[ExI] retrainability of plebeians

Damien Broderick 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...

Damien Broderick 

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