Over the past forty years or so America’s industrial job base has been slowly eroding, and along with it the middle class. A major theme in this year’s presidential election, from both Left and Right, is the claim that this outcome is primarily the result of self-interested politicians making trade deals on behalf of the elites who have bought them, all at the expense of the American worker. There is a kernel of truth there, and yes trade deals were an accelerant, but this description fails to acknowledge the larger causes of decline in manufacturing in America. In truth, the primary driver in this process has been the fusion of automation and globalization over many decades. We’re now being told by folks who know better that all we need to do to bring those jobs back, to resurrect a future we can believe in, or make America great again, is to elect the outsider politician who is not beholden to elite interests like banks, CEOs and politicians. Unfortunately, that horse has left the barn, those jobs are gone for good, they were disappearing long before NAFTA. The Japanese, with their emphasis on automation, were already beginning to dominate the automobile industry by the 1980s for example.
In fact, the real topic that must be addressed immediately is not how to reclaim those lost manufacturing jobs, but instead, what are we going to do in the face of the rapidly advancing automation now facing us in the service and knowledge industries? We are already buying increasing percentages of our goods online, which are then picked from shelves and shipped robotically. How much longer will humans be needed to serve us food at the restaurant, or grow it? Will machines like IBM’s Watson easily advise us on financial matters, or teach our kids at school? Self-driving cars, trucks and trains will cost millions of jobs. These are just a few examples. Some predictions have us replacing close to fifty percent of remaining American jobs with machines within the next thirty years! This won’t be stopped, and maybe it shouldn’t be? But how do we survive economically, as individuals, families and communities, in this environment?
Yet who is talking about this on the campaign trail? To be sure some people around the world are very worried about it. Some economists, and even some governments, have already presented solutions but those primarily involve some form of state-based fixes like a universal basic income to all. But what tax base does that money come from when machines are the main producers? What does that leave the individual to sell if not his/her labor or specialized knowledge? To whom does the corporation sell its product, machines? Sure there will likely be some niche work that machines can’t do, sports come to mind, and yes there will be some work in keeping the machines primed and operational, although some scenarios even have the machines servicing themselves.
Fortunately there is still a need to power the machines and that might hold the key. Solar and storage batteries might be at least part of the answer…
Here’s an idea, call it utopian if you will, but progress is rarely made by thinking small, right? It goes like this– at a micro-level families could pull down solar energy individually to personally owned batteries and use only what they need, store what’s left, and sell a percentage of the overage back to a grid. Power would be harnessed first at the personal level then sold to the local level, maybe to a neighborhood, or town-based collective, then sold on up the line to a national grid, powering machines, cars, planes and trains all along the way. So instead of utilities generating power with coal and oil and selling it to us, we generate the power, keep what we need, and sell it to them to run the machines. Thus a market for grass-roots, bottom-up, produced power, which never runs out, could arise. This by the way would be a nice model for bringing communities together to manage their shared resource. Then the owners of the machines would sell their machine-generated products back to the collectors of the energy that fuels them. Thus a nice circular market. We could then stop burning coal and oil to produce power.
So what’s to keep a city or corporation from collecting and storing its own power, thus cutting the individual out? What might keep the grass-roots aspect of this going could be the limit on the storage capacities and physical size of larger batteries. These limiting factors could make it more cost effective to decentralize, much like the computer programs that harness the processing power of thousands of computers linked together to do giant calculations quickly, or like bit torrent uses the storage of thousands of linked computers for example. Of course somehow the ramp-up stage whereby family households could acquire their solar panels and batteries would be needed. Maybe that would be what is subsidized by the government? But that is a more realistic possibility than to think that the Government could sustain a universal basic income to all.
It’s a fast and loose description and in need of some real meat on the bones, not to mention major advancements in battery storage technology, but food for thought. I’m not an economist. So go ahead and shoot me full of holes….
This just in> World’s Largest Storage battery to Power LA
Update July 1, 2019: New Solar + Battery Price Crushes Fossil Fuels, Buries Nuclear
The author interweaves the entire narrative with this class-warfare theme. Plentiful throughout are stories about pressure from below for political and economic reform vigorously countered by ruling elites. Over and over we read that the primary method for bolstering the bulwark against popular change was the manipulation of external threats to divert popular opinion. Nowadays we’ve heard the standard refrain all too many times, eerily similar to that of Livy– an enemy, real or perceived, threatens the national safety so an army must be raised. Senate (Patricians) can vote for war, but the Tribunes (Plebeians) can block the troop levy. Brinkmanship ensues, lines are drawn and scapegoating begins, political vacuums emerge and are filled, frequently by dictators, then more war. Dictators rise and fall, heroes are worshipped and human frailties frowned upon, gods are angered and placated with religious offerings, consuls and tribunes come and go. Through it all the populace is kept in constant fear of the barbarians just outside the gates. Rinse and repeat.
History reveals that the Plebeians have not fared well on average over the years in this environment. On the rare occasions when popular sentiment won the day the victors sometimes gained only the appearance of more power. Take the story of Servius for example. In it Livy explains that there was fairly broad suffrage among men in Rome, but that each vote did not carry the same weight from class to class. “The political reputation of Servius rests upon his organization of society according to a fixed scale of rank and fortune. He originated the census, a measure of the highest utility to a state destined, as Rome was, to future preeminence; for by means of its public service, in peace as well as in war, could thence forward be regularly organized on the basis of property; every man’s contribution could be in proportion to his means.” Livy states that “this had the effect of giving every man nominally a vote, while leaving all power actually in the hands of the Knights and the First Class.” (Livy, 1.44) Hence a narrowing of the field upon which the struggle for power is contested to a small number of privileged property owners.
Now think about how the US Congress is stacked against the popular will. By the time each Congress comes to order for the first time we the people have already surrendered a significant portion of our popular will by allowing ourselves to be winnowed down to 535 representatives (plus DC’s 3 electoral votes), some of whom stay on for decades. This narrowing of the target range to a manageable size creates a distinct advantage for influence peddlers (lobbyists and their benefactors). Then we double down by giving the less representative Senate the filibuster, thereby allowing a determined minority to kill bills that might emerge from the popular passions of the more representative House. The founding fathers did this by design to offset the tyranny of the majority. This is one of the famous checks and balances, and to be clear, by itself it is a strong philosophical concept and a serious requirement in a democracy. How else to offset the rule of the mob? In an oligarchy unfortunately it becomes a device to lock-in the desires of the ruling class. So, in the Senate, Wyoming has just as much power as California. Two senators each. Again the targets are narrowed even further for those fortunate enough to be allowed on the shooting range. Add a pinch of Citizen’s United and a dash of Gerrymandering and just as in Livy’s day there is broad suffrage, but most power actually resides in the hands of the Knights and the First Class. In that environment it is easy to see how the hopes and aspirations of the many can easily be hamstrung by the wishes of the few. Any wonder that it took one hundred years after the Civil War, and numerous failed attempts, to pass a civil rights act?
Livy writes in the preface: “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”
The class struggle still exists, and it is still rotten. For the Plebeians hope is the dope their masters keep pushing, but it’s a weak dose, just enough to keep ’em strung out. The Patricians meanwhile continue to sit high on the hog. The history is there for all to see, but the power elite owns powerful tools to blind people from seeing it, and hence learning lessons from it. They keep a nice clean the sheet of the collective memory. When is the last time you saw a history of American labor on the TV? We get barraged with content on the history of war, and capitalism, and politicians, and celebrity, but you will be hard-pressed to find anything on the struggle for unions, equal rights and fair wages and better working conditions. Several years ago I visited the Newseum in Washington, which was advertised as the national museum on the history of the American media, dedicated to news and journalism that promoted free expression and the First Amendment. I found precious little material on working class movements, strikes or industrial and corporate malfeasance. How much of this information were you taught in school? How much is in the textbooks? Yet most of us spend a large portion of our waking lives laboring. I imagine you will hear plenty about Chinese balloons today though. Not much has changed in the 2700 years since Livy’s tales. RF