Attack of the Job-Killing Robots, Part 2

In my previous post of this series, I remarked that most discussion of the employment effects of robotics/artificial intelligence/etc seems to be lacking in historical perspective…quite a few people seem to believe that the replacement of human labor by machinery is a new thing.

This post will attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work,  focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind/eye/hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy…and will discuss some of the political debate that took place on mechanization & jobs in the 1920s through 1940s.

Throughout most of history, the production of yarn for cloth was an extremely labor-intensive process, done with a device called a distaff, almost always employed by women, and requiring many hours per day to generate a little bit of product.  (There even exists a medieval miniature of a woman spinning with the distaff while having sex…whether this is a comment on the burdensomeness of the yarn-making process, or a slam at the love-making skills of medieval men, I’m not sure—-probably both.)  Eventually, probably around 1400-1500 in most places in Europe, the spinning wheel came into use, improving the productivity of yarn-making by a factor estimated from 3:1 to as much as ten or more to one.

Gutenberg’s printing press was invented somewhere around 1440.  I haven’t seen any estimates of its effect on labor productivity, compared with the then-prevailing method of hand copying of manuscripts, but surely it was at least 1000 to 1 or more.

The era from 1700-1850 was marked by tremendous increases in the productivity of the textile trades.  The flying shuttle and other advances greatly improved the weaving process; this created a bottleneck in the supply of yarn, which was partly addressed by the invention of the Spinning Jenny–a foot-powered device that could improve the yarn production of one person by 5:1 or better. Power spinning and power looms yielded considerable additional productivity improvements.

An especially interesting device was the Jacquard Loom (1802), which used punched cards to direct the weaving of patterned fabrics.  In its initial incarnation, the Jacquard was a hand loom: its productivity did not come from the application of mechanical power but rather from the automation of the complex thread-selection operations previously carried out by a “Draw Boy.”

Turning now to woodworking:  in 1818, Blanchard’s Copying Lathe automated the production of complex shape–a prototype was automatically traced and copied. It was originally intended for making gunstocks, but also served in producing lasts for shoemakers, and I believe also chair and table legs.

Another major advancement in the clothing field was the sewing machine.  French inventory Barthelemy Thimonnier invented a machine in 1830, but was driven out of the country by enraged tailors and political instability.  The first commercially-successful machines were invented/marketed by Americans Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Isaac Singer, and were in common use by the 1850s.

By the late Victorian period the sewing machine had been hailed as the most useful invention of the century releasing women from the drudgery of endless hours of sewing by hand. Factories sprung up in almost every country in the world to feed the insatiable demand for the sewing machine. Germany had over 300 factories some working 24 hours a day producing countless numbers of sewing machines. 

The beginnings of data communications could be seen in gold ticker and stock ticker systems created by Edison and others (circa 1870) , which relayed prices almost instantaneously and eliminated the jobs of the messenger boys who had previously been the distribution channel for this information.  Practical calculating machines also appeared in the 1870s.  But the big step forward in mechanized calculation was Hollerith’s punched card system (quite likely inspired in part by the Jacquard), introduced in 1890 and used for the tabulation of that year’s census.  These systems were quickly adopted for accounting and record keeping purposes in a whole range of industries and government functions.

Professor Amy Sue Bix, in her book Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs?, describes the fear of technological unemployment as silent movies were replaced by the ‘talkies’. “Through the early 1920s…local theaters had employed live musicians to provide accompaniment for silent pictures.  Small houses featured only a pianist or violinist, but glamorous ‘movie places’ engaged full orchestras.”  All these jobs were threatened when Warner Brothers introduced its Vitaphone technology, with prerecorded disks synchronized to projectors.  “Unlike other big studios, Warner did not operate its own theater chains and so had to convince local owners to screen their productions. Theater managers would be eager to show sound movies, Harry Warner hoped, since they could save the expense of hiring musicians.”

The American Federation of Musicians mounted a major PR campaign in an attempt to convince the public that ‘living music’ was better than ‘canned sound.’  A Music Defense League was established, with membership reaching 3 million…but the ‘talkies’ remained popular, and the AFM had to admit defeat.  A lot of musicians did lose their jobs.


In railroad transportation,  interlocking switch and signal systems supplemented human intelligence by mechanically or electrically ensuring against conflicting routes that could cause a collision. By the 1930s, Centralized Traffic Control systems allowed remote operators to observe track occupancy and control switches from as much as 100 miles away.

In communications, printing telegraph systems had coexisted with the Morse system ever since the earliest days, but by the 1930s they had become better and less costly.  Professor Bix reports that the Western Union office in Richmond VA was able to reduce its workforce by 70%, while one Chicago company with a private line said “Teletype was installed in October 1931. Four regular telegraphers laid off.  Work done previously by telegraphers can be done just as well on teletype with much cheaper operators”  In this case, de-skilling went along with productivity improvement.

The biggest job destroyer in the communications field was the dial telephone.  At peak, there were 350,000 switchboard operators, almost all women, working for AT&T alone.  In 1922, the company began conversion of midtown Manhattan and New Jersey to the dial system. A company representative claimed that without the move to automatic switching, AT&T would ultimately have needed to employ every woman in America as a switchboard operator.

Typesetting machines, such as the Linotype, emerged circa 1880 and destroyed the jobs of manual typesetters–but this was at least partly offset by the great increase in the number of pages that could be included in newspapers.  By 1929, the teletypesetter allowed copy to be generated remotely and fed into the typesetting machines via punched paper tape.

World War II resulted in major improvements in information and control technologies, with a consequent impact on the mechanization of work.  I’ll save the description of these innovations for the next post of this series; here, I’ll focus now on the political debates about mechanization that took place in the 1920s through 1940s.

Even during the boom times of the 1920s, concerns about the job impact of machinery were being raised–Amy Sue Bix cites a Johns Hopkins study on how technology had affected employment in printing, bottlemaking, and stonecutting.  Between 1895 and 1915, improved cutting tools had displaced about 50% of America’s stonecutters.  And one operator using the Owens bottle machine (1905) could equal the production of 18 traditional glassblowers.  A 1925 booklet on Unemployment and the Machine warned that unless the country went to a six-hour day, there would be “no limits to the unemployment of the future.”  The image on the booklet cover showed huge mechanical hands pushing humans off a cliff into an “unemployment dump.”

Concerns about technological unemployment were greatly accelerated by the Great Depression.  There was particular concern about the new continuous strip mills in steelmaking…Bix cites union official Philip Murray, who challenged the assertion that increased production would prevent job loss…that since “labor is practically eliminated on the hot-strip mills,” increased demand would never be able to compensate for the lost jobs.

A Columbia researcher named Elizabeth Baker suggested that Say’s Law (increased productivity will drive increased demand) had held true until the 20th century, but no more.  One of the workers she interviewed had twice lost jobs to technology: his job as a pianist in a movie theater had been eliminated by the coming of the ‘talkies,’ and his replacement job feeding paper into printing presses had been eliminated by automatic feeders.  Baker found that there were more printing-industry jobs, and higher prestige, for pressmen and mechanics…but the lower-skilled printing assistant was “threatened with extinction.”

An FDR administration official named Aubrey Williams asserted that “Man has been thrust aside to make way for the machines” and that thousands of young men and women growing up in the Machine Age were destined never to become self-supporting.

One approach suggested to deal with the perceived problem of technological unemployment was the establishment of a ‘technotax.’  A California group called the American Technotax society called industry’s obsession with mechanization  a “gigantic conspiracy against American labor.”  They proposed taxing technology according to how many workers it replaced.  Congressman John Hoeppel, arguing for the Technotax, asserted that the United States had “submitted too long to the rape of the machine.”  Many variants of the Technotax idea were proposed.

Depression-era literature often featured the threat of technological unemployment: in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the tractor is said to resemble a tank, in that “people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both.”  (On the other hand, Bix notes that at least some real-life farm wives praised the tractor as “the most wonderful thing ever,” one of them noting that she had previously been “tied down at home all the time cooking for a bunch of hired help” and that purchase of a tractor had halved the need for extra hands and given her a choice to enjoy life at last.)   Some science fiction stories envisaged a future in which mechanization had progressed so far that humans did not need to work at all–in John Campbell’s 1934 story ‘Twilight,’ the result was that humans “gradually lost all curiosity, rationality, and other mental abilities.”  Bix says that “Science fiction writers of the 1930s transformed the old Puritan work ethic into a Machine Age morality play.  Honest labor represented the foundation of humans’ self-respect and motivation, and if the future advance of technology robbed men of these values, life would disintegrate.”

Even some children’s textbooks raised concerns about jobs vs mechanization.  Harold Rugg’s A History of American Civilization asserted that the US had not experienced any real problems of technological unemployment between 1865 and 1914, but that after WWI, displacement suddenly emerged as one of America’s central problems–that “thousands of research experts are working steadily, perfecting old machines or inventing new ones” too fast for society to handle.  He described automation of the NYC subway system, which had reduced a train’s operating staff from 11 men to 2 and also eliminated one thousand turnstile attendants and cashiers.  Another example he cited was the A O Smith auto frame plant, which I mentioned in my earlier post in this series.

The notorious ‘radio priest’ Charles Coughlin did not attack mechanization per se, but his National Union for Social Justice (!) called for converting the “economics of scarcity” to an “economics of plenty”…Bix says that he “endorsed the promise of machine-made wealth at the same time that he denounced the incidence of machine-made unemployment,” and was vague about the specifics of his program.

One movement that emerged from the concerns about technological unemployment, and the economy in general, was Technocracy, which “sneered at mainstream economists and social scientists for clinging to ideas as backward ‘as physical theory in the time of the Greeks’.” (Bix)…these backward ideas included the concepts of price and profit.  Technocracy called for the creation of a new economic system by scientific and engineering experts, a system “derived from the nature of the machine itself.”  They believed that the economy should be measured and controlled based on patterns of energy use…calorie and foot-pounds rather than dollars and cents. The United States could only restore economic sanity when it had learned how to “maintain a thermodynamically balanced load” across the entire world of production.  Technocracy enjoyed a certain vogue for a while, but soon came under attack, with the Technocrats being referred to by such terms as “a flock of dithery young scientists” and “intellectual terrorists.”  The secretary of the Social Science Research Council asserted that mechanization accounted for 10 to 15 percent of total joblessness at most; that the real problem was driven by “idle machines rather than business machines.”

Concerns about mechanization-driven joblessness fell into abeyance with the arrival of the World War II era and its demands for production and labor.  Indeed, it is questionable whether WWII could have been won by the Allies at all had mechanization been restricted in the USA in the ways desired by some.  (A Hoover Administration official had contrasted the 10,000 auto frames daily produced by the A O Smith plant with a Central European plant in which 200 handworkers manufactured only 31 frames a day.  His point had been that superior mechanization would drive superior American living standards. But similar ratios could also apply for aircraft and tank production.)

In the next installment of this series, I’ll pick up the story of productivity-enhancing technologies in the post-WWII era and beyond, and offer some thoughts for discussion.

In this post I’ve extensively cited Professor Bix’s book Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?  There’s a lot of interesting content in this book–also a nice selection of cartoons reflecting the concerns about jobs and mechanization–and I urge anyone seriously interested in these topics to read it.

This series continues here:  Part 3

47 thoughts on “Attack of the Job-Killing Robots, Part 2”

  1. Berlinski’s post is a reductio ad absurdum argument directed for a change at conservatives and populists. It’s like asking progressives how high the minimum wage should be. Good questions.

  2. One could go well before the Middle ages to look at the origins of automation/efficiency. New Plows and yokes for oxen improved farm productivity as well as other agricultural improvements. These did not directly reduce farm employment but the increased output released people for other trades and industries.

    Today construction industry has fewer laborers and more trades such as machine operators or welders. Even the laborers are much more skilled and work with a high degree of machine support. As always the social issue of how the displaced manual workers could now earn a living. One thing I’ve noticed in places like Michigan and Ohio is that the former lure of working on the line at auto related plants was an escape valve for poor performing public schools. Many of these people (largely men) today of all ages show this appalling deficit. Their spelling and writing is very poor and well below their potential. These guys don’t need retraining in new skills as much as repair of skills they should have been taught in childhood.

  3. DJG…”These guys don’t need retraining in new skills as much as repair of skills they should have been taught in childhood”

    Very true, in many cases. Lots of talk about how our schools aren’t training people for the new super-dooper snazzy high-tech era, but in real life, the typical graduate of the 1910 public school system would have been far more qualified than the typical public school graduate is today.

  4. If we do not have large problems or, more relevant, categories of problems that we have trained ourselves to ignore because the labor cost would be laughably out of reach, then the specter of automation creating a permanently unemployed class is real.

    We have not run out of such problems but we have to break ourselves of the polite habit of thinking of ourselves as a rich nation. We are not.

    A rich nation that is a republic would provide adequate oversight tools so citizens could oversee governments in meaningful ways. We do not.

    A rich nation would not risk lives and health by the use of lead water pipes. We do.

    A rich nation would have well decorated public spaces with art that the public actually appreciates. We are filled with places that have bad art, and even more telling no art.

    A rich nation would have a modern air traffic control system that took advantage of the several computer revolutions that happened since the last one. We have not been able to create such a thing which means we can’t have flying cars (ATC can’t handle the increase in traffic).

    A rich nation would be able to fully fund the promises it makes in terms of health care provision and old age pensions. The US does not.

    A rich nation would ensure that the prisoners it takes into its care and therefore has a security obligation towards, are not themselves criminally victimized.

    A rich nation would step up and decently care for those unfortunates whose mental and physical illnesses mean that they cannot care for themselves.

    A rich nation would step up and help those who wish to work their way out of poverty so they are not trapped by poor law (poverty traps) and ignorance (life skills learning).

    A rich nation would…

    We are not a rich nation. All of these, and the many more I haven’t listed (most because I haven’t thought of them) are a long lasting source of employment. Whether they are amenable to eventual automation, I can’t tell because we haven’t even begun to seriously address the gargantuan nature of these tasks.

    Automation may eventually turn into the problem that is feared but not in my children’s lifetime, not unless that generation has a profound failure of imagination.

  5. Claire Berlinski:

    “The Rust Belt made it overwhelmingly clear that it wants its jobs back and doesn’t want to hear one more word about laissez-faire economic theories”

    There hasn’t been any laissez-faire for a long time. The problem has been out of control government spending crowding out private enterprise, strangulating government regulations chasing out productive capital, and artificially low interest rates devaluing individuals and the future.

    Government is always the problem. As much as the engineering productivity David documents has skyrocketed, so did government efforts to smother individuals and businesses in the name of social engineering.

    “I’m open to the idea that Adam Smith was wrong and free trade doesn’t, in fact, benefit everyone”

    Here’s something to clear it up. NAFTA is not free trade. Free trade does eventually benefit everyone. NAFTA is managed trade. The original treaty was 1700 pages long. It’s a huge bureaucratic regime that has picked winners and losers. In the long run these regulatory blocs lead to the detriment of everyone.

    The Rust Belt is really saying, “thanks un-elected unaccountable Elites who manage our economy, but you can go home now.”

  6. Berlinski

    “Perhaps innovation — Silicon Valley, in other words — needs to take the hit for a while?”

    Why does not the fed gov’t ,through rules and regulations, ever take the hit?

  7. Claire Berlinsky was a favorite of mine until now. She is a rabid Trump hater and has poisoned Ricochet with her inappropriate opinions.

    “A rich nation would not risk lives and health by the use of lead water pipes. We do.”

    In the 14th century, Paracelsus said, “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy. ”

    The hysteria about lead is almost as bad as about global warming. Lead pipes have been used since the Romans.

    The Flint MI problem was acidic water. It is not clear that water was even the problem.

    Soil lead data collected by Edible Flint food collaborative reveal generally higher soil lead values in the metropolitan center for Flint; with lower values in the outskirts of the city. The questions that are not being asked is why did children’s blood lead levels display a seasonal blood lead pattern before the introduction of the new water supply in Flint; and what are the implications of these seasonal blood lead patterns? Based upon previous findings in Detroit and other North American cities we infer that resuspension to the air of lead in the form of dust from lead contaminated soils in Flint appears to be a persistent contribution to lead exposure of Flint children even before the change in the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

  8. Lead water pipes were banned nationwide in 1986 due to well documented health effects. The bill was introduced by Republicans but had bipartisan support.

    Here’s a reasonably heavily documented article laying out the history. Apparently the Lead Industry Association (LIA) promoted lead water pipes which made inroads against the previous standard, iron pipes. Even the LIA gave up promoting this use of lead during the 1970s as public health evidence became too strong to deny.

    The legislation, if you want to track it down, was S124/HR1650 in the 99th Congress. has the details.

    Your point that there are plenty of other sources of environmental lead is correct. Lead water pipes are 15-20% of the problem. It’s probably the easiest 15-20% to fix.

  9. Claire Berlinsky was a favorite of mine until now. She is a rabid Trump hater and has poisoned Ricochet with her inappropriate opinions.

    A post by Claire Berlinski is guaranteed to contain a glorious cavalcade of wrong, such that I am compelled to stare at my screen, marveling in astonishment.

    Still, I miss her reporting about Turkey, years ago.

  10. “It’s probably the easiest 15-20% to fix.”

    And the most expensive. Not all legislation is the last word on science and there have been many hysterical health themes the past 50 years. The most dangerous is not lead but the diet advice that created the diabetes epidemic. The Mediterranean diet has led to the rise of type II diabetes, in my opinion. The food pyramid is overdue to be changed. Much of the hysteria about cholesterol is also a fad that will probably pass.

  11. “Mike, what makes you conclude the Mediterranean diet causes diabetes?”

    The “Mediterranean Diet” is shorthand for the high carb diet that followed the cholesterol scare that began in the Korean War with autopsies of 20 year old KIAs with significant coronary atherosclerosis. This was followed by experiments feeding rabbits, which are herbivorous in the wild, meat and fining that they developed something that looked like atherosclerosis.

    The government went to this thing they called The Food Pyramid.

    McGovern and several members of his staff had become familiar with the Ancel Keys’ influence on the American Heart Association, which was proposing that fat and cholesterol consumption should be lowered for better heart health, even though the link between the two had never been proven in any scientific study. With this focus, the creation of today’s USDA Food Pyramid began.

    As Gary Taubes writes in his article The Soft Science of Dietary Fat:
    “It was Senator George McGovern’s bipartisan, nonlegislative Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs–and, to be precise, a handful of McGovern’s staff members–that almost single-handedly changed nutritional policy in this country and initiated the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma.”

    The recommendation was to substitute carbohydrates for meat and fat.

    the Committee published the “Dietary Goals for the United States” recommending that all Americans reduce their fat, saturated fat and cholesterol consumption, and increase their carbohydrate consumption to 55-60% of daily calories.

    Gary Taubes writes about this historic event:

    Then resident wordsmith Nick Mottern, a former labor reporter for The Providence Journal, was assigned the task of researching and writing the first “Dietary Goals for the United States.” Mottern, who had no scientific background and no experience writing about science, nutrition, or health, believed his Dietary Goals would launch a “revolution in diet and agriculture in this country.” He avoided the scientific and medical controversy by relying almost exclusively on Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist Mark Hegsted for input on dietary fat. Hegsted had studied fat and cholesterol metabolism in the early 1960s, and he believed unconditionally in the benefits of restricting fat intake..

    In 1972, a cardiologist named Atkins began to promote a diet high in protein and low in carbs. He was vilified. Wikipedia calls it a “fad diet.”

    There is only weak evidence that the Atkins diet is effective in helping people achieve short-term weight loss, or that it is better than not dieting at all in the longer term.[3][4] One review found that the Atkins diet led to 0.1% to 2.9% more weight loss at one year compared to a control group which received behavioural counselling.[3]

    Because of substantial controversy regarding the Atkins diet and even disagreements in interpreting the results of specific studies it is difficult to objectively summarize the research in a way that reflects scientific consensus.[5][6] Although there has been some research done throughout the twentieth century,[7][8] most directly relevant scientific studies, both those that directly analyze the Atkins Diet and those that analyze similar diets, have occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s and, as such, are relatively new.

    Atkins diet was still almost unmentioned in the US medical literature until very recently. I did a review when I wrote my medical history book in 1998.

    Now there is quite a bit more medical literature.

    Recent re-emergence of interest in LCHF diets, (Atkins-style) coupled with anecdotes of improved performance by sportspeople who follow them, has created a need to re-examine the potential benefits of this eating style. Unfortunately, the absence of new data prevents a different conclusion from being made. Notwithstanding the outcomes of future research, there is a need for better recognition of current sports nutrition guidelines that promote an individualized and periodized approach to fuel availability during training, allowing the athlete to prepare for competition performance with metabolic flexibility and optimal utilization of all muscle substrates. Nevertheless, there may be a few scenarios where LCHF diets are of benefit, or at least are not detrimental, for sports performance.

    There are quite a few new diets, a popular one is called “The South Beach diet”, that have gone the low carb high fat route. Atkins did not really advocate high fat but he did recommend protein and low carb.

    There is even some pretty good research.

    As compared with the high-carbohydrate diet, the highmonounsaturated-fat diet resulted in lower mean plasma glucose levels and reduced insulin requirements, lower levels of plasma triglycerides and very-low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (lower by 25 and 35 percent, respectively; P<0.01), and higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (higher by 13 percent; P<0.005). Levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol did not differ significantly in patients on the two diets.
    These preliminary results suggest that partial replacement of complex carbohydrates with monounsaturated fatty acids in the diets of patients with NIDDM does not increase the level of LDL cholesterol and may improve glycemic control and the levels of plasma triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. (N Engl J Med 1988; 319:829–34.)

    The change is coming very slowly and many doctors still follow the traditional food pyramid. Of course politics is as involved in this as in global warming.

  12. The Korean KIAs may have had coronary disease because of smoking, not fat eating.

    Atkins actually pushed protein, not fat but the research all focus on fat,

  13. Ah, I see. I agree with that.

    My idea of the Mediterranean diet is apparently different from how it’s viewed in popular culture. Carbs should only come from minimally processed or unprocessed foods that have been around for a long time, such as in the biblical fruits and vegetables. Although, I don’t eat apples. I don’t want to tempt fate.

  14. Yeah, olive oil is another fat. The “Mediterranean” part was carbs.

    Type II diabetes is almost certainly the result of insulin resistance. Some is “metabolic syndrome” which is not just obesity.

    Years ago, our chief of diabetes showed studies that high insulin blood levels preceded frank diabetes by years.

    There are studies going on about prevention but there is no proof yet, except a few studies of pregnancy in which some women become diabetic.

    “Gestational diabetes” may even be related to intestinal microflora(bacteria).

    I have a theory that intestinal flora may be related to obesity. There are a few interesting experiments. We may end up treating obesity by fecal transplant.

    Maybe skinny people can sell their stool samples.

  15. TMLutas

    I love the thrust of your list and believe whole fields could be totally different in 50 years – more productive and the workers more creative – if we saw a broad horizon rather than limits. And you are right, one of the things we’d need to change is smugness: that a problem has been solved, that a problem is unsolvable, that only a few technocrats could possibly find a way to change it.

    The last three hundred years should empower us with a sense of man’s potential, but we might also remember that we are drawn back to smugness, complacency, and fear of the unknown. The open market (of work, of commerce, of ideas) is a scary place because it is unknown. It heartens me that we (and Britain with Brexit) gambled on the unknown: we haven’t given up hope that we can experiment, seek, create.

    I’m not sure the problem is the mindset that we are a rich nation, though.

    Stasis is easy & comforting; we see a boulder in our path as an inevitability, a stopping point rather than finding a detour. And our culture has been working against those changes of the last few hundred years that led to constant invention and job creation and gross productivity and health. It is somewhat natural to what the comfort of the known and fear challenges to it.

    Some argue those remarkable centuries were fired by the scientific method – testing hypotheses and then seeing what worked and going with that. (But do we do that? Has Head Start ever worked or the planet’s climate never changed or is the biological unimportant in gender differences?)

    Some say it is respect for bourgeois dignity or the American (and British) Enlightenment’s respect for each man, the recognition of implicit rights that respect souls, skills, creativity and opinions. Some see that as the product of a faith that sees all souls as equal. (Do the safe rooms after the last election indicate infantilization or dignified maturity? Is this heritage expressed by calling great swaths of the public “irredeemable” or the smugness of the “party of the ruling class”? Do beliefs that certain religions should be infiltrated, should “change” with “history” imply that? Do apologies for saying “all lives matter” or a dissing of a history that embodied this vision and provided it as model do that?)

    Some say it is the printing press and increased literacy – which affects both our sense of an autonomous self Douglass described so well and the more practical descriptions and information that can be disseminated widely. The attitude toward testing truths that came with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular for many led the way. Our language creates us perhaps but it also helps us create – as Tom Wolf describes in that last image of Manhattan – the city; certainly it led to such institutions as the church and the university. (But does our shortening our thoughts into instinctive tweet responses, does devaluing the teaching of the skill of writing do this? Clarifying, proving – these are easier done with our computer handmaidens but such clarifications through objective argument are debased into descriptions of feelings and impressions.)

    Some say the effective harnessing of energy created endless jobs and health as well as wealth. (Breakthroughs happen despite these protests, but surely the indoctrination of the next generation in the evils of energy – coal, gas, nuclear – is surely stunting the ability to value and therefore create the very gift that has powered so many of the other improvements.)

    Some would say the advances in medicine made man more productive. We live longer, healthier, more productive lives – indeed, limiting society’s loss of productivity and creativity inherent in each of its citizens. (Does anyone think that medicine delivered by the state is going to be innovative, that taxes and regulations on medicine and medical devices, that limiting the choices and creativity of some of our most creative citizens who have chosen medical careers is going to lead to better medicine or even longer lives? Does even the concept of Fogel’s “premature death” enter the mind of the planners of rationing?)

    Domestic inventions freed half the population from work that was mainly aimed at the subsistence of the family and sent them out into the marketplace. (Is that potential going to be fulfilled by those indoctrinated by our current universities?)

    And while this may not seem to be part of the whole, it is something I believe: problems are solved by respect for others’ points of view – the result of that convergence is made by Fischer’s WWII generals. The melting pot can meld solutions to problems as well as melding ethnicities. (Do movements that divide by race, beliefs, genders, sexual choices indicate an openness to different perspectives and a willingness to test what works? And more importantly does the doublespeak of “diversity” and “inclusion” – which oppose the old truths that had been represented by these words – lead to a tribalism the last three hundred years have been so beautifully working against.)

  16. “I love the thrust of your list and believe whole fields could be totally different in 50 years”

    If we did all those things we would not be rich even if we had been when we decided to do them.

    We are drowning in a sea of unreasonable expectations. I went into medicine because I have this instinctive desire to help people. I might say that it has gotten me into a lot of trouble at times.

    Adam Smith advocated the virtues of selfishness and greed and there is something to this.

    Cyril Northcote Parkinson knew what he was talking about.

    Parkinson first published his law in a humorous satirical article in the Economist on 19 November 1955,[3] meant as a critique on the efficiency of public administration and civil service bureaucracy, and the continually rising headcount, and related cost, attached to these. That article noted that, “Politicians and taxpayers have assumed (with occasional phases of doubt) that a rising total in the number of civil servants must reflect a growing volume of work to be done.” The law examined two sub-laws, The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates, and The Law of Multiplication of Work, and provided ‘scientific proof’ of the validity of these, including mathematical formulae.

    Theodore Dalrymple also discussed this phenomenon in his essay, ” The Uses of Corruption.”

    Where administration is light and bureaucracy small, bureaucratic honesty is an incomparable virtue; but where these are heavy and large, as in all modern European states, Britain and Italy not least among them, they burden and obstruct the inventive and energetic. Where bureaucrats are honest, no one can cut through their Laocoönian coils: their procedures, no matter how onerous, antiquated, or bloody-minded, must be endured patiently. Such bureaucrats can neither be hurried in their deliberations nor made to see common sense. Indeed, the very absurdity or pedantry of these deliberations is for them the guarantee of their own fair-mindedness, impartiality, and disinterest. To treat all people with equal contempt and indifference is the bureaucrat’s idea of equity.

    He is arguing that corruption is easier to deal with but much of this is mild satire. I have little optimism that society will solve many problems because we are genetically programmed to be selfish and to admit that is not considered polite or virtuous.

  17. Two different questions, I think:

    1) Is there enough WORK to be done that most Americans will need and want to work, even given a (say) 5-10X improvement in productivity?

    2) Can we as a society actually organize (or disorganize) ourselves to get the productivity and do the work?

  18. “Is there enough WORK to be done that most Americans will need and want to work”

    There are skilled jobs that are in need of workers who can stay sober, show up on time and who come back the second day of work.

    Most of those jobs require some mechanical skill, which used to be an American characteristic. Labor unions used to run apprenticeships.

    I think a lot of manufacturing can come back if young people can stay off drugs and get up early and arrive on time.

    I see kids joining the military every day I work. They are out there,

  19. David Foster –

    In the “Conclusion” of Albion’s Seed, the section on “Regional Cultures in World War II” describes the different contributions of Patton, Eisenhower and Marshall, then moves into FDR, then discusses the “Battle of the Smiths” which he sees as a cultural clash.

    People want to be productive. I remember how at the end of the first year of running a small business, I was talking to someone who had been in the same boat (a guy whose wife had been hired and he was kind of floating, taking the odd semester’s extra class the big school doled out). He clearly saw what I was doing was mundane – and it was. But I told him I’d felt muscles grow in my head I didn’t know were there – and that I could, with hard work and decision-making that wasn’t always wise but from which I was slowly learning, build a place where people could get a good service at a fair price and I could pay a dozen workers or so. We want to act, to do, to provide.

    Our parents didn’t think half the things we use in a half hour were possible, but we now think we “need” them. Needs are expansive.

    What I am afraid of most is a globalization of the world UNRA created in Palestine and the American government on Indian Reservations and the Great Society has created in pockets all across America. An embittered, passive, angry, self-destructive world that is held in stasis and “helped” to remain embedded in such deadening unconsciousness. (Required reading for anyone caught in such a tangled web – I suspect that is the subject of the Appalachian Elegy, but I haven’t read it – should be Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, though some find rationalizations by skipping the difficult work to reach self-consciousness he describes.)

    As long as we can deliver a service (and for me it was both typing papers and teaching Am Lit) that enriches someone else’s life (or at least I thought it was and they did enough to pay me) there is work to do. And the figuring out of what that service or that product is may challenge us, but that’s good. Since half of my life was doing something that required a Ph.D. and half my life was in a business that wouldn’t have required high school(though my proposals to the bank might have required more literacy than some schools are providing but that’s another story), I don’t think our fellow citizen’s needs are all that rarified and “needs” are broad.

    So, as usual, I get into the personal which I always think is representative.

    And as for organizing our society, the first priority would be to do no harm, which means, leave us alone: no crappy incentives for things that don’t work, no justifications for our mistakes, leave to us the consequences – rewards or punishments – of our choices. It isn’t a matter of “giving” someone a job but of expecting someone to find one – either with someone else or one we launch ourselves. It seemed to me the message of the last campaign was to let us alone – that’s the reason the Evangelicals voted for Trump: he may not have been one of them, but he was willing to leave them alone; he didn’t want to get in their heads and substitute some strange theology for the one they valued. And business, seduced by too many incentives, wasn’t for Trump – but leaving them alone to prosper and not redistributing their money and micromanaging their hiring would (I suspect) bring them more prosperity than “incentives” could. Small businesses generally were – and they hire more people and are often those who do find a product or service others haven’t realized was possible.

    I’m always in awe of the way you have the long range look at business and productivity, we need that understanding and those contexts to actually change the big things. But I have confidence that leaving Americans alone and challenging them will work. (It could be the Murray idea would provide a baseline for projects. I doubt many would want to subsist as others create more interesting and useful products.)

  20. My daughter has been kind of artsy since UCLA. She eventually got an MS in Library Science and was half way to a PhD in History working on the Muslim period in Spain. She learned Arabic for her study,. Her sister, who is an FBI agent, tried to recruit her for the FBI with the Arabic but she didn’t want to do it.

    Then she went to work for an artist I never heard of named John Baldissari, whose paintings I don’t like.. Then, after a couple of years, she went to work for an art gallery, named LA Louvre, which sells contemporary paintings I don’t like. While there, doing the provenance on paintings the owner bought, she discovered he had bought a fake. She was almost hesitant to tell him for fear he would resent being shown less brilliant that he thought. Instead, he was very grateful and got his money back.

    Now she is back working for Baldissari and they have been going to big art shows in New York and Miami. In June she went to Switzerland to a show. Recently, she has begun to “make art” herself and Baldissari is encouraging her. She is getting a small studio.

    Then two weeks ago or so, Apple Computer called her and interviewed her for a job in their design team. They found her; she did not apply.

    You just never know how kids will turn out if they have ambition. Even those who seem a bit artsy fartsy may turn out well. She always had a job through high school. I think the illegal immigration is harming us because there are no jobs for kids.

    Jobs are out there,

  21. It’s the computers that have ‘changed the game’. One can automate almost any machine with a couple of Arduino boards now. All that remains is stuff we have not made a machine for, or one at least one, that is not a powered machine.

    We live and die on our tech. It’s our advantage, without a sharpened stick we are easy meat for most anything. We are certainly inventive and have produced all kinds of wonderful solutions to various problems we have had.

    We now have our first ‘general’ solution. It’s almost our first digital solution as well. It can be hooked up to almost anything and networked over the entire planet as well.

    What’s not to like? Well we’ll need a different type of society, that’s kinda a work in progress, and it will need to assign value in quite a different way. The same thing that has happened in the worlds economies, extreme concentration of wealth, is also happening in those who are able to actually deal with the tech. That means that very few people are now involved in almost all of the implementation of this tech, to real world uses.

    Most of the advanced world will have a large compliment of people looking for something to do. TM may be useful here. ;)

  22. David I believe you are based in the bay area? I’m sure you’ve been to the computer history Museum in Mountain View. They have a wonderful display not only of computers going back to the turn of the 19th century but an explanation of what they were designed to do

    I did not realize we were all complaining about increase productivity for all those years. But then think of what Henry Ford did for automobile affordability. Or this little iPhone that has the power of a 1960s super computer in my hand that cost me all of $500.

    I guess what scares so many people is they do not know where the current automation leads. And the fact that skilled tradesmen have to continually retrain themselves or find different fields. It’s turbulent but ultimately beneficial

  23. “I think a lot of manufacturing can come back if young people can stay off drugs and get up early and arrive on time.

    I see kids joining the military every day I work. They are out there,”

    Good points Mike. One thing I didn’t realize until recently as far as the military’s concern only 30% of the available pool is really qualified for military duty. They obviously don’t want druggies and want a minimal of education. No felony records.

    And as for showing up on time: a friend of mine had a painter of many years who moved onto a desk job. My friend asks for his recommendation for a replacement and he recommends his assistant. There was some kitchen work that needed to be refinished-walnut doors

    The assistant comes to give an estimate and tells him $400, which my friend thought was a little low. But anyway on the appointed day the assistant doesn’t even bother to show up.

    Needless to say my friend was so pissed off that he told the assistant don’t bother coming. He found another painter who quotes $3500 and the deal is reached.

    Point of it is the money and work is out there you just have to have some skill and even more importantly I willingness to work. And that regretfully is why the illegals are so popular here. I guess they’re almost like an employment drug. They are willing to work.

  24. If you go poking around in computer museums, you might even find the computer I learned to program on.

    The 650 was a two-address, bi-quinary coded decimal computer (both data and addresses were decimal), with memory on a rotating magnetic drum. Character support was provided by the input/output units converting alphabetical and special characters to/from a two-digit decimal code. The 650 was marketed to scientific and engineering users as well as to users of punched card machines who were upgrading from calculating punches, such as the IBM 604, to computers.[5] Because of its relatively low cost and ease of programming, the 650 was used to pioneer a wide variety of applications, from modeling submarine crew performance[6] to teaching high school and college students computer programming.

    My boss wrote a program called SOAP, not this one. that stood for “symbolic optimal access program.”

    That meant it calculated the rotation speed of the drum and where to place the next instruction and the next data element.

    Rotating drum memory models provided 1,000, 2,000, or 4,000 words of memory (a signed 10-digit number or five characters per word) at addresses 0000 to 0999, 1999, or 3999 respectively.[20][21] Words on the drums were organized in bands around the drum, fifty words per band, and 20, 40, or 80 bands for the respective models. A word could be accessed when its location on the drum surface passed under the read/write heads during rotation (rotating at 12,500 rpm, the non-optimized average access time was 2.5 ms). Because of this timing, the second address in each instruction was the address of the next instruction. Instructions could then be interleaved, placing many at addresses that would be immediately accessible when execution of the previous instruction was completed. Instructions read from the drum went to a program register (in current terminology, an instruction register).

    Ours had 2000 addressable spaces.

  25. That was during the days when every byte counted and when you were done with it you made sure it was freed up. Contrast that with a few months ago and I just bought 8 GB of memory for my old desktop for $20. It was used memory though ;-)

    If you’re up this way Mike I recommend a tour of this. The even have an IBM 1401 that they start up and amaze the tourist with

    I learned programming during an era where company support was everything. And IBM and HP were at the top. I ask one of the docents where they got parts for this thing and he said “eBay”

  26. There was a privately-operated museum in German where they had a lot of historic IBM equipment, apparently including a WORKING 650…it looks like they haven’t been able to keep the collection together and it has been parceled out to other museums in Europe.

  27. One part of having a *working IBM 650* includes have a large room kept at about 60 degrees.

    Nobody had a desk in the computer room because it was so cold.

  28. We had one of the first 360s at Queens University where I went to school. I did not do much with it, but all first year engineering students took a course on it. Standing in line to run your card stack became a game when one managed to knock someone’s stack out of their hand. I learned to hang on to my stack there at least.

    I did not seriously play with computers till the 90s and then went all in. I learned to run Linux systems and build servers and other bits of software. A very happy time in my life, lots to learn is my binky.

    Anyhoo it’s not like in the old days. Now we have real power and can deal with situations and devices with some elegance and grace. This makes it possible for anyone to automate whatever they might want to. This changes the game.

  29. I can remember having a stack of cards running it through the reader finding you had an error and then waiting another 24 hours to run the next one. That was when computer power was very expensive

    To walk into a computer room with the raised white flooring and the soft roar of fans in the background you knew that was power. But then talking about raw computer power your average handheld smart phone probably has as much or more today.

    Your smart phone is just using its power to run silly things like graphical interfaces that take a ton of memory and power.

    Of course imagining a smart phone that is textbased and having to key in command-lines is almost comical

  30. Ginny – If we’re rich, there’s little left to do on the economic front. It’s all just status scorekeeping past a certain point of zeroes in your bank account. That sort of status competition is attractive to to some but not enough to drive a general employment economy. If we’re poor, there are always real, unmet needs that benefit from a can do attitude and a willingness to work.

    I’m going to have to stick to my idea that we aren’t a rich country. I agree with you that there are other pertinent factors involved in the larger question. You seem to have listed a number of them.

    Mike K – If I have not been clear, the point of my list isn’t to make us rich. It is to maximize the number of people living a good life in the greek sense (eudaemonia) of human flourishing. I think the founders called it the pursuit of happiness.

  31. ” If I have not been clear, the point of my list isn’t to make us rich.”

    Oh, I know. I feel the same way., I worry about my grandson. He is 11 and I wonder if college is going to be worthwhile by the time he is 18. Girls are easy these days although it is sometimes hard to get them to concentrate on drudgery like Accounting. None of my kids has been interested in Medicine (I suspect the influence of my first wife who was always complaining) or Engineering. My high school girlfriend went into Engineering and has been very successful. She married a classmate and moved to California,. We used to socialize. She raised her kids, then went back to Engineering.

    I have four granddaughters and they are favored by society although that is a mixed blessing. My younger son and his wife are conservative and the kids seem to have their heads on straight although I am very suspicious of the influence of TV. Some friends in Tucson have raised three terrific boys. No TV and their mother homeschooled each for a year at a time. The rest of the time they went to Catholic school which allowed this.

    My older son is a lefty and I don’t know about his kids who are quite young. Both are girls and I hope they don’t descend into this victim culture.

    California is such a cesspool of leftist “culture.”

  32. I get your point, T.M. Lutas, but certainly the “richness” of some of your points would seem luxuries to those in a subsistence culture.

    Of course, we aren’t fulfilling our potentials nor challenging our abilities the way we might – and that could give more to society and make us productive. I like Fogel’s way of describing our life expectancy as “premature death”; some respect & gratitude on our parts for the last century’s increases is good, but gratitude need not lead to satisfaction that we’ve reached the promised land.

    What I am afraid is all those tables – like Fogel’s – that curve upward so spectacularly from 1700 or so come from forces that can dry up in a world dominated by an elite who fear change. The twentieth century saw few great ideas on biology coming out of Russia, for instance. And I’d like for others that heady strange feeling I had when, pretty much an artsy academic, I started working 80 hour weeks and thinking of how I could meet my customer’s needs. It was energizing but it was also a feeling that I was working without a net – as a t.a. i was getting 3,000 a year (which didn’t even cover a bohemian life in Austin in the 70’s) but it was steady and it was essentially state money. In the business, it was money that I had earned from doing a “business” – I can do that, I thought; we all can, I thought, if we have to. There’s a lot that can be said for that feeling.

  33. I don’t understand the argument that when we’re rich no one will have any work to do. For a million years our ancestors got steadily “richer,” in the sense that there was a gradual increase in their material well-being and in the valuable things they learned to do and make for each other. Would it have made sense for them, in every generation, to conclude that in 100 years everyone would have everything he needed and no one would be motivated to work? It doesn’t matter how rich you are; you always can imagine more, make more, do more, and trade more with other people who are good at doing and making other things. There’s not some kind of natural limit to the amount of material goods we can consume, or the amount of pleasure we can take in trading goods and services with each other. It’s beside the point that some of what an incomparably richer society in 100 years will think is “necessary” is not quite what we think of as necessary today. Value in an economy isn’t about some kind of metaphysical absolute value, it’s about whatever happens to motivate people to do something that someone else wants done, so he can trade it for something else he happens to want. People want what they want, not what we imagine they ought to want.

  34. There’s a qualitative difference between the sort of automation that took place in the late 18th and early 19th century and that going on today. 300 years ago a lot of automation replaced highly skilled, highly compensated workers, the “commanding heights of the economy”, like master weavers and master metalsmiths, with more workers with fewer skills–loom and lathe operators.

    If the weavers and metalworkers guilds had been organized enough, the Industrial Revolution would never have taken place.

  35. Ginny – Were we satisfied with subsistence, why go beyond hunter gatherer?

    Texan99 – When people think that they are rich, they grow complacent. When they’re complacent, they’re not really interested in working huge hours to create new businesses that mass hire. But established businesses have grown to fill the niches in their core competencies and with automation there is a constant pressure to lower employment. Invent something new enough and you’ve created something that will drive employment growth for decades, even in the face of automation. But it’s the driven, the hungry, the people who think they are poor that disproportionately get off their butt and do the work.

  36. Stephen Hawking

    “The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

    “With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing, we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so,”

  37. Much of the discussion, so far, seems to be focusing on automation, particularly robotics and artificial intelligenge. But what about the potential job-displacement impact of additive manufacturing and telematics?

  38. Much of the discussion, so far, seems to be focusing on automation, particularly robotics and artificial intelligenge. But what about the potential job-displacement impact of additive manufacturing and telematics?

  39. Philip Baker….additive manufacturing, aka 3-d printing, will certainly have an impact on labor productivity, but I think the role of this technology will be less all-encompassing than some of the hype suggests. Many kinds of products require not just being formed, but going through processes such as heat-treating and forging in order to increase strength/wear resistance. Also, when production volumes are high the economics of processes such as injection molding are going to stay more favorable than one-by-one printing of the items. I don’t think we are likely to see 3-D printers at home or in stores eliminating the need for factories. What we will see…are already seeing…is the reduction in assembly labor by 3-D fabrication of very complex parts in one piece rather than making multiple components and then fastening them together. See for example what GE is doing with fuel nozzles for jet engines:

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