Automation and the Future of Work: It’s Already Happened

Don’t you see, Doctor?” said Lasher. “The machines are to practically everybody what the white men were to the Indians. People are finding that, because of the way the machines are changing the world, more and more of their old values don’t apply any more. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves, or wards of the machines.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

In my previous two posts, I documented that the mainstream conceit that the transition from a manufacturing/export-led economy centered around making things, to a highly-automated “post-industrial” economy centered around retail and food service, was not the painless, bloodless transition that the mainstream media and professional economists constantly make it out to be. Here’s a recent column by Chris Hedges describing a typical scene:

I spent a recent weekend in the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, N.J., helping to clear out piles of old books, church records, plastic flowers, worn choir robes and other detritus that were dusty remnants of the white working-class congregation that filled these pews a few decades ago.

Elizabeth was devastated by the 1982 closure of its Singer plant, which had been built in 1873 and at one time had 10,000 workers. The 1,000 or so African-Americans at the plant worked mostly in a foundry that made cast-iron parts for the sewing machines. The work was poorly paid and dangerous. White workers, many of them German, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish or Lithuanian immigrants, dominated the safer and better-paid factory floor. The city was built around the sprawling plant. Generations of residents organized their lives and their families on the basis of Singer jobs or income that the facility indirectly produced. And then, after a long decline, the factory was gone.

The year Singer closed its flagship factory in Elizabeth there were 2,696 plant shutdowns across the United States, resulting in 1,287,000 job losses. Singer workers in Elizabeth under the age of 55 lost all retirement benefits, even if they had worked for the company for decades. Small businesses in the city that depended on the plant went bankrupt.

In postindustrial cities across America it is now clear, after the passage of years, that the good jobs and stability once provided by factories such as the Singer plant have been lost forever. The pent-up anger and frustration among the white working class have given birth to dark pathologies of hate. The hate is directed against those of different skin color or ethnicity who somehow seem to have heralded the changes that destroyed families and communities.

The Wages of Sin (TruthDig)

All Hollowed Out: The lonely poverty of America’s white working class (The Atlantic)

Back in 2012, I wrote:

A recent report from the census bureau puts the number of Americans in poverty at a record 49.5 million when expenses are taken into account, or over 16 percent of the population, the size of a large country. A similar number lack basic health care. When concepts like “financially fragile” or “living paycheck to paycheck” are used (meaning little or no savings and income just covering expenses), numbers of over 50 percent are common. The amount of unemployed equals the population of Illinois, the nation’s fifth largest state, meaning there are more unemployed people in the U.S. than there are citizens in all but Florida, New York, Texas and California. The percentage of people actively in the workforce is down to what it was in 1981, before two-income families became the norm. Life expectancy is actually decreasing for the poorest members of society. Doubling up”, or multiple generations living under the same roof (dubbed “reduced household formation” by economists ) has been on the rise, and homeownership is down for the first time in decades. The age of cars on the road is an all-time high. Food banks are regularly overwhelmed with demand. From three to six workers exist for every new job opening, and job fairs regularly attract thousands from all over for just a handful of available jobs.

Drive through “flyover country” and you’ll see that all is not well in the heartland, from rural towns dominated by boarded-up storefronts, meth labs and food banks, to inner-cities dominated by crack houses, gun violence, panhandling and homelessness, to older suburbs dominated by foreclosures and dollar stores. Everything just worked out okay? But all of this is ignored in the mainstream media, who instead continue to insist that jobs are plentiful and all is well in the post-Fordist deindustrialized economy.

In fact, since the factories were shut down in the 1970-1990’s, there have been any number of “[fill-in-the-blank] economies” peddled by professional economists (“knowledge” economy, “information” economy, “service” economy, “FIRE” economy, “sharing” economy, “gig” economy, etc.). They insist that making things is so twentieth-century, and that the demand for “service workers” and “knowledge workers” is bottomless. The one constant between these ever-shifting adjectives is they have all been abject failures in the real world at providing lasting prosperity for anyone outside of a tiny circle of wealthy elites.

One reason we’ve been able to ignore reality for so long is because the worst of the fallout from automation was dumped on the African-American community, whom we then scapegoated and ignored, as I’ve documented in the last couple of posts. That community has totally collapsed, and the success of a few winners and the easing of institutionalized discrimination was used to justify the horrible abuse, injustice, and deprivation doled out to the majority who were castigated as “lazy” and “moral failures.” But the effects of automation have affected not just African-Americans. They have decimated a vast swath of society, and it’s been largely ignored and covered up by government and the media. This does not bode well for the future.

That’s the topic of this important post by Richard Serlin, who makes the point that, when it comes to automating away the livelihood of a large number of Americans, it has, in fact, already happened!  Serlin focuses not just on African-Americans, but on all workers at the bottom of the economic pyramid. He points out some inconvenient facts which contradict the “everything just worked out okay” narrative:

People today typically debate the future with regard to robot/AI revolution, will it be much harder to get and hold a job that can support a family decently, or even pay minimum wage. Will it take much more education to achieve this? Will this happen in some hypothetical advanced robot and AI computer future? Well, for male humans, it’s not a will. It’s a has. It has, to a very large extent. The evidence…is very strong on this. And it hasn’t happened to just mere horses this time. Lower-skilled male humans are humans, and they’re vastly beyond horses. And already the robots, AI computers, and machines have brought them a long way toward the fate of the horses. And these brilliant machines are just getting started…

1) “Between 1960 and 2009, the share of men [age 25 – 64] without any formal labor-market earnings for an entire calendar year rose from 6 percent to 18 percent.” (page 11)

2) “The percentage of men working full time [age 25 – 64] has decreased from 83 percent to 66 percent over the same period.” (page 12)

3) “Nonemployment for an entire calendar year among men without high school diplomas [age 25 – 64] increased by 23 percentage points (from 11 to 34 percent) and among those with only a high school degree by 18 percentage points (from 4 to 22 percent)”. (page 12)

4) “One way to untangle the two phenomena is to examine the median earnings among all working-age men – this time including those who earn nothing at all. What appeared as stagnant earnings for workers is really an outright decline in wages for the median men of working age. The median wage of the American male has declined by almost $13,000 after accounting for inflation in the four decades since 1969. (Using a different measure of inflation suggests a smaller, but still substantial, drop in earnings.) Indeed, earnings haven’t been this low since Ike was president and Marshal Dillon was keeping the peace in Dodge City.” (page 12)

5) “Consider just men between the ages of 30 and 50, a group for whom retirement is rare. The median earnings of all men in this group declined by 27 percent between 1969 and 2009, which is nearly identical to the 28 percent decline for those who are 25 to 64 years old.” (page 12)

6) “Surely, the most astonishing statistic to be gleaned from the trend data is the deterioration in the market outcomes for men with less than a high school education. The median earnings of all men in this category have declined by 66 percent [not a misprint] [from 1969 to 2009]. At the same time, this group has experienced a 23 percentage point decline in the probability of having any labor-market earnings. Roughly 10 percentage points of the 23 percentage points is attributable to the fact that more men are reporting disabilities, even though work in physically demanding jobs has been declining for many decades. Men with just a high school diploma did only marginally better. Their wages declined by 47 percent and their participation in the labor force fell by 18 percentage points.” (page 13).

 Now, it’s true that all of these statistics are just for men. The total number of jobs has increased, due to women entering the labor force en masse, and the population increasing. Still:

1) The total labor force participation rate, which considers all of this, has declined in the last 15 years from about 67%, where it was throughout the 1990’s, to about 64% (from the Current Population Survey).

 2) You bring up horses to some economists, and other smart people, and sometimes the reply is, humans are different; humans are just so much more flexible and adaptable and creative than horses, as in the Dietz Vollrath quote at the start of this post.

The machines eventually got horses. They shifted the demand curve inward so much that the supply had to decrease by over 99% to keep the market wage for those horses that remained above the subsistence level. And you could have made the same argument for horses that you hear all the time for humans – It never happens. Hundreds of years technology has advanced, and we’ve always found jobs for as big, or bigger, a population of horses.

Well, you know what, after hundreds of years of technological advance, it finally did happen. Machines reached the point where they were so good at almost everything you could employ a horse at that there was no way for 99+% of the horses to do anything else that would pay even a subsistence market wage.

So, relatively low-skilled, low-educated males are not the entire group of humans. But, they are a class of humans, and a big one. And what these data show is that it’s not just a theoretical debatable thing about the future. It’s already very largely happened. They’ve already very largely gone the way of the horse in the face of advancing machines (and I’ll discuss alternative explanations)…

So, the key point is that if foreign workers in these kinds of relatively standardized, simple, and predictable environments, with these kinds of also relatively standardized, simple, and predictable tasks, are able to so devastate employment and wages for lower-skilled American males over the last half-century, then machines would have done it anyway. Because advanced machines largely can do the same things already, and it looks like there’s a substantial probability they will be able to do the vast majority of this kind of work within the next generation or two.

Robot/AI revolution decimating employment and wages, not just could it happen, has it largely happened already? Surprising data (Richard Serlin)

Automation and efficiency has largely already eliminated the need for workers with a high-school education or less from any role whatsoever in the economic order. We take this for granted, but it was not always so. I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories of our penniless peasant immigrant ancestors migrating here with hardly any education at all and working their way up the ladder sweeping streets and selling newspapers, and such like. Before the 1930’s it was a reality. Not any more. We’ve already lost a great deal of labor.

High-school educated workers have already gone the way of the horse. That’s not a future scenario, it is right now.

Clearly, there have been serious and profound affects on the job market since President Johnson was warned of this phenomenon back in the 1960’s, yet we’ve largely written them off! All we hear from the economists is how we created plenty of new jobs in the age of automation. After all, the “official” unemployment rate recorded by government statistics is only five percent. Five percent!!!

The message is clear: There are still enough jobs for everyone, anyone who can’t get one is lazy, and anyone who is struggling just needs to head over to the nearest diploma mill and get some “skills.” Here are some facts about the job market you won’t hear in the official statistics, however:

  • Men have been leaving the workforce since 1970. this has largely been offset by women entering the workforce, to the point where it takes two incomes to purchase the living standards that  one income did before the 1970’s. Since 2000, however, women have been leaving the workforce as well:

  • Men lost 2 times more jobs than women from the Great Recession and have gained half as many jobs since late 2007.

  • Since 2004 median income has fallen by 13% while expenditures have risen by 14% according to latest figures pulled by Pew Research. One in three Americans can no longer afford rent, transportation, and buy food.

  • Ten states still have not regained all the jobs they lost in the recession, even after six and a half years of recovery, while many more have seen only modest gains.

  • Graduates in the UK are earning less than those who did not go to university.

  • Almost two-thirds of American do not have a college degree:

  • The proportion of American workers who don’t have “traditional” jobs — who instead work as independent contractors, through temporary services or on-call — rose 9.4 million from 2005 to 2015. That was greater than the rise in overall employment, meaning there was a small net decline in the number of workers with conventional job.

  • Half of all job switchers earned less in their new roles.

  • In February of 2016, the media widely celebrated the official jobs report which claimed that 242,000 new jobs created. Here’s what they didn’t tell you: Of the 242,000 jobs added, 304,000 of them were part time. That means the economy actually shed 62,000 full-time jobs.

  • 5 of America’s fastest growing jobs pay less than $25,000

And the St. Louis Fed has documented a number of other negative employment trends that have accelerated since 2000:

  • Declining job reallocation (Job creation plus job destruction).
  • The job ladder collapse.
  • Job polarization – middle-skill occupations are disappearing, while low- and high-skill occupations are growing.
  • The startup deficit – a dramatic decline in the creation of new firms.

Of course, the bank technocrats have no explanation for this. Maybe we need more loans?

This blogger takes a closer look at the numbers and finds we’re largely creating jobs in food service. It’s doubtful that “more education” will somehow change that:

Since March 2011 — five years ago — the U.S. economy has added 12.4 million jobs.  Here’s a sampling of where those jobs have appeared:

    2.2 million in ‘leisure and hospitality,’ including 1.8 million in ‘accomodation[sic] and food services.’

    2.6 million in ‘education and health services,’ including 2.1 million in ‘health care and social assistance.’

    1.4 million in ‘retail trade’ including 300,000 in car dealers and 260,000 in ‘food and beverage stores.’

    1.3 million in ‘administrative and waste services’ for professional and business services

And there you have about two-thirds of all those job gains.

Mind you, there are plenty of good paying restaurant jobs (though median wage data is as bad as you’d imagine). There are certainly plenty of good health care jobs.  And there are folks who do well working at car dealerships, too.  But this is not the sign of a modern economy awakening from a slumber.  It’s more like an economy snoring during a nap…

I started down this road because of a great column about last month’s job gains from It explained rather brutally that Americans who are losing manufacturing jobs have had no trouble picking up jobs as wait staff in bars and restaurants.  And that’s the problem.  The fastest-growing job categories in from that “positive” March jobs report were food and drinking establishments, retail trade, education and health, and construction.  Those four categories made up about 8 out of every 10 new jobs created last month. Meanwhile, manufacturing lost 29,000 jobs. Almost exactly as many jobs as food service created.

Here’s an even bigger step back. You’ve probably heard that America is now a service economy. Here’s what that means. The U.S. has 143 million nonfarm workers — with 102 million of them working “private service.”  Manufacturing and construction make up 19 million, and government 22 million.

For a very rough mental picture: put 10 American workers in a room, and roughly 7 of them would be service workers, while 3 would be making something like a house or steel, or working for the government. For a further (rough) breakdown of those 7 service workers, 3 would work in retail or a bar, 1 would be a teacher or nurse, there would be 1 ‘professional,’ 1 working in finance or real estate, and the other one would be split among things like information services, transportation, and so on.

It’s a great time to be a waiter! The truth about all those new jobs being created right now, and the future of American workers. (Bob Sullivan)

That certainly bears out on the ground what Richard Serlin’s statistics show. So we have less workers overall, and those workers are primarily working in low-wage jobs, primarily in food service, which are what the majority of jobs are (McJobs). And those service jobs are about to come under threat as Serlin describes:

 You go to check out. No cashiers. The computer recognizes you, and everything in your cart, and says, “That will be $127.49 Mr. Delong. Would you like to pay with your Amazon Visa like last time?”

The (mechanized, computer driven) cart docks at a conveyer, and robots with amazing dexterity and speed bag up your groceries and call up your computer-driven car. Then, your mechanized cart (which you didn’t have to push or steer. It stayed with you.) goes to your car, and robots load the bags in. The shelves are stocked by robots, and most janitorial and other functions are done by them too. And if you read The Second Machine Age, Rise of the Robots, or just out, The Master Algorithm, you’ll see that robots aren’t that far from a lot of this even now. And solar, at least in the sunbelt (reporting from Tucson), powers all these machines relatively inexpensively. The roof of the supermarket is covered with solar panels, and the parking lot is shaded completely with solar paneled canopies – This kind of thing is not that rare even today in Tucson, and Moore’s law in solar is only accelerating after more than a generation. The sun food for the machines is, and especially will be, a whole lot cheaper than the farmed food for the humans.

All those low skilled supermarket jobs reduced to just a human manager, and maybe a few humans, if that, to fill in the gaps. And the same for restaurants, factories, janitorial and maid service,… I find it very hard to think of what jobs those low-skilled people will get instead, in anywhere close to equal numbers to those lost, where those who still have jobs and wealth will want to pay at least minimum wage for their services.

So, is more education the answer? The problem is, as with high-school workers above, the education requirements for having a job–any job–keep rising. And it’s doubtful than even if every one of us could get those requirements, there would be enough jobs to go around. In a society where everyone is an Einstein, Einstein sweeps the floor and empties the trashbin.

Education is more about rationing the remaining jobs than training people for the new economy.

Serlin again:

…if you say: Oh, ok, it’s just horses and men who don’t make the effort to become skilled and educated enough, so no problem, they just get skilled and educated enough, and then the robots and AI’s are no risk. Then, what if skilled and educated enough so all this is no problem goes from high school diploma to bachelor’s at a nationally known respected research university, and with the commensurate skills? Or even the commensurate skills of just the top half of such graduates today, so we can’t just grade hyper-inflate our way out of this, and throw up a bunch of Potemkin colleges.

How are we supposed to get the vast majority of men, and women, up to this level of skill and education?

To do so would take a regime shift in our politics, and in public understanding of economics. By and large, one of our two major parties not only does not believe in global warming, or evolution for that matter, they don’t believe in externalities, asymmetric information, natural monopoly, contracting limitations and costs, and basically anything that says the pure free market is imperfect (except in cases where it benefits the rich). But providing a massive increase in the education, skills, and general capabilities for most of the population is something that free market companies could only extract a small fraction of the benefits from in profits. And therefore they alone would grossly underprovide this.

Indeed, as David J. Blacker has documented, companies are already divesting themselves as much as possible from funding for all education. Instead, companies dump all the costs for training onto the back of the individual, because they can. In fact, some people are literally selling stock in themselves just to afford the cost of education, in a twenty-first century version of indentured servitude. Those who get the remaining jobs will mostly be those who are best able to afford it, meaning a class-stratified society based on inherited wealth. All risk is transferred off of the corporations and onto the backs of the workers themselves. Also, Neoliberalism, the prevailing economic philosophy today, believes that everything must be provided by the competitive market, and if the market does not provide it, it simply will not exist–something that does not bode well for access to education.

Instead of dealing with this, in true American fashion, we’ve just let the “free market” take care of it, and what the free market has done is primarily create a string of chains of for-profit colleges preying on desperate workers who want to earn more than subsistence wages.

Illinois cuts off funding for its public universities (Marketplace)

The End of Research in Wisconsin (Slate)

More Kansas Schools To Close Early For Lack Of Funds  (Huffington Post)

Look at the derision that Bernie Sanders’ proposal of giving a free college education to Americans (which many other countries already provide) is “unrealistic” and furthermore, the money simply isn’t there to do this in the world’s wealthiest nation. Moreover these sentiments are not just coming from the right, but from his Democratic rival Hilary Clinton, who mockingly claims that people support Mr. Sanders only because they want “free stuff.”

The externalities, contracting and enforcement problems and costs, adverse selection and other asymmetric information, and so on, are profound and enormous. This is why general education has historically been predominantly publicly funded. To say that now, so that most of the population won’t go the way of horses, we have to enormously increase our investment in Heckman-style early human development, education, public nutrition, healthcare, and more, from prenatal until at least well into a person’s 20’s, is to say that we should have an unprecedented increase in governments’ size and roles.

Right now, this is impossible, as the Republican party is dogmatically against any government, except for a small number of areas; mainly military, police, courts, prisons, and perhaps minimal public infrastructure and education.

Did we see such a massive investment in the African-American community after their jobs went away? Did we see the “Heckman-style” early childhood intervention which Serlin describes?

No, instead we saw jobless African-Americans portrayed as little more than animals, and now we’re seeing that sentiment directed against “white trash” today as well. Here’s a description of a now-infamous column by Kevin Williamson:

[National Review’s Kevin Williamson] a long-time critic of The Donald, essentially agrees that he doesn’t support any policies or rhetoric directly tailored to the working-class — particularly about jobs being taken by outsourcing and immigration— because it would be wrong to do so.

“It is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces,” the NR roving correspondent writes. “[N]obody did this to them. They failed themselves.”

He then goes on to state that all the ills associated with downscale whites are a result of that class’s inherent depravity.

“If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that,” Williamson state.

He then goes on to make the conclusion that it’s great these communities are dying out because they have a warped morality and are a dead weight on the economy.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible,” the conservative writer says. “The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt [a blue-collar town in New York].”

This article isn’t the first time Williamson has harshly criticized trying to appeal to working-class whites. In one February article, he said that this class is made-up of “economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency.” He also claimed that their interests have no place in the “mainstream of American conservatism” and, in a follow-up post, said that the only message conservatives should give them is “get a job.”

While Williamson blames the people living in run-down white communities for their own woes, he does not apply the same principle to run-down minority communities. In his book and articles on the failures of Detroit, for instance, the National Review writer blames “progressivism” and unions for ruining the predominately African-American city.

National Review Writer: Working-Class Communities ‘Deserve To Die’ (Daily Caller)

That’s right, labor unions and “progressivism” are the root cause of Detroit’s failure, not automation or the loss of good-paying jobs, according to this line of thinking. And an angry “get a job” bellowed at the unemployed is the only answer worth contemplating, even as jobs disappear and pay less and less. Joblessness is all a result of individual failure and moral malaise–all people need to do is hit the books and climb in in the U-Haul; that is, make themselves amenable to the new economy using nothing but their own resources. And if they have little to no resources, well, then they need to grab a firm hold of their bootstraps. And to top it off, these are the same people who are diametrically opposed to raising the minimum wage. He’s using the exact same phrases and sentiments that have been used against African-Americans the past forty years.

Expect to see a lot more of this thinking coming from the Right’s propaganda outlets  as automation accelerates.

As Serlin points out, the Republican party, which controls congress and statehouses across the country, virulently opposes expanding access to education, higher wages, or really any sort of investment in human capital whatsoever. In fact, they want to roll them back!

Of course, to win elections they have to favor Social Security and Medicare for seniors. But, from my study of politics, I think that most of those who control the party would like, if they could get away with it without losing political capital, to end Social Security and Medicare. And, in fact, they fought Social Security and Medicare tooth and nail when they were first enacted. And I also think that many of those in control of the Republican party would like, if they could get away with it at no cost in political capital, to eliminate most, if not all, publicly financed education, infrastructure, and research… Just read their platform, and the positions of their major candidates; it’s pretty obvious that the direction they’d like to go in is the opposite one.

Ayn-Rand inflected free market fundamentalism is the dominant philosophy of the executive class who control the nation’s wealth, and, via campaign contributions, its government. Does that sound like a society that’s going to make the investments in education necessary based on the above, or one that will continue to portray a society of “makers and takers” as the jobs are automated away?

Recall that the last candidate for president on the Republican ticket claimed to his wealthy backers (secretly) that forty-seven percent of Americans, because they pay no Federal income taxes, take no responsibility for their lives, and are just looking for handouts. And his vice-presidential candidate was fond of saying that America’s threadbare social safety net had become, “a hammock lulling people into lives of indolence,” and whose biggest political influence is Ayn Rand. Both called for a drastic shrinking of the safety net and massive tax cuts for the richest Americans, tax cuts that will probably ultimately help fund the technology that automates away even more jobs.

So Kevin Williamson’s thinking above is not fringe at all.

So, if it’s going to require a massive increase in human development, education, skills, and general capability for most men not to go the way of the horse, then that edification is not going to happen anytime soon. And things could get very bad. And for a large segment of the population, the statistics show it already has….

So, I don’t think we can take that much solace in the reply, all the low-skilled men have to do is become high-skilled to avoid going the way of the horse.

If everyone went to university, there wouldn’t be enough places for them. The best universities are predominantly located in urban areas with high rents, and besides, they already reject many of the people who apply to them for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, our expensive and inefficient education system is designed to take at least four years to complete because of unnecessary padding and frills (despite our insistence that it be a glorified vocational school). What are these people supposed to do in the meantime?

And even if we expanded online options, we would just have more underemployed people, or a more educated unemployed workforce. Online college won’t create new jobs (except, or course, for those providing the education). The economy isn’t primarily creating fast-food jobs because of a lack of education, instead, educated people are being forced to take on these jobs. Just being more educated does not automatically produce a job for that educated person. Education does not, in and of itself, produce more jobs. Only a growing economy does that, and we have had anemic growth since the 2008 financial crisis.


The destruction of African-American economic fortunes due to automation and the fallout from that were the major driving forces in American politics in the latter-half of the twentieth century, as we saw last time, yet this factor is almost totally ignored. Suburban sprawl, white flight, abandoned cities, ghettos, housing projects and automobile dependency can all be laid, directly or indirectly, at the feet of automation. Yes, automobile dependency–anything “public” is now associated with black people by rural and suburban whites, including public transportation, so they fight tooth and nail to prevent its expansion. Here in Wisconsin, Republicans blocked the (fully funded) train system from Milwaukee to Madison from being built by playing on white suburban fears of blacks streaming out of Milwaukee’s inner-city to steal TVs during the daytime. In Milwaukee, a streetcar line and expansion of the bus system are also being opposed by the same suburban whites.

Even the specter of “affordable” housing in Milwaukee’s distant suburbs, regardless of race, stirs virulent opposition:

New Berlin residents divided on racism’s role in city’s housing decision (JSOnline) I don’t call these places “white separatist enclaves” for nothing. They are the modern-day sundown towns.

We also saw that this was the primary driver of the rise of the far-right Republican party, and the near total conversion of the white working class to a strain of politics that defines itself primarily by hatred of “big government,” taxes, and welfare. This hatred of “big government” sprang up after civil rights, and opposition to welfare after the epidemic of joblessness in the inner-cities. Taxes became seen as primarily funding black indolence rather than education, infrastructure, defense, and so forth. Notice that there have been no major domestic legislation initiatives since the civil rights era (Obamacare being an exception, but that inefficient system passed largely as a giveaway to big insurers).

Republicans like to portray government as inefficient and corrupt, but it is so largely through their own efforts. If Republicans truly objected to inefficiency and cronyism in government, it seems unlikely that they would elect the candidates that they do. Instead, they are responding to tribal identifiers and dog-whistles.

Why do white working-class voters vote against their own interests? It’s no mystery, really.

What the opposition to government is really all about is white resentment at perceived favoritism toward African Americans and anger at social engineering. This led to the birth of a sentiment among whites that the best thing was to tear government down as much as possible, that is, to “drown it in a bathtub.” Republicans wrapped themselves up as much as possible in the markers of white (especially rural) tribal identity – hunting, fishing, shooting, pickup trucks, NASCAR, country music, Jesus, the military, religious fundamentalism, flag-waving, homophobia, opposition to political correctness, hatred of “feminists” and “intellectuals, and so forth. Watch this telling clip below:

We then saw that factors like the 1994 signing of NAFTA and the 2001 entry of China into the WTO, along with automation, decimated the white working class as thoroughly as the black one, once again with a small fraction of lucky and/or talented “winners” able to escape the deluge. And the same divide-and-conquer tactics are being played out yet again, this time along class, rather than predominantly racial, lines. And we’re now seeing those factors drive the next stage of our politics–candidates who promise to ‘Make America Great Again,” bring the jobs back, and rein in the excesses of the rich and Wall Street.

Automation is not some science-fiction scenario. We have been living with its effects for the past five decades. And it’s now accelerating.

Despite the obfuscation by professional economists and the media, those earlier warnings about the fallout from automation were not, in any sense, “wrong”–they were prophetic. We need to stop bickering and start dealing with this new reality, before Detroit becomes less of a warning sign, and more the reality of Americans’ day-to-day lives from coast to coast, regardless of the color of their skin. Sadly, I see few signs of us coming to grips with this new reality any more than we did in the past.

“Of course you’re right. It’s just a hell of a time to be alive, is all—just this goddamn messy business of people having to get used to new ideas. And people just don’t, that’s all. I wish this were a hundred years from now, with everybody used to the change.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

2 thoughts on “Automation and the Future of Work: It’s Already Happened

  1. Congrats on the new site!

    There’s one fly in the ointment here and it’s that robots are expensive. A robot simply can’t work as cheaply as a human being. A computer, somewhat expensively, can mine data, comb for keywords, etc., but to actually move in the physical world is extremely energy expensive. This is why the planet’s dominant life forms are not robotic. There’s been plenty of time for Mother Nature to evolve robots, trust me She’s come up with weirder things, but it hasn’t happened because organic life forms run circles around machines in the real world.

    I look at the whole AI/robotics thing the way I look at the nuclear industry – it’s a great futuristic idea but I’m not convinced the nuclear industry has ever actually produced more energy than it’s consumed. When I was in college I was a real nuclear fanboy because it’s new and cool and all that, and I’d order all kinds of obscure books on it, and even the official gov’t publications, which I believe you can still order cheaply, reveal that nuclear is hard as hell to do and expensive.

    Here’s a clearer example: The rocket scientist I work for loves to tell people how he’s actually worked out the energy needs etc of the replicator on Star Trek, and has concluded that it would take the energy of a small atom bomb to make that hamburger or chocolate shake.

  2. Alex in San Jose,
    You’re dead wrong. What is the cost to raise a baby to a working adult, compared to the cost to make a machine to perform work? And once the first machine is made to perform the job, making future machines is the cost of raw materials and assembly.

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