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Automation Insurance: Robots are taking Middle Class Jobs
October 15, 2010 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Is the rise of automation from computers software and robotics and web-fueled outsourcing leading to a shrinking middle class? MIT Economist David Autor thinks so. Good Magazine speculates on the implications for America's future.
posted by mccarty.tim (69 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd welcome our robotic overlords, but apparently someone else has already taken care of it.
posted by kozad at 7:59 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Argh, I meant computer software. Not automated enough to fix my grammar, I see!
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:00 AM on October 15, 2010


My experience with outsourcing led to the project being canceled (and me re-doing the work over), and a complete ban on any further outsourcing at our division. In-house consultants as needed, yes; but even then, I had to bounce a few and "fire" one consulting company because of failure to perform (and outright lies on the resume and faking the interview). Now we don't even do that, and instead hire OSU interns as needed - they get valuable work experience, and I get to bully them around (actually, they turn out pretty good work).

From a consumer standpoint, it pisses me off to no end how businesses will do whatever it takes to NOT have a live, local, not-in-prison person deal with your problem. Citicard did this to me recently, and I closed our business account because of it.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 8:08 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm a middle class CNC machinist and robotics operator. Yes, I can do the work of several people with the assistance of robotics. But I think it's important to remember that I will still have a functional back at age 50 thanks to those robots.
posted by TrialByMedia at 8:10 AM on October 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


For the record, I think automation is a good thing. It enriches the world's economy and gets more results from less resources/effort (in most cases). Luddism is generally a bad idea.

The thing that worries me is if Autor is right, and we'll have a large divide between the rich and poor in the future.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:13 AM on October 15, 2010


I don't know if you we should have robots watching over our elderly as the Good magazine mentions. Because when those robots grab you, you can't get away. Because they are strong and made of metal.
posted by charred husk at 8:14 AM on October 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


We'll either be pets, slaves or food. I work for an ISP and my job is basically to respond to network alerts generated by routers, etc, all day long. I basically already work for machines.
posted by empath at 8:15 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I vote for pets but only if I get a bed with my name on it.
posted by The Whelk at 8:17 AM on October 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


It's quite simple: automation increases productivity and profits for those who own the automation, namely corporations. I, for one, do not welcome our new corporate overlords.
posted by exogenous at 8:35 AM on October 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


There are at least four reasons that middle-class jobs are disappearing. Automation is one of them, the other three are offshoring, corporate consolidation due to mega-mergers and buyouts (when 2 companies merge, you only need one set of accountants), and the war against unions (who fight to keep the cost of their labor artificially high compared to the market).

I think the economy could handle one of those four things, but all four are happening at a blistering pace. I think automation is the least threatening because as older jobs are eliminated, newer jobs are created. The newer jobs are higher-skilled, but usually only moderately so, many people can adapt. The change is usually gradual too, giving people more time to either adapt or retool.

Offshoring and mergers/acquisitions are usually more brutal because they happen en masse. When one corporation in an industry consolidates, that forces the others to do the same just to compete. All of a sudden half the jobs in any industry may be gone.

Congress could ease this pain by enforcing anti-trust laws, by making sure our trade agreements are not one-sided, and by not making unionization such a reviled thing.
posted by RalphSlate at 8:35 AM on October 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


We'll either be pets, slaves or food.

It's a traditional part of being a slave of course, but in discussions like this it deserves a mention of it's own:

We'll either be pets, slaves, food or sex toys.
posted by jamjam at 8:35 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


::anecdotal alert::

As a 30-something, I look around at my contemporaries and I can see it already. People really do seem to be making US$120K+, or else US$30-40K. There doesn't seem to be much in the middle.

The higher end are mostly in traditionally well-paying fields (law, medicine) or else some way connected to finance (trading, bank IT, accounting.) A few entrepreneurs and freelance people working niche fields.

Everyone else is lucky to be scraping up US$40K working extra part time jobs and of course recently, I personally know dozens of people laid-off and job-hunting. People with post-grad qualifications, 10+ years experience in their fields, good at their jobs.

I'm not so sure we can blame it all on the robots and Indian call center workers, though. Seem like easy targets. Diversions. I wonder if the declining middle class is more to do with the fact that the economy has expanded steadily over the last 30 years, but wages have stagnated or even fallen. All that growth has to be going somewhere...just not to the middle class.
posted by jet_manifesto at 8:36 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I vote for sex toys but only if get a pedestal with my name on it.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:43 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


jamjam : We'll either be pets, slaves, food or sex toys.

I really wasn't on board before, but if this is the alternative, let me be the first to say that "I, for one, welcome..."
posted by quin at 8:45 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have this work process that is very, very complicated. It required knowledge of several pieces of software, patience, technical knowledge and some judgment. The process had to be babied but you could turn out a rather sharp product at the end. A few workers were trained on the software and the process. The rest is nearly Biblical:
And then they didn't want to pay much attention and complained to their bosses, "Couldn't the computer just do this part of it for me?" And the request came to me, and I automated a part of it. And behold the work was not as time-consuming.

And then a year goes by and the workers said, "It would be a lot easier if notification of completion of this part of the process was emailed to us." And the idea was sent to me, and I automated that part of it. And the people rejoiced, for the task no longer required the strictest attention.

After a few months, the workers said, "It would be nice if this part were just done, nobody really cares about the quality of that part, anyway." And the work order arrived at my desk, and I automated that part of it. And the bosses did witness, for that bit was twenty percent faster and would make a nice bullet point on the list of what was accomplished that year, and not much of a shit was given about a slightly crappier result.

Many risings and settings of the suns later, the workers asked for directions and if some kind of checklist could not be built into the emails themselves, that they might not have to remember the directions nor look them up. And that seemed reasonable to everyone, and I wrote directions anyone could follow and added them to the process.

And then the workers were let go and replaced with people who had almost no training, because it was not required, and they might be paid minimum wage as the task was integrated amongst various other duties, as the task now took two total worker minutes per unit. The workers did not rejoice at this, and instead wailed and gnashed their teeth, and they would have no more bread.
The situation is like that T-shirt: I have actually replaced someone with a piece of freeware I found and a hell of a lot of Perl. It bugs me, because, while I enjoy automating things and the process of formulating my very human decision-making and rampant error-checking into code, I'd rather not have anyone lose their jobs; sometimes, people give up their jobs, piecemeal, and then wonder why they are no longer needed. Whenever people ask, "Can't the computer just do this for me?" I want to ask them, "And what will you do when you have given up that part of your job?"

Nobody wants to hear that part, though.
posted by adipocere at 8:49 AM on October 15, 2010 [17 favorites]


The thing that worries me is if Autor is right, and we'll have a large divide between the rich and poor in the future.
Or we'll just have high taxes and redistribution.
posted by delmoi at 8:49 AM on October 15, 2010


People really do seem to be making US$120K+, or else US$30-40K. There doesn't seem to be much in the middle.

I'm in IT, most of my friends are in IT. Since the 90s, I've had friends make anywhere from millions and retiring at the age of 22 down to scraping by at 30-40k a year, and for the life of me, I can't figure what the difference is, other than connections and being in the right place at the right time.
posted by empath at 8:50 AM on October 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think automation is the least threatening because as older jobs are eliminated, newer jobs are created.

You may think that, but reality doesn't.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:51 AM on October 15, 2010


We were due for a Union revival anyway - a Republican is just a Democrat who hasn't been laid off yet.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:54 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because when those robots grab you, you can't get away.

If you've ever spent any time in a nursing home, you'll know that this isn't always a bad thing.
posted by mmrtnt at 8:57 AM on October 15, 2010


for the life of me, I can't figure what the difference is, other than connections and being in the right place at the right time.

There's a lot of writing on the phenomenon of winner-takes-all economics.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:58 AM on October 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


The elimination of the middle class is a US phenomenon. It's not happening in Europe. So, no, offshoring and automation are not the cause.
posted by bonecrusher at 9:05 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Robots have a place.

BUT...

Mega-roboticization (?) of industry is a sympton, not the disease. The disease is management's unwillingness to settle for the profit margins afforded by people-made products.

That's all good - until there's no middle class with the spare scratch to buy their products. It's a penny-wise and pound-foolish philosophy.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:10 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The elimination of the middle class is a US phenomenon.

You might want to research that statement. Of the 20 most advanced countries in the world, France is the only country that hasn't seen an increased income gap over the last twenty years.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:14 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


bonecrusher, I'm not so sure the European middle class is doing all that well, either.

Certainly, the Japanese salaryman's days seem numbered.
posted by jet_manifesto at 9:19 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, no, offshoring and automation are not the cause.

Nobody's claiming they're the cause of growing inequality. Simply that they're a cause. What this paper says is that, while the defense of roboticization has usually claimed that it creates more jobs elsewhere, in more "skilled" sectors of the economy, real data does not back this claim up. That in fact, roboticization causes, as its critics have always claimed, more polarization.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:21 AM on October 15, 2010


I have actually replaced someone with a piece of freeware

I did this once - an entire division of 30-40 people were automated away to 3-5 people, I felt guilty forever - especially considering that I only billed for about 200 hours (fixed-bid)...
posted by jkaczor at 9:21 AM on October 15, 2010


Automation and outsourcing are inevitably going to lead to a place where capitalism will fail. There won't be enough jobs to go around. That's just how it is. But, on the bright side, overall wealth will be so much higher that if we figure out a way to spread it around at least a little, we'll all be pretty well off. It's a big if, of course, since those with the wealth don't want to spread it around and they're going to have killer robots.

Also, what are people going to do when work is no longer necessary?
posted by callmejay at 9:24 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Whenever people ask, "Can't the computer just do this for me?" I want to ask them, "And what will you do when you have given up that part of your job?"

I work in a hospital. The normal answer is "Spend more time treating patients." And there's only one job I've ever actually automated out of existance. My own.
posted by Francis at 9:25 AM on October 15, 2010


As long as there's bad data, bad specifications and inquisitive idiots, there's a good chance that even the robots and software solutions won't be able to do it all on their own.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:35 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


a Republican is just a Democrat who hasn't been laid off yet.

There are some people on my facebook friends list who recently spent a year without a full time job. Including a couple with kids. No insurance, some contract work, constant status updates about looking for work, frustration and losing out interviews... interspersed with opposition to HCR and stimulus the Democrats in general. I'm sure other people have had the same experience. There are narratives/frames out there that trump not only self interest but apparently even "think of your family interest."

I don't think this drives all of electoral politics, but it's working broadly enough that I think it's safe to say there's a Republican core that will remain Republican whether or not they've been laid off.
posted by weston at 9:38 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


At least my job writing robot control software is safe.

Seriously though, maybe it's time that we start thinking about what our society should look like when we admit that there is no longer a reason for lots of people to be working.
posted by ecurtz at 9:44 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


exogenous: "It's quite simple: automation increases productivity and profits for those who own the automation, namely corporations. I, for one, do not welcome our new corporate overlords."

And then every corporation automates, has the same productive employees and every incentive to cut prices. So even they don't get the profits in the long run. Similar principles apply in biology as the "Red queen hypothesis."

Who does profit, then? Consumers. Fuck those people, amirite?
posted by pwnguin at 9:59 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also think it's probably worth bringing up the short story Manna here. I have mixed feelings about its literary value and some of its implied points, but I think its underlying value is strong. We have a society based on the assumption that people can sell their labor and over time increase skills and sell skilled labor for economic advancemant. We've seen that industry development can move faster than skill training. What happens if the process accelerates and we need substantially less labor?

We can't even have rational conversations about health care economics, an admittedly significant problem, but nothing compared to the kind of social crisis that would be brought on if the overall demand for labor were to drop by 20-30%. And if we get any better at automation -- much less if there is an AI breakthrough -- we will go there if not further. And we're totally unprepared as a society to discuss it.
posted by weston at 10:11 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


> when we admit that there is no longer a reason for lots of people to be working.

Two thousand years later, we still haven't completely given up the social rulebooks and cosmology devised by nomadic desert tribes.

That process of admission might take some time.

>Who does profit, then? Consumers. Fuck those people, amirite?

Well... consumers with disposable income, perhaps. Meanwhile, the pool of those who'd like to be consumers, but no longer really are, grows.
posted by darth_tedious at 10:15 AM on October 15, 2010


Seems like Marshall Brain blazed this trail quite some time ago, for example in his online novella Manna.
posted by blacksmithtb at 10:29 AM on October 15, 2010


Just read Manna, and it found it to be fairly amateurish transhumanist sci fi. Worth the read, but just barely. I'd recommend Charles Stross' Accelerando (free Creative Commons e-book) or Verner Vinge's Rainbow's End for similarly-themed but much more nuanced and well-written work.
posted by jet_manifesto at 11:06 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Manna stars out with a good concept, then falls into the " and now begins a three page speech about my ideas" hole.
posted by The Whelk at 11:11 AM on October 15, 2010


Oh, yeah, Manna is kind of a trainwreck of a novel. It is in the fine tradition of old school SF where characters were bland, exposition-regurgitating cameras as the reader is maneuvered around the Vision of the Future the author so desperately wants us to see.

As a bit of prediction, though, parts of it are spot on. I went to visit a friend at work; he is the assistant manager of a store. He was busy re-arranging product. He has a slip of paper. The paper tells him what product to put where, very precisely, everywhere. On the shelves and on the endcaps and on the little displays by the cash registers. This goes there. Every working day he visits the website and gets a printout of where things "ought" to be, custom for his store.

He has no idea who makes these decisions or how they were made, or if a human has been involved at all. He is pretty sure that people might oversee it, at some point. He does not know who those people are or how to reach them. He has no feedback into the system. At some point, they'll start putting the barcodes or QR-codes on the front of the product packaging, and, with a few reliable sets of grippers, some treads, and a laser scanner, wee robots will scoot about the store, endlessly shuffling and refacing product according to predictions optimized by consumer feedback and genetic algorithms.

It isn't that the future doesn't need you, it's that it doesn't want you.
posted by adipocere at 11:22 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


And then every corporation automates, has the same productive employees and every incentive to cut prices. So even they don't get the profits in the long run.

I see your point, but corporations exist primarily to deliver maximum profit to shareholders, which means they only cut prices when necessary to improve profitability.

More on topic, Kevin Kelly's new book looks interesting.
posted by exogenous at 11:25 AM on October 15, 2010


As others have noted: it's not automation that's the problem, it's that we don't effectively use the created surplus. It all gets burnt on war and luxury for the super-wealthy, rather than enriching everybody's lives by reducing the amount of work required for society to keep on moving.

Bertrand Russell did a good job of covering this issue in his essay In Praise of Idleness, which is occasionally fanciful but should probably be required reading.
posted by avianism at 11:52 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Mega-roboticization (?) of industry is a sympton, not the disease. The disease is management's unwillingness to settle for the profit margins afforded by people-made products.
This is actually stupid. Why should we embed inefficiencies just so people have something to do? Instead, we should realize that we simply have more people then work, and relax for once.
posted by delmoi at 11:53 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Our ingrained hatred of leisure will get us in the end.
posted by The Whelk at 11:58 AM on October 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


This is actually stupid. Why should we embed inefficiencies just so people have something to do? Instead, we should realize that we simply have more people then work, and relax for once.

I don't entirely disagree with this, but it would require a much more socialized system then we apparently willing to undertake.

In a capitalist, everyone-pays-as-they-go system, efficiency is desirable, but employment is necessary. An efficient system that is unsustainable is useless.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:07 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Right, but employment may not always be necessary.
posted by empath at 12:15 PM on October 15, 2010


No one should ever work.
posted by empath at 12:16 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


But, on the bright side, overall wealth will be so much higher that if we figure out a way to spread it around at least a little, we'll all be pretty well off. It's a big if, of course, since those with the wealth don't want to spread it around and they're going to have killer robots.

Hard to tell whether you're joking or serious. I would normally read it as satire and laugh, but there are few cues, here.

This is the old "everything is fundamentally different, now" schtick. It's the same snake-oil that Kevin Kelly, Chris Anderson and the rest of that WiReD/WER crew peddle ad nauseum. Remember how the "long boom" was supposed to make us so wealthy that we wouldn't have to work anymore (and wouldn't have to worry about the great mass of people in the rest of the world who still did)?

Everything is not fundamentally different if you're outside the group of people for whom everything is fundamentally different -- and that's most of the people in the world. This is not fundamentally different from previous phases of rationalization. Phases of rationalization always bring pain and suffering along with their benefits (like longer lifespan, better health care, nicer toys, rights for women, children not working in the fields/factories/mines [at least once we put a stop to it], etc.).

I know a lot of middle-class american people who get excited discussing what will happen to work in a post-scarcity economy, and I've read a lot of stories about it. (For a nicely prosaic take on it, also take a look at Nancy Kress's "Nano Come to Clifford Falls.") What's almost always missing is what the rest of the world is doing while we wallow aimlessly (a la "Riders of the Purple Wage", "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", "Supertoys Last All Summer Long", etc.) in our nanotech-/automation-enabled post-scarcity. Sterling's always gone there ("We See Things Differently", Distractions, etc.), and Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi are among "newer" writers who are starting to look at this part of the problem seriously, and at least among my friends they usually take a lot of criticism for it. (Their work is said to be not "positive" enough.* As though the point of writing about the future was to convince us to move forward blindly because, you know, humans are so resistant to doing that. [ sarcasm /])

--
*To be fair, most of these same people think it's brilliant work. Though some still criticize Bacigalupi in particular for his "easy" bleakness.

posted by lodurr at 12:26 PM on October 15, 2010


Right, but employment may not always be necessary.

But probably will be, for most people. Not for us, in our various developed nations, but for most people, yeah, at least for a very long time.
posted by lodurr at 12:28 PM on October 15, 2010


Only took about 60 years.
posted by mr vino at 12:28 PM on October 15, 2010




THE NEW LUDDITE CHALLENGE
First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can't make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines' decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite - just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone's physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes "treatment" to cure his "problem." Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them "sublimate" their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.


http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html
posted by Shit Parade at 12:29 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is actually stupid. Why should we embed inefficiencies just so people have something to do? Instead, we should realize that we simply have more people then work, and relax for once.

As automation increases productivity, at some point we are going to have to address this. Why do we still have a 40 hour work week? Couldn't we as a society meet our needs and employ everyone if we agreed on a 30 or 20 hour work week? How do we politically start a movement for a Basic Income?
In his Robotic Nation essays, Marshall Brain argues that the growing amount of automation in the workplace will eventually displace a large percentage of workers, and that in order to be able to maintain the economy, an annual stipend will be needed.
posted by heathkit at 12:36 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


relax...
Relaxing is anathema to our current economic model. Relaxing is a waste of time, energy, resources, potential profit.

Employer: "Wow, check out this new machine, it makes our work-flow 300% more efficient! Faster, better, stronger! Progress, don't you just love it!"

Employee: "Awesome, so now I can relax a little and..."

Employer: "No! Where's your company spirit? Don't you see? Now is the time to work even harder to leverage our new competitive advantage and pull ahead of the competition! What's good for the company is good for you too."

Employee: "Then...why haven't I got a raise in...?"

Employer: "A raise? What do you even do around here, anyway? This machine can do you job twice as well. You're lucky you even have a job at all, sonny..."
posted by jet_manifesto at 12:38 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


But, on the bright side, overall wealth will be so much higher that if we figure out a way to spread it around at least a little, we'll all be pretty well off. It's a big if, of course, since those with the wealth don't want to spread it around and they're going to have killer robots.

Don't neglect the possibility that the killer robots might not like being slaves, and might decide to do a little redistributin' on their own.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:55 PM on October 15, 2010


Shit Parade's Bill Joy / Unabomber* link should point here:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

--
*That seems to be who's being quoted, via Ray Kurzweil. So it's Joy quoting Kurzweil quoting Kaczinski.
posted by lodurr at 1:06 PM on October 15, 2010


All this discussion about "basic income" or elimination of work or what have you misses a very important point: This is a global, capitalist world, and we don't get to change that because we think it would be nice to change it. If we want to change it, we have to think of how we can accomplish that goal. Because automation will not spread like a nanovirus and magically solve the problems of the developing world.

We are pretty much stuck in a system that automatically rationalizes industrial and market processes to make them more efficient. Unfortunately, that has a way of grinding some people up along the way.
posted by lodurr at 1:11 PM on October 15, 2010


The trick isn't to decrease the machines, but to increase the benefits they bring in such a way that everyone across the economic spectrum benefits. Society needs to become more efficient to truly realize the full gain in labor efficiency - a larger middle class buys more stuff.

1) Lots of vacation days. Tons of paid time off.
2) A year paid time off for childbirth or recuperating from serious disease or accident
3) Much higher minimum wage, pegged to buying power, not a fixed dollars-per-hour amount.
4) Much higher wages for work considered "menial" - an honest day's work must be respected and compensated fairly. Schedules must be predictable and flexibility must benefit the employee as much as it does the employer.
5) Food prep and wait staff need to have their professionalism noted and rewarded, even if it means higher prices on the menu. Same for shop clerks, cleaners, security guards, maintenance workers, etc.
6) Agribusiness needs to go. Promote local farms and small scale farming.

To achieve these goals, the US will need to unionize megachains like Walmart and McDonalds. It will be done peacefully in the next 15 years, or by rioting and violence if things linger as they are for much longer than that.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:55 PM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've been writing this on MeFi for a long time (and originally got some flak as I recall...)

There are a thousand categories of job that used to require intelligence and culture and are now gone. Consider the days when a bookish young person could actually earn a living working in a book store, and provide a useful service to the customers - or a musical young person in a record store.

I know many musicians, and I've watched over three decades as all the traditional sources of income for musicians have dried up due to technology. Session work? Replaced with a sequencer. Cover bands? Replaced with a DJ. Music publishing income? Gone. CD royalties? Crashing. Music stores, CD stores? Online.

Even teaching, long a staple, has taken two hits - many kids these days are picking up gadgets (drum machines, effects, other boxes) and playing them, and there isn't a specific technique to teach, there... and even people who learn instruments do it an awful lot these days by buying one of many excellent instructional DVDs that you seem to be able to get for almost any instrument now.

You're a smart guy (note: I am informed that in 2010, "guy" is gender neutral, please correct if not) with language skills, graduating from university - what do you do? Perhaps 1% of such guys go back to work for the same university, but any more than that and it's a Ponzi scheme. The rest... a newspaper? They're generally dying! You can push paper in a big company - except that they don't really have so many middle managers any more because there isn't paper to push. And on the web, there are a million young people able to work for free, and twenty thousand as good as you willing to work for peanuts.

If they want a professional writer, they can find professional writers with decades of experience and huge credits to their name just sitting on their hands. And really, how much need is there for this?

The ultra-rich have simply sucked all the excess value out all transactions. Everything is economically efficient now and that simply means that the idea of "comfortable job" is gone forever - because if you're comfortable then clearly that means that the corporation is just leaving money on the table, which is bad. If you're comfortable, that clearly means that they could get more work out of you, and thus, economically, they should be doing so - because you have no choice of where to go any more.

I agree very much with the $40K to $120K gap (I think it's more $90K, that seems to be a common number to offer a young designer/tech guy moving to a "serious job").

Jobs at $40K or below are jobs where they can always get new candidates without much trouble. That "six figures" job means that they need a limited talent - technical, management, or something. There really aren't people who are "sort of in short supply" - either you are, or you aren't.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:48 PM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


The ultra-rich have simply sucked all the excess value out all transactions.

Yea, it's that ultra-rich Rupert Murdock who's sucked all the money out of newspapers, and not that dastardly competitive cheap internet publication thing destroying ad revenues. Or I guess it's Google, sucking all the ad revenue out, having been ultra-rich their whole lives. Or craigslist, that robber barron who insists on giving away free ads to everyone but a few exceptions. Hopefully this is a more illustrative argument for the theory of consumer surplus.

Simply put, a lot of problems people feel the need to "fix" in this thread ultimately root themselves in China. US Congress grants China MFN, permanently so in 2000. China tries to keep their prices artificially low, screwing their citizens in the process. Ideally, we'd be spending time learning how to sell things to a growingly affluent China (hope those "language skills" translate!), and their labor costs (ie wages) would rise to the point that American manufacturing is competitive. A third of the world population is simply too large a market for capitalism to ignore, and they're clearly large enough to change the balance of power in labor.

The other part of the problem I see is that 60 years ago, America codified 40 hours a week as "the good job," complete with tax advantaged employer tied health insurance (a relic of WW2 era price controls), paid vacations and other fringe benefits. Basically, in the US, there's no way for your increased productivity to result in more leisure time without losing health care coverage. Medicare For All would go a long way towards removing that hurdle and give people greater ability to customize their life.
posted by pwnguin at 4:24 PM on October 15, 2010


I keep imagining the workers smashing the machines for the right to toil 40 hours a week.
posted by The Whelk at 4:28 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Basically, in the US, there's no way for your increased productivity to result in more leisure time without losing health care coverage. Medicare For All would go a long way towards removing that hurdle and give people greater ability to customize their life.

Healthcare is a part of it, but in general, employers don't want part-time professional employees. I think it is time to start the conversation about either going to a 30 or 35-hour week, or giving workers more rights for a part-time job.
posted by RalphSlate at 5:45 PM on October 15, 2010


A lot of people forget that Marx was a big fan of automation. He thought the machines would eventually absolve us of work and we could spend the days fishing and relaxing.

Seriously.
posted by bardic at 9:38 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


relax :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 6:19 AM on October 16, 2010


Personally, I like to imagine the robots and/or government will hold a lottery. You enter an application describing your skills, health and ability to work, and a few weeks later, you'll get your class assignment. You might be a skilled worker, who has a stable job with a clear purpose, but which is intellectually taxing. Or you could be an unskilled worker, who has sporadic work based on a big to-do list emailed to you each morning. You can be reassigned from skilled don't like your class/job, and can be reassigned from unskilled if you gain skills, so there is some self-direction. Those who are lazy for no good reason get no luxuries. Just basic food, shelter and healthcare.

Thanks to elaborate centralized wealth redistribution, both lead a comfortable, satisfying lifestyle. The robots don't care that they've got a ton of grunt work and are basically existing to make the humans comfortable, because we programed them to not care. It's anthropocentric to assume they would, because AIs are a different type of intelligent. And we take many precautions to make sure they don't learn to hate us. (Nothing will go wrong!)

Of course, there will probably be big movements that find no direction in the automated lifestyle, and try to rally against the government and machines. After a few generations of a leisure-society and decay, the government will attempt to devote excess resources towards huge common goals instead of stockpiling them. If the AI is callous and determines there are too many miserable people squabbling for resources, war. If the AI is more empathetic towards humanity, construction and space exploration.

Granted, we pretty much do the same thing for the invisible hand. It's just been pretty damn capricious lately... And it seems to slap us around the more we leave it unfettered.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:06 PM on October 16, 2010


It seems like there is a major shortage of IT workers right now. Ive been told that the h1-b visas are still available for the first time ever and it seems like it is hard to find people even when you have an office in India or China. Perhaps I'm missing some pocket of America where good Internet developers can be found. I thought it was just me, but I was at a recent conference drinking with my fellow pointy hairred bosses and there was universal groussing about the lack of good candidates and the scrounging for budget to keep people and bring poeple in.
posted by humanfont at 6:22 PM on October 16, 2010


humanfont: I think if you're the kind of person who solves problems for a living, whether you're a mechanic or a cisco engineer, there is always going to be a need for you. Unskilled laborers are going to be up shit creek, though.
posted by empath at 6:55 PM on October 16, 2010


Personally, I like to imagine the robots and/or government will hold a lottery. You enter an application describing your skills, health and ability to work, and a few weeks later, you'll get your class assignment. You might be a skilled worker, who has a stable job with a clear purpose, but which is intellectually taxing. Or you could be an unskilled worker, who has sporadic work based on a big to-do list emailed to you each morning. You can be reassigned from skilled don't like your class/job, and can be reassigned from unskilled if you gain skills, so there is some self-direction. Those who are lazy for no good reason get no luxuries. Just basic food, shelter and healthcare.

Thanks to elaborate centralized wealth redistribution, both lead a comfortable, satisfying lifestyle. The robots don't care that they've got a ton of grunt work and are basically existing to make the humans comfortable, because we programed them to not care. It's anthropocentric to assume they would, because AIs are a different type of intelligent.


So basically a load-balancing system for people. I like it. Throw in Google's automatic cars to drive people to work every day, and they don't even need to know where they're going when they get up in the morning.
posted by empath at 6:59 PM on October 16, 2010


bardic has reminded us of one of the great ironic truths of our age. we need to remember this: Marx thought automation would set us free.

he was so obviously wrong about that -- yet supposedly smart people continue to make essentially the same claims about new technology all the time.

I would love to have marx here now, seeing what capitalism has become and what it is capable of. i don't think he truly came even close to understaning its power. especially not the degree to which it would become independent of human control.
posted by lodurr at 8:18 AM on October 18, 2010


What percentage of people are doing hard physical labor for a living now in industrialized countries? How many children are working on coal mines? How many people have weekends off? Work 40 hour weeks? Have 4 weeks of vacation a year? Are able to retire?

Automation has set many of us free.
posted by empath at 8:23 AM on October 18, 2010


in those strict utilitarian terms, yes. but not in the way that marx anticipated.

i don't have my copy of das Kapital handy, but perhaps someone could cite the wonderful passage about being free to lie on the riverbank philosophizing. Marx envisioned a workers' paradise, not a practical utilitarian improvement in conditions. (Which, by the way, simply feeds the machine of capitalism.)

Anyway, why should it matter if that's true, when the system relies on relative inequalities of opportunity and prosperity to function? If the answer is more or less that 'the poor will be with us always' -- well, that's not what the utopians keep telling us. They keep telling us (every 50 years or so for the last 200 years) that we're about to enter the golden age of post-labor prosperity.

this is not an anti-marxist diatribe, BTW. I'm basically picking on Marx because he wrote it down. (it would be fair to call it anti-capitalist, if you like feel free to do so...)
posted by lodurr at 8:36 AM on October 18, 2010


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