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I've written often before about how much of the war between the American left and right is essentially the building of sand castles in the face of the oncoming tide of globalization, deskilling and mechanization of the workforce accompanied by catastrophic climate change. Much of what constitutes public policy battles in this country are fought between the one-percenters simply trying to loot what's left before it all crashes and burns, and neoliberals desperately trying to pump up asset prices and force everyone into engineering programs to disguise the destruction the of the regular wage economy. The far right and progressive left, meanwhile, are each trying to bring back the social and economic norms of the 1950s and late 1960s, respectively, in efforts of utter futility.

It's rare to find columnists who are asking themselves the right questions. It's rarer still to find ones who have the right answers. But it's when conservatives and libertarians ask the right questions and come up with their honest responses that we see the crippling danger of allowing them anywhere near the levers of power. Consider the example of Tyler Cowen, conservative/libertarian economist and pundit, writing in POLITICO Magazine, celebrating a future in which a few technically skilled "economic winners" in cities will lord it over a mass of rubes left behind in an era of mass mechanization:

Less acknowledged, perhaps, is what all this technological change portends: nothing short of a new political order. The productivity gains, the medical advances, the workplace reorganizations and the myriad other upheavals that will define the coming automation age will create new economic winners and losers; it will reorient our demographics; and undoubtedly, it will transform what we demand from our government.

The rise of the machines builds on deeper economic trends that are already roiling American society, including stagnant growth since 2001 and a greater openness to trade and foreign outsourcing. But it’s the rapid increase in machines’ ability to substitute for intelligent human labor that presages the greater disruption. We’re on the verge of having computer systems that understand the entirety of human “natural language,” a problem that was considered a very tough one only a few years ago. We’re close to the point when we can fit the (articulable) knowledge of the entire world into the palm of our hands. Self-driving cars are making their way onto streets in California and Nevada. Whether you are a factory worker or an accountant, a waitress or a doctor, this is the wave that will lift you or dump you.

He's right about this. As I've said before, soon the machines will come for the doctors and lawyers, too. My prediction is that there will be a collective hysteria in elite circles once white collar jobs fall prey to mechanization and deskilling as blue collar jobs have done, and that in turn will necessitate a rethinking of the social contract after a period of intense political acrimony.

Cowen sees it similarly, but instead of a rethinking of the social contract, he sees a glorious libertarian Social Darwinist paradise:

The rise of intelligent machines will spawn new ideologies along with the new economy it is creating. Think of it as a kind of digital social Darwinism, with clear winners and losers: Those with the talent and skills to work seamlessly with technology and compete in the global marketplace are increasingly rewarded, while those whose jobs can just as easily be done by foreigners, robots or a few thousand lines of code suffer accordingly. This split is already evident in the data: The median male salary in the United States was higher in 1969 than it is today. Middle-class manufacturing jobs have been going away due to a mix of automation and trade, and they are not being replaced. The most lucrative college majors are in the technical fields, such as engineering. The winners are doing much better than ever before, but many others are standing still or even seeing wage declines.

These trends will only accelerate in the years to come, rewriting America’s social contract in the process. We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given a decent standard of living to one in which people are expected to fend for themselves. I imagine a world in which, say, 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry (or more, in due time) is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives, equivalent to those of current-day millionaires, albeit with better health care.

Much of the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but they will also have a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and cheap education. Many of these people will live quite well—especially those who have the discipline to benefit from all the free or nearly free services that modern technology makes available. Others will fall by the wayside.

The slogan “We are the 85 percent!” probably won’t sound as compelling as the Occupy Wall Street version. It will become increasingly common to invoke “meritocracy” as a response to income inequality—whether you call it an explanation, a justification or an excuse is up to you. Since the self-motivated will find it easier to succeed than ever before, a new tier of people from poor and underprivileged backgrounds will claw their way to the top—Horatio Algers for the automation age.

This new digital meritocracy will prove self-reinforcing. Worthy individuals will rise from poverty on a regular basis, but that will only make it easier to ignore those left behind. The wealthy class will grow larger over time, and more influential. And the increasingly libertarian values of the wealthy will shape the public debate, strengthening the upper class’s grip on the commanding heights of the economy and society, and pulling policy in their favor.

You might think the 85 percent would rise up in protest. Many commentators, influenced by widening income inequality and the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements, are predicting exactly that scenario: an America torn by unrest and maybe even political violence. I do think we’ll see some outbursts of trouble, but in the long run the picture will be fairly calm and indeed downright ordinary. Expect a society that will be more conservative, both politically and in the more literal sense of that term.

Cowen goes on to argue that all the poors will simply fight and eat each other rather than focus their gaze on the 1%, and that a new dawn of libertarianism tingned with slight neoliberalism will rise in America's technocratic urban centers. It's well worth reading his piece in full to appreciate the giddiness with which he anticipates this Malthusian nightmare.

I don't, however, think it will end that way. The history of middle class societies that lose their footing in an age of mass inequality and labor destabilization suggests that a more progressive social contract will emerge under the threat of revolution. The other, only slightly less likely possibility is a fascist regime that attempts to lay all the blame on "The Other". A slow, comfortable descent into class-based Social Darwinism seems less likely than either option, though it's certainly possible.

But these are indeed the questions we will be compelled to answer. The fact that we will have to confront this decision one way or another makes it hard to take seriously the massive fights over, say, Obamacare. In 15 years a natural unemployment rate of 15% accompanied by unimaginable devastation due to climate change will necessitate the sorts of programs, solutions and political turmoil that will render most of today's arguments utterly obsolete.

The future will belong to those who prepare public policy for that eventuality, and who work to put politicians in power who are ready to enact that policy when the time comes, and when the demographics of the nation have altered enough to make it possible.

Whatever happens, the libertarian fairy dreams of men like Tyler Cowen must not be allowed to become realities.

Cross-posted from Digby's Hullabaloo

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Comment Preferences

  •  As long as we keep our priorities clear. (4+ / 0-)

    People, Woozles, Pooties, The rest of our biosphere, Corporations, and useful machines.

    Remember, without Corporations we don't get the fleets of useful machines.

  •  Libertarian paradise is the central Philippines (13+ / 0-)

    without the government help.

    Welcome to the Donner party.

    look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

    by FishOutofWater on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 12:29:33 PM PST

  •  Pretty depressing all round (5+ / 0-)

    the ease with which everything is ignored; truly frightening.

    "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." Arundhati Roy

    by LaFeminista on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 12:53:22 PM PST

    •  I wouldn't freak out about it (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      atana, Shippo1776

      First of all, like all libertarians, this guy is stupider than dog shit. His conclusions are all based on his worldview, and his worldview is that of a child. A spoiled, mean child, but a child nonetheless.

      I know that there are a great many people on the political left who are skeptical of the American People's ability to make good decisions and put into place a working government. And I get that skepticism - the American People have, after all, spent about 40 years or so making one spectacularly wrong decision after another.

      But those were the good times! When things are going well, people start to lean conservative, which makes complete sense. It's not right, as the results of right-wing politics are disastrous without exception, but it makes sense. But when the shit hits the fan, people turn liberal quick.

      Look at the 1930s. Society was segregated. Blacks, for all intents and purposes, couldn't vote in large swaths of the country, anti-Communist hysteria was at the beginning of it's peak... and yet a President who ran as an unrepentant economic liberal won 4 straight elections, created social security, created the SEC, as well as everything else in the New Deal, began the de facto federal maximum wage, and basically created the entire 20th Century economy, as well as the blueprint for European Reconstruction after WWII (which is why I laugh my ass off anytime a Repub refers to "European-style socialism" to talk about Western Europe).

      And what have we now? A black president who first won office by defeating a well-respected veteran Senator with a somewhat heroic military background, as well as a reputation for bipartisanship, and then won reelection in the face of a slumping economy. And in neither case was the election particularly close.

      The biggest reason Congress is a dysfunctional shit pile right now is because of gerrymandering. Repubs would still be shitting all over anything in the Senate, of course (see 2009-2010), but the House should, by all rights, be a factory of good ideas and smart legislation. And this is just the beginning.

      This dipshit here thinks his side is winning because he is very stupid. I'll bet if you talked to him 13 months ago, he'd be talking about skewed polls and the coming Romney landslide.

      But the truth is, they are losing, they are losing badly, and now they are panicking and behaving like colossal assholes.They are not learning from their mistakes, and every time they open their mouths they scare the hell out of the American People. Which isn't really a change from before, except that now they are scaring them away.

      This is why I disagree with the diarist about the "seriousness" of the Obamacare fight. This isn't just about one piece of legislation. It's about the fundamental way Americans view their government. And as it becomes clearer and clearer that this program is a success, that will only shorten the time before idiotic sociopaths like this asshole are booted into the deep, dark corners of irrelevance that are their rightful place.

      "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." - Mark Twain

      by GrimReefa on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 03:01:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Reading this brings to mind the movie "In Time" (4+ / 0-)

    with Justin Timberlake.  In this movie, humans have been altered in such a way that they can live forever, as long as they keep their "time" account balance above 0.  When you do anything, the time account gets added/subtracted right at the time of the event and if your balance goes to 0, you die.  There is a constant cost of living, which makes the account "clock" keep ticking toward zero. The peons live in the slums, with varying protection levels as you move up the social and economic ladder.  Each zone is walled off so you can't just jump a fence, you have to pay your way to the next higher level.  The elites live in a paradise, the eat, drink and gamble day and night because they have lots of time.  So I see this as the libertarian paradise, the rich can do whatever they please and the rabble are separated so they can literally scratch out whatever existence they can get.  There is no chance of meeting, so the elites are protected and the rabble die as they are intended to.  Except I guess living forever isn't exactly what it is cracked up to be.  Very interesting movie.  I recommend it.  I'd be happy to live with the elites, but afraid I'd be down with the rabble.

    "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength", George Orwell, "1984" -7.63 -5.95

    by dangoch on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 01:03:33 PM PST

  •  Cowan's words have been haunting me... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mookins, Jim P, blue aardvark

    ...for weeks now. I think the "owners" relish the idea of billions of impoverished people living a neo-Dark Ages existence while they enjoy all the perks of a new Gilded Age to which they are so obviously entitled.

    As you said long ago, the machines WILL come for the doctors and lawyers, too.

    Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. --Martin Luther King Jr.

    by Egalitare on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 01:04:16 PM PST

  •  This is where he's wrong: (11+ / 0-)
    Those with the talent and skills to work seamlessly with technology and compete in the global marketplace are increasingly rewarded
    It's those who win the genetic lottery by virtue of inheriting their wealth that are increasingly rewarded, and true innovation, risk, and entrepreneurship is increasingly viewed as a sucker's bet.

    I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business.

    by CFAmick on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 01:04:37 PM PST

  •  Cowen's dumbshit stuff posing as intellectual- (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blue aardvark, IsaacKuo, atana

    there's just as much discipline and self-motivation among today's generation as in any before, more in fact. He's saying since we're falling behind there must be less. Hiding it by not saying it in so many words, that's dumbshit-clever.

    After the revolution, history will note how our 1% turned a blind eye, as so many have before- I hope this becomes recognized as the lethal part of human psychology.

  •  The real problem would be the loss of useful work. (5+ / 0-)

    Assuming people aren't starving or freezing, the next most important thing is a sense of usefulness and social connection. In our society that comes almost entirely from our work.

    What is the first thing most people ask you when you meet? "What do you do?" "I sit at home and eat Soma" isn't a very satisfying answer.

    •  "They" think that's what machines are for (3+ / 0-)

      "Useful work" like cooking and serving fabulous but derivative meals, playing perfectly scored but uninspiring music, etc.

      They'll end up like the humans in WALL-E if they get their way. But maybe that's what they want.

      Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. --Martin Luther King Jr.

      by Egalitare on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 01:14:49 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  There is much useful and more rewarding work... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Andrew F Cockburn, SherwoodB

      There is much useful and more rewarding work to be done, when machines take over more and more menial tasks.

      Personally, I find artwork fulfilling and valuable.  But my favorite form of artwork--animation--is terribly expensive in terms of man-hours.  It gets even more expensive when we get into more esoteric media possibilities (such as having an oil painting per frame).

      In a world where people are mostly freed from menial tasks, they could turn their efforts toward things that they find more personally fulfilling, such as creating of artwork.  Even if computers can dramatically reduce the man-hours required to create an animation work of a particular quality, this merely expands the realm of what any specific number of people could do as an independent project.

      •  There have often been super-rich who don't (0+ / 0-)

        have to work. Many of these have contributed in the arts, science, and philosophy. Before the 20th century almost all famous scientists were rich gentlemen.

        Of course there have also been those whose time was spent in the vomitorium and brothel.

  •  Very important diary. Thanks. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blue aardvark

    I agree with Cowan's illustration but just would use more present tense than future. I don't get that he's "dreaming" of this reality but he certainly is reporting it frankly as I see it.

    There's no shortage of ethical Americans ready, willing, educated, and able to work but there are now permanently new consumer and labor classes that have shifted focus, capital, and resources overseas and the competition for resources will grow - for generations - in the billions instead of a few hundred million. As I wrote in my link, the "global transformation has stabilized and the new normal infrastructure - legal, technical, balance of power, political - is baked" and I explained why I don't believe there will be a revolution.

    Really, it's not important what our real or imagined villains and opponents "dream" of and this is not the time for alternative dreams like revolutions or rethinking work. We need to act constructively, now, in new, deep and wide coalitions.

    You're raising the essential issues that all now require playing catch up to address, better late than never.

  •  Bread and Circuses (0+ / 0-)
    Much of the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but they will also have a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and cheap education.

    I'm on a mission! Testing the new site rules.

    by blue aardvark on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 02:01:25 PM PST

  •  this is where the fascists start to get popular (4+ / 0-)

    In a world where the left is perceived as having largely abandoned labor issues in favor of identity politics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), the right has the opportunity to present itself as the defender of the salt-of-the-earth common man against globalizing plutocrats as well as the liberal multiculturalists who insist on "unrestricted immigration" and lots of welfare for those alien populations whom the economy can't absorb.

    Far right parties are growing in popularity in Europe in part because of their unambiguous support for the welfare state - even as they hope to restrict access to it to native-born white people - while they attack the plutocratic "center" as wanting to cut the welfare state for everyone even as they say Europe needs lots of young, low-wage foreign workers to keep it going.

    Domestic politics is the continuation of civil war by other means.

    by Visceral on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 03:14:09 PM PST

  •  He is a fool (0+ / 0-)

    To think that people can be satisfied with cheap thrills...  

    People want meaning.  In their work, communities and families.  That future according to him is being amused to death.  And that is worse than death.  

    I'm a 4 Freedoms Democrat.

    by DavidMS on Mon Nov 18, 2013 at 05:44:58 PM PST

  •  Player Piano (0+ / 0-)

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote this all up sixty years ago.  

    The classics never go out of style, but I hope we do a better job of dealing with the consequences this time around.

    The lives of my children depend on it.

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