is spreading again across our country. Join the parade!

Wages Have Been Stagnant For 40 Years But It’s Not The Fault Of American Workers

On Labor Day, Why We Need a Guaranteed Income

Automation Means Fewer Jobs

The Robot Invasion is Already Here (w/ Andrew Aghapour) – YouTube

Two Paths Toward Our Robot Future – The New Yorker

More Leisure, Less Capitalism, Thanks to Tech

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6 Comments
  1. I am more optimistic because the lot for the vast majority of the world’s poor has improved tremendously. The infamous 1% cannot long maintain the current economic imbalance that was solved by FDR capitalism and European Social Democracy. The brilliance of those two systems was that the elites were smart enough to share the wealth in terms of higher wages AND better benefits.

    You identify the largest economic challenge facing the world. Solving the requirement where people may not need to work or work as long…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great essay. Lately, I’ve been re-studying E.O. Wilson’s work on sociobiology and eusociality (i.e. highly-organized social species). There, he goes into detail about the so-called “division of labor” of such species (e.g. ants, humans, etc.). While there is much sociological and economic debate surrounding this concept, the pervasive use of robotics and automation to maximize profits would seem existentially counterproductive. That is, who needs a colony of ants if all the workers become unnecessary? Likewise, how can human civilization exist if all the people are kings?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Unfortunately, I agree with the situation as it is. Very disturbing. Our society is in trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Universities are beginning to think they should train people more in being entrepreneurs. That might be one way of getting around this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Since humans began forming towns, the definition of work has been changing and it will continue. not certain what an entrepreneur is but to my mind a good liberal arts degree followed by a technical degree of interest is a great way to go

      Like

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