Civil Discourse Now

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Ned Ludd might have had the right idea.

   There are too many people and too few jobs. The world’s seven billionth child was born last week.

  Ned Ludd is widely written of in songs and stories. He broke machines in the 18th and 19th centuries. The term Luddite is defined as "a member of any of various bands of workmen in England (1811-16) organized to destroy manufacturing machinery, under the belief that its use diminished employment."  American College Dictionary, 2d ed., 1962.

   It is said that United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther toured a Ford Motor Company plant with one of the Fords, who pointed at a machine and bragged, "See that machine? It replaced five workers last year." Reuther replied, as he pointed at the same machine, "See that machine? It didn’t buy any Fords last year."

   The country is wracked by unemployment. In the 1970s, jobs in the manufacturing sector were plentiful. In Kokomo, where I as born, people made damn good wages in the Chrysler factory and the Delco (owned by GM) Radio plant. Workers had good benefits, too, negotiated by their unions. Simply graduate from high school, go to the employment office at one of the two factories, put in an app, and get hired. Most people’s parents had done so. Billy Joel’s "Allentown" conveys the sentiment well.  

   Today those jobs mostly are gone. Some are overseas. Many are replaced by machines. Robots can more cheaply perform tasks previously performed by humans. Think of footage from the 1960s of American workers on assembly lines, then watch the Science Channel’s "How It’s Made." Those 1960s workers died (from lung cancer maybe; after all, a lot of them smoked) or retired (if to Florida, maybe lung cancer would have been preferable). They might have been replaced for a while by another human. Eventually very few jobs on the assembly line will be performed by humans.

   Meanwhile, humans continue to procreate. There were three billion of us when I was in high school. We see more people, but there are fewer jobs. That seems to make little sense. After all, with more people, there are more needs. But those needs are fulfilled by machines. People need clothes, but the looms are run by computer. People need shoes, but mechanical hands stitch or seal together sole and upper. People need food, but larger corporate farms operated by fewer people produce lab-designed wheat, soy, corn, etc.

   The unemployment rate will continue to rise. There are ways to play with it and reduce it, here and there. Education might help. There will be jobs in tech-related fields. But you should read Kurt Vonnegut’s "Player Piano," a description of a world in which machines perform most jobs. There are people who clean the streets and perform other what some would consider "menial" labor. And there are the very rich who enjoy being—well, very rich. There also are engineers. One engineer in the story designs machines to solve problems with other machines. Finally, he designs a machine that trouble-shoots and resolves problems with other machines. In other words, he designs a machine to replace him.

   People need a purpose for life. Part of that purpose has to do with one’s occupation. The occupation has a value in itself, and also that it brings home a paycheck. So long as we have an economic system in which each person is on her/his own, humans will need jobs in order to work to earn money to support themselves and their families. Politicians can talk all they wish about budgets, but those robots are a real problem.

   Maybe the Luddites had the right idea.  


 

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