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Globalization, Mechanization, & Political Stability

Here’s the result of a good conversation [1]I had with my old friend Bill McKenzie, who is now the Editorial Director at the George W. Bush Institute, and editor of its magazine Catalyst, in the current issue of which the entire interview appears. We’re talking about politics in the Trump era. Excerpt:

McKenzie: I could throw a bunch of statistics back at you about how automation has actually changed the job place more than global trade or how globalized production helps working families by keeping the price of products like cars and jeans lower. But I think what you are describing is a far more visceral response. It’s a fear of losing what was. So, if you’re like me, and think it is important that America not retreat from the global economy, how do you reach people who feel the way you describe?

Dreher: You’ve hit on one of the defining political issues of the period into which we have now entered. It’s one in which the familiar ideological stances of left and right don’t offer much help. Nor does the new populism, as articulated by Trump – if “articulated” is the right word – have a clear idea what to do about automation, for example. We are all, to some extent, flying blind.

I don’t think the fear is based on nothing. The numbers on income stagnation, a slowdown in productivity, the loss of good manufacturing jobs, and so forth, are undeniable. People feel in their guts that something has gone very wrong – and they’re not wrong. I don’t believe that Trump has the slightest idea how to get the economy back on track, but who could possibly have confidence that the neoliberal establishmentarians of the Democratic and Republican parties do?

A lot of folks on both the left and the right sensed that those establishments were satisfied to manage the decline of the middle class. This is what the Bernie Sanders phenomenon was about on the left, by the way. Sanders didn’t have the answers either, but at least he was speaking to the deep sense of alarm that people have, and the erosion of authority in the normative institutions – especially the political parties – in contemporary America.

The economy cannot be easily separated from the rest of life. It matters a lot to the sense of self-worth of workers that their labor is meaningful. Cheaper cars and jeans cannot compensate for the loss of work with dignity.

This problem is not quantifiable, which, in the minds of many economists and others, renders it unreal. But it’s happening. I am doing better economically than most people my age, but now that my first child is getting ready for college, it occurred to me the other day that I do not believe that my children will be more secure economically than their mother and I are.

I grew up in a working-class home in the 1970s, and despite the economic travails of that era, my generation was raised with the confidence that we would be better off than our parents. That was the natural order of things, or so we thought.

It didn’t hit me till the other day that I don’t know anybody who believes that anymore. Most of us, in my experience, believe that our kids will have to fight hard simply to hold on to what we have. The crash of 2007 and 2008 shattered a lot of people’s faith in the economic future, and I don’t think it has recovered.We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo. Brexit and Trump show us that. In the future, politicians of the left and right across the West will have to find a way to rein in market forces for the sake of social stability.

We can argue over the extent to which globalization has caused this widespread economic destabilization, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo.

Pope John Paul II said that the market was made for man’s flourishing, not man for the market’s. Before the present moment, one might have considered that to be religious idealism. Now, it’s political common sense, and leaders who don’t understand the wisdom there are going to be swept aside. Greater automation, though, is going to make the job of politically managing the decline of manual labor even more difficult.

What I don’t hear too many people on the left or the right talking about is the role that moral libertarianism plays in the unraveling of our society. I’ve been reading an advance copy of “Move Fast And Break Things,” [2] a hard-hitting book by Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

The book’s title was Facebook’s motto for a while, meant to express Mark Zuckerberg’s ethos of disruption, which is what they call “creative destruction” these days. Taplin writes about how the form capitalism has taken in the digital age has tremendously negative consequences for democratic self-government. His book goes into detail about the Silicon Valley ideology of “techno-libertarianism” – Taplin’s term – has come to exercise outsized power in postindustrial America. It’s an economics book, mostly.

What I find so fascinating about the book is how the economic libertarianism Taplin talks about has developed alongside an equally powerful moral libertarianism – one that cannot help but have serious social and political effects. Put simply, radical individualism is powering the digital economy and dissolving old forms of doing business, just as it is powering social change, and dissolving old customs and forms.

The loss of community has been something social critics of the left and the right have been talking about since the end of the Second World War. Now we are seeing the family falling apart.  A professor at a conservative evangelical college told me not long ago that he doubted whether many of his students would ever form stable families. When I asked him why, he said, “Because so few of them have ever experienced one.”

Capitalism is tearing apart the social institutions – families and communities — it needs to sustain itself. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not advocating socialism. But we have to understand what the dynamics of our individualistic cultural and economic values are doing to our social fabric, and deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were. 

Here’s a link to the entire conversation.  [1]

124 Comments (Open | Close)

124 Comments To "Globalization, Mechanization, & Political Stability"

#1 Comment By Lllurker On February 16, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

Joe B: “And let’s not understate your case – you seem to wish explicitly to make us poorer, i.e. worse off on average, to accomplish your social agenda. What would you have us do? Ban robots so we can increase employment? Why not do as Friedman suggested and have all the workers use hand tools so they’ll be occupied longer? Surely we can better ourselves by wasting time and money.”

How about we just throw all of that out? (Along with the word “socialism” by the way, it’s now been spoken so many times in a snarly tone of voice that I think we need to just retire it.)

How about if we just make sure that society shares in the spoils of all this amazing advancement? I believe that too was one of Friedman’s ideas, unless I have my economists mixed up. No need to change much of anything except to make sure that more of the profits from this capitalistic juggernaut get spread around?

If you don’t like that approach, I think that puts the ball back in your court. I think most of us are in agreement that the loss of jobs for unskilled labor is going to continue for now, and later the process is likely to gradually work up the ladder so to speak. What is your plan for society when it become cheaper for companies to buy equipment instead of hiring people?

#2 Comment By Lllurker On February 16, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

GR: “It’s quite possible that down the pipeline we’ll have “interacting with a human” being a luxury”

I feel your pain with the phone bots, but on the other hand, when you state it like that, there are days where I might consider that to be a positive development …

#3 Comment By grumpy realist On February 16, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

Art Deco–several problems with your statistics:

how are “restaurant meals” defined? Are they sit-down-at-the-table-with-waiters-and-menus-and-fine-wines? Then yeah, I can see the possibility of the 1958 and the 2015 populations to be the same. What about fast food? What about the section called “casual dining”? How does that measure into your statistics?

Second–note that you are quoting the amount that is getting paid out as being the same. If the relative cost of food when eaten out has dropped then the amount of eating out could have increased while the percentage expended could remain very much the same. Which probably has more to do with NAFTA than anything else…..

How many families do you know that continue to eat all of their meals at home and do not avail themselves of fast food, restaurants, and take-out?

Because if I were to interpret your statistics as you want me to, what you have basically said is that cooking at home is useless when it comes to saving money and we might as well go out and live off restaurant food. Which I don’t believe and I don’t think you do, either.

#4 Comment By Brendan from Oz On February 16, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

“For example, because of IT we have most secretary jobs– but we have gained a huge number of analyst jobs doing things that were barely feasible 50 years ago.”

The jobs that go to sponsored immigrants instead of locals with 30+ years experience who haven’t had a pay increase for 20 years and now to process-monkey work instead of designing and creating software?

We now have Cloud and Net etc – but 50 years ago all the building blocks for it were created and we just miniaturise and pile on top of that work done long ago. Software today is lousy and bug-ridden and designed by Sales folk, so Automation is fine unless you look under the cover-plate or look at the code.

I have 30+ years of software automation experiecne, and did so the day I started on Mainframes, where all the design ideas for systems today were created (Virtual machines, Cloud etc).

We have different job titles and less respect and influence than 50 years ago, but the same jobs existed. Managers with no IT background in charge of IT Architecture have PAs now, not Secretaries, for instance.

#5 Comment By Pat On February 16, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

How many comments, and I don’t find one suggesting that we should regulate automation? Well, I’m willing to make it. Automation is not automatically good, nor is it inevitable. It’s just another human activity. We regulate lots of human activities that would increase economic efficiency, because we feel their other effects are too bad to put up with. Why is automation exempt?

I say that an industry that is going to introduce major, job-destroying new technology should have to do an economic welfare analysis, similar to an environmental impact statement. And none of that BS about how they’ll magically retrain 50-year-old truck drivers into software engineers or robot repairmen.

#6 Comment By Hound of Ulster On February 16, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

Nobody has a solution to automation…but Marx predicted all of this, as automation is simply capitalism eating itself. His solution was no better though.

#7 Comment By Craig On February 16, 2017 @ 11:55 pm

Modern capitalism is a relatively recent innovation. (By recent, I mean when compared to the entire existence of the human race.) It has worked pretty well for the past several centuries in terms of helping to facilitate a dramatic rise in material prosperity and technological capability. But that doesn’t mean we might not eventually figure out a better way to organize and run our society, one that manages to preserve most of the material advantages that we have today, while perhaps allowing more of us to have stable, satisfying lives. As to what that might involve, I have no clue. But I doubt that simply trying to turn back the clock of some earlier era, be it medieval Europe or 1950’s America, is going to be the answer.

#8 Comment By JonF On February 17, 2017 @ 7:27 am

Re: The jobs that go to sponsored immigrants instead of locals with 30+ years experience who haven’t had a pay increase for 20 years and now to process-monkey work instead of designing and creating software?

I worked in a back office job for a major Wall Street firm. We had a few immigrants in our office, including a couple managers from the UK and a young lady from Niger who was sharp as a tack and an all around great coworker. However the vast majority of the people working there were Americans hired from the local (Maryland and N. Virginia) population. Your post is a snark that does not conform to lived reality.

#9 Comment By Art Deco On February 17, 2017 @ 8:27 am

Art Deco–several problems with your statistics:

No, there aren’t. But you talk rot and then just have to have the last word.

how are “restaurant meals” defined? Are they sit-down-at-the-table-with-waiters-and-menus-and-fine-wines? Then yeah, I can see the possibility of the 1958 and the 2015 populations to be the same. What about fast food? What about the section called “casual dining”? How does that measure into your statistics?

The distinction in their categories is between grocery purchases consumed off premises and meals served on premises, which is pretty obvious. I assume their enumerators have a practice manual which aids them in differentiating some borderline cases. This makes little difference, of course.

Second–note that you are quoting the amount that is getting paid out as being the same.

No, I’m pointing out that the share consumption expenditures devoted to this activity haven’t changed much over that 60 year period (and that it’s a modest fraction of what people spend their money on).

If the relative cost of food when eaten out has dropped then the amount of eating out could have increased while the percentage expended could remain very much the same. Which probably has more to do with NAFTA than anything else…..

Food service is a non-tradeable product, so NAFTA is irrelevant.

How many families do you know that continue to eat all of their meals at home and do not avail themselves of fast food, restaurants, and take-out?

How many heads of households would put up with you or me pumping them about their eating habits? I’m not curious enough to ask even close relatives those questions.

Because if I were to interpret your statistics as you want me to, what you have basically said is that cooking at home is useless when it comes to saving money and we might as well go out and live off restaurant food. Which I don’t believe and I don’t think you do, either.

And you’d only interpret my remarks that way if you were intoxicated.

You were insisting that increases in consumption and production over the post-war period have been a mirage because the statistics are merely describing the movement of household service production into the realm of market exchange, and you specifically brought up home cooking. Given that people’s propensity to spend on meals-not-cooked-at-home isn’t much different and given that employment-to-population ratios don’t show much of a secular trend over the postwar period, this seems a dubious thesis.

#10 Comment By Rob G On February 17, 2017 @ 8:42 am

“Because if I were to interpret your statistics as you want me to”

Art Deco has a tendency to throw out statistics without comment as if they speak for themselves, like trump cards. Get used to it.

#11 Comment By l’autre J On February 17, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

Nobody has a solution to automation…but Marx predicted all of this, as automation is simply capitalism eating itself. His solution was no better though.

Sure there is. Other countries running ahead of the USA in this economic transition (yes, they exist) have pretty much all decided on a course of creating a high tech high wealth generating economy, as much social democracy as can be afforded to buffer the social consequences, while primarily allowing labor pool- and in its wake, overall population- shrinkage.

The entertainment in the conversation Rod links to is watching two American right wing thinkers trying to imagine how to do otherwise due to right wing ideological shibboleths against the second and third prongs of the solution.

Amusingly, some people here in the comments recognize the essential incoherence of the position- and propose to make it coherent by abolishing the first element, the high tech/high productivity economy. First we get told that Russia is a desirable political model for us, now it’s Brazil and Nigeria whose economic and social wisdom we need to catch up on.

#12 Comment By Art Deco On February 17, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

Art Deco has a tendency to throw out statistics without comment as if they speak for themselves, like trump cards. Get used to it.

The statistic in question did speak for itself. I can explain something to you. I cannot comprehend it for you.

#13 Comment By Luc Lalongé On February 17, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

Bonjour Rod,

Loved your interview with the G.W.Bush Institute.

Capitalism has to be ”reigned in” if we are to do like FDR and get society back on a better footing? I believe that capitalism is not the real problem but – like Jacques Ellul wrote in 1954 – something else, something that influences it: la technique! Here’s an exert from le professeur de Bordeaux:

”(…) it is not the economy or capitalism that produces technique. Quite the contrary, only through technique can the economy develop. Economics must therefore be seen from two angles: as the dynamic force behind technical innovation, and as innovation’s static counterpart, the organization of economy.”

And Ellul said that ”technique” has been sacralized in the 20th Century, it is the real GOD in our modern world. It is also an autonomous force that affects everything with its emphasis on efficiency. It can hardly be stopped in our economic and social spheres. This techno-scientific force will continue to deconstruct traditional values (Ex: Look what impact the pill in the 60s brought to women and the family! Now we can transform a man into a woman! What’s next?). Man has almost lost control of it. This is the new BEAST that has to be controlled but it’s probably too late. That’s why your BENEDICT OPTION is a solution for the future (Ellul the theologian and somewhat peaceful anarchist did say that Christians would be the last ones to stand, to fight on, to breach that suffocating wall that is being built around Man and his world.

Bonne journée !

-In XC
Luc

#14 Comment By Art Deco On February 17, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

Sure there is. Other countries running ahead of the USA in this economic transition (yes, they exist) have pretty much all decided on a course of creating a high tech high wealth generating economy, as much social democracy as can be afforded to buffer the social consequences, while primarily allowing labor pool- and in its wake, overall population- shrinkage.

Oh? Which countries? And who are these ‘deciders’? How much capital are they allocating.

#15 Comment By grumpy realist On February 17, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

Rod–I think I will stay away from your site until Art Deco understands how to carry out a discussion without insulting anyone who wants to put forth a criticism of his statistics.

I’ve had enough. Bye.

[NFR: Would you write me privately and show me what he said that offended you? I sometimes overlook things by mistake. — RD]

#16 Comment By Treehugger On February 19, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

“….So, if you’re like me, and think it is important that America not retreat from the global economy…..”

Why are vague paens to globalism or the global economy so often asserted as self-evident? And why do we have to affirm this sentiment, a priori, in order to be regarded as serious? Seems worth a pause (or if it doesn’t, worth considering why not).

One thing to consider is that this isn’t about the parochial v. the worldly, the simpletons v. sophisticates. It certainly is at least partly about the 1% (or .01%) but it is more than that, especially seen through the lens of place and mobility. Modern global capitalism has created a dividing line among, on one hand, a “community” of the placeless (channeling Douthat): those whose means and cultural proclivities create a sense that *at least in principle* one could go anywhere, live anywhere, do anything — that, at least in principle, one’s options are limitless. The placeless see themselves as agents of progress, the world as possibility, humanity as potential, and see community as “networks” of connections that are enhanced and expanded by technology and innovation. Each new gadget, app, update, “smart” this-or-that, etc., deepens and makes more immediate a feeling of agency that is both empowering and familiar – it emulates or reinforces a sense of “at-homeness” anywhere and everywhere. (Douthat’s cosmopolitan, global aristocrats overlapping with Thomas Frank’s asset class and the elite professionals who serve it.)

On the other hand, the vast majority of humans are still in a very real way grounded. Home is still a particular material “place,” girded by the ties and relationships of interdependency, of lives shared over time. For the grounded, our lives are not readily transplantable, nor do we necessarily want them to be; many of us have a stake, and put value, in what is near and familiar and personal, and we do not instinctively gravitate or relate to economy as abstraction. The grounded are more apt to experience the “global economy” as the superficial celebration of “choice” in the form of cheaper and cheaper stuff and of pop culture and social media obsessed with representations of “diversity” and expressions of “identity” – what the placeless giddily wallow in as progress. Meanwhile, what is truly important and essential—a home, our health, raising decent kids, securing stable employment, managing through a crisis, accessing the basic infrastructures or living like a bank account and transportation—all has become more costly, fragmented, and precarious. The grounded see vanishing prospects for meaningful participation in and contribution to economic and civic like; we see a weakening of democratic norms and institutions and, at the same time, a growing sprawl of bureaucracies that serve the “global economy.”

For the placeless, the ability to be unmoored from the “constraints” of time and space, the erasure of any and all boundaries and borders, is the achievement and virtue of progress itself. For the grounded, this logic makes less and less sense, especially as technocratic complexity and global institutionalism translate over and over again to sacrifice, scarcity and erosion of quality of life, in the name of who-knows-what other than the preserving the fantasies of a few who somehow manage always to catch the upside and never the downside, and are so certain they are correct and deserving that they feel no need to explain or answer for any of it. A few who immediately and conveniently interpret skepticism toward “tails we win heads you lose” globalism as itself the source of the problem — the resentments, parochialism and ignorance that hold back the expansion of progress.

I always recoil at the framing of a “backlash” by “those who have been left behind” or who “haven’t benefitted from” the global economy, as if it’s just a matter of expanding and refining the mechanisms of prosperity. This framing excludes the possibility of valid critique—denies that what the placeless experience as the very fulfillment or realization of human potential is to others an assault on the conditions for it.

The placeless do not just condescend about the virtues of “globalism” — they have grown pathologically blind to their own chauvinism. Globalism as placelessness (the notion that we should all flit about in a Thomas-Friedman-idealized-fantasy of dynamism and disruption and innovation, of job-hopping and start-ups and personal-potential-realization through dogmatic optimism and endless pursuit of “competitiveness” and “new skills for the 21st century”) is, for one thing, a vision of perpetual movement and constant ascension that can’t be scaled or aggregated and is therefore laughable, even on its own terms, as a model for a “global community” (a promise of universalism that can’t be universalized — that is, by definition, always in progress, not-there-yet, driven by permanent potentiality); and it is, for another thing, a notion for a “global community” that is the opposite of desirable — that seems, in fact, like the very opposite of community. But those who champion or believe in it are never called to account or explain what it is exactly that they mean or hope to achieve.

There is nothing inevitable about placeless “globalism,” and defensiveness to that fact should be as telling as defensiveness is in any other context. Global-culture-warriors seek to shame and intimidate through reactivity and accusations such as “retreat.” But it’s not retreat to imagine a globalism that isn’t predicated on the goal of obliterating boundaries and differences in the name of freedom — whether the targets are “ignorance” and “bigotry” or “inefficiencies” and “barriers to trade” (even setting aside that what currently passes for “free trade” is more about ensuring unfettered movement for a consolidated and diminishing class of capital assets). What we are expected to unquestionably affirm as inevitable is a version of “globalization” that more represents a radicalized melding of identity politics from the left and capital-asset-worship from the right. Both have roots in worthy values—respect for common humanity and economic freedom—but have been warped into a mutually reinforcing loop of denial and irresponsibility.

A different version of globalism (and the political realignment that hopefully is emerging) could respect decentralization and localism while steering innovations toward ways of sustaining lives and livelihoods within realistic horizons of possibility, rather than a maniacal and myopic fetishization of “global value chains” and “logistics” and an “internet of things” for their own sakes, or papered over with empty platitudes about “diversity.” Such a globalism would need to re-balance a respect for and deference to local differences, preferences, traditions, and the real constraints of natural and other resources, even at the expense of market “efficiencies” and “predictability,” economic “growth,” and bankrupt notions of cultural “tolerance” and or “global community” achieved through global value chains. It likely would require that the self-serving delusion of history-as-progress come to terms with the humbling reality of finitude and tragedy.

I already here the smart people scoffing that this is vague and unspecific, naïve, sophmoric, wishful — or worse, a version of socialism, utopianism, nostalgia. Leave the thinking to the experts. (Ironies here, but I am constrained in elaborating.)

The reality is we already are living under a profoundly reckless and irresponsible utopianism. One that refuses to concede to inherent or necessary limits to human freedom or to the legitimacy or irreducibility of cultural or moral differences and, as a consequence, remains convinced of its superior virtue and emboldened in the face of assaults on human progress.

Cosmopolitanism and global capitalism share a common denial — a denial of limitations, of real differences, of restraint. Blind faith in universalism and an idealized (but never actual) free market enable adherents never to question the virtue of their narcissism — never to take responsibility for the choices and values they are imposing on others. It therefore isn’t surprising that the corrupted technocratic elite of both political parties embrace these self-serving and mutually reinforcing fundamentalisms, which promise but never deliver universal freedom and prosperity, and instead serve the preferences of the few.

All of which is to stay, I’ve stumbled at the gate. I don’t take as a given from the outset that it is “important” that America not “retreat” from the “global economy.” I’d like to know what is meant by “retreat,” and what vision of globalism is being assumed or asserted here and what sort of national participation is “important” and why. And I’d like to know how “tinkering to make it work better” (as McKenzie suggested in the interview) is in any sense an answer that matches the enormity and urgency of the moment.

Thanks. Another lovely Sunday bated by a good column, prompted to think and comment.

#17 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 20, 2017 @ 12:33 am

There’s no mystique, it’s simple: making things is more satisfying than serving. That’s it. A lot of people, myself included, absolutely do not feel fulfilled unless they’re participating in making something. Anything. I’m a web developer, I make websites. I love it. I’ve had jobs where I didn’t make anything. I hated it.

Bob Loblaw wins the thread, +1000 to that. He expresses- more pithily than I could- a point of view that I’ve always held, and that I’ve always been surprised isn’t intuitively obviously to more people.

It’s the natural human tendency to want to make things, to shape natural materials into something desirable through our own labour. As far back in human pre-history as you go, you’ll find humans making things. Not always just tools, either: the pre-Columbian inhabitants of South America had no practical use for wheels, but they made small toys with wheels anyway, just for the hell of it. People have a natural desire to create and to be able to look, at the end of the day, at a finished product (a computer program, a field full of grain, an apple orchard, a manufactured product or whatever else) and feel like I made this.

Yes, a satisfying job requires decent wages and working conditions, but that isn’t a sufficient condition for fulfilling work although it’s a necessary one. The drive to replace manufacturing workers by robots and manufacturing jobs with service industry jobs, without limit is one that’s never going to contribute to human flourishing on a large scale. At worst, it’s going to lead to a demoralized, miserable class of service workers and to a perpetually unstable society.

There’s a reason that Marx placed his hopes for the future in industrial workers, not in, for example, domestic servants (of whom there were a lot in his day).

#18 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 20, 2017 @ 12:39 am

Rod,

I’ll second Grumpy Realist’s comments. I disagree with a whole lot of what she has said here, but I think reading her comments was always worthwhile, and I valued her contributions. I’m sad to see her go, and I do think that Art Deco is often entirely insufferable here.

#19 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 20, 2017 @ 12:47 am

I’m not sure how real that effect is. I’ve asked some of my Chinese friends if they like that China makes everything, and if there’s a sense of national pride about this. They basically said no, who cares?

I don’t think that refutes Bob Loblaw’s claim at all, since it was a claim about individual pride in making things, not national pride. (Furthermore, the slice of Chinese that you’ve spoken to are almost certainly not a representative sample of the Chinese population).

#20 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 20, 2017 @ 1:18 am

How many comments, and I don’t find one suggesting that we should regulate automation? Well, I’m willing to make it. Automation is not automatically good, nor is it inevitable. It’s just another human activity. We regulate lots of human activities that would increase economic efficiency, because we feel their other effects are too bad to put up with. Why is automation exempt?

I say that an industry that is going to introduce major, job-destroying new technology should have to do an economic welfare analysis, similar to an environmental impact statement. And none of that BS about how they’ll magically retrain 50-year-old truck drivers into software engineers or robot repairmen.

Pat,

I agree with all of this, entirely. Automation is not some kind of inevitability, and it’s not something that’s an unequivocal good to be embraced at all costs. Most good things come at the cost of other goods (rewarding merit means sacrificing economic equality; free speech means sacrificing protection against the spread of harmful ideas, and so forth). Automation and mechanization inherently mean narrowing the scope of human labour, and while they have obvious benefits they have costs as well. I’m entirely a believer that maximizing human flourishing means embracing automation to a degree, and not embracing it without limit. (Of course, this should be an appealing line of argument for conservatives, whose whole worldview is supposed to be based on knowing our limits).

There are lots of things that would improve economic efficiency that, for one reason or another, we don’t permit. Automation should be one thing that we regulate, in the interest of striking a balance between efficient production and providing employment for people. One thing to realize, of course, is that any kind of regulation or limitation on mechanization is going to require heavy government intervention in the economy. Either to serve as a kind of employer-of-last-resort, to employ people who are unemployable in the private sector, or else to control the terms on which private businesses hire people and to control the degree to which they’re able to substitute robots for people. It won’t require full scale socialism or communism, in other words, but it will certainly require a directed and controlled capitalism at the very least.

#21 Comment By JonF On February 20, 2017 @ 6:25 am

Re: For the grounded, our lives are not readily transplantable, nor do we necessarily want them to be

To some extent this is a function of age. When I was younger I did not mind moving that much, though I did live in the same general area (western metro Detroit) for my first 32 years. By the time I hit 30 I was starting to get restless– my life was in a serious rut– and in 1999 I moved to Akron OH, still close enough for occasional trips home for this or that, but somewhere I would have to get out of my rut and meet new people. Yet I also knew I would not settle down there, and under the goad of needing a job in the jobless recovery days of 2002, I ended up moving to St Pete FL in 2003. I also knew that would not be my permanent home and in 2006 I moved to Ft Lauderdale, where I did think I would stay for good. But man proposes, God disposes and as the sky was starting to fall in 2008, my job offered me relocation to Baltimore as the only way I could keep that job. And away I went again. But now I’ve been here for nine years, I’ll be fifty next month, and I seem to have put down roots, and when someone after church yesterday asked me if I thought I’d move again, well, never say say never,
my reply was that I certainly hope not.

I think Rod could tell a similar story (in a very general way) as he gives the impression that other than maybe some minor local move he too intended to stay put.

#22 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 20, 2017 @ 9:43 am

First we get told that Russia is a desirable political model for us, now it’s Brazil and Nigeria whose economic and social wisdom we need to catch up on.

Do you have the slightest bit of evidence that anyone here has argued that Nigeria is a desirable social and economic model?

(We could absolutely learn things from Russia, I’ve said that plenty of times before. Probably even Brazil).

“And let’s not understate your case – you seem to wish explicitly to make us poorer, i.e. worse off on average, to accomplish your social agenda. What would you have us do? Ban robots so we can increase employment? Why not do as Friedman suggested and have all the workers use hand tools so they’ll be occupied longer? Surely we can better ourselves by wasting time and money.”

Joe B,

Sure, what would be so wrong with all of that? Some of your interlocutors here hasten to add that’s not what they meant, but I’ll plead guilty here: I would absolutely, and happily, accept lower (or maybe mildly negative) GDP growth if it was the price of providing fulfilling employment to most of the population. And yes, that might include (among other things) controlling the use of automation and mechanization so that we can keep a larger fraction of our population involved in manufacturing (and I guess in agriculture as well). Why is this a bad thing? Economic growth isn’t something good for its own sake: it’s good to the extent it contributes to widely distributed happiness and human flourishing. It’s been very obvious for a while that the economic growth in the United States since around 1975 has not done that. Median income has stagnated even while the economy has grown (to say nothing of incomes at the bottom), median real wages are actually lower than they were then, and more of us are working in demoralizing and unfulfilling jobs. That kind of economic growth is *absolutely* something we should sacrifice if it’s the cost of keeping more people employed in better jobs.

I don’t want to get rid of mechanization and automation per se obviously, but neither is it obvious to me that every technological advancement must be embraced, or must be embraced if it can be shown to increase productivity. Every innovation needs to be judged on its own terms with the costs and benefits taken into account, and throwing people out of work absolutely is a cost.

#23 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 20, 2017 @ 9:46 am

Sure there is. Other countries running ahead of the USA in this economic transition (yes, they exist) have pretty much all decided on a course of creating a high tech high wealth generating economy, as much social democracy as can be afforded to buffer the social consequences, while primarily allowing labor pool- and in its wake, overall population- shrinkage.

You do realize that things like a guaranteed basic income are actually not a solution, right? Getting a check from the government is actually not a solution to the problem of not having a job.

#24 Comment By JonF On February 20, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

Re: You do realize that things like a guaranteed basic income are actually not a solution, right?

Hector, it’s also the case that many of those “other countries” are doing much better at retraining people for new jobs, providing adequate income support during the retraining period, and placing people into new jobs. The system in the US for this is really a non-system: the government provides some very grudging, very limited and often quite inadequate benefits; retraining is very often left to private enterprise (with maybe some government money in the firms of loans) whose chief interest is to urn a profit and at the extreme is nothing but a scam, and employers are completely detached from the whole business.