Education and the Long-Term: Automation As Example

The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook

Chapter 2: The Challenge of Automation

“Since 1955 and the advent of automation, overtime has been detrimental to the workers. Again and again workers have been faced with the decision to work overtime or not to work overtime, and the decision has usually been: ‘To hell with those out of work. Let’s get the dollar while the dollar is gettable.’ The amazing thing is that this has nothing to do with the backwardness of these workers. Not only can they run production and think for themselves, but they sense and feel the changes in conditions way in advance of those who are supposed to be responsible for their welfare. But with all these abilities there is one big organic weakness. Over and over again workers in various shops and industries, faced with a critical issue, only divide and become disunited, even though they are well aware that they are being unprincipled and weakening their own cause as workers. Since the advent of automation there has not been any serious sentiment for striking, particularly if the strike was going to come at the expense of material things that the workers already had in their possession, like cars, refrigerators, TV sets, etc. They were not ready to make any serious sacrifices of these; they would rather sacrifice the issue. Between the personal things and the issue, they have chosen the personal. Most American workers have geared themselves to a standard of living that is based on a five-day week plus—either in the form of overtime or another job, part or full time. And any time this standard of living is threatened, it is a personal crisis, which means that more and more decisions are being personalized and individualized rather than collectivized and socialized.”

(The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, James Boggs, Monthly Review Press, 1963, page 33)

As far back as 1963, with President John Kennedy in office, James Boggs (a Detroit autoworker) was already quite aware of automation and its challenges.

A “meta-intelligent” education means we learn from any sources available including “angry pamphlets” without worrying about the ideological blinders or fireworks because our desire is not to engage in polemics but to “extract signals” from a noisy world.

Chapter 2 of James Boggs’s pamphlet is called “The Challenge of Automation” and begins: “Since 1955 and the advent of automation, overtime has been detrimental to the workers…”

This immediately tells you that automation is a very long-run historical trend and should be seen in a larger sweep with history as your searchlight.

Indeed the famous German classic The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann is about machines as a threat to employment:

The Weavers (German: Die Weber, Silesian German: De Waber) is a play written by the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann in 1892. The play sympathetically portrays a group of Silesian weavers who staged an uprising during the 1840s due to their concerns about the Industrial Revolution and replacement by machines and automation.

In 1927, it was adapted into a German silent film The Weavers, directed by Frederic Zelnik and starring Paul Wegener.

A Broadway version of The Weavers was staged in 1915–1916.

To dismiss all such movements and revolts as Luddite-like is not useful since it sweeps legitimate problems under the rug.

This includes Ernst Toller’s classic The Machine Wreckers (German: Die Maschinenstürmer). Two of his early plays were produced in this period: The Machine Wreckers (1922), whose opening night in 1937 he attended, and No More Peace, produced in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project and presented in New York City in 1938.

All of these critiques of machines and automation are part of a long-term historical overview of machines and jobs and in our time, robotics and AI, etc which should be analyzed as a trajectory and arc where “machine wreckers” à la Hauptmann or Toller are understood empathetically and realistically and not dismissed as vandals.

Essay 113: Tangled Up Multifactorial Causes

Workers’ Shrinking Share of the Pie

The current issue of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond periodical, Econ Focus (second/third quarter 2019) has a good article, “Workers’ Shrinking Share of the Pie” [Archived PDF] which has the following “conclusion:”

So what explains the recent decline in labor’s share? Unfortunately, it is difficult to untangle the separate roles of automation, globalization, and changes in market power. Automation has likely played a role, but its independent impact is hard to gauge, due to the difficulty in differentiating the recent wave of automation from previous episodes in which labor’s share of national income held steady. Globalization appears to have been a strong contributor—a claim that is buttressed by the near simultaneity of the rise in U.S. trade with China and the decline of labor’s share. A variety of evidence also points to firms’ increased pricing power in product markets and workers’ weakened bargaining power in labor markets. In product markets, information technology and globalization appear to have increased the pricing power and profitability of certain dominant firms. And in labor markets, the insecurity engendered by automation and globalization may have helped to weaken workers’ bargaining power. In short, from the perspective of workers, multiple forces have come together to narrow their slice of an expanding economy.

(second/third quarter 2019 Econ Focus, Richmond Fed, page 17)

It so happens that Professor Robert Lawrence of Harvard (Kennedy School) in his very careful analyses, shows how American economic “numbers” in recent years are consistent with internal American numbers from decades ago and this implies the overall transformation of the American economy was primarily from within (“endogenous”) and not till very recently, from without (“exogenous”). Pre-exisiting internal American trends might be the dominant cause for many decades.

The variable or axis “endogenous versus exogenous” (internal pushes or external pulls?) adds a whole dimension to the discussion and we have to therefore avoid mono-causal explanations.

We live not only in a multifactorial world but in one where “inside pushes” can be confused with “external pulls.”