We Now Know the Middle-Income Job Is Basically Extinct, But What Do We Do About It?
There's a big Associated Press story making the rounds now, based on work at MIT and elsewhere, all about the permanent loss of many high and better paid jobs like meter reader and travel agent, gone forever because those posts have been filled by robots and software.
Good jobs are gone forever and crappy jobs are growing, as employers use technology to get the work done without employees. Somewhere in the backs of our minds, we already knew that, right? But here's the real question: if technology is making it easier to make money without hiring people, who gets the money?
If employers are being handed a kind of free gift from the software sector -- here's a cool way to sack all your workers and crank out even more brake drums -- what are the workers supposed to do? Wash cars on the corner and live like coolies? Dry up and blow away?
The AP story reported that permanent job loss at middle income levels is way worse than even the experts had believed:
The numbers startle even labor economists. In the United States, half the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. But only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs gained since the recession ended in June 2009 are in midpay industries. Nearly 70 percent are in low-pay industries, 29 percent in industries that pay well.
So here's my point. The technology that allows the brake-drum-maker to churn out more product with way fewer employees is not something the brake-drum-maker invented. It's a general societal benefit produced by all the best aspects of American (and world) culture including higher education, a zeal for innovation and a willingness to take risks on good ideas.
I don't believe anybody would want to see any of that go away. In this country anyway, there will never be much taste for repressing progress in technology and science in order to protect the status quo.
But as a society how should we allocate and spend the vast new profits generated by technology and innovation? What are doing with that money now? If you don't know, you need to go take a long slow drive around Preston Hollow, the Park Cities and the other super-rich venues in our region.
Where 20 years ago there were lots of big houses, now the streets are lined with hyperventilated fantasy castles - joints so huge they make the Cinderella Castle at Disney World look like a duplex. So how did that happen? Did all of our rich people, entrepreneurs and coupon clippers, suddenly get a dose of about 100 more I.Q. points? Do those fantasy castles reflect some sudden surge in genius and virtue at the top of the money tree?
Or maybe the enormous growth in income disparity and the sudden bloating of wealth at the top merely are symptomatic of the same thing shocking those economists looking at automation and the erosion of the middle class. The concentration of cash at the top, in other words, could easily be a structural trend fueled by technology.
Of course, that is not how our new bazillionaire class is viewing it, as we saw so clearly in the recent election. Mitt ("Old 47") Romney stated it succinctly for us: the people whose jobs have been hollowed out at the middle of the society are whining losers and the bazillionaires are a new Randian super-race.
So let's ponder another possibility. Let's say the American voting middle class regains its confidence somehow, regains its dignity and its guts and sets about redressing some of this crazy imbalance that has taken place basically while nobody was minding the store? What if we used the communitarian power of government, specifically the tax code, to divvy some of this money up in new ways?
If the bazillionaires had to trim their lifestyles back down to something in the order of three-fourths Cinderella-size, what kinds of things could society do with some of those bazillions? What about pouring it into lower elementary public education so that every kid with normal abilities in public school gets to the end of third grade able to read, write and do arithmetic? There's a huge game-changer right there for our society.
What if we were able to take some of the vast new profits generated by robots and web pages and direct that money to climate change research? Isn't preventing the extinction of life on earth a worthy social goal? In not, what's your other idea?
My gut tells me this is where a lot of the crazily anti-social rhetoric on the super-rich far right really comes from. There are people who have made a ton of money in recent years who really have devoted their wealth and their lives to paying back. Sadly we seem to see more of them devolving into a kind of mad-dog last-ditch attempt to convince themselves that they deserve to hoard it all and everybody else needs to wander out on the ice floe and die.
The shift in employment driven by technology is something we all helped create, in a way, because we all helped make this country what it is today. So we all have an obligation to rope it down, get it back under control and put it to work for the greater good. Otherwise it's a gun to our heads.