Is technology a net creator or destroyer of jobs? The question is as old as the Industrial Revolution, when workers in mills found themselves put out of work by large industrial looms. In France, they threw their shoes (sabots) into the weaving machines to destroy them – the origin of the term “sabotage”. The protests didn’t stop the machines, however, and the workers had to find something else to do in an ever-changing economy where machines did more and more work.
Today, the pace of technological change is faster than ever, with new gadgets coming into our lives constantly. Automation is also transforming our lives, with new robots and artificial intelligence replacing workers constantly. Are today’s productivity gains tomorrow’s unemployment? Increasingly those who study technology in our lives and the popular media are coming to the conclusion that yes, workers are net losers in the race against tech. And this is not a partisan issue.
(The Sage) knows he makes no fine display,
and wears rough clothes, not finery.
It is not in his expectancy of men
that they should understand his ways,
for he carries his jade within his heart.
– Tao Te Ching 70 (Rosenthal)
The short, hunched figure appeared in front of me loaded with purpose. The weather bent us both down, compelled our gaze towards cautious feet and the treacherous lack of grip underneath them. It was only a casual glance that saw the short red coat and hood approaching as I wondered who else might be out making their own time down the sidewalk. A child? A friend? Anyone I knew?
When we approached a few plodding paces apart a quick glance up saw her as an old woman. I could not make out many details about her presence rendered trivial as we both concentrated on our chilling task, the path from here to there. I smiled a quick “Hello!” and she said as much back as we passed, still a stranger though also a comrade in purpose. We were both anonymous in our shields against the cold that might catch up if we had stopped for any more than a word. The weather itself had rendered us equal, distant, and humble.
Greece and Europe managed to find a way to kick the can down the road a bit, giving them four months to come up with a larger agreement. It’s exactly the kind of solution that we cynically expected here in many ways. But is there more to it than that?
The letter sent by Greek Finance Minister Varoufakis to the EU outlines exactly where Greece is coming from, and it tells us a lot more about the problem at hand. What he asked for was nothing more than the kind of consideration any other nation would want in this situation. That it was received so badly at first, then ultimately accepted in at least some form, speaks volumes about either the dysfunction of the EU or how bankrupt Greece is.
I believe it is the former, and the EU is nowhere near developing a stable process for dealing with issues like Greece or even calling themselves a real political or financial arrangement for the long haul.
A generation or two ago, workers were able to count on companies large and small to take care of them. More than just their pay, the working people of America got something critical from their job – security, a promise that the material things in their life were something they could depend on. In return, there was loyalty – and after decades of work, a pension.
There is little doubt that the nature of work is changing. The exact nature of these changes and the magnitude is hard to pin down, but it’s clear that people don’t work the same way they used to. As we contemplate the next version of the economy forming around us as this Depression slowly comes to an end it is more and more clear that the nature of work – and the corresponding social arrangements that come from it – will continue to change.
This is why reform in policy, taxation, and many other fixed arrangements is essential.
Twenty years ago I was working in Germany, staying in the small town of Burghausen on the Austrian border. The cycle of holidays that mark the progress of the daily life of the town festooned red, white and blue as they turned towards “French Week” early in the Bavarian Spring. Buses of people from their sister city of Fumel, France came in and the menus in all the restaurants were replaced with copies in French. Burghausen celebrated the arrival of their guests as a family reunion of sorts.
I asked Herr Miterer, owner of the Hotel Post where I was staying, if this “European Union” was going to be successful. His piercing Teutonic glance betrayed the seriousness before he said a word. “It has to,” he said quietly, “We’ve seen the alternative.” Without moving his eyes he pointed to a picture of on the wall of this beautiful little inn that he and his family ran, taken in 1945. The top floor had been blown off and rubble littered what had become the biergarten.
The earnestness of Miterer comes back to me as the latest round of Greek crisis bubbled through the news this week. We’ve seen the alternative. Yet, somehow, it is never quite enough for Europe, this strange forced marriage that stays together for the kids, for the ideals, and for the sheer obligation of it all.