does the future hold a world of machines or a new utopia for workers

Having a strong work ethics has paid off for much of human civilization. Pushing oneself has, until very recently been a prerequisite for mere survival. While we may not all appreciate the same kinds of excellence – some people loving a well engineered clock, some the skills of a master electrician and others, intangibles such as intellectual pursuits or a thoughtful caring partner. We all appreciate someone else’s obsessive desire to do something well. Like many prized qualities or virtues, a strong work ethic and having that expectation of others can go too far. I like my surroundings to be fairly neat and clean, but being around an obsessive like Monk, from the TV series would drive me crazy. I can let a little dust gather and shake someone’s hand without using a wipe. While an obsessiveness about work are not exclusive to the U.S. – Japan for example, has quite the history of being work obsessed, the reasons for our unhealthy Monk-like obsession with working ourselves into early graves can be traced back to Calvinism. In U.S. culture we crossed the line into neurotic obsessiveness about work because of the influence of Calvinism. America would have had a perfectly nice work ethic without Calvin. Humanity certainly had one before he came along. After all we did manage to make it through the Middle-Ages and the Black plague without Calvin. Though we did have the Catholic version – where work became an extension of the doctrine of doing good works in order to enter heaven. many of us have heard of this thing called the weekend. That is a 20th century invention. It came about because of the Great Depression and the desire to create work. Previously everyone work every day, but the Sabbath. So the only reason that work obsessed America now has a two day vacation every week – most of us anyway – is the result of one of the worse financial emergencies in our history. If someone tried to force the six day work week on America there would likely be riots. At the other extreme is the possibility of no jobs. What is every year from now until whenever – the number of jobs to be filled decreasing until half the population is not needed, for work proposes anyway, Mark Gongloff — Ken Fisher, Billionaire Forbes Writer, Attempts To Argue That The U.S. Needs Fewer Jobs

Despite all the cat calls he is getting, Ken Fisher is correct on this. The goal should be to eliminate working for a wage through technological innovation that increases productivity, eliminating repetitive work, rather than to create more of it because of some moral norm that says everyone needs to work to earn their keep, Genesis 3:19 notwithstanding. This is going to take a revision in the basic structure of the cultural paradigm. The faster we get to it, the better of we will be.

Of course, this means revising how we think about distributed prosperity. Clearly, wage income cannot remain paramount in such a system. This implies a rethinking of economics as it stands and the introduction of new economic paradigm along with the new cultural paradigm, and the development of new institutional arrangements to support it. Humanity is now in a position to begin contemplating this transition.

As the writer at HuffPo notes typically increases in productivity lead to more jobs. That correlation started taking a beating around 1999-2000as productivity for most American and European workers went way up and wages fell, jobs still went to Asia. While cheaper labor was part of the reason for that, after shipping and added administrative costs, it was never really that much cheaper to ship production to China. Their greatest advantage(this my conclusion, not the HuffPo writer) was that the Chinese government would fiance and build, expand or completely overhaul a factory in days to a few weeks to meet the demands of large companies seeking the newest technology – see this report from the NYT – How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. As Chinese labor costs have gone up and many American corporations have realized the morass of issues that come with off-shoring so much of their production work, Mr. Fishers’ predictions may be premature. And while Mike’s utopian philosophical view sounds nice – a culture that let’s the machines do the work while we lay back and enjoy the beach or some zen-like life of spiritual pursuits, it is more likely that we will not be able to make those “institutional arrangements”. Part of the reason is the ghost of John Calvin. As the lies Mitt Romney and conservatives told about the producers versus the moochers showed – pandering to a neurotic concept of what constitutes work and personal value – still sells well with a sizable part of the public. I know about the psychology of it, but i never could figure out how anyone could look at modern corporate CEOs, the “producers”, and think these people are the hardest working, smartest people in the USA and thus deserve every dollar they receive. Their compensation has been almost totally removed from any economic value they create and completely removed from the larger social contract. Within the cocoon of corporate culture the powers that be decided that these people will get massive sums of money based on beliefs. Corporations became churches. Money flows based on faith alone. And it flows from the serfs who buy the products to the pulpit, not workers, whose wages have stagnated. There might be hope for working stiffs. I’ve wary of  both overly rosy and pessimistic visions of the future. That said this guy has some views worth thinking about, The next productivity revolution: The ‘industrial internet’

The next wave of innovation

This scepticism might be premature. In a recent report (Annunziata and Evans 2012), my co-author Peter Evans and I have looked at the productivity-enhancing potential of the ‘industrial internet’, a network that binds together intelligent machines, software analytics and people. The declining cost of instrumentation is beginning to enable a much wider use of sensors in machines ranging from jet engines to power generation turbines to medical devices. Software analytics can then leverage the enormous amount of data generated in order to optimise the performance of individual machines, fleets and networks. This means, for example, having a better insight in the performance of a jet engine and being able to anticipate mechanical failures so that maintenance can be performed in a pre-emptive way, minimising the delays that occur when the problem emerges shortly before take-off. It means being able to track the exact location of medical devices in a hospital and whether they are in use or idle, so that patient admissions and medical procedures can be scheduled more efficiently, yielding better health outcomes to more patients at lower cost.

[  ]…More jobs?

The last point is especially important. Every wave of innovation raises a concern that higher productivity will simply mean fewer jobs. In today’s context of high unemployment, this concern is especially acute. As in the past, technological innovation will make some jobs redundant. But it will create new ones and, if the impact on global growth is as strong as we believe, it will certainly create more jobs overall. But the education system will need to ensure that the supply of skills matches the evolving demand.

The industrial revolution unfolded in waves over a very long period of time. The internet revolution is following a similar pattern, and we think the next, most powerful and disruptive wave is arriving now.

austerity doesn't work

austerity doesn’t work

It’s Official: Austerity Economics Doesn’t Work