[ExI] retrainability of plebeians
thespike at satx.rr.com
Mon Apr 20 20:28:00 UTC 2009
Dagon raises many important questions. My own
answers (to the extent that they are answers and
not wistful dreams or shocking errors) are given
in THE SPIKE. In case anyone here hasn't read
that pre-Kurzweil book--first edition 1997--here's a segment:
<The rich, the poor and the doomed
None of this, alas, should be news. It is
instructive to see that some thirty years ago,
economists Richard Cyert and William Jacobs
declared America's economy `technologically
dynamic and distinctly uncongenial to those
offering only basic labor and traditional
skills--which is all the poor have to offer.'
This was long before the iMac, before the IBM
personal computer and its vast illegitimate
family of clones, before What You See Is What You
Get, before object-oriented programming and
mobile phones... The tens of millions then below
the US poverty line were already known to inhabit
`a structure of numerous adverse and mutually reinforcing elements'.
The key factor was that `the children
of the poor are generally unprepared for entering
school, and thus the children they raise are
deficient in reading and verbal skills and in
facility with mental concepts'. As a direct
result, the poorest 17 percent provided 40
percent of all school dropouts, and the poorest
third some 70 percent of the total. Thus
inadequately prepared, they were swept into a
maelstrom of technological changes and demands
that were, in total, the very world itself. The
circle was impossibly vicious, and it has grown
less benign as the skills needed to prosper have
become more arcane, as crack neighborhoods turn poverty into hell.
For democracies, the bitterness is
breathtaking. The old common presumption and
boast of free-enterprise theorists, repeated anew
in every confident declaration from `economic
rationalists' and `level-playing field'
advocates, is that any parent might support a
family in dignity if he or she were willing to
take a job, even if the work proved to be dirty
or hard. Today that is simply no longer certain.
The life of the poor is a skein of part-time
work, jostling schedules, social service
entitlements that are repeatedly eroded or
abolished, one or both parents on low wages at
best and rarely at home for the children.
A social crisis has been upon the
First World ever since the 1970s, much of it due
to structural change, otherwise known as...
(triumphant trumpet blast)... the new
technologies. Most galling to many once
comfortably off is the intrusion into their
sedate security of forced redundancy packages,
the scything of field upon field of middle
managerial and skilled positions. The fate
previously restricted to the `old poor', those
who inherited their grief from their marginalized
parents, has overwhelmed huge numbers of people
with every reason to expect security of
employment (and retirement). Ironically, this
blight has afflicted even Japan, traditional home
of the protected berth. The graying of
populations makes this loss of job security ever
more unbearable. `Japan will have a demographic
profile similar to Florida's. By the year 2015, 1
in 4 Japanese will be 65 or older; by 2010, it
will have only 2.5 workers for every retiree.'131
At the same time, we need to remember
that the superseded jobs are often precisely
those involving the greatest degree of tedium,
exhaustion and lack of creativity. If people
weren't losing their earning-power as these jobs
are swallowed up by machines, there'd be great
rejoicing in the land. After all, in the
abstract, the prospect of handing over to
computers or manufacturing robots all those
necessary tasks which are dirty, dangerous,
tiring and uninteresting would promise the human
species a new era of freedom and personal growth.
Instead, as matters stand now, the
dispossessed can look forward to nothing but
misery, anxiety and, by and large, marginal lives
of boring pointlessness. Couch potatoes don't
gobble valium and Prozac because they're having a great time.
A guaranteed income?
One startling solution to these disasters is
simple and feasible. It has been available for
more than thirty years, but a moralizing
prejudice stops us looking it in the eye. It
demands no radical revolution, yet while
answering the extremes of poverty that still
afflict large pockets of the industrialized world
it also opens the door into the coming
dispensation, a world largely without jobs. And
that's its drawback. It stands in profound
opposition--or so at first it seems--to the traditional work ethic.
This is the suggestion, bluntly put:
society will pay everyone, as an inalienable
right, a basic minimum dividend drawn from the
productivity and wealth of the nation.
Not just the ill. Not only the mad,
nor the elderly struggling to bridge the gap
between retirement benefits and costs. Everyone. No questions asked.
This is not a widely approved
proposition. Although there is plentiful
technical discussion in the economics literature,
this option tends to be ignored or actively
suppressed in serious policy debate. Robert
Theobald was an early proponent of this
Guaranteed Income solution. His mid-1960s'
insights on where Western society was headed,
difficult to believe at the time, have turned out
to be surprisingly accurate. Theobald and his
colleagues foresaw an eerie future: an underclass
excluded from jobs, a new educated class lurching
from position to position with no assurance of
secure income, and an elite working themselves
into fabulously well-paid exhaustion.
It was an astonishingly acute snapshot
of the stressed First World at the start of the
new millennium. Which gives hope that we might
yet call the next 30 years with equal robustness,
until the Spike intervenes. In 1992, happily
unrepentant, Theobald wrote: `One recent poll
shows that people would give up income for
leisure if they had the choice. Personally, I
find this development wonderful. I have long been
in favor of full unemployment, believing that job
structures were not the best way to get the work
of the culture done' (my italics).
Beyond socialism and capitalism
Back in 1963, Theobald had published Free Men and
Free Markets. `What practical steps need to be
taken,' he asked, `in order to reap the benefits
of the scientific and technological revolution
rather than its destructive growths?' His answer
was shockingly offensive to conservatives of both
left and right, and still is. He proposed `the
establishment of new principles specifically
designed to break the link between jobs and
income' (my italics). Increasingly, the interests
of the individual citizen, he reasoned, had been
subordinated to those of the economy, filching
freedom and dignity from a significant proportion of the population.
Forty years later, the frightful woes
of the black and other marginalized
`underclasses' in the USA, and the growing
distress of those in a trap of welfare without
the option of careers, prove how prescient he was.
The terms of Theobald's proposal were unequivocal:
"We need to adopt the concept of an
absolute constitutional right to an income. This
would guarantee to every citizen... the right to
an income from the Federal Government sufficient
to enable him to live in dignity. No Government
agency, judicial body, or other organization
whatsoever should have the power to suspend or
limit any payments assured by these guarantees."
Libertarians and extropians, those most open to
the prospect of the Spike, will be horrified to
read such a suggestion. [[2009: and were--many
were the cries of "Socialist! Looter! Naive!" ]]
This is heresy, they'll cry, for the State is
vile. Government is incompetent, meddling,
corrupt, taxation is theft, and handouts to the
`work-shy'--extorted from hard workers--is a
travesty of the proper order of things. Worse,
it's counter-productive because it eats away the
inner worth of the recipient, and tainted anyway,
being the fruit of a poisoned tree.
One can share some sympathy for this
distaste for bloated Big Government without
immediately rejecting Theobald's suggestion. A
guaranteed minimum income less resembles the
demeaning receipt of an extorted, stigmatizing
dole than the freedom to breathe the common air
without paying for every breath. (Some
libertarians, it's true, wish to privatize the
air and oceans as well, in the free market belief
that only thus will personal responsibility put
an end to heedless pollution. Few seem persuaded by this extreme opinion.)
How would Guaranteed Income work in practice?
Specifically, in the early 1960s Theobald
examined the case of a family of four in which
neither parent held a job. Drawing on official
estimates of a `modest but adequate income'
(since then wildly eroded by inflation), he
suggested a basic income of $1000 per adult and
$600 for each child. So the family would have
earned, as a right, $3200 annually with no
strings attached. Today the equivalent might be,
say, eight times that much: a modest $25,000 in all.
So nearly everyone stops working at
once, moves to California or some other sunny
clime, and puts up their feet? Who pays? The few
disciplined and self-respecting middle-class
salary earners, gouged by Draconian taxes? Not at
all. That Calvinist objection misses the point of Theobald's insight.
His suggested guaranteed income is
enough to get by on, but hardly luxury. Note this
key proviso: because basic income right has
nothing to do with how you spend your time, you
aren't prohibited from working for pay, or
without pay, if you can find a job. To the contrary.
Isn't this, then, rampant socialism?
Curiously, the notion was being promoted in the
1960s not by leftish radicals but by such saints
of the free-market as Milton Friedman, Nobel
Economics laureate in 1976. He favored direct
payment to the poor as a way to slash the tangle
of aid programs. A laissez-faire conservative and
monetarist, Friedman argued that a guaranteed
income would return to all individuals the
freedom to seek their own economic advantage.
Once that process was rolling, the magic of the
market would supervene. Scrapping the complicated
bureaucracy that stifled and humiliated the poor
would lead to a revival of the 19th century's bustling free-enterprise drive.
Looking backward and forward
It was hardly a shockingly new idea, anyway.
Edward Bellamy had raised the possibility in his
1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Although the
first industrial revolution had then not yet been
thoroughly consolidated, Bellamy was able to
foresee a world in which, due to mechanization,
every citizen owned a `guarantee of abundant
maintenance'. It was a crucial leap of
imagination to a society of abundance rather than
scarcity. Despite recent slippage for some in the
standard of living in the First World, we are
there already if we choose to acknowledge the fact and act upon it.
It's a truism that consumer capitalism
has to run hard and fast to sustain adequate
demand for the relentless cascade of goods
pouring from our factories. The pressure of this
glut calls forth the huge, sophisticated
machinery of the advertising industry, millions
spent to persuade us to consume with lusty and
extravagant zeal, and to go into debt in doing so.
And yet somehow the absurd capitalist
machine works, balanced on its nose, pedaling as
fast as it can, trawling up wonderful treasures
and opportunities nobody has ever possessed in
all the history of humankind... and bringing the Spike ever closer.
Shifting winds of opinion
Because of Friedman's support, Theobald found his
early reception undergoing an acceleration rather
reminiscent of the Spike, but with a nose-dive at
the end. Later, he wrote wryly in The Guaranteed Income:
"The bulk of the criticism in early
1963 evaluated Free Men and Free Markets, title
not-withstanding, as an extreme left-wing text.
By mid-1963, it was increasingly considered a
modern re-statement of New Dealer philosophy. By
early 1964... the book was rather generally
evaluated as 1964 liberalism. Finally, after
1964, the analysis and indeed the proposals are
being characterized with increasing frequency as
conservative and even reactionary."
Perhaps because of this protean character, the
proposal remains provocative but untried. The core idea remains alive.
A simple version was devised by Cyert
and Jacobs: a negative income tax, issued
monthly. On all income from other sources,
though, a family would be subject to high
taxation, perhaps 50 percent. You could have a
free lunch, so to speak, but you'd pay a little
extra for dinner. Once the family's income
reached twice the minimum rate, their guaranteed
income would cut out, along with its confiscatory
taxation level, and they would switch back to the
ordinary graduated schedule of tax.
Is this impossibly expensive? No. The
price of the program was estimated as about half
the cost of a small war. In its absence, as we've
seen, Americans are now in any case paying for a
small war--against many of their own marginalized citizens.
As an inviolable constitutional
entitlement, a guaranteed income would offer
those who'd been made technologically redundant
the chance to engage in dignified self-help. At
present, it is difficult for jobless people to
get a bank loan to start a small business, or buy
and fix up their home, or pay for the protracted
study and skill development that might lever them
back into still-vital parts of the work force.
`Further, and of potentially great significance'
Cyert and Jacobs suggested, `a guaranteed minimum
income would make it more feasible for private
industry to sponsor long training programs, for
it would no longer be necessary to pay
substantial wages through the period of training and low productivity.'
Theobald was more optimistic still. Productive
groups, which he termed `consentives', would come
together on a voluntary basis, working just
because they wanted to. Decades later, this is a
pattern we recognize from garage bands, high-tech
garage start-ups, and Internet special interest
groups. All those, of course, tend to be funded
by doting, well-paid parents. A different version
is John S. Novak's notion, mentioned in chapter
four, of groups of comparatively young retired
professionals with restless brains, around 2015
funding their own Institute of yeoman tinkerers and innovative tinkerers.
Consentives might produce goods that
embody, both in themselves and in the workers'
sense of creative satisfaction, the virtues of
hand-crafted design in a machine world. Brilliant
computer `shareware' and open source code does
just that right now. Since wages and salaries
would no longer be all-important, cost of
purchasing such goods might be minimal, hardly
greater than raw materials and transport--maybe
comparable with computerized factory production.
The arrival of nano minting, naturally
enough, will make even these fond hopes passé,
but cheap minting will not rise above the horizon
for at least another decade or two. We need
drastic cures for the social problems that exist
now and will worsen in the decades before minting
makes them disappear for good.
After the work ethic, what?
National investment in a guaranteed income scheme
might prove much more than a costly exercise in
humane conscience-salving, and perhaps preferable
to continued post-Cold War military stock-piling
and planned obsolescence. Still, many will reject
any redistribution of wealth, beyond a pittance
paid for in humiliation. Poverty, it's supposed,
is a character defect. If that claim was ever
true, in the era of structural unemployment it is no better than cant.
The work ethic (better, the job ethic)
cannot survive long while a culture of machine
abundance disintegrates mores--themselves only,
at most, a few thousand years old--of austerity
and fanatical toil. It's undeniable, though, that
a guaranteed income would run straight into the
hostile defensiveness of those committed to the
work ethic. Societies remain stratified, after
the fashion of a scarcity economy, according to
the jobs their members hold. Since the policy of
full paid employment is doomed, we must do an
about-face and perceive the merits of unemployment.
Fear of being out of a job has two
roots that need no longer be axiomatic. One is
the loss of adequate income. The other is loss of
meaningful activity. Without the framework of
discipline and satisfaction that brains and hands
obtain from meaningful work, people start running
amok with boredom, diverting themselves with the
ancient, arbitrary and zestful customs of tribal
hierarchy and conflict. Force a generation of
kids out of the loop, and expect them to trash
your Porsche, murder each other, and burn out
their furious grief with neurotoxins. This much
is apparent to commentators from both the current left and right. >
The book continues...
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