I don’t necessarily subscribe to liberal views and populist rhetoric, but there is some truth in what United States Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent, Vermont) is pointing out — that America’s middle class is progressively being eroded, presumably by (1) advances in technology that progressively and intelligently automate work done by white collar workers, and (2) icreasing outsourcing of work to the Third World (also facilitated by advances in technology).
This simply means that the competition for decent-paying work in the US will only get more intense because not only will humans compete with one another for employment, they will also be competing against intelligent systems. Indeed, Sanders’s proposals to explore an increase in the minimum wage will only more likely have the effect of increasing the economic viability of the development and take-up of human replacement technologies by businesses. Minimum wage increases are a short term solution at best, not a long-term one.
Technology will surely drive growth but there is strong cause to be worried that most of this growth will be enjoyed by the tiny elite who will harvest the “productivity” gains delivered by the human-replacement systems they will be deploying in their businesses. It is no surprise, for example, that Silicon Valley is the engine room of California’s “booming” economy. This is where much of the technology that is replacing American jobs and “disrupting” the “status quo” is being developed. The “digital economy” it seems will be one where the bulk of economic value is generated by the operations of app stores, robots, and artificial intelligences inhabiting the Net.
All of the above describes the certainty in the future America faces. The debatable aspect of the discussion is what to do about this looming future.
A free market is premised on competition. In its most brutal form it invokes the principle of survival of the fittest. The smartest and strongest workers get the best jobs while the not-so-smart and the not-so-strong get all the rest. In the old days, one can become a more competitive worker in the job market through education and better health. The result is an overall more productive human economy, but not necessarily a more egalitarian one as those who fail to achieve those gains in employability are left behind.
The trouble is, the definition of “fittest” is progressively becoming narrower. Strength, which was once a highly-valued human trait is no longer held to a premium in highly-mechanised societies. Being “good at numbers” no longer cuts it either since old whiz kids are no longer any match for even the cheapest computing devices. Soon, being the most organised, most analytical, and even the most knowledgeable fellow will draw mere ho-hums from recruiters (assuming future recruiters will even be human!). Unless new types of work where humans can be better than machines form the foundation of future employment opportunities, people will be facing an increasingly difficult battle for jobs ahead of them.
So should America continue to allow the free market to run its course? Or do we look to government to intervene in the market and implement measures to artificially re-distribute wealth through taxation and regulation?
Obviously, not everyone can be technology-savvy capitalists whose personal bottomline will, in part, be determined by how many human jobs they are able to replace with robots. Most ordinary people depend on the creation of job roles that require warm analogue bodies to fill. And that is the hard reality Americans need to confront over the near- to long-term future.
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