It’s really just a matter of time; the working man’s deal with his overseers is half dead already. But there’s still inertia in the system, and even the losers are keeping the faith. Hope dies slowly, after all.
Nonetheless, the deal is collapsing and a new wave of robots will kill it altogether. Unless the overseers can pull back on technology – very fast and very hard – the deal that held through all our lifetimes will unwind.
We All Know the Deal
We usually don’t discuss what the “working man’s deal” is, but we know it just the same. It goes like this:
If you obey authority and support the system, you’ll be able to get a decent job. And if you work hard at your job, you’ll be able to buy a house and raise a small family.
This is what we were taught in school and on TV. It’s the deal our parents and grandparents clung to, and it’s even a fairly open deal. You can fight for the political faction of your choice and you can hold any number of religious and secular alliances, just as long as you stay loyal to the system overall.
This deal has been glamorized in many ways, such as, “Our children will be better off than we are,” “home ownership for everyone,” and of course, “the American Dream.” Except that it isn’t working anymore, or at least it isn’t working well enough.
Among current 20- and 30-year-olds, only about half are able to grasp the deal’s promises. That half is working like crazy, putting up with malignant corporatism and trying to keep ahead of the curve. The other half is dejected and discouraged, taking student loans to chase degrees (there’s more status in that than working at McDonald’s), or else they’re pacified with government handouts and distracted by Facebook.
The deal is plainly unavailable to about half of the young generation, but as I noted above, hope dies slowly and young people raised on promises are still waiting for the deal to kick in. It’s all they know.
Regardless, the deal has abandoned them. It has made them superfluous.
Put very simply, the deal is dying because two things can no longer coexist:
#1: New technology.
#2: A system geared to old technology.
Let’s start with new technology: New machines and methods have made so many jobs obsolete that there aren’t enough to go around. Both North America and Europe are already filled with the unemployed or underemployed children of industrial workers. But at the same time, we are suffering no shortages; we have an overflow of stuff and a double overload of inane ads trying to sell it all. And there’s something important to glean from this:
Where goods abound, additional jobs are not required.
We don’t need more workers. Machines are producing plenty of stuff for us, and this becomes truer every day.
Item #2 is the system itself; let’s confront that directly too: The system was designed to reap the incomes of industrial workers. Everything from withholding taxes to government schools was put in place to maximize the take from an industrial workforce. Whether purposely or simply by trial and error, the Western world was structured to keep industrial workers moving in a single direction and to reap from them as they went. Call it “efficient rulership” if you like, but the system is a reaping machine.
Technology, however, has advanced beyond the limits of this machine; it has eliminated too many jobs. At the same time, regulations make it almost impossible for the superfluous class to adapt. Nearly everything requires certification and starting a business is out of the question; fail to file a form you’ve never heard of and the IRS will skin you alive.
This system, however, will not change; the big corps paid for the current regulatory regime, and they still own their congressmen.
Enter the Robots
You may have seen this image (it comes from NPR’s Planet Money), but look again anyway. I count 28 states in which “truck driver” is the most common job. As inexact as this map may be, it makes a point we can’t really ignore: What happens to all these truck drivers when self-driving trucks pile on to the roads? And you may count on it that they will; automated trucks will be safer and cheaper and will use less fuel. So, millions of truck drivers will be dropped out of the deal, and probably fairly soon.
On top of that, the very last refuge for the superfluous class – fast food – is experiencing its own robot invasion. Wendy’s just ordered 6,000 self-service ordering kiosks to be installed in the second half of 2016, and KFC’s first automated restaurant went live April 25.
Is There an Answer?
“The deal” is very clearly failing. At the same time, the system is utterly unwilling to change; the people in control are making too much money and hold too much power. The impoverishment of a hundred million people in flyover country won’t move them to give it up. Their system, after all, funnels the wealth of a continent to Washington, DC, in a steady stream… and they’ve bought access to that steam. The system will be defended.
So, forget about orderly reform. Certainly there will be talk of reform, and plenty of it… there will be promises, plans, and a small army of state intellectuals dedicated to keeping hope alive. But the system will not reform itself. Did Rome? Did Greece?
If there is to be an answer, it will have to come from the ‘superfluous’ people… but that discussion will have to wait for another day.
Don’t Blame the Robots
One last point: Don’t make the mistake of blaming technology for all of this. Technology is doing precisely what we want it to do: It’s killing scarcity. And that’s a very, very good thing. Without technology, we all go back to low-tech farming. And if that possibility doesn’t alarm you, you really should try it for a month or two.
Technology is moving forward and should move forward. The death of scarcity is to be welcomed. Our problem is that we’re chained to an archaic hierarchy of dominance with a deeply entrenched skimming class. Either we get past it or we go back to serfdom… or worse.