We have seen the future, and it sucks.

How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class (Although Not as Effectively as Government)

31st August 2013

The New York Times indulges in some handwaving, hoping to point the finger of blame in some direction other than where it belongs, at their masters in D.C.

In the four years since the Great Recession officially ended, the productivity of American workers — those lucky enough to have jobs — has risen smartly. But the United States still has two million fewer jobs than before the downturn, the unemployment rate is stuck at levels not seen since the early 1990s and the proportion of adults who are working is four percentage points off its peak in 2000.

And who was responsible for the Great Recession? Why, the federal government, through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and legislation sponsored by Democrat Congresscritters like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, the sort of people who get endorsed for re-election like clockwork by … The New York Times. Funny how that works.

Are we in danger of losing the “race against the machine,” as the M.I.T. scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a recent book? Are we becoming enslaved to our “robot overlords,” as the journalist Kevin Drum warned in Mother Jones? Do “smart machines” threaten us with “long-term misery,” as the economists Jeffrey D. Sachs and Laurence J. Kotlikoff prophesied earlier this year? Have we reached “the end of labor,” as Noah Smith laments in The Atlantic?

Is it the fault of government schools, who cripple the minds of our children so that they aren’t able to do anything other than things robots can do better? Is it the fault of Federal, state, and local government regulations that make it all but impossible for someone to afford to create and grow a small business? Notice which questions the Voices of the Crust ask, and which they do now.

Of course, anxiety, and even hysteria, about the adverse effects of technological change on employment have a venerable history. In the early 19th century a group of English textile artisans calling themselves the Luddites staged a machine-trashing rebellion. Their brashness earned them a place (rarely positive) in the lexicon, but they had legitimate reasons for concern.

And the fact that their ideological heirs, the Unions, support the Crust and its Voices (like the New York Times) is purely a coincidence. Nothing to see here, move along, move along….

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

These are the sorts of people who good schools produce. We don’t have a lot of such schools, although we used to.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

These are the people that government schools are turning out in impressive numbers, even though we’re spending more tax money on education than ever before.

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