Contemplating The End of the Human Workhorse

Contemplating The End of the Human Workhorse


This is the title of an excellent article by Eduardo Porter on the business page of the New York Times today (June 8, 2016). It raises the questions of how society could evolve as computers and industrial robots displace more and more workers. Are human workers going the way of the working horses now thoroughly displaced by cars, trains, tractors and planes over the last century?

My old law school roommate, Dan Sullivan, has just self published a book, entitled Radical Change: the Death of the American Dream exploring in depth the same fascinating issues.

These issues are salient but submerged in this year’s election debates – where Donald Trump blames Mexicans (and Muslims) and China and threatens to build great walls while Senator Sanders blames Wall Street’s greed for the ever-growing economic challenges to America’s middle class and blue collar workers – challenges which have been more than 40 years in the making and are deeply embedded in our social, economic and policy frameworks.

Computers and industrial robots are making our daily lives easier in so many ways. Their growth and evolution in factories and in white-collar workplaces will both increase productivity and eliminate many current jobs. The as yet unanswerable question is how much human work will be eliminated, will ever more jobs be created by this technological explosion, or will we see massive growth in unemployment, leading to widespread homelessness, vastly increased poverty, ever-wider income disparities, and economic dislocation. Are we headed towards Nirvana or Armageddon?

The Swiss just voted down by 78% to 22% a citizen initiative to provide a universal guaranteed income for every Swiss citizen. This was an idea briefly espoused by Senator George McGovern in his 1972 presidential race where he won but one state, and countered by Professor Milton Friedman as the negative income tax then endorsed by President Richard Nixon. The negative income tax concept is the lineal ancestor of the current earned income tax credit – a rare policy that has support from many in both parties.  

Obamacare was prescient in creating new coverage opportunities for the many workers who no longer have access to coverage through their employment and in using refundable tax credits to make coverage more affordable for low, moderate and middle income workers and their families; these are the building blocks for the future of health care coverage.  The education and job training policies of the Obama administration and the fervor for free public college tuitions so well captured in the Sanders campaign are part of the necessary next steps towards the technology needs of the new economy, but what if we just need fewer workers in the new economy, no matter how well educated and trained they are. Health coverage and better educational opportunities are just the tip of the iceberg of the wrenching discussions and difficult societal decisions we must make about the nature of work and unemployment, income distribution, taxes, leisure, creativity, innovation, safety nets and benefits for our nation’s future.

Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin

June 9, 2016





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