Rise Of The Machines

As of late, I have received occasional reminders about the impending demise of a large category of McJobs in our current labor market as articles have discussed the arrival of robots in commercial establishments.  In many ways, this sort of action is inevitable under the current state of hostility between the interests of capital and labor that exist in our country.  Predictably, those areas which are governed by politicians favorable to the political left have sought to mandate increases in minimum wage so as to make it possible for all workers to obtain a living wage from their labor.  Equally predictably, companies have sought to resolve this difficulty not through paying their workers higher wages but through reclassifying workers to pay for fewer hours and in replacing workers where possible with automated technologies that reduce the wage burden on their balance sheets.  A few of the articles I have read have stated, with some alarm, that there is an impending structural change in labor that will soon lead to high degrees of permanent unemployment for a large portion of our population.

It goes without saying that this is a bad thing.  In an age of increasing austerity in government, the loss of employability for wide swaths of the working age population is nothing short of disastrous, in that a decent standard of living cannot be obtained through entitlement programs under increasing assault given the high degrees of public insolvency that exist on the state and federal levels.  Efforts on the part of American youth to escape the trap of increasingly insecure unskilled labor often involve large amounts of debt, which threaten the dignity of labor through the threat of high degrees of wage garnishment to repay college loans when decent work may be obtained.  It also goes without saying that if a large portion of the American population gives up hope that businesses will act in the best interest of ordinary people, the political results could easily be cataclysmic, resulting in a continued rise and fervor of popular support for the millenarian appeals of populist leaders on the right and the left.  The political campaign of 2016 would be merely a foretaste of the high degree of rancor and desperation that we would see in our republic [1].  That this is a bad thing appears to obvious to mention.

This is not an entirely unprecedented situation.  The beginning of the industrial revolution was attended by similarly cataclysmic sociopolitical changes around the world.  The adoption of labor-saving technologies and the rise of factories led to a decline in the dignity of labor and its status.  Tenant farmers were driven into tenements in the city, living in dire conditions with disease and privation constant companions.  Attempts at political reform and collective bargaining to improve wages and working and living conditions were met with massive opposition by economic elites.  Efforts at Luddite destruction of these technologies were largely unsuccessful, but after decades of struggle on behalf of workers, there was a modus vivendi developed around the world that gave the vote as well as a social contract to the working poor that in many countries included guarantees for universal health care and education.  For a variety of reasons the United States developed a different working relationship between labor and capital in the aftermath of the Guilded and Progressive ages, but the general outlines are somewhat similar.  It appears that we are in the grips of another period of massive social crises similar to the Industrial Revolution where the honor and dignity and remuneration of labor is drastically harmed that will lead to a prolonged period of resistance as the presently working poor are threatened with the loss of the means of survival and the self-worth that comes through labor as opposed to being dependent on the state.

In many ways, the current state of hostility between labor and capital is a false dilemma.  It is will understood, for example, that the wages paid to workers generally goes into consumption that has a multiplier effect on the well-being of the communities to which those workers belong.  The products and especially the services purchased by those wages elevates the well-being of the community as a whole, and so increased real wages have a very beneficial result on others.  Likewise, the loss of jobs leads to a spiral of decline that, unless it is reversed through the creation of new jobs and the attraction of new industries, promises to make many a city resemble the horrors of contemporary Detroit.  If the beneficial results of wage increases for ordinary workers is well-understood, why then is not this the way that business is ordinarily conducted?  As is often the case in this life, there is a problem in the way that the wages of labor are framed.  When one examines the health of businesses and their market valuation, wages and salaries are nearly universally viewed as overhead to be minimized as ruthlessly as possible.  Spending money on machines and robots, with various depreciation schedules, is a good thing, but spending money on people who then spend that money on food and shelter and other expenditures is a bad thing.

It is easy to see how this may be changed.  The conventions of a balance sheet are simply conventions.  There is no sacredness in the convention that wages are overhead and therefore bad.  One could, if one chose, conceive of a requirement that balance sheets view both wages and salaries and benefits as well as capital expenditures as good.  The former provides for an encouragement to the well-being of the communities to which businesses belong and the latter provides a spur to invention and creativity.  Technologies that are labor-multiplying rather than labor-replacing are to be embraced, for in this world there is much work that is tedious to do and far more that needs to be done than can be done at present.  The issue is not the adoption of technology, but rather the social ends to which technology is used, so that it may elevate the general public rather than to enslave it to dependency and hopelessness as it threatens to do at present.  By reframing the way we look at wages and capital expenditures, we may better see wages as part of the investment in communities that businesses engage in.  To the extent that businesses participate in the well-being of the larger community through community service, taxation that allows for the provision of public goods, and through the payment of wages and salaries and benefits that allows for the well-being of the members of that community, businesses engage in legitimate practice that serves to raise all.  Where businesses seek after only the interests of a narrow executive or investment elite, and use their profits to evade their responsibilities to the larger community or to corrupt the political leadership of the community through bribes and lobbying efforts, businesses cease to be legitimate in the eyes of the general public.  The liberty of capitalists, no less than that of ordinary citizens, depends greatly on virtue.  The avoidance of a bureaucratic class of regulators requires an elevation of the role of the conscience in the way that businesses operate.

This forces upon us a dilemma.  We live in an age of increasing struggle over public resources, and in an age of declining morality.  In many cases, this declining morality is celebrated as setting us free from the shackles and burdens of tradition.  Likewise, we live in an age where corruption on the part of economic and cultural and political elites has led those elites to lose a great deal of the credibility and legitimacy they have long enjoyed.  Even so, the only way out of the false dilemma between a savage lassiez-faire economy ruled over by robber barons and smothering paternalistic states run over by corrupt political elites requires the development of the virtue that is despised.  Among these despised virtues is the virtue of prudence, acting with the interests of others and the bigger picture in mind.  Likewise the despised virtue of restraint must be cultivated in the face of massive political pressure as well as drastic technology-induced social change.  Without the cultivation of virtue on the side of all parties, whether we are dealing with political leaders who could easily gain power through appeals to populism, ordinary people dealing with wrenching changes as a result of technological change, or businesses faced with the lure of throwing their workers under the bus in the face of demands for increased wages and benefits, we cannot expect smooth sailing through the tempestuous seas of our troubled age.  How are we at this late hour to cultivate long despised and neglected virtues before it is too late for us to avoid reaping the whirlwind we have so impetuously sown?

[1] See, for example:









About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Rise Of The Machines

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