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Never Doubt Capitalism’s Extraordinary Ability to Generate New Useless Jobs

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By Rutger Bregman

A great deal has been written in recent years about the perils of automation. With predicted mass unemployment, declining wages, and increasing inequality, clearly we should all be afraid.

By now it’s no longer just the Silicon Valley trend watchers and technoprophets who are apprehensive. In a study that has already racked up several hundred citations, scholars at Oxford University have estimated that no less than 47% of all American jobs and 54% of those in Europe are at a high risk of being usurped by machines. And not in a hundred years or so, but in the next 20. “The only real difference between enthusiasts and skeptics is a time frame,” notes a New York University professor. “But a century from now, nobody will much care about how long it took, only what happened next.”

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I admit, we’ve heard it all before. Employees have been worrying about the rising tide of automation for 200 years now, and for 200 years employers have been assuring them that new jobs will naturally materialize to take their place. After all, if you look at the year 1800, some 74% of all Americans were farmers, whereas by 1900 this figure was down to 31%, and by 2000 to a mere 3%. Yet this hasn’t led to mass unemployment. In 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting that we’d all be working just 15-hour weeks by the year 2030. Yet, since the 1980s, work has only been taking up more of our time, bringing waves of burnouts and stress in its wake.

Meanwhile, the crux of the issue isn’t even being discussed. The real question we should be asking ourselves is: what actually constitutes “work” in this day and age?

What is “work” anyway?

In a 2013 survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission, while another poll among 230,000 employees in 142 countries showed that only 13% of workers actually like their job. A recent poll among Brits revealed that as many as 37% think they have a job that is utterly useless.

They have, what anthropologist David Graeber refers to as, “bullshit jobs”. On paper, these jobs sound fantastic. And yet there are scores of successful professionals with imposing LinkedIn profiles and impressive salaries who nevertheless go home every evening grumbling that their work serves no purpose.

Let’s get one thing clear though: I’m not talking about the sanitation workers, the teachers, and the nurses of the world. If these people were to go on strike, we’d have an instant state of emergency on our hands. No, I’m talking about the growing armies of consultants, bankers, tax advisors, managers, and others who earn their money in strategic trans-sector peer-to-peer meetings to brainstorm the value-add on co-creation in the network society. Or something to that effect.

So, will there still be enough jobs for everyone a few decades from now? Anybody who fears mass unemployment underestimates capitalism’s extraordinary ability to generate new bullshit jobs. If we want to really reap the rewards of the huge technological advances made in recent decades (and of the advancing robots), then we need to radically rethink our definition of “work.”

The paradox of progress

It starts with an age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Most people would say the meaning of life is to make the world a little more beautiful, or nicer, or more interesting. But how? These days, our main answer to that is: through work.

Our definition of work, however, is incredibly narrow. Only the work that generates money is allowed to count toward GDP. Little wonder, then, that we have organized education around feeding as many people as possible in bite-size flexible parcels into the employment establishment. Yet what happens when a growing proportion of people deemed successful by the measure of our knowledge economy say their work is pointless?

That’s one of the biggest taboos of our times. Our whole system of finding meaning could dissolve like a puff of smoke.

The irony is that technological progress is only exacerbating this crisis. Historically, society has been able to afford more bullshit jobs precisely because our robots kept getting better. As our farms and factories grew more efficient, they accounted for a shrinking share of our economy. And the more productive agriculture and manufacturing became, the fewer people they employed. Call it the paradox of progress: the richer we become, the more room we have to waste our time. It’s like Brad Pitt says in Fight Club: too often, we’re “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

The time has come to stop sidestepping the debate and home in on the real issue: what would our economy look like if we were to radically redefine the meaning of “work”? I firmly believe that a universal basic income is the most effective answer to the dilemma of advancing robotization. Not because robots will take over all the purposeful jobs, but because a basic income would give everybody the chance to do work that is meaningful.

I believe in a future where the value of your work is not determined by the size of your paycheck, but by the amount of happiness you spread and the amount of meaning you give. I believe in a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived. I believe in a future where “jobs are for robots and life is for people.”

And if basic income sounds Utopian to you, then I’d like to remind you that every milestone of civilization – from the end of slavery to democracy to equal rights for men and women – was once a Utopian fantasy too. Or, as Oscar Wilde wrote long ago: “Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

Rutger Bregman is the author of 'Utopia For Realists', published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. and by Little, Brown in the U.S.

Rutger Bregman is the author of ‘Utopia For Realists‘, published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. and by Little, Brown in the U.S.

This article has been translated from Dutch by Elizabeth Manton.

Originally published at World Economic Forum.

2017 May 17

The post Never Doubt Capitalism’s Extraordinary Ability to Generate New Useless Jobs appeared first on Evonomics.

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cjheinz
12 days ago
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#tweeted #basicincome
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Shared Destinies: Why Wealth Inequality Matters

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In Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway many in the youngest generation―now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life like food, clothing, and shelter―choose to do just that, walk away. But is it unkind to exit a society defined by daily toil that benefits the rich without helping others who don’t have that option?

Below, Doctorow explains the strains of history leading up to this question.

So much many of us are poor today than just a few decades ago; after the world wars’ orgies of capital destruction, wealth reached unprecedented levels of even distribution. After all, the poor had little to lose in the war, and the rich hedged their war-losses by loaning governments money to fight on, and so many of those debts were never paid. The next thirty years—the French call them “Les Trentes Glorieuses”—saw the creation of the GI Bill, the British and French welfare states, and the rise of an anti-capitalist, anti-war counterculture that reached its apex in the summer of ’68, when the world was on fire.

But since the malaise of the 1970s and the reboot of fiscal conservativism with Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened all over the world. The rich got a *lot* richer, and though the world’s economy grew, and though millions in China were lifted out of poverty, many millions in the “rich” world sank back down to pre-war levels of inequality—levels of inequality to rival France in 1789, when the Reign of Terror brought the guillotine and the massacres.

But being poor in 2017 isn’t the same as being poor in 1789. Even the world’s poorest (the people living on inflation-adjusted one dollar/day) enjoy lives that surpass those of the very rich of revolutionary France, thanks to sanitation, nutrition, and telecommunications—the Big Three that bequeath long, healthy, fulfilling lives to rival those of lords in times gone past.

Those who provide intellectual cover for gross wealth inequality say that this is why it doesn’t matter that today’s rich are so much richer. The problem of inequality is one of quality: quality of life. If the Great Men (and a few token Pretty Good Women) of the ultra-rich can preside over industrial and telecommunications process that provide enough to everyone, does it matter if they, personally, have much more than enough?

It does. Of course it does. The super-rich—like every other human being—are just as capable of kidding themselves as any other human. This is our great frailty as a species, the reason for the scientific method (because every experimenter will happily interpret their ambiguous results as confirming their hypothesis, so they have to expose their experimental results to hostile feedback from people who point out their stupid mistakes or nothing will ever get done). One of the most toxic forms of ignorance is self-confident ignorance, and the successful are even more prone to this kind of ignorance than the rest of us, because their skill in one domain gives them the erroneous belief that they are good at everything.

(This is why con artists do so well on the rich and powerful: merely flattering their self confidence is enough to lead them into unfamiliar territory where than can be readily fleeced.)

Concentrating power in a few wise hands works great, but it fails badly. Letting the smart, competent technocrats make all the decisions without having to explain themselves to the sheeple can produce remarkable results, but it also means that when the Ubermenschen made dumb mistakes, those mistakes go unchecked, because the emperor’s new clothes cannot be contradicted on pain of defenestration through the Overton Window.

So: the mental quirks of Galtian titans such as climate denial (USA), dotty cult religion (South Korea), cults of personality (North Korea), vicious misogyny (Saudi Arabia) and so on become the law of the land, and the consequences of these peccadilloes swamp any benefits we get from streamlining our authority structure to Get Stuff Done.

The more unequal a society is, the more out-of-balance its policies will be.

But how unequal can a society get? Economist Thomas Piketty suggests that the inequality in France on the eve of the French Revolution is a good benchmark, a point at which no amount of spending on guard-labor can keep M Guillotine from taking the stage. Piketty shows that most societies over the past 300 years that neared this level of inequality diverted some of the wealth of the few to benefit the many, because it was simply cheaper to spend on bread, schools and hospitals than it was to pay for the guards needed to keep desperate people from seizing these things by force.

But technology changes this set-point. Technology has allowed us to achieve astounding breakthroughs in guard labor: in 1989, one in 60 East Germans worked for the Stasi, the country’s notorious secret police. It wasn’t enough: the Stasi wasn’t able to stabilize that unequal, unfair society, and the Berlin Wall fell. But today, each NSA spy is keeping at least *10,000* people under surveillance (probably more, the business is secretive, after all)—that’s two and a half orders of magnitude in productivity increase in a mere 25 years. Screw Moore’s Law: go long on mass spying!

There are many upshots of making it practical to spy on everyone, always, but one is that it becomes possible to stabilize societies under conditions of otherwise unsustainable inequality. That’s the world we’re living in now: ever-larger roles for the biases and cherished illusions of the super-rich, thanks to ever-growing fortunes, kept in check by ever-growing surveillance.

Something has to give. When it does, the question is: how will we react? Will we shoulder one another’s burdens, grabbing our bags and bugging in to the places were our neighbors need us? Or will we act like the cruel and selfish people the billionaires insist we are, grab our things and bug out, leaving others to sort through the rubble.

I’m betting on the former. That’s why I wrote Walkaway, an optimistic disaster novel about being kind during awful times. Awful times are a given, even in well-run, stable societies—they get smote by war, by disease, by climate and by unimaginable failures of complex systems. The delusions we cherish about our neighbors, about their essential untrustworthiness and downright unworthiness determines whether we rush to their aid or run from them.

Walkaway is a story where crisis threatens to tip into dystopia unless we can beat back elite panic and realize our shared destiny. It’s a vaccination against paranoia and mistrust, and a reminder that working together to make a better world is the oldest, most noble dream of our species.

Cory Doctorow Walkaway cover by Cory Doctorowis a science fiction author, activist, journalist, blogger, and the co-editor of Boing Boing. His latest novel is the multi-generational SF thriller Walkaway, available now from Tor Books.

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cjheinz
27 days ago
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#postscarcityutopia
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Extreme wealth inequality will always devour the societies that produce it

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My new novel Walkaway (US tour/UK tour) is set in a world that is being torn apart by out-of-control wealth inequality, but not everyone thinks that inequality is what destabilizes the world — there’s a kind of free-market belief that says the problem is really poverty, not inequality, and that the same forces that make the rich richer also lift poor people out of misery, delivering the sanitation, mass food production, communications tools and other innovations that rescues poor people from privation.


As I argue in Shared Destinies, a new article for Tor.com, even if you accept this, extreme wealth disparity still destabilizes our world, because it lets the super-rich turn their dumb biases, phobias and foolish superstitions into policy that the rest of us have to live with — from American climate denial to Russian homophobia to Saudi gender discrimination.


The super-rich—like every other human being—are just as capable of kidding themselves as any other human. This is our great frailty as a species, the reason for the scientific method (because every experimenter will happily interpret their ambiguous results as confirming their hypothesis, so they have to expose their experimental results to hostile feedback from people who point out their stupid mistakes or nothing will ever get done). One of the most toxic forms of ignorance is self-confident ignorance, and the successful are even more prone to this kind of ignorance than the rest of us, because their skill in one domain gives them the erroneous belief that they are good at everything.

(This is why con artists do so well on the rich and powerful: merely flattering their self confidence is enough to lead them into unfamiliar territory where than can be readily fleeced.)

Concentrating power in a few wise hands works great, but it fails badly. Letting the smart, competent technocrats make all the decisions without having to explain themselves to the sheeple can produce remarkable results, but it also means that when the Ubermenschen made dumb mistakes, those mistakes go unchecked, because the emperor’s new clothes cannot be contradicted on pain of defenestration through the Overton Window.

So: the mental quirks of Galtian titans such as climate denial (USA), dotty cult religion (South Korea), cults of personality (North Korea), vicious misogyny (Saudi Arabia) and so on become the law of the land, and the consequences of these peccadilloes swamp any benefits we get from streamlining our authority structure to Get Stuff Done.

The more unequal a society is, the more out-of-balance its policies will be.

Shared Destinies: Why Wealth Inequality Matters

[Cory Doctorow/Tor.com]

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cjheinz
27 days ago
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#postscarcityutopia
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Citizen-Led Walking Tours

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Jane’s Walk is an organization offering citizen-led walking tours in over 200 cities. The walks get people to tell stories about their communities, explore their cities, and connect with neighbors. I love EVERYTHING about this.

Here are upcoming walking tours in New York City.

(via Kyle)

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cjheinz
36 days ago
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Nice!
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Rahm Emanuel: The city is where the action is

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel laid out a case for bold action at the city level to make progress on education, inequality, climate change, and technology, in a wide-ranging talk at MIT on Friday afternoon.

“A hundred cities around the world today drive the economic, intellectual, and cultural energy of the world economy,” he told an audience of nearly 300 in the Wong Auditorium.

In a conversation moderated by Institute Professor John Deutch and opened by MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Emanuel discussed several new initiatives in Chicago and offered his own views on issues ranging from early childhood education to immigration to criminal justice. During his visit to campus, the mayor also met with selected MIT community members to discuss sustainability, urban innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Citing ongoing “political dysfunction” at the federal level, Emanuel argued in his Friday talk that the only realm of action right now “that can tip the scale, from the public sector arena, is the city.”

Emanuel has been mayor of Chicago since 2011, winning re-election in 2015. One of the nation’s most prominent Democrats, he served as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, as a three-term congressman representing Chicago’s 5th District from 2003 to 2009, and as a senior advisor to President Bill Clinton.

Deutch posed questions selected from over 200 submitted by MIT students, staff, and faculty ahead of the event. Several focused on Chicago’s education system.

Noting that — after turning down a ballet scholarship, and before entering politics — he almost went to graduate school to study early childhood development, Emanuel touted his administration’s efforts to expand access to early childhood education.

“My view of the world is that people start dropping out of college in third grade,” he said. “They do not drop out freshman year. The biggest thing we can do for the education gap between rich and poor is early-childhood education. You have got to get to kids early enough in life to give them the exposure to education.”

As mayor, he has accordingly made expanding funding for full-day kindergarten across the Chicago Public Schools system one of his top priorities. But he lamented the lack of investment in such programs from the federal government.

“Outside of Head Start and SCHIP,” Emanuel said with exasperation (referring to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program passed under President Clinton in 1997), “you cannot find a distinct program that the federal government has set up just for kids. On support for education, the U.S. government is AWOL.”

In the absence of that support, he offered examples of solutions, such as increasing the length of the school day by an hour and a half, and increasing access to International Baccalaureate schools in Chicago, which now has the largest IB program in the U.S.

Emanuel said he had learned that some families were moving out of the city because it was so hard to get their children enrolled in the city’s top magnet schools, and that participation in IB programs led to higher college matriculation rates than this type of selective enrollment approach.

“This is an example of why I want to be here and work with all of you” at MIT, he said. “That idea came out of the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab.”

Emanuel also defended public funding of arts education, observing that it’s often the first thing slated for cuts when budgets are tight.

“I would not be in public life if weren’t for things like the ballet that I did, which taught me discipline and how to take criticism without taking it personally,” he said to laughs in the audience, perhaps in reference to his notoriously combative political persona.

Emanuel said he also sees education as key to solving criminal justice crises such as the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

“For a whole host of reasons, if you go to a state jail today, the majority of people in that jail are young men of color between the ages of 19 and 25, without a high school degree,” Emanuel said. “Give a young man a high school diploma, they have a tomorrow, and they’re thinking about tomorrow.”

When Deutch asked about his plans to maintain Chicago’s status as a “sanctuary city” (i.e., limiting cooperation with the federal government in deporting illegal immigrants) despite the Trump administration’s threats to cut federal funding to the city, Emanuel was defiant.

“Chicago will always be a welcoming city,” he said. “There is only one city in the U.S. in 1850 that said they would not participate in the Fugitive Slave Act: the city of Chicago. We’re not turning our back on the future or on people that believe in the American Dream.”

In the next few weeks, he said, the Chicago city council will pass a new municipal ID law, providing identification cards that undocumented people can use to access city services.

Then he sounded a personal note. “This is the 100-year anniversary of my grandfather coming to Chicago, 13 years old, by himself, from a little shtetl in Moldovia. He didn’t know a word of English. He met a third cousin he never knew, and in two generations his grandson is the mayor. This country has always welcomed people.”

Emanuel also touted Chicago’s ongoing rise as a hub for tech startups, pointing to the development of several new digital fabrication and innovation spaces along the Chicago River, and successful efforts to attract major companies such as Siemens and General Electric to build up their Chicago operations. With universities such as the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University, and DePaul University, and two national research laboratories (Argonne and Fermilab) nearby, Emanuel said the city is primed to continue growing as an epicenter for research innovation.

He mentioned that the most recent “Global Technology Innovation” report from the professional services firm KPMG rated Chicago sixth in the world in its rankings of the world’s best technology hubs outside of Silicon Valley.

“We were late to the game, but now we’re ahead of Tel Aviv and Boston. It’s not my study — it’s KPMG’s, so don’t get upset,” Emanuel said to laughs from the audience.

Emanuel also ticked off his administration’s achievements in reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, even as its economic activity has grown. Since he became mayor, the last two coal-fired power plants operating in the city were shut down. Chicago is embarking on a three-year project to convert all street light bulbs to LEDs, and has 50 million square feet undergoing energy retrofits, he said.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions are down 7 percent over the same period of time they have gone up 1 percent in the U.S.” overall, he said.

Deutch closed the conversation by asking Emanuel if he would ever consider running for national office.

“Never,” he replied quickly. “Not interested.”

He made it clear that he enjoys his current job, and that, for someone with ambition, being mayor of a major city is the ideal position in our current political climate.

“I disagree with the analysis that the 2016 elections were all about economics,” Emanuel said. “There is a reason people are taking a bat and beating the political system, whether it’s Brexit or our own election. It is a reaction to the political dysfunction in addressing fundamental social and economic issues.”

But a turn to the local, to the urban scale, offers hope for progress, he suggested.

The municipal level, he said, “is the form of government that people feel is most intimate and immediate to how they organize their lives. In a time in which they think their ability to influence things is getting distant, they want a government that's more in tune, one where they can affect its policies and outcomes. That's why being a mayor today is the most exciting thing to do, and especially in a city that gave my grandfather a shot at the American Dream.”



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cjheinz
37 days ago
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Indeed, our great cities give me hope.
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Amazon Discovers the High Cost of Being Poor

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Sometimes financial services industry mouthpieces inadvertently give the game away. When this happens – and a tame bank-friendly publication runs a story which aims to fulfil their role as boosters and palliatives for what outside their bubbles is an industry which is beyond redemption – the results are often amusing. If they try to brush the problems […]
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cjheinz
49 days ago
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No credit? No problem!
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