Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Real Story About Jobs

In the early 1990s I read a book by Jeremy Rifkin.

The book talked about some things I had thought about occasionally so I found it to be a pretty interesting book.

Those things I had thought about I thought that I had thought about somewhat deeply.

What made the book interesting was that the way Rifkin presented those things showed me that my thinking had been pretty close to no thinking at all.

“Shallow”, one would probably say; certainly not deep.

But that was it: The book was a deeper dive than I had done at the time into some things that were of interest to me.

It was interesting but not life changing.

Nonetheless, I have always remembered that book.

And I kept it for some future read.

That future read has recently come and gone.

And what I found interesting several years ago now reads like the pronouncements of some prophet on some mountain top in some dystopian nightmare.

Here is a quote.

“After years of wishful forecasts and false starts, the new computer and communication technologies are finally making their long anticipated impact on the workplace and the economy, throwing the world community into the grip of a third great industrial revolution.  Already millions of workers have been permanently eliminated from the economic process, and whole job categories have shrunk, been restructured, or disappeared.”

And he wrote that in 1991 or so.

Or how about this?

“In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world.”

Or here’s another good one.

“Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing issue of the coming century.”

And these quotes are all from page one of the first chapter of the book.

It gets better – if “better” is a word to be used about a clear and accurate vision of mass human oblivion.

I say “clear” because, as can be seen from the three quotes I have cited one can see that Rifkin minces no words and says what he means.

I say “accurate” because – especially as the book gets beyond page one – what is being described is what we – all of us here and now – are dead in the middle of.

And Rifkin is equally clear about how we got here, what it means, and what we might want to do about it.

And he never once berates “The Takers” nor praises the “Makers”.

Ayn Rand is never mentioned.

He never even talks about the glory of the “Job Creators”.

He merely points out that machines and their software brains are rapidly taking over every menial and low level form of work.

He also points out that, as that process marches forward, and as jobs are streamlined, combined, and made vastly more productive, jobs that were once thought to be sophisticated rapidly become menial  and are, in their turn, sucked into the voracious maw of rapidly advancing automation.

He also points out that the people who are unleashing this endgame of work – people who are way smarter than most of the human race – are left in possession of the last jobs not subject to automation.

He also points out that those jobs are the continued invention and deployment of ways to utilize the voracious maw.

He also points out that, in the process of all of the previous points, those few are amassing vast wealth.

And he suggests that the rest of us are left to stand by and watch.

Rifkin has a lot more to say.

He says that the disappearance of whole segments of human labor is occurring so quickly and on such a vast scale that, in effect, huge populations are suddenly without work and without the skills – without, perhaps even the raw ability – to do the new jobs that are being created.

He says that those jobs have high math skills, high technical skills and high communication skills as their entry level requirements.

He says that ,in general, the vast hoards left without work lack all three of these requirements.

He specifically states that no amount of community college is going to transform a huge workforce that had, until its recent loss of work, prided itself upon being able to show up to work on time most days and turn the same bolt for eight hours, into an entrepreneurial and highly technically and mathematically skilled knowledge worker.

He also says that, even if it were somehow possible to wave the magic community-college-wand over a gathering of fifty year olds whose last contact with math and thinking was freshman high school algebra, it wouldn’t change anything.

There aren’t that many of the new type of jobs.

The fact that Rifkin’s observations are all twenty years old would cause one to think that someone nominally in charge of things would have noticed that where we are today and why we are there had all been laid out clearly long ago.

And one would think that some sort of plan to deal with it would have been created and have been in the process of being deployed.

Rifkin suggested that some of the wealth accumulated by the new ruling class probably ought to be transferred to those who have been left behind.

And he suggested a basic reason why that might be a good thing to do: Self Interest.

The world he described is made up of the hopeless, terminally unemployed is a world of people who first lose their self respect, then lose hope then lose their humanity; then drunkenness, domestic violence, crime, homelessness and regional anarchy reign supreme.

The world he described is one in which the few, the privileged - the new rulers - withdraw into walled and gated compounds and let the groundlings destroy the rest as civil unrest spreads outside their gates.

The world he described is one of nearly limitless goods resulting from ultimately human-less and maximally productive processes.

The world he described is one in which there is a vanishing market for those goods: the people who previously bought the stuff no longer have any money.

Self interest, Rifkin asserted, would make a rational society see the need to remedy these things.

Since I live in a nominal democratic republic my first reaction to my recent re-read of The End of Work was to wonder if our elected representatives recognize the problem.

Without much thought it has been easy to answer that question: “Are you nuts? They are too busy playing with themselves”.

But then I read the current issue of The Economist today.

It turns out they seem to be beginning to blather about the problem.

“My BIG fear: the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life” (Paul Ryan).

“Opportunity is slipping away.” (Elizabeth Warren).

“Each element (of the sequence of events that lead to success) is eroding away” (Marco Rubio).

“Of course you have to work hard, of course you have to take responsibility, but we are making it so difficult for people who do those things to feel that they are going to achieve the American dream” (Hillary Clinton).

How nice.

As the upcoming presidential fiasco approaches, some of them are feigning their understanding.

So, if one accepts that they understand (rather than feigning understanding) what is it that they are proposing to do about it?

They haven’t a clue.

Paul Ryan (author of the Get-Rid-of-Social-Security Bill) recommends that we adopt the “policies” of Ayn Rand, a highly successful mid Twentieth Century writer of stridently anti-Socialist bodice rippers.

He makes Rand’s tomes assigned reading for his staff.

The rest just mumble and mutter.

I suggest that someone read The End of Work.

Rifkin actually has some ideas about what we might do about this cataclysm.

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