Or as André Gorz happened to put it (in 1980 - bolding mine):
"Automation and computerisation have eliminated most skills and possibilities for initiative and are in the process of replacing what remains of the skilled labour force (whether blue or white collar) by a new type of unskilled worker. The age of the skilled workers, with their power in the factory and their anarcho-syndicalist projects, has now to be seen as but an interlude which taylorism, ‘scientific work organisation’, and, finally, computers and robots will have brought to a close.
More than anyone anticipated, capital has succeeded in reducing workers’ power in the productive process. It has been able to combine a gigantic increase in productive power with a destruction in workers’ autonomy. It has been able to entrust ever more complex and powerful mechanised processes to the care of workers with ever more limited capacities. It has succeeded to the extent that those who were once called upon to take command of the giant machinery of modern industry have been dominated by - and in - the work of domination which they were to accomplish. It has simultaneously increased the technical power and capacities of the proletariat as a whole and the impotence of proletarians themselves, whether as individuals, in teams or work groups.”
The Guardian/Observer piece is rather good, in that it touches on a lot of points in what is going to become (or rather, already is) a very important issue - including the concept I recently came across of ‘jobs polarization’ between the highly-skilled minority creating and controlling the money-making technology versus the low-skilled workforce used for necessary labour that can’t (or won’t) be automated. Initially I thought Groz was thus being too pessimistic or hyperbolic in talking about the replacement of all skilled labour - but maybe not in the long run, if you look at the part I’ve highlighted. I don’t really see why the creative/analytical powers of the human mind will forever be immune to automation (or more specifically, replacement by iterative, data-analytic processes that churn out quantifiably ‘optimal’ solutions) in which case the same dynamic will have been applied to the supposed ‘elite’ of the current information economy.
Given that the problem can be seen as essentially (a Marxist) one of control of the means of production, the supremacy of private capital, and so on, the ultimate solution has to be some kind of transformative change. But since - aside from the very transformation we are already concerned about - such transformation is blocked for a variety of (chiefly political) reasons the response turns more towards a reformist or ameliorative agenda - a sort of techno-Keynesianism. In reading Gorz however I’m more interested in what radical potential their might be for autonomy in the use of the internet which - despite the myriad influences of corporate power and neoliberal subjectivity - is perhaps still the best bet for a decentralised, individualised means of production. Either that, or a blinking cursor in front of a human face forever…
Worth reading the whole thing I think. I’m especially interested in the stuff about regulation, transaction costs etc.
I really liked this but resisted tweeting/blogging it because my liking is pure confirmation bias - this is what I WANT to believe on a topic I honestly know close to zero about. Good read anyway.
I’d have the same confirmation bias, although I did read up a fair bit about it the last time it crashed: but it fell from $250 to $125 then, and from $1000 to $500 now - so it’s still just as volatile but it hasn’t gone away you know, and has continued growing in the meantime. My basic feeling is probably best summed up in this piece 'Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire' which is a decent summary of the arguments but doesn’t contain anything new; this article, by comparison, is rather more detailed and nuanced.
One thing I notice as a criticism common to both is Bitcoin mining’s electricity usage as an environmental impact, which I saw debunked before with statistics estimating it as a miniscule percentage of existing energy use. The difference is I guess the environmental opportunity cost you place on the creation of a speculative cybercurrency, versus the range of similarly indulgent and inefficient activities the rest of us pursue, collectively or individually (per unit Bitcoin mining may still be arguably more wasteful - the point is it remains pretty much entirely a value judgement).
It’s also an argument that I think somewhat underestimates Bitcoin’s complexity, where the difficulty of ‘mining’ is effectively proportional to price, creating an incentive to be as efficient as possible about it. Yet this emphasis on progress deriving from competition for individual economic advantage is part and parcel of Bitcoin’s libertarian belief system. I wrote a post before where I tried to tease out some of these less-discussed issues and concluded:
"…while I think the supply side of Bitcoin is fascinating, and somewhat detached from the economic oddity of its demand side as a currency or commodity, it’s still a thoroughly neoliberal project where the accumulation of wealth is its own end; economic activity is directed towards out-competing others, rather than achieving tangible social or even technological goals; and individuals leverage capital for massive profits. Miners won’t destroy Bitcoin, but they remain reliant on the confidence of the currency’s holders for its value. You’ve gotta admire the computer nerds for finding a way to turn their hardware into a literal money-spinner - at least as long as it doesn’t all evaporate by morning (or they’ve banked some of their profits into hard currency)
(I also wrote this post suggesting the way to use Bitcoin as a stable transaction system would be to - peg it to the dollar)
"Mr Higgins praised the new economic thinking emerging from Latin America that are deconstructing the “big dogmas” that led to the most serious economic meltdown since 1929.
“Some of the freshest and most creative thinking is coming from Latin America, where economists, political and social scientists are not afraid to question prevailing orthodoxies,” he said.
They are debating “alternative models and paradigms for the connection between economy and society and for the relationship between the market and the state,” he said.
“There is an intellectual fall-down often missing in those parts of the world where antipathy to the role of the state has offered unregulated markets as an ideology to be followed without question while the consequences in poverty and unemployment ravage their societies.”
Mr Higgins urged the students from the University of Mexico, the biggest in Latin America, not to “sink into any melancholy” when considering their future.
The Irish Times reporting on President Higgins’ visit to Central America (note however the positive gloss they choose to focus on in their headline - or even that last remark above, which is almost in itself melancholy).
Yeah, it’s pretty pricey alright, but it’s not insane. Nor is buying a car, that potentially cost millions to design, for a few thousand. It’s just basic economics that the marginal price of a mass (or infinitely, in the case of digital media) produced object has a somewhat complicated relationship with its original cost. It’s also how some people make a lot of money out of spending thousands on producing pop songs and having (maybe?) hundreds of thousands buy it at more than a dollar.
I would agree with the underlying principle of paying for music and other cultural content; I would say I agree with the sentiment of the piece, but I think it’s pretty stupidly expressed, essentially as a form of ‘consumer choice’ and assuming a privilege of disposable income without really questioning where it comes from and where exactly it should go. I’ve written about Spotify a lot because I think the subscription/streaming model is an interesting way of dealing with the immaterial nature of most music today - both in its form and in its use, i.e. the cumulative consumption - and even if the level of compensation for artists isn’t ideal, it has potential.
I made an error in the last post when I said we have:
"a society dependent on gainful employment for the great majority of its members"
which should really be its adult members, of working age - and even then it’s still barely, even less than, a majority who are gainfully employed. The ‘age dependency ratio’ in population statistics is the ratio of people over-65 to those between 15 and 65, which is a crude measure taking no account of the size of the labour force (those available and looking for work) or the employment rate within that. Of course the total number of adults under 65 remains a majority of the population, but a slightly more sophisticated measure of "economic dependency ratio" shows that it is in fact a minority of the adult population who support - in purely economic terms, i.e. paid labour - the rest, not even including children.
What I meant to say was not so much about material dependency of non-working members of society on working members, but rather the extent to which society itself depends on providing employment to enough of its adult members - by pushing denigration and deprivation on those who do not achieve it, yet are of a group that are meant to be economically ‘independent’. ‘Full employment’, that mythical mid-century lodestone and foundation of the welfare state, was mainly for men, certainly below the standard retirement age, and took into account only a minimum of further education. By providing full, well-paid employment for a comparatively privileged group (the male working class) both individuals and society together could fund a decent standard of living for their dependants, in a rather patriarchal manner.
Things shifted as more women entered the workforce (meaning the unemployment rate now included women out of work but increasingly seeking it) and the symbiotic development of third level education and the service economy meant adults ‘entering the workforce’, at least full-time, at a later stage. In the current crisis, ‘youth unemployment’ is a somewhat problematic measure, as it technically refers to the proportion of those available for work (the labour force) but so excludes those who have opted out of the labour force by remaining in, or returning to, education - frequently due to the lack of jobs. The extent to which employment is ‘full’ reflects the numbers of people wanting or needing to take part in the labour force - something which technology may well be changing, along with economic circumstances.
There’s typically a lot of concern about the increase in the age dependency ratio as life expectancy increases, allied to the ‘pensions timebomb’ and resulting in drives to raise the retirement age - despite it clearly being a fool’s errand to increase the labour force during persistent high unemployment. Japan has a particularly high ratio, which they’re hoping to solve essentially by employing robots. But elsewhere the assumption that an increasing dependency rate needs to be ameliorated by a higher employment rate (and blurring the concept of ‘working age’) must produce some economic cognitive dissonance. Of course productivity again rides to the rescue, as in this discussion of retirement from Eurofound (The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, an EU agency) :
“The economic dependency ratio (65% in 2010) suggests a much higher dependency in society than the demographic dependency ratio (26% in 2010) does. Nevertheless, if the Europe 2020 target of 75% employment among 20- to 64-year-olds is reached, the economic dependency ratio is estimated to show a decrease (from 65% to 57%) instead of an increase, as the demographic dependency ratio does (from 26% to 31%).
These decreases could be somewhat lower, if the ambitious Europe 2020 target is not met, but still showing a trend nowhere near the one shown by the demographic dependency ratio. Economic dependency ratios tell only part of the story. For example, economic dependency ratios still ignore productivity increases. The annual growth rate in labour productivity is projected to be 1.5% in the long term (European Commission, 2012d). This amounts to more than 16% GDP growth purely generated on productivity increases in the following decade. Furthermore, temporary higher rates are expected in Member States that are catching up. Such productivity increases mean that a constant labour input can sustain similar levels of quality of life for a larger group of people. While it can be deceptive to overly rely on productivity growth, it is also unrealistic to assume there will be no growth in productivity at all.”
Yet productivity gained due to automation implies a reduction in necessary labour, so we return to the choice of creating more economically productive jobs or better distributing the wealth created by existing work. Whether or not a certain proportion of the population is working is somewhat irrelevant if their work is sufficient to sustain the rest, except that society runs on certain limited principles of distribution and of fairness (inherent in the latter is an assumption that ‘earning one’s living’ is superior not only on a psychological basis but a moral one than simply deserving it, despite the fact that we value many activities that are unpaid). Do they owe us a living?…
“How can something be random on purpose? Well, Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, stores its goods in a chaotic disorder. But only at first glance, because there’s order behind the apparent disarray. It’s called chaotic storage. […] Intuitively, most people would store similar goods together, virtually sorting them according to predefined characteristics. This would place all books in one section of the warehouse and all toys in another section. But that’s not necessary in a chaotic storage system. The products only need to share the most basic requirements with regard to storage (i.e. temperature, humidity). Further characteristics don’t have to be considered. In a chaotic warehouse, all kinds of different articles may lie directly next to each other, such as books, toys, sport equipment, electronics, DVDs, jewellery and digital cameras. […] The term “chaotic storage” is by the way only justified from a human point of view, but is not at all correct from the standpoint of a computer. For a warehouse management software, a chaotic storage system is nothing more than a sequence of calculations and database operations.”
"The amount of training required by new employees is also remarkably lower when using chaotic storage. It is not necessary for them to memorise the entire warehouse layout or even single storage locations. This will allow you to replace staff more easily or hire seasonal workers during peak times."
Or to put it another way - Amazon’s warehousing system actively prevents workers becoming experts or skilled even on the entirely enfeebled terms warehouse work might allow - they are parts of the computer process, albeit parts with legs.
Amazon has a lot to answer for in terms of contracts, conditions, pay etc - but also it seems to me that even conservative commentators on work would agree that part of the virtue of work is the opportunity to become better at a job, and learn while you’re doing it.
Although the ultimate aim is surely to completely automate the process, which could only be averted through sabotage (i.e., make it technologically less efficient) so that it provides more human and human-like jobs (which still wouldn’t be that satisfying, because it’s working in a warehouse?). The current problem seems to be that we’re in a transitional period before Full Automation, where the economy becomes less labour-intensive, and those jobs that do remain are physically less intensive (a good thing considering previous rates of work-acquired physical disability) but their psychological conditions disimprove. Plus as labour becomes less important it has less leverage, and pay and other conditions suffer as well.
The counter-argument to the ‘robots are killing the middle class and will turn most of us into slaves’ fear is based on growth and productivity: even if our earnings are stagnant or diminishing, because of all that technology and automation our favourite stuff costs less, and the economy comes up with new stuff and new ways to sell it all the time (providing jobs, but also eating into earnings). And hopefully some more ways to not destroy the planet while we’re at it. We’re all aboard the growth train and we can’t get off, although for a lot of us we’re in the equivalent of a sealed carriage while the train is stopped (cue that joke about the three Soviet leaders; adapt it to neoliberalism).
It seems like this situation, of moving towards an increasingly technologised economy while having a society dependent on gainful employment for the great majority of its members, is something that more economists and social scientists ought to be trying to work out. We pick up on all the little (and not so little) problems at the fringes - the way technology insidiously alters our social lives, how wealth retains its privileges even with supposedly liberating developments - or worry about the grand effects on particular groups; but the apparent invincibility of the market and its political representations mean there’s not much space to say hold on, shouldn’t we be rethinking the fundamental terms of work itself? (This is a good start, although as was pointed out to me it’s very similar to rhetoric used in the 1970s, facing similar developments - and that didn’t exactly halt neoliberalism. Which arguably has itself rethought work, except not in a way we’d regard as positive)
andrewtsks asked: Re: tipped employee wages in the USA--the minimum wage for tipped employees used to be connected to the regular minimum wage. When I entered the workforce in 1993, minimum wage was $4.25, and minimum wage for a tipped employee was half that--$2.13. Today, minimum wage is $7.25, but minimum wage for tipped employees is still $2.13. All of the waitstaff I know earn money entirely through tips, because their paychecks are eaten up completely by taxes. If our tip standard seems higher, that's why.
I was sorta aware of that, but I was lazy and didn’t want to research it so I just put in the assumption that wages were lower. And yeah, it’s not just that the wages are lower but the legal floor is (drastically) as well. The Irish minimum wage is substantially higher than that - €8.65, or $11.50 at the current exchange rate - and the only exceptions to it are for age (under-18s) or being in a ‘training’ period, and it excludes tips. Plus low-income earners pay comparatively little in income tax. Of course we pay for higher labour costs in the face value of food or drink or whatever, but tipping is basically a gratuity based on actual wait-service or delivery (in a restaurant the standard is 10%-12.5% of the bill - hence the incredulity at US standards).
I always get the feeling I should be doing more, but I think a lot of that is the effect of US-based propaganda for where good tipping is, as you explain, the sole basis for a good wage. I mean, in a bar in Dublin one typically hands over a €5 note for a pint of beer and hope it’s enough - handing back 30c as a tip seems more of an insult than anything else (it’s easier if you’re being served at a table, when it feels more justified and they usually come with the change, but it probably amounts to the same). The image I have of tipping is from the Celtic Tiger days when some middle-aged guy would pay for a round of drinks at the bar with a crisp €50 note and tell them to keep the rest - like I said, the maintenance of wealth and privilege through charitable generosity.