Automation and The Future of Work: Black Lives Matter

One of the things I always hear about automation is that all the predictions of the imminent demise of jobs to date have proven false. Every time we automate work away, new jobs spring up like daisies in the springtime to take their place, says conventional thinking, and we happily go merrily along working our forty hour work weeks, because of all the gains in productivity juice the overall economy, ending up in a net gain, even as population increases. Or, if the commenters are a bit more circumspect, they at least acknowledge a difficult and troubling short “transition period,” where a few people suffer a bit of hardship, but everything works out fine for everyone in the end. “Lump of labor fallacy” and all that.

I’m sure you’ve heard these arguments too.

The analogies between “Peak Horse” and “Peak Human” are fundamentally flawed, say such analysts. Horses are just horses. Humans, on the other hand, are infinitely adaptable, and can just learn “new skills,” whatever those happen to be, and will always be relevant to the economy. Permanent unemployment of a large portion of the workforce is just not possible, they argue.

The 1930’s The Technocracy Movement, a group of engineers and technicians, published a large amount of literature demonstrating that the productive forces that had been unleashed in the years prior, especially the mechanization of agriculture and the electrification of the assembly line, had made a large numbers of workers redundant. Overproduction would mean that the salaries necessary to purchase the products would not materialize, leading to economic crisis. During the Great Depression, when up to a quarter of the workforce could not find steady employment, it seemed their ideas were coming to fruition. The movement competed head-to-head politically for a time with Socialism the New Deal. After the global destruction unleashed by the war (which “stimulated” the economy), these issues were forgotten.

In 1964 a group of social activists and academics who called themselves “The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions” sent an open letter to president Lyndon Johnson warning that automation would soon lead to mass unemployment. They signed it as “The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution.” The committee “claimed that machines would usher in “a system of almost unlimited productive capacity” while continually reducing the number of manual laborers needed, and increasing the skill needed to work, thereby producing increasing levels of unemployment.” (Wikipedia).

The Triple Revolution: An Appraisal of the Major US Crises and Proposals for Action (Marxists.org)

Of course, those worries were all for nothing, say the economists. We have more jobs today than we did in 1964, and we’re working more than ever! It was just another in a long line of Chicken Little predictions that didn’t come true, because it can’t come true, because the economy will always produce enough jobs for everyone who wants one if they’re willing to work for it, say the economists. Say’s Law, and all that. After all, it’s 2016, and the “official” unemployment rate is only five percent!

Here’s an example of such a dismissal from a wealthy, white, Stanford University academic:

This is not the first time society has fretted over the impact of ever-smarter machines on jobs and work—and not the first time we have overreacted. In the Depression-beset 1930s, labor Jeremiahs warned that robots would decimate American factory jobs. Three decades later, mid-1960s prognosticators offered a hopeful silver lining to an otherwise apocalyptic assessment of automation’s dark cloud: the displacement of work and workers would usher in a new “leisure society.”

Reality stubbornly ignored 1930s and 1960s expectations. The robots of extravagant imagination never arrived. There was ample job turbulence but as Keynes forecast in 1930, machines created more jobs than they destroyed. Boosted by a World War, unemployment dropped from a high of 25 percent in 1933 to under two percent in 1944. And the hoped-for 1960s leisure society never arrived because the diffusion of information technologies created unprecedented demand for Drucker’s “knowledge workers,” and fueled the arrival of the service economy.

Let’s not abandon Keynes just yet: In 1930, Keynes observed that technological unemployment was a self-solving problem. On balance new technologies create more jobs than they destroy. Today’s job-shedding turbulence looks no different from what scared the bejesus out of observers in the 1930s and ’60s. For example, in 1965 the federal government reported that automation was wiping out 35,000 jobs per week, yet, just a few years later, it was clear that new jobs more than offset the losses. Of course, now as then, the new jobs will arrive more slowly than the old jobs are destroyed, and require ever-higher skill levels. We would be wise to worry less about extreme scenarios and focus on managing the transition.

Follow the new scarcities to the new jobs: Every new abundance creates a new scarcity that in turn leads to new economic activity. The proliferation of computers made information abundant, creating the demand for Drucker’s knowledge workers. And the material abundance made possible by machine-enabled productivity gains in turn contributed to the rise of an economy hungry for service workers. This moment is no different; immediate job losses are highly visible, while entirely new job categories run beneath the radar. Jobs will be ever less secure, but work isn’t disappearing.

The Future of Work: We Have Been Here Before (Pacific Standard)

Ah, yes the “knowledge and service” workers saved us, didn’t they? And we all lived happily ever after. Stupid Luddites!

I remember hearing a person making this argument recently. He was confidently assured that new technology would create new jobs, because it always did. He brought up the above track record (as they always do). He happened to work in tech. He happened to be white. He probably lived in the suburbs.

We happened to be close to downtown. When I heard this, I thought, “Take a walk a few blocks and look around. Do things seem to be going that great?” Walk a bit further and you’ll be in Milwaukee’s “inner city,” one of the most dangerous and segregated in the nation. Derelict buildings. Boarded up storefronts. Pop-up churches. Drug clinics. Homeless shelters. Food pantries. Shootings on a daily basis. People with cardboard signs asking for money standing at every street intersection. Vast areas of the city, and I mean vast, look like war-town Beirut, Sarajevo or Baghdad, and have for decades, and we just accept this as a normal fact of life in modern-day America.

How did it happen? It was not always like this. These neighborhoods were once prosperous, walkable, middle-class areas filled with factory workers. Well-kept bungalows and two-story flats occupied the narrow lots on each block, flanked on each corner by the corner tavern (the neighborhood social hangout) and the general store. Children walked to the neighborhood school. Public works were well-maintained, parkland was abundant, and the architecture was beautiful.

Photos: Milwaukee’s Industrial Past (Frontline)

The factories have long since been closed and abandoned. Huge areas of town that employed thousands of people and made industrial products shipped all over the world a generation ago are as silent as the crumbling ruins of the Roman forum. Surrounding them are vast ghettos patrolled 24-7 by cops where residents live in daily fear of drive-by shootings.

Everything just worked out okay. Really??!

In order to accept that point of view articulated above, one must refuse to acknowledge the effect that automation has already had on our society.

You see, it’s pretty easy to be dismissive and nonchalant about automation if you’re white. And especially if you’re suburban.  But to do that, you have to literally dismiss all of the above reality, which is exactly what we have done.

We’ve accepted the cratered cities, derelict neighborhoods, unemployment and social pathology as just the way things are. We’ve done this by writing off a large segment of the American people as simply unemployable. We forget that it was once any other way. Such is the power of creeping normalcy–things that would cause shock and action a generation ago just became “the way things are.”

I think there is an important message here in how we will deal with automation in the near future, one that is being ignored.

So, to say that “everything worked out okay,” which is the conventional wisdom promoted by the media, you have to just ignore all of this – the drugs, the crime, the social decay, the segregation, the mass incarceration of African American men, the single parent families, the welfare, the hungry school kids eating free lunches, the homelessness, the casual violence and predatory behavior directed against the African-American community by militarized police forces. To dismiss the effects of automation, all of the changes that have happened over the past forty years have to be simply imagined away.

This seems incredible, yet it is exactly what we have done! See the arguments, above, for example.

The conventional wisdom that everything worked out okay is pitched to suburbanites who live in the comfortable white-separatist enclaves which popped up in the corn fields next to freeway off-ramps thanks to America’s post-war freeway building frenzy. For whites, it was “drive until you qualify,” and hence you get the exurban cul-de-sac Levittowns devoid of social activity where a twenty-minute drive is required for the smallest errand, and children are heavily guarded and chauffeured around like royalty. Blacks got redlining, “sundown towns,” and being pulled over for “driving while black.” A single African-American family moving into a suburban neighborhood would “bring down property values” for the entire neighborhood. Ponder that for a moment.

Essentially we dumped all out unemployment on one particular community, isolated them form the rest of society in urban ghettos, and then blamed them for their own plight through a variety of various and ever-shifting reasons. It was either their “low educational attainment” or perhaps “lack of family formation.” As that community fell apart due to the lack of jobs, a large amount of literature was devoted to explaining how such people were “different” due to low-IQ’s and “work-resistant personalities,” or some other factor, possibly genetic (and thus futile to rectify). That is, it was simply their own fault–nothing could be done–such people were simply unemployable, went the arguments in the media.

Fearful whites watched nightly reports on the local news of epidemic crime and shootings in the cities which their parents and grandparents had abandoned. The only black people that these suburban whites ever saw were mug shots on the nightly news. Out of sight, out of mind. Blacks came to be regarded by these wealthy white suburbanites as little more than animals (“superpredators” in Hillary Clinton’s words). They could maybe become wards of the state, perhaps, dependent upon handouts and make-work jobs, but they should definitely stop reproducing, that is “having kids they can’t afford.”

Not so different than horses after all, then.

2. Black Lives Matter

In his excellent book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin devotes an entire chapter describing the effects of technology on the African-American experience. Blacks, predominately in the lower echelons of American society due to racism and the legacy of slavery, have been the ones particularity hit by it. This allowed whites to completely ignore the effects of automation on the job market until relatively recently. There were still plenty of jobs in the exurban strip malls and office parks where whites had fled during the race riots and busing of the 1960-1970’s. Even manual and construction labor was in demand as the suburbs continued to sprawl, amoeba like, away from the chaos and decay of America’s crumbling and abandoned central city ghettos.

The dysfunction of the black community was not always the case, despite what you may have been told. In fact, it was largely brought about through automation, something we still refuse to face up to.

The following are excerpted from chapter five of the book:

The arrival of the mechanical cotton picker in the South was timely. Many black servicemen, recently back from the war, were beginning to challenge Jim Crow laws and segregation statutes that had kept them in virtual servitude since Reconstruction. Having fought for their country and been exposed to places in the United States and overseas where segregation laws did not exist, many veterans were no longer willing to accept the status quo. Some began to question their circumstances; others began to act…

In 1949 only 6 percent of the cotton in the South was harvested mechanically; by 1964, it was 78 percent. Eight years later, 100 percent of the cotton was picked by machines.

For the first time since they had been brought over as slaves to work the agricultural fields in the South, black hands and backs were no longer needed. Overnight, the sharecropper system was made obsolete by technology. Planters evicted millions of tenants from the land, leaving them homeless and jobless. Other developments hastened the process. Federal programs forced a 40 percent reduction in cotton acreage in the 1950s. Much of the land was converted to timber or pasture, which required little labor. Restrictions on tractor production were lifted after the war, greatly accelerating the substitution of tractors for manpower in the fields. The introduction of chemical defoliants to kill weeds reduced the workforce still further–black workers had traditionally been used to chop down weeds. When the Federal government extended the minimum wage to farm laborers, most southern planters found it more economical to substitute chemical defoliants for hand chopping, leaving blacks with no source of employment.

The push for mechanization in southern agriculture combined with the pull of higher wages in the industrial cities of the North to create what Nicholas Lemann called “One of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history.” More than 5 million black men, women, and children migrated north in search of work between 1940 and 1970. The migration routes ran from Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia along the Atlantic Seaboard to New York City and Boston; from Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama north to Chicago and Detroit; and from Texas and Louisiana west to California. By the time the migration was over, more than half of all black Americans had moved from South to North and from an entrenched rural way of life to become an urban industrial proletariat.

The mechanical cotton picker proved far more effective than the Emancipation Proclamation in freeing blacks from a plantation economy. It did so, however, at a terrible price. The forced eviction from the land and subsequent migration of millions of destitute black Americans to the North would soon unleash political forces of unimaginable proportions–forces that would come to test the very soul of the American compact.

At first, blacks found limited access to unskilled jobs in the auto, steel, rubber, chemical, and meat-packing industries. Northern industrialists often used them as strikebreakers or to fill the vacuum left by the decline in immigrant workers from abroad. The fortunes of black workers in the North improved steadily until 1954 and then began a forty-year historical decline.

In the mid-1950s, automation began taking its toll in the nation’s manufacturing sector. Hardest hit were unskilled jobs in the very industries where black workers were concentrated. Between 1953 and 1962, 1.6 million blue collar jobs were lost in the manufacturing sector. Whereas the unemployment rate for black Americans had never exceeded 8.5 percent between 1947 and 1953, and the white rate of unemployment had never gone beyond 4.6 percent, by 1964 blacks were experiencing an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent while white unemployment was only 5.9 percent. Ever since 1964 black unemployment in the United States has remained twice that of whites.

Rifkin describes how factory work moved to the suburbs to take advantage of the fact that newer, smaller, suburban facilities were more amenable to automation, and the taxes were lower.  The freeway system eliminated the need to be near railways and ports, so they could be located anywhere. The large-multi-story factories of the inner-city were replaced by one-story suburban facilities constructed in distant cornfields and wetlands accessible only bar car.  Since union activity was centered in factories, these distant, diffuse facilities also permitted breaking union solidarity.

Despite the fact that Ford’s River Rouge plant had room for expansion, Ford’s management decided to locate as much production as possible in automated suburban plants away from the city to weaken the power of labor unions. From the late 1940s through 1957, Ford spent more than 2.5 billion on automation and plant expansion, and the other large automakers also made huge investments.

Together, the Big Three auto companies constructed twenty-five new, more automated plants in the suburbs surrounding Detroit. In addition, many smaller satellite manufacturers were forced to relocate or go out of business as automated production lines took over more of the piecemeal work, causing a further decline in urban manufacturing employment.

The number of manufacturing jobs in Detroit fell dramatically beginning in the mid-1950s as a result of automation and suburbanization of production. Black workers, who just a few years earlier were displaced by the mechanized cotton picker in the rural South, once again found themselves the victims of mechanization. In the 1950s, 25.7 percent of Chrysler workers and 23 percent of General Motors workers were African-American. Equally important, because the black workers made up the bulk of the unskilled labor force, they were the first to be let go because of automation. In 1960 a mere twenty-four black workers were counted among the 7,425 skilled workers at Chrysler. At General Motors, only sixty-seven blacks were among the more than 11,000 skilled workers on the payroll.

The productivity and unemployment figures tell the rest of the story. Between 1957 and 1964, manufacturing output doubled in the United States, while the number of blue collar workers fell by 3 percent. Again, many of the first casualties of the new automation drive were black workers, who were disproportionately represented in unskilled jobs that were the first to be eliminated by the new machines. In manufacturing operations across the entire northern and western industrial belt, the forces of automation and suburbanization continued to take their toll on unskilled black workers, leaving tens of thousands of permanently unemployed men and women in their wake.

The corporate drive to automate and relocate manufacturing jobs split the black community into two separate and distinct economic groups. Millions of unskilled workers and their families became part of what social historians now call and underclass–a permanently unemployed part of the population whose unskilled labor is no longer required and who live hand-to-mouth, generation to generation, as wards of the state. A second smaller group of black middle-class professionals have been put on the public payroll to administer the many public assistance programs designed to assist this new urban underclass. The system represents a kind of “welfare colonialism” say authors Michael Brown and Steven Erie, “where blacks were called upon to administer their own state of dependence.”

It is possible that the country might have taken greater notice of the impact that automation was having on black America in the 1960s and 1970s, had not a significant number of African-Americans been absorbed into public-sector jobs. As early as 1970, sociologist Sidney Willhelm observed that “As the government becomes the foremost employer for the working force in general during the transition into automation, it becomes even more so for the black worker. Indeed, if it were not for the government, Negroes who lost their jobs in the business world would swell the unemployment ratio to fantastic heights.”

The public image of an affluent and growing black middle class was enough to partly deflect attention away from the growing plight of a large new black underclass that had become the first casualty of automation and the new displacement technologies.

Today, millions of African-Americans find themselves hopelessly trapped in a permanent underclass. Unskilled and unneeded, the commodity value of their labor has been rendered virtually useless by the automated technologies that have come to displace them in the new high-tech global economy.

Rifkin is one of the few economists smart enough to realize that automation is at the heart of all this, and to remind us of the of the history. There is nothing “normal” about this situation.

So to just casually dismiss the effects if automation and nonchalantly say, “everything worked out okay,” is a very racist attitude, one which is all too commonplace. To accept this, one has to relegate African-Americans to the status of non-people, and these decaying communities as just an inevitable outcome of black people’s natural behavioral inclinations.

Now we’re seeing the exact same tactics being applied in the media, only this time, the casual dismissals of the unemployment situation, and the sneering derision of those being caught up in are increasingly directed at white people rather than just African-Americans.

Look at the black community today. That’s what’s coming for you, While America. Your dehumanization of black people has blinded you to this fact. Now the “betters” of your own race are giving you the same treatment you gave to them.

How does it feel?

SMITH: Bowen is a huge man, 6′ 7. And as we wade into the field, the plants only come up to his belt buckle. He’s going to send this crop around the world. Just like the Swiss make the best watches, the Germans perfected the sports car, Americans grow the most desired cotton in the world. And just like those watches and cars, American cotton does it by being high-tech.

This is the John Deere 7760; iconic green color, big as a houseboat. Bowen bought five of them last year. And they were not cheap.

FLOWERS: They’re right at 600,000 a piece. So we got in a big investment. We got to make something to make the payments on them every year.

SMITH: You bought $3 million worth of equipment last year to pick cotton.

FLOWERS: It’s crazy, isn’t it? Real crazy. We might need to have our brain examined.

SMITH: But these machines give Bowen an edge over small farmers in the rest of the world. He can pick cotton faster with fewer workers. Bowen can watch the progress of the pickers from his iPad sitting at home. And as cushy as it is for him, the driver up on top of the John Deere has an even sweeter gig.

Hey, we wanted to see if we could go a row with you.

I climb up a ladder up into picker number three to hitch a ride with Martovia Latrell Jones.

MARTOVIA LATRELL JONES: Oh.

SMITH: Hey, how’s it going?

JONES: Good.

SMITH: Everyone calls him Toto. He puts the machine into gear.

Whoa.

And then he lets go.

You just took your hands off the wheel. You didn’t even have to touch it.

JONES: Yeah. Pretty much, everything’s driving itself.

SMITH: The picker feels the cotton plants. It makes all the adjustments itself. Toto just sits there, calls his wife on the cell phone, cranks up the blues station.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: You all might not like my singing.

SMITH: Toto has a lot of time up here to sit and think. He was raised by his grandfather, George, who worked on a cotton farm before all this technology. Toto heard the stories.

JONES: Had to get down on their hands and knees and get some blisters and splinters in their fingernails and everything.

SMITH: You do realize that you probably harvest more in five minutes than he did all day long.

JONES: Ah, yeah. I can make a round and pick more than they picked in their whole lifetime.

SMITH: These machines are not only fast but, by the end of the process, the cotton they produce is clean. It’s pure. It’s untouched by human hands. And this is a big deal to the complicated factories around the world that make our T-shirt…

http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=248243399

Next: Part 2

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