The next series of articles concerns the path of the United States in the 21st century. But sometimes notions from the 18th century can be quite apropos. Virtually every high school student in the country is familiar with the name Thomas Robert Malthus. The good reverend Malthus was perhaps the best known political economist of his day, which included such luminaries as David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Malthus has been blessed with an adjective of his very own: Malthusian.
The word refers to the reverend’s essential and very gloomy idea that population growth, if unchecked by moral restraint or war (or, as he put it, vice or misery), would result in mass starvation. In his “Essay on the Principle of Population” he confidently predicted that the world’s population would grow by 1 billion individuals every 25 years, starting with a world population of only 1 billion in 1798. Given that the new math was yet to be discovered at that time, his prediction was not particularly inaccurate, certainly more precise than that of Nostradamus. In fact, the world population has grown by about 1 billion every 35 years since Malthus published his essay.
Interestingly, Malthus pointed out a number of “positive checks” (such as war) and volitional preventative checks (such as abortion), but he seems to have completely discounted the one trend that has apparently won the day — which is, of course, technology.
We can’t be sure what Monsanto is actually feeding us, but it does taste and look a lot like corn or wheat, and there certainly is a lot of it. And despite the fact that the word “famine” still applies in many places around the world, there is no doubt that giant leaps in agricultural technology could enable the world population to be sustained nutritionally well into the future. The primary reasons for starvation are politics, distribution, the result of local economics and mostly corruption — but are not the result of population growth.
Technology — the solution to the population problem of reverend Malthus — is in fact the cause of a very large-scale problem that, with only a certain amount of literary license, can also be called Malthusian. The world of the 21st century is running out of jobs, not food.
The pace of technological advancement has been truly breathtaking. We are now in the vertical portion of the exponential curve of technological advancement. Many millennials don’t really know what a fax machine is (or was) and have never heard of an automatic turntable. Many people who are alive today can remember the amazement over the feat of Charles Lindbergh in 1927, but many young people think of Neil Armstrong’s achievement in 1969 as a hardly noteworthy everyday occurrence.
Every day the prodigious benefits of technology are appreciated by most Americans, even if they’re texting while driving, so there is little countervailing pressure to the freight-train-like march of innovation. In fact, particularly in the US, belief in technological advancement is akin to religion. It is generally regarded as a universal good, and its benefits are certainly part of the core beliefs that make people in this country Americans. Everybody loves technology.
But of course there is a Yin for every Yang, and there is plenty of evidence that technological advancement is starting to cause severe problems, not for all of the 99 percent but probably for 90 percent of population. A simple anecdotal analysis can illustrate the problem. Macy’s, a bedrock American institution that has been hosting parades and fireworks displays for the better part of a century, had sales of about $27 billion in 2015. In that year, Macy’s employed 172,500 human beings, including both full-time and part-time employees. Amazon, by contrast, which was dreamt up only a couple of decades ago by Jeff Bezos, had 2015 sales of $107 billion — four times that of Macy’s — and employed 230,800 full and part-time individuals.
The problem is not isolated to industries affected by disintermediation caused by the growth of the Internet. It’s been estimated that from 1999 to 2015, manufacturing employment dropped by about 32 percent. This was largely due to increasing automation and the growing sophistication of robotics — trends that were accelerated during the 2008-2009 debacle within the automotive industry. Despite all of the efforts of the UAW, carmakers are consciously and openly dedicating themselves to efficiency by dint of more machines and fewer humans. Although that dedication can be found among all carmakers, American manufacturers are quickening the pace, trying to catch up to the efficiency of their German, Korean, and Japanese competitors.
One way to explain the rise of Donald Trump and the surprising success of Brexit is that people, particularly those in demographics that voted for either, are perceiving an imminent threat to their jobs, not just from immigration (always a popular hobgoblin), but also from the fact that the ranks of the underemployed seem to keep growing, and those who are employed don’t make as much money as they used to. Although there may be many forces at work that produce these results, technological advancement is certainly one of them, but not one which is likely to be identified as a problem. It’s too much of a sacred cow.
In a world where pharmaceutical innovations are making people live longer, and thus taxing the resources of society and those who work more and more, it really is in everyone’s interest that we do not run out of jobs OR food.
The good reverend Malthus thought that the solution to the population problem was war, or plague or vice. The solution to the technology problem is planning — planning of a type that has not been done here (after all, there is no “planned economy” on this continent) and perhaps has not been done anywhere, with the possible exception of China.
There was a time when manufacturers could spew poison into the air with no consequence, principally because the forces that were opposed to pollution tended to be localized and fragmented. Then we invented something called the EPA, and the pendulum swung rapidly in the opposite direction — in the opinion of many, including this writer, too far in that other direction. Right now, there is no organized activity around the notion of dovetailing the needs of society to the desires of for-profit companies who want fewer fixed expenses — in other words, fewer salaries. Unions, once the stalwarts of creating more and more employment, have largely been eviscerated and are not an effective counterbalance to the anti-staffing and therefore larger profits ambition of American corporations. In fact, they have, in most instances, accomplished the decimation of the industries they unionized.
So we have two cautionary tales: one from the 1798 essay on population, and another from what can happen when government becomes the sole opposition to a corporate profit impulse. If we are going to ensure that the rank-and-file of the future is not ranked worse or filed away, there needs to be a real effort, both by the private sector and by government, to get a handle on what is going on and then do something about it.
Since we cannot stop technology, any solution will have to embrace technology and focus on areas which still require a real labor force. There are still plenty of these areas left, like construction and farming. Still, we are part of a global economy and, while we can provide some price protection through import/export taxation, the bottom-line is that we have to be competitive.
While there are many initiatives which can bolster the rapidly vanishing job pool, there is one very obvious one: instead of funding the unsustainable programs that provide multiple ways for people to get paid while staying home, the government could use the very same money to pay for real services. The “unemployment office,” when you think about it, is a self-perpetuating oxymoron. Let’s instead have EMPLOYMENT offices that dole out jobs instead of welfare. This would add to our GDP and infuse people with self-worth instead of encouraging them not to work. Why doesn’t this happen?
Special interest groups don’t want to have to complete with cheap or subsidized labor. Not surprisingly, the interests of the well-funded few outweigh the good of the population in general, and this is a major cause of our incredible ballooning deficit. If you think this sounds utopian, you’re wrong; take farming in Hawaii as an example. Their traditional crops, such as pineapple and sugar cane, have become all but extinct due to minimum wage increases that priced local produce out of internationally competitive markets. A simple shift in government attitude could rectify this — let’s go from a policy of handouts to one of job creation and placement. This would cost the government nothing in the end, and in fact may ultimately be a profit source. By providing tax incentives and other breaks to keep industries alive (where no tax would otherwise be generated), subsidizing the minimum wage in lieu of paying unemployment, and charging farm workers less tax, jobs would be created, and dying industries would be allowed to flourish.
And for the unemployed, who have a whiter collar background, training could be provided. Computer tech “boot camps” have become quite popular because they work, teaching people marketable skills effectively and efficiently.
If we could find the political will to do these things, we would have a healthier economy; we would be less reliant on other countries, and we would restore a much needed work ethic instead of incentivizing sloth.
We need to realize that the interests of the general population and their wellbeing, including their productivity, come first. We need a fundamental shift in the way government works. America’s dysfunction in these areas has become so widely known that people are willing to overlook the shortcomings of candidate Trump in the hope that his flaws will be outweighed by his desire to right the ship. In short, there is no reason for starvation, and no reason for massive joblessness other than our decision to allow them to exist.
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