Should Manufacturing Robots Be Banned?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 19, 2016

alberteinsteinBecause my friends have been depressed since November 8th, I’ve been wondering what it would take to make both liberals and conservatives happy – and solve all our environmental problems. Once again, the election has shown, “It’s the economy stupid.” Without widespread economic security, the population will be unstably polarized. As long as such unrest exists, no other major problem can be solved. To solve the problems of sustainability, climate change, overpopulation, inequality, mass extinctions, pollution, will first require solving the problem with the economy.

Is that possible? Can we create an economy where most people find security? Corporations are at war with workers, either by moving jobs overseas, or by buying robots. Donald Trump promised he’d stop corporations from moving jobs. Would that help? No, the problem requires a global solution. Would banning robots help? Maybe. If capital was willing to accept higher production costs, employing more people, it should. However, robotics creates jobs too. And we have to decide if billions of people working like machines is a good thing. People want is a job they love. People want to feel creative, productive, worthwhile, and independent. Does a Foxconn assembly job provides that? Could we create enough jobs without banning robots? I doubt it.

If robots were regulated, and cars for example, had to be made by human hands, could they be made at affordable prices? Let’s bring in the environment now. What if we designed a sustainable transportation system, one that’s a blend of bicycles, cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes. Such a system needs to create jobs and protect the environment. Would building things like cars only by human hands create enough jobs, and still be profitable for corporations?

If we don’t outlaw robots, what would be the next solution? It’s obvious that free-market capitalism fails many workers and the environment. Capital ranks wealth over labor. The next solution would be a minimum income for people without jobs. This would be a tax on capital, something it also hates. Since capital hates both labor and taxes, it might need to decide which it hates more.

Conservatives claim if they had free reign their economic solutions would create more jobs. That claim is probably false. If their economic theories were true, they still want to ignore the environment. Ignoring the environment ultimately means economic self-destruction, so it can’t be a solution. Remember, any real solution must be economically and environmentally sustainable.

Capital’s current path is towards fewer workers and greater inequality. Since we originally stated that the base problem is economic security for workers, that brings us back to where we started. Liberals believe a growing economy/population can be designed to protect the environment. Conservatives believe a healthy economy can be built by ignoring the environment and population growth. Neither are realistic.

I’m not sure a solution is possible, which is more depressing than the Republicans winning all the branches of the government.


Should We Give Our Jobs to Robots?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 9, 2015

If you use the self-service checkout machines at grocery stores, you have effectively voted to give jobs to robots rather than people. We’ve been slowly passing our livelihoods to machines for decades. Guys used to pump our gas. Computers used to be women working at desks doing calculations. We poke ATM machines rather than chat with bank tellers. Taxes were prepared by accountants and bookkeepers, not programs. We bought music and books from clerks in stores. We used to have repairmen heal our gadgets, now we toss them as soon as they break, and just buy cheaper replacements. We purchase the mass produced rather than the hand-crafted. Our factories used to employ millions, but capital moves manufacturing anywhere in the world where labor is cheapest. Their next step is to automate those factories and get rid of the cheapest workers. Even the fast food worker, the starter job for kids and the fallback for the unemployed, are about to be taken over by robots. Robots have begun to do the work of professionals, like lawyers and doctors, and they are getting smarter every day.

Most of us ignore all these trends because we focus on our personal lives. It would be wise if you are planning your career, or living off retirement savings, to read Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. Automation is a disruptive technology that will impact jobs and savings. The book careful details what’s been happening in the past, and warns of what will happen in the near future.

The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford

Every day we decide to hire robots through our purchases. Every day we choose robots over people when we buy the cheapest products. Every day we side with capital over workers when we attack unions. Real wages have been dropping since the 1970s. Average household income has only keep par with falling middle-class earnings by having two incomes. Many individuals work two jobs to keep up. The biggest employment sector is the service economy, which generally pays close to the minimum wage. There are two movements to watch. One, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which benefits labor. The other, is to create robots to do those jobs, that benefits capital. Who will get those jobs in the future: humans or robots? If capital gets its way, it will be machines because you want the cheapest hamburger and fries you can get.

Even though most people in the U.S. are labor, the vast majority sides with capital. For centuries there’s been two forces at play where humans make their living: labor and capital. To understand this read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, a very readable history. Anyone who wants to understand money and savings should read this book. There’s always been a balance between workers and investors. Investors can’t create industries without labor, so labor had a leverage in getting a fair share of the wealth. That leverage has weakened since automation. Capital is about to eliminate most labor costs by buying robots. And we’re letting them. Almost all wealth comes from consumers, and that’s a kind of voting block.

We accept automation and robots buy buying goods and services made by machines. We do this because we want everything on the cheap. To understand where our natural drive for cheapness is leading us, read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. We’ve been voting to eliminate people from their jobs since the development of the self-service grocery store.

Like climate change, overpopulation, mass extinction, wealth inequality and all the other major problems we face, we are the cause, and have chosen our path even though we refuse to look where we’re going. We are giving our jobs to C-3PO. It’s a decision we’re making, although most people don’t know it.

To better understand what I’m saying, read these three books. All are easy to read, and entertaining in their presentation of history and facts. We need to stop wasting so much time in escapist entertainment and look around to what’s coming. I’m a lifelong science fiction, and was a computer programmer. I love robots and artificial intelligence. I want us to invent far-out robots that do things humans can’t do, but I don’t want robots taking jobs that humans can do, and need to do.

Civilization is breaking down in countries around the world where young people have no jobs and few prospects. It’s the cause of terrorism. A stable society needs to have most people working, even at jobs a machine could do.

Essay #988 –  Table of Contents

Occupy Wall Street–Is This Our Future?

In the 1960s the anti-war protestors would shout, “The Whole World is Watching!”  With the Occupy Wall Street movement, that is true again, but with even more eyes.  The internet is a game changer for social protest movements.  Here in the west we rejoiced at the Arab Spring, but how are our politicians really feeling about our own uprisings?  Most are giving polite sympathetic words, but what if this anti-establishment movement takes off?  What does Washington really think when they hear anti-government movements from both the right and left?

The best reportage I’ve found on Occupy Wall street is at Wikipedia.  They also provide this very informative graphic on the rate of news reports for the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.


My guess as to why there were so few news reports on Occupy Wall Street at the start is the press did not think the movement was serious and was unprepared for its rapid success.  I’m guessing the American public also thinks it will be a short lived phenomenon.  But what if it’s not?  What if it’s the beginning of several years of social upheaval like we had back in the 1960s?

As I’ve gotten older I’ve wondered why the youth of each new generation didn’t protest for something they wanted.  Since I grew up in the 1960s and saw anti-war, civil rights, feminist, gay rights, and Earth Day protests I just assumed protesting was a natural part of the political scene, but they died out and the youth of America became quiet for a very long time.  Were they all happy with the way our country worked and comfortable with their vision of the future?  So what’s changed now?

We’ve had other recessions and spikes of high unemployment since the 1960s.  And we’ve had a few protest movements, like No Nukes, and various ecological and animal rights movements, but nothing that turned into a real political movement.  Is this recession different?  Has corporate greed and Wall Street really ruined our country enough that people are willing to bite the hand that pays them?  Or maybe it’s biting the hand that used to pay them.

Young people were told to study hard, go to college and then reap the rewards of our great and rich society.  Millions have run up huge student debts, gotten good degrees and can’t find work.  Their parents have also lost their jobs, and their grandparents have lost their retirement incomes.  Is it any wonder that I’m hearing Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” again:

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

What really is happening? Does anyone know?  We’ve always pulled out of recessions before, but this one is lasting longer.  Of course, we’ve always been helped by an economic bubble, like the technology bubble or the housing bubble.  The trouble was the housing bubble was destructive, pervasive and ultimately devastated the economy.  A huge percentage of our economy is depended on home ownership and rising property values.  Consumer confidence drives our economy – but everyone is too afraid to spend now.  And our economy runs best when unemployment is around 5%.  That’s far from full employment, and it’s not even a real number of people who can’t find work, but it does appear to be the right number that reflects economic stability.  We’re very far away from that figure and getting further.

My guess is most people thought unemployment would be back down again, or at least heading down, and now that it’s not there growing panic is leading to protest movements.  People blame Wall Street for the problem mainly because they think Wall Street got us in the mess and felt they should have gotten us out too, and they haven’t.  Instead Wall Street decided to keep its wealth, and the GOP took this particular time to downsize all governments.

Things aren’t quite that simple and some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters know that.  Look at “Here Are the Four Charts That Explain What the Protests are Angry About….”  Here is one chart, click on the link to look at the others.  This one shows the wages as a percent of the economy.  Because we live in a global economy where all workers compete, the average wage is decreasing even though corporate profits are skyrocketing.  This is the reason behind the whole 99% versus the 1%.  Corporations are more efficient at making money, but at the expense of the workers worldwide.


The rich (1%) are eating everyone else’s money up (99%) and the 1% is also desperately fighting to take all the money it can get from the Federal government too.  In fact, the super rich are so good at gaining wealth that I’d think that ordinary millionaires would be feeling the pinch too and would be wanting to join Occupy Wall Street themselves.

Corporate profits are up, as well as their gross earnings and cash holdings, but they aren’t hiring people.  What they discovered is they can trim the fat and do well.  The GOP is now demanding we trim the fat from the federal government, and the extreme conservatives are also seeking to trim the fat from city and state governments.  All this fat trimming is putting millions out of work and there is no economic indicator showing they will get to go back to work anytime soon.  Does Wall Street and the GOP just want to live with 9-10% unemployment forever if that means saving money for them?

Over one half of American households earn less than $50,000 dollars and about 1/6th earn over $100,000, with the rest between the two figures.  See Wikipedia for all the figures on U.S. Household Income.  But also look at Wikipedia’s article on Wealth Inequality in the United States.  Wikipedia says at the end of 2001, which is ten year old data, 10% owned 71% of the wealth, and 1% own 38%, and we know that last decade has accelerated this divide.

Is it any wonder why people are joining the Occupy Wall Street movement?  If you look at the charts here and the ones I link to, the trends aren’t good.  Unless there’s a drastic change in the system, Occupy Wall Street is just the tip of the iceberg that we’re about to crash into.  Expect more fat trimming, which means more unemployed people joining the movement.  But also expect a lot more social upheaval as we adjust to long term high unemployment.

Our economy has gotten too efficient.  We need far fewer people to keep things running.  And it’s much cheaper to hire people in other countries to make things.  As long as corporations are only concerned with profits and their bottom line, and if our various levels of government are forced to do more with less, the trend will be towards growing unemployment.

The solution?  Raise taxes and go back to a larger government and smaller profits for corporations?  That would put more people to work, but there’s a growing anti-socialism climate in this country.  Too many people resent paying for things they don’t think they need, like school teachers or scientific researchers.  What they fail to see is big government makes for a big thriving economy.  Wishing for a small government is equal to wishing for high unemployment.  There’s not enough private enterprise to put all our citizens to work.

Either we have to accept big social programs or we’re going to have to learn to live with lots of poor people and protestors in the streets.  Me, I’d rather pay more taxes than see so much suffering.

Conservatives believe that cutting the size of the government and taxes will grow the economy.  When will we see this?  Bush cut taxes years ago.  As far as I can see, cutting taxes has lead to a faltering economy.  Cutting taxes is letting the 1% get a larger share of everyone’s pie.  And people are waking up to that, and that’s why we have Occupy Wall Street.  It’s why we’re seeing social unrest across Europe too.

Conservatives will counter that we’re running up too much debt.  But we wouldn’t have that debt if we hadn’t had the Bush tax cuts, or wasted so much money on wars and buying influence around the world.  Which is more helpful, hiring more teachers in America, or building militaries for people who want to be our enemies?  At some point it will become more important to apply our nation building funds to rebuilding America.  The Occupy Wall Street people are asking for that help now.  How long will the GOP deny that help?

JWH – 10/16/11