The videos of robots on the Toyota assembly line are fascinating. Or switch over to the show "How Things Are Made" on cable or satellite. Huge mechanical arms pivot, drop, weld, swing, lift, pivot back, and wait for the next piece to come to it. One’s first thought, maybe, is: "That’s really cool!"
Those tasks used to be performed by human beings. The piece of metal destined to be a fender on a Pontiac, Plymouth or Mercury (I chose those brands for a reason, obviously) would glide to a point in front of one or between two members of the United Auto Workers (UAW). He, she, or they would position the piece, perform the weld, and send it on its way.
I read that Walter Reuther, one-time president of the UAW, was being given a tour of a Ford plant by one of the Fords (Henry-the-whatever number). Ford pointed to a machine and bragged something to the effect that the machine had replaced four or five workers and the company had not had to lay out a single paycheck the past year for the machine. Reuther said, "And that machine did not buy a Ford last year."
One could say the system is more efficient because of those robots on that Toyota assembly line. What is the point of efficiency? Do we receive cheaper goods? If there is more money to be made out of an operation, I am confident the corporate managers will steer those dollars into the corporation’s pockets and keep prices where the managers believe the prices can be kept.
During the Great Depression, people wondered why, as they and their families were in need of goods and jobs, factories across the street stood empty. World War II came along and pumped billions into the economy. Factories were re-geared from whatever they were first built to manufacture. Hitler could not believe American industry could re-tool, virtually overnight, from making toasters to making tanks.
World War II had a significant effect on our country for a lot of reasons. We lost millions who died in military service for our country. Teenagers, drafted and shipped overseas and ignorant of what they faced, were landed on beaches in Normandy and greeted by German machine gun fire. Americans died in Europe and the Pacific in a fight against evil. A lot of those Americans died or were wounded or (worse in the Pacific) taken as prisoners of war.
American politicians and other bureaucrats saw a problem that would arise after the war. What would all the service people who returned from the war do for jobs?
One measure that was taken was the G.I. bill. A lot of veterans used the benefits of that legislation to go to college. At the same time, factories that had been shuttered, then opened and converted to manufacture of tanks and guns, now once again turned out toasters and cars and refrigerators. People had money to spend. The factories needed workers. Veterans who took a pass on the G.I. bill could find work.
The economy had occasional burps—not a "burp" if one lost one’s home, endured foreclosure and bankruptcy, and all the personal tragedy that ensues—but nothing on the scale of the Great Depression.
Instead, we have seen a gradual slide, especially since 1980. The jobs that enabled those workers to buy Pontiacs and Plymouths and Mercurys disappeared, along with the brand-names. "Trickle-down" economics works for those "at the top." Those people take their profits and dividends and invest in companies that pay pennies on the dollar of what a UAW worker made (and the UAW worker also received benefits).
More people today live in the United States than before. Where are the jobs for people with high school educations? The assembly lines did not pay incomes expected by college graduates. Today’s college graduates are glad to get a job.
A person born in dire socioeconomic circumstances, in the United States, has one chance at a college degree without taking on six-figure debt. That person can enlist in the military. In exchange for the possibility of that person getting her or his ass shot off, at the end of four years’ military service, he or she can go to college. That is the new version of the G.I. bill. We should not have fought the Iraq war—there were no weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11—and only should have been in Afghanistan long enough to wipe out training camps for Al-Quaeda. The people who went there did so in service of their country. They earned those aspects of the G.I. bill. But will that option be available in the future? Already we use drones instead of human-flown aircraft. Soon fighter aircraft will be flown without pilots on-board. Tanks already can be remote-controlled.
We have more people, in part because some believe a supreme deity ordained the only purpose of sex is procreation. In part we have more people because the population grew so rapidly ("baby boom") and numbers play out from there.
We have more people, but fewer jobs. When you watch the commercial with the robots and the assembly line, think of the workers who once were there. Then, maybe, think of Ned Ludd. He believed machines should be trashed before they could replace human beings.
Of course, maybe some people would say machines are people, too. Between the development of quantum computers and such things as drone bombers and assembly line robots, maybe one day machines will be people.