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see the issue parsed so precisely—to my mind, the overall concepts of capitalism—ownership, employment, demand—are as outdated as the specific case of manufacturing jobs.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:

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.

Science Hero   (2016Apr13)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016                                              2:44 PM

The human cost of science, particularly medical science, is often overlooked. When I saw the recent NY Times Science article about a man who had a chip implanted in his brain that allowed him to move his paralyzed hand, my first thought was, ‘How thrilling—we’re actually getting into electronic-brain interface on a very practical level’. The last thing I thought about was the man.

But as I read the article, I found out some things about this guy. First off, he had to recover from a freak accident that left his hands and feet paralyzed—months of rehab were required before he was able to go home—and then only to be cared for by family—still being virtually helpless. That kind of trauma can take someone out of the fight, all by itself—many people’s reaction to such tragedy is to stay in bed until the end of forever.

Then, having learned of this experimental project, he had to volunteer for elective brain surgery—then he had to convince his family to accept it—no easy task. Try telling your mother that you want to get unnecessary brain surgery—right after suffering a paralyzing accident.

Then he describes the enormous effort, hour after hour, of concentrating on trying to move fingers that were no longer connected to his brain—waiting for the scientists to calibrate the software that decrypted his brain signals. As he learned, the signals changed—so re-calibration was required for every session. He likened it to sports training—which, if I remember high school football training, means repeating efforts to the point of exhaustion, day after day. And while he’s training, he’s got a port cable sticking out of the back of his head, plugged into a computer—not exactly comfortable.

Now, after extensive training, he can pour liquid from one container to another—and other feats of dexterity. But when the training’s over, the plug is unplugged and he goes back home, helpless and paralyzed again. And that’s not all—the program is complete now. The scientists are shutting down the program and they’re basically done with him. The experiment was a success, but we are still years from something a person like him could wear and use in daily life.

By the time I finished the article, I was less impressed by the tech—I see it now as a story about an unsung hero of science. See for yourself: