Manufacture This   (2016Apr27)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016                                              9:28 AM

A recent NY Times article points out that Manufacturing, the former giant of economic growth, is shrinking in the manpower it requires to meet demand. This means that manufacturing jobs aren’t disappearing to other countries—they are simply disappearing. And the increase in service industry jobs, with their meager pay, is only contributing to the income-inequality gap. The article suggests “health care, education and clean energy” as an alternative growth strategy—but I see this as an avoidance of the central issue.

The algorithm of capitalism is unraveling. It was once a given that creating a manufacturing base in a developing country would lift its citizens into a first-world economy—but a chart in the article shows how the return on manufacturing development, over time, has lost its ability to raise a given nation’s populace in either income or education. Eduardo Porter, the author of the article, uses this data to prove that the presidential campaigners’ promises to return manufacturing to the USA, even if fulfilled, would not create the wished-for boom in either employment or income, any more than it currently does in India or China.

It makes me impatient to see the issue parsed so precisely—to my mind, the overall concepts of capitalism—ownership, employment, demand—are as outdated as the specific case of manufacturing jobs. But I realize that changing an accepted paradigm is like turning a cruise ship—slow and full of inertia. And it doesn’t help that capitalism has become America’s political brand-identity, as well as a way to organize society—which adds a ‘loyalty’ factor to conservative thinking on the matter. But it is past time for America to return to its original brand-identity—that of Yankee ingenuity—because a post-capitalist global economy will certainly require a great deal of innovative thinking.

This is a link to the NY Times article mention above: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/27/business/economy/the-mirage-of-a-return-to-manufacturing-greatness.html

To invent something that makes a person’s life easier is called convenience. To invent something to make manufacturing and farming easier is called automation. We see them as two different things—this is what makes the decline of jobs a problem, to the point where legislation is passed in California trying to prevent further development of automation tech in agriculture—because it’s taking jobs away from the state. Not that it will do them any good—the Luddites never win—it’s like King Canute commanding the tide to back off.

More importantly, it misses the point—automation should be a good thing. The idea that civilization could produce enough to meet demand without a single employee should be a good thing. The only reason it isn’t is because capitalism is based on presuming that to be an impossibility. Capitalism says, ‘go out, get a job, and earn a salary—that’s how modern people make a living’. But if the living is being made without human participation, we need to find a new way to disburse our production to a globe of unemployed. The answer will sound a lot like socialism—although it will go even further, if faced squarely.

The real trouble is power—the answer to ‘the end of jobs’ will have to involve a lot of reasoning based on fairness, not on demand or need. Business owners, corporate board members, bosses of every kind will lose not just their petty tyranny over employees, but lose their power entirely—that power is based on capitalism and it will disappear along with it. It would be impossible to convince the one percent that they should surrender their power willingly—but ultimately they face a choice just as much as the rest of us. Workers are also customers—unemployed or underpaid workers can’t produce the revenue the one percent’s system is based on. So, while the worker faces the more immediate threat, the end-game involves us all.

We see the one-percenters tentatively embracing Ludditism—in the pushback against renewable energy and in the aforementioned union efforts to stop or slow automation in the workplace. We also see it in their transformation of our once wide-open avenues to higher education into overpriced preserves for the training of young one-percenters—and a source of mortgages paid on knowledge and accreditation by the rest of our children. But holding back technology and education will have no long-term effect on the coming changes—competition is also built into capitalism, so one way or the other, the whole paradigm is going to fail—has to fail, eventually. The only question is will we be enlightened about it, or we will make it into a fist-fight? Three guesses. And here’s a hint: Star Trek was fiction.

Tomorrow We’ll All Be Okies    (2015Sep09)

Wednesday, September 09, 2015                                                       1:23 PM

The nation’s founders were agrarian—to them, independence and liberty seemed a simple enough thing—a farm for everyone and everyone on their own farm. And for our first century, there were few indications that America would ever be anything other than a bunch of farmers.

But with industrialization came factories—and with factories came two enemies of liberty—men with hitherto unimagined wealth and power—and a labor pool ripe for abuse and persecution. With slavery still part of our culture, it was easy to mistake any large work-force as ‘owned’ and devoid of privilege—and early factory workers saw working conditions not much different from slavery—even the children worked a full day (but without, of course, full pay) and no one got reasonable hours, time off, or safe working conditions.

We have spent more than a century now, beating back these persecutions with legislation—trying to get owners and business leaders to see their labor pool as human beings, while they scream about the only thing that matters to them—profits. But even that is just an excuse, since productivity often increases when employees are treated with the respect any human being deserves. We killed each other in stacks, like cordwood, over some of us still wanting to be slave-owners—it’s no surprise that we still struggle with the relationship between workers and owners. And our migrant workers (or, as the media likes to tag them—the ‘immigration problem’) only come here because those who employ them can’t resist an employee who works for almost nothing and has no civil rights to speak of.

This ideal we all have—that a person must earn their way in this world—made perfect sense in an agrarian culture—cows don’t milk themselves and farming, in general, is pretty demanding of the farmer. If a person went hungry, it was most likely because they neglected their chores. In modern life, we still see an approximation of this—but the complexity of modern life has people working for institutions, rather than for themselves. The industrial age made the common run into a labor pool—and owners have used that labor pool without having any sense of responsibility for their employees. It is up to the workers to find their own place, to prepare themselves with the required skillset, to locate themselves where the jobs are, etc.

We have even interpreted this condition as ‘independence’—we are all free to work where we want, for whomever we want. We imagine that there is an element of competition there—that owners will have to make allowances for their employees needs or those people will go work for someone else—leaving the owner without labor—but this is an imaginary condition. There are always more-needy workers who will take the place of any employees who object to being treated like slaves. Owners, by virtue of being employers, can even claim that they support the work force—that everyone in America makes a living through their beneficence.

While that is true, in a sense, it is also just one way of looking at the situation—I see it as owners taking labor for granted, using what they need and letting the rest go to hell, for all they care. If we look at the entire citizenry as ‘a labor force’, then we see that owners are actually very irresponsible and careless about those they rely on to get done the work that keeps owners rich and powerful. When government tries to intervene, to create programs to care for the ‘outsiders’, those who don’t fit into business’s plans or who are unable to work, owners band together, complain about ‘big government’, and insist that it is un-American to support anyone who doesn’t slave for them, like they’re supposed to.

At the same time, modern businesses are rushing to increase that ‘outsider’ group through digital tech and robotics. While they want any laborers that aren’t specifically working for them to live in poverty, they also seek to increase profits by putting more people into the street. With the speedy growth of AI and robotics, it won’t be long before we are all out on the street—will it be wrong of government to help us then? Imagine how heavily the government will have to tax those business-owners to feed a nation of unemployed. But if the government doesn’t support us, how will we become customers for the business-owners to enrich themselves through?

Henry Ford (a horrible fascist and anti-Semite) did have one important insight—he paid his workers so well that they were able to become his customers. Work out the profit on that, today’s small-minded CEO. Somewhere along the way, business-owners have forgotten that America’s workers are also America’s consumers—and the less they make, the less they spend. By greedily straining after every last penny of profit, Business has actually constricted itself into a depressed economy—at a time when America should be virtually exploding with innovation and commerce. Still, that’s old news.

The new problem is the disappearance of work—underpaid workers don’t spend much, but unemployed workers replaced by robots don’t make a dime. When every factory in America becomes automated, who is going to buy their stuff? This already happened once—everyone in the country used to be a farmer. With the dawn of the Industrial Age, powered farm equipment made most crowd-sourced farming chores into a job done by one guy sitting on a tractor, plow, seeder, or harvester. Had industry not also spawned cities, and factory jobs, we would have had a country of idle indigents—‘Okies’ from coast to coast, with nowhere to go for new jobs.

Now we face the disappearance of city jobs, factory jobs—even truck drivers are less than a generation away from going the way of the buggy whip. It’s time we started to look at all of us as ‘the labor force’. It’s time we started to imagine a world where there is no work to be paid for—how will we live in a world where the living is too easy?