Americans may not know the exact numbers (e.g., about wealth inequality or the CEO-to-worker pay gap). But, as it turns out, they’re very clear that their country is characterized by declining opportunity and growing inequality.
According to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute,
Americans across the political spectrum and from all walks of life are deeply concerned that the American economic system is not fair. What’s more, concerns about the fairness of the economic system have increased significantly over the past year.
For example, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans believe that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life,” while fewer than three in ten (28 percent) believe that “it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.” Concerns about the lack of equal opportunity have increased considerably since 2010, when 53 percent said that one of the big problems in the United States was the lack of equal opportunities for all.
Here are some of the other findings in the survey:
There is widespread agreement that the current economic system is heavily tilted in favor of the wealthy. Nearly eight in ten (79%) Americans agree that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, compared to roughly one in five (21%) who disagree. Current views represent an increase of 13 percentage points from 2012, when 66% of Americans agreed.
negative feelings toward large business corporations in the U.S. have also increased in recent years. Eighty-four percent of Americans agree that business corporations do not share enough of their success with their employees, compared to 15% who disagree. These negative views are up 15 percentage points from the previous year, when 69% of the public agreed that American businesses were not sharing enough of their profits with their workers. There is broad agreement with this assessment across a range of demographic groups.
The public today remains less confident that hard work is the key to economic success. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans agree that hard work is no guarantee of success, while more than one-third (35%) disagree. Current sentiments represent a 10-point increase since 2013, when 54% of Americans agreed with this statement.
More than three-quarters (76%) of the public supports raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. Support has ticked up slightly since last year, when 69% of Americans expressed support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
Americans overwhelmingly support requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days if they or an immediate family member gets sick, and requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Eighty-five percent of Americans favor paid sick leave and 82% support paid parental leave.
Americans correctly understand that both declining opportunity and increasing inequality are significant problems in their country.
The question now is, what are they going to do about it?
The headline of this Gallup report points to the fact that the financial well-being of involuntary part-time U.S. workers (workers who are working part-time but seeking full-time work) is similar to the financial well-being of the unemployed: 46.3 as compared to 44.6. Large portions of both groups of workers are struggling or suffering in terms of their financial well-being.*
What I find perhaps even more interesting is that workers who are employed full-time by an employer only achieve a score of 60 on financial well-being (with workers who are employed part-time and do not want a full-time job just above them), which is very close to the financial well-being score for the United States as a whole in 2014: 59.7.
Together, these figures indicate that most U.S. workers—part-time and full-time, employed and unemployed—are falling far short of real financial well-being.
We can think of it as the gap between what they produce and what they receive. In another theoretical tradition, that’s measured in terms of another index: s/v. It’s called the rate of exploitation.
*To assess financial well-being, Gallup (with Healthways) asks U.S. adults about their ability to afford food and healthcare, whether they have enough money to do everything they want to do, whether they worried about money in the past week, and their perceptions of their standard of living compared with those they spend time with. Financial well-being is calculated on a scale of zero to 100, where zero represents the worst possible financial well-being and 100 represents the best possible financial well-being.
You’d think, if you’re going to write about the inhumane effects of robots on our daily lives, you’d at also acknowledge the long, rich history of human movements and thinking about machinery and other technological developments since at least the nineteenth century.
But that’s not what we get from Simon Chandler [ht: ja] who deplores the new artificial intelligence and robotic technologies being developed by a wide range of companies, from Toyota to Amazon. Why? Because they threaten to reduce human autonomy:
With artificial intelligence suggesting to people what to consume, when to turn the heating down, when to get out of bed, and when to do anything else, people will find themselves becoming ever more regularized and automated in their behavior. Regardless of the fact that AI is characterized by its ability to adapt, to learn from how its putative user reacts, it can adapt only so far (especially in its present form) and can perform only so many actions. This means that any person who allows AI into their home will have to adapt to its behavior; will have to begin conforming to their robot helper’s way of doing things, to its rhythms, schedules and choices. As such, they will become more formalized and systematized, losing much of their spontaneity, impulsiveness and autonomy in the process.
Because of this increased tendency toward repetition and inflexibility, the AI or robot assistant will make its “master” more repetitive and inflexible. Its master will come to divide her time and spend her day according to algorithms which, no matter how advanced, are still nowhere near as complex as the human brain. Therefore, with growing frequency, she may be reduced to a mere function of these algorithms, pressured into acting in accordance with her android butler, into adopting the stereotype it foists on her.
Because these AIs would be the product of single R&D centers, such as the Toyota Research Institute, this influence of robots on human behavior will also represent a general homogenizing and centralizing of said behavior. Instead of being the result of innumerable interactions with hundreds of people and with her own community, the AI user’s psychology and personality will be molded to a greater extent by Toyota, Google or Facebook, particularly if this user becomes more socially isolated and more reliant on robotic aids.
What Chandler seems not to understand is that technologies, once invented, take on a life of their own—or, at least, a certain degree of autonomy. And we have lots of examples of people reacting to and thinking about the consequences of those technologies, as they become relatively (and, perhaps these days, increasingly) autonomous.
I’m thinking, for example, of the machine-breaking Luddites who, as both Eric Hobsbawm and Thomas Pynchon explain, were not hostile to machines as such, but using a technique of trade unionism (when labor unions barely existed): “as a means both of putting pressure on employers and of ensuring the essential solidarity of the workers.”
There’s also Marx, who (especially in Part 4 of volume 1 of Capital) wrote a great deal about machinery—as a way of increasing relative surplus-value, in terms of its sweeping-away of handcraft workers, as a means of employing women and children, as weapons against the revolts of the working-class, and much more.
And, of course, building on and extending Marx’s analysis, Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation or Work in the Twentieth Century (pdf): on the role of scientific management as the “displacement of labor as the subjective element of the labor process and its transformation into an object” and the role of machines which “has in the capitalist system the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labor.”
More recently, we have plenty of other sources, such as AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs by the Pew Research Center. What is interesting about the report, which starts from the premise that automation and intelligent digital agents will permeate vast areas of our work and personal lives by 2025, is that almost half (48 percent) of the technological experts who responded to the survey
envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.
Finally, there’s Jacobin magazine’s special issue, “Ours to Master,” in which the various authors see new technologies both as today’s instruments of employer control and as the preconditions for a post-scarcity society. As Peter Frase explains,
The mainstream discourse tends toward the facile view that technology is a thing that one can be for or against; perhaps something that can be used in an ethical or unethical way. But technology in the labor process, just like capital, is not a thing but a social relation. Technologies are developed and introduced in the context of the battle between capital and labor, and they encode the victories, losses, and compromises of those struggles. When the terms of debate shift from the relations of production to a reified “technology,” it is to the benefit of the bosses.
I hope readers will find the links to these various sources useful.
My only point is that we can do much better than the humanist discussion of the inevitable engagement of humans with their uncontrollable creations (as in Chandler’s case) by examining the consequences and reactions (within specific and quite different capitalist and noncapitalist contexts) of the relatively autonomous technologies that are being invented today—a complex, contradictory process that will surely continue for the foreseeable future.
The problem of the machine simply won’t go away.
Even the Bank of America Merrill Lynch (pdf), while identifying the potential benefits (to consumers, based on lower prices, and some businesses, at least the first adopters) of the “creative disruption” occasioned by current forms of technological innovation, spends a good bit of time examining the possibility of rising inequality.
One of the great concerns of innovation is the potential disruptive effect upon the labor market. “Technological unemployment” is a long-held fear that is more relevant for certain individuals than whole economies – at least for now. The greater challenge is how creative disruption can give rise to winner-take-all and monopolistic outcomes. These can actually create incentives for entrenched incumbents to spend more effectively defending their monopoly rents than to innovate further: consider Microsoft’s defense of its Windows operation system near-monopoly for a time. Similarly, the first to market may benefit from sizable first-mover advantages that create strong network effects for the first, rather than the best, technology. In addition, digital innovations create much larger reach for any given entrepreneur, as near-zero marginal cost allows firms to scale up easily. All of these trends tend to concentrate market power and wealth, and thus can exacerbate trends toward greater inequality.
In addition, skill-biased technological change rewards the highly educated and highly skilled over others. More recently, innovative uses of data collection, processing and automation have reached well beyond the factory floor: bank tellers, x-ray technicians, paralegals, secretaries, and many other service positions that once were middle-skill and middle income have been disappearing to the relentless rise of innovation. It may be only a matter of time before jobs we now consider higher skill and higher wage are similarly replaced. As just one example, sophisticated automated systems for wealth management are already under development. Like so many digital services, these have low marginal costs and scale easily, resulting in much lower costs to produce and thus prices for consumers – but also fewer opportunities for employees.
The limiting case here would be general purpose robots that are effective substitutes for human labor but at a fraction of the cost. In that case, widespread unemployment could be an outcome – it depends on whether there develops a large enough sector in the economy where humans have a comparative advantage. This could be the arts and entertainment, or personal care services, or areas that involve deeper analytical thinking that is not amenable to existing forms of AI. The transitions from agriculture to manufacturing, and then manufacturing to services, were feared by some to result in mass unemployment. What happened instead is that some old jobs gradually disappeared as technological progress supplanted them, while new – often unanticipated – jobs arose in their place. This was not always ideal for individual workers, who may have found it very difficult or near impossible to make the kind of transitions needed to gain new work, but overall neither of these transitions caused a massive rise in unemployment. The same may well be true for the next transition.
It may—but I’m not holding my breath.
It is, of course, the case that workers’ wages depend on the number of workers looking for jobs and the rate of growth of employment opportunities, which in turn depend on both the degree of labor substitution in employers’ adoption of the new technologies and the overall rate of economic growth.
Slower expected growth in the years ahead, accompanied by corporations’ decisions to automate many production tasks (of both goods and services), represents a menacing prospect for the majority of workers. They will be adversely affected both by real technological unemployment and by the threat of technological unemployment.
One possibility is to worry about and search for measures to raise the rate of economic growth, so that displaced workers have a higher likelihood of finding jobs in new, growing sectors of the economy. Fast growth is unlikely but that’s what mainstream economists are focusing on today. The other possibility is to question the nature of the new technologies that are being adopted—to challenge not technology per se but, as I have argued before, capitalist technology.
The fact is, in an economy characterized by obscene levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, the adoption of new technologies is guided by those inequalities—and is likely to make them even worse.
And that’s exactly what worries Stephen Hawking.
*But, as always, there’s Matthew Yglesias who attempts to argue that the problem is not automation, but the slowdown in the pace of productivity growth.