Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Technological Unemployment, Looking Busy, and My Adventures in the Useless Future.

My Google+ feed, my RSS feed, and Hacker News have all been suggesting to me lately what while we blame China, Obama, and whoever else it is that we like to blame, one of the big reasons for the current low employment rates is efficiency.

This is a robot, I think.
 I found it on Google Image Search.

The old Luddite fears seem to have been somewhat founded. Factories are making cars and needing less workers to do it. Brad McClenny (who sits in the office next to mine), armed with the internet, MS Word, machine translation, and digital phones, runs the international student program for our college in a way that it took a team of three people to do ten years ago (Kathy, Amanda, and that other girl).

As a starry-eyed libertarian, I try to believe that for every job that efficiency kills, we'll get other ones, as all of the unemployed people begin to invent killer iPhone apps and musical masterpieces that we all can't live without, and sell them to the people holding the remaining old-school jobs. It might be true. It would be cool.

Another thing that might be cool (in a starry-eyed not-libertarian way) would be transitioning into something like the Star Trek economy, where there is sufficient efficiency to guarantee everyone exactly the clothes and meals they want replicated, and we spend our time following our callings, quite aside from any need for money. This would take futuristic levels of automation and efficiency. It would also take redistribution. Some historical re-distributive plans in other countries got ugly. Americans are taught about these in school, and don't like them. I don't think that America will go for this kind of re-distribution anytime soon. Well, not if we know we're going for it.

Earl Grey, hot.

I work at a college. I smoke outside at the smoker's corner with a bunch of foul-mouthed students. I'm not supposed to smoke in front of students. I'm young, though, so if I take off my suit jacket and my name tag, I blend in pretty well. I haven't been censured yet.

While I smoke, students talk. Most of these students are right about to get their associates degree in interior design and quickly thereafter go off to make six figures. They're investing in their futures. Here at Grayson College, they're almost all investing taxpayer money. It pays the professors' paychecks. It's a really nice arrangement for all of us.

One of the reasons that I got hired was that our old ESL program tanked. Students weren't learning English. It wasn't a problem for us: our international students did just fine here. But then strangely, when they'd finish up here and transfer to a four year university, they kept being turned away because their English skills were quite something below the level required to respond to arcane and complicated utterances like "Hi, what's your name?"

I kind of look like a student.

It never posed a problem for them at our college. Speaking the language of instruction, turning in papers, understanding coursework, and passing tests are necessary if you want a 4.0, but entirely optional if you only need to graduate. The students were happy. They got their money from the government (of Gabon) and got to live abroad, hang out, dress up nice, and post Facebook statuses about their glorious international lives. The students were, in fact, so happy, that sometimes they'd study for ten years at our two-year college. The college was happy. Professors got paid. Things were humming along. But the universities that we sent our international students to weren't happy. For whatever reason.

The practice of graduating students who didn't speak a common language with their professors ended up being hard for people to swallow, so we changed it. It's just too obvious. No one will believe that a student was educated if he can't tell you the name of the class he was in. Graduating native English speakers without educating them is hugely easier. It'd actually be really hard not to do it and keep the board of directors happy.

We all know that the game is about looking busy, and keeping the money circulating, even within the organization. Meetings are called with no real business at hand, because "they'll start to think we don't do anything down here if we don't have another meeting." An administrator closes down departments and creates new ones, frankly so he can be seen as an "agent of change."

Whatever we're not accomplishing here, it can't be denied that we're getting something done in terms of the distribution of wealth. Thousands of students and hundreds of professors who might otherwise be unemployed have dignity and money. They're not looked upon as bums or leeches by the local public. We look at them and say something about our glorious future. Maybe we're right. Maybe our glorious future is all of us trying to look busy so people don't feel so weird about the redistribution.

God, isn't my blog awesome? You should totally RSS it.


  1. For a novel redistribution idea, check out Basic Income Guarantee. This enables people to follow their dreams and spend more time doing volunteer work. Unlike Communism and some versions of social money, it does not discourage paid work. Every extra dollar you earn will raise your standard of living; it's just that if you dedicate 100% of your time to volunteer work, you'll still be able to survive.

  2. The Star Trek economy is actually possible today. No, the "Earl Grey, hot" making machine is not possible yet (perhaps 30 years in the future with nano tech). But machine automation can make organic food, water, housing (3D printer tech), and clothing. It can control all our transport (trains AND cars), communication and soon even medical diagnosis and surgery. The Resource-Based Economy that is alluded to in Star Trek could be implemented today. In fact, we are a growing number of people around the world who advocate such an economy. We go by the name Zeitgeist Movement. Look it up.