” First, some historical perspective: For as long as America’s had something like a modern capitalist economy, automation and technology have been disrupting and remaking the jobs market. In the Aspen paper, authors Conor McKay, Ethan Pollack, and Alastair Fitzpayne note that agriculture went from a third of all jobs to 1 percent of them over the last century. Manufacturing accounted for a third of all non-farm jobs in 1910 and fell to 9 percent by 2015. Meanwhile jobs in information, business services, and health care jumped from 3 percent to 29 percent over the same period and retail went from 13 percent to 23 percent. As Mark Paul notes in one of the Roosevelt papers, Time magazine was worried about the “automation jobless” as far back as 1961. It has been ever thus. ,,.”
I clearly see this in the Alabama Black Belt.
Historically speaking, the economy of my home turf in Central Alabama was dominated by slavery and sharecropping in the Cotton Kingdom, but the spread of the tractor and the mechanical cotton picker from the 1940s to the 1960s abolished the need for all those agricultural jobs. In essence, capital simply eliminated labor through scientific and technological progress and we dealt with all those surplus people by expanding the Great Society welfare state in the 1960s.
Once upon a time, Birmingham was the South’s leading industrial city, but in the late 20th century we free traded away the steel industry to East Asia and textile manufacturing in the Piedmont to Southeast Asia and Latin America. Manufacturing employment has sunk in every Southern state in the WTO and NAFTA era due to a combination of free trade and automation crushing labor.
What happens to the working class and middle class in Alabama when manufacturing employment continues to plummet due to automation? Even more to the point, what happens to all those people in the service sector when automation replaces them too? There will be something, right?
Here’s the thing though: large swathes of rural and urban America never bounced back from the loss of agricultural and manufacturing employment. Just drive through Birmingham, the Alabama Black Belt or even the heavily White parts of the rural Wiregrass and Hill Country. I’m using Alabama as an example simply because it is the most familiar state to me but what has happened here has been going on nationwide. There is a reason why only Auburn, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville seem to be thriving.
“Then we reversed course: We massively slashed federal and state budgets for higher education and instead financed college attendance with a giant debt bubble that has savaged students’ finances for life. Unions collapsed, businesses cut on-the-job and employer-sponsored training way back, and federal grants to support worker training also shrunk. Instead of continuing to expand the safety net, we gutted traditional welfare and started adding work requirements.”
Allow me to explain.
The 20th century can be divided into roughly two parts which are separated by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s: there was a populist-progressive coalition which reached its apogee in the New Deal and dominated the early 20th century and there was the conservative-populist coalition which reached its apogee under Reagan and dominated the late 20th century.
As we shifted toward mainstream conservatism in the 1970s, we began to reverse course. The unions collapsed. We free traded away most of the industrial jobs for “national security” reasons. We gutted the “welfare state” that was created by FDR and his successors. We flooded the country with an unprecedented wave of Third World cheap labor for the corporations, etc.
Here’s an interesting take on automation:
“The future, as always, is unknowable. But even if this time really is different, that doesn’t change the underlying challenge. Paul quotes Stephen Hawking, who pointed out in 2016 that, “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”
What does Stephen Hawking know?
What about inflation?
Has Stephen Hawking even read Locke or Ludwig von Mises? Everyone knows that capitalism defeated socialism when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990s. Sure, it’s true that China didn’t collapse and is now on course to surpass the United States, but what does that matter?
Who can look at the contemporary United States and argue that our current cultural, economic and political paradigm and leadership caste isn’t vastly superior to anything on display abroad?