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Sunday, September 4, 2016

The FUTURE is NOW!

This Labor Day weekend post contains some rather astonishing thoughts about the future, and what technology is already bringing into reality.  A technological revolution is already upon us and will develop probably faster than anything we have known in our lifetimes.  Unfortunately, that fact contains both good news and bad.  Because politicians mainly ignore the depths of this issue, I have tried to come down on the side of the news that is not being debated, discussed or acted upon by a do-nothing Congress. 
 
A book published this year, titled “PEOPLE GET READY: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy” by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, describes the future as being upon us already and that the technological revolution is going to surprise us not only because of its speed of development, but because we are not ready for it. “There is a very good possibility that automation is so different in degree as to be profoundly different in kind; that it poses unique problems for society by challenging patterns of work, education, manufacturing and distribution.” 
We have been told a lot of things by politicians, but much of it is classic bamboozling.  Several publications and writers have been trying to get at these issues, but I have chosen to make extensive use of People Get Ready because it is an excellent book about the digital age and automation, about technology and technological change.  But the real focus is on capitalism and politics, and on the "fundamental question of how to bring the rest of us into the process of shaping a future that cannot be well or wisely shaped by the CEOs and bankers and bottom-line speculators who are now calling the shots.”
The future is now.  Reuters informs us about something many may be reluctant to believe: driverless automobiles (or whatever we shall deign to call the new 21st century versions!).  You may well have heard already about installed sensors on some cars that prevent swerving into other lanes, or automatically apply brakes to prevent accidents.  But -- robots driving cars…?
“Uber is steering its driverless vehicle technology towards a crash between robots and jobs, unleashing driverless taxis in Pittsburgh. Putting computers instead of humans behind the wheel could save lives, but would automate a task that employs millions of U.S. workers. America’s safety net is ill-prepared for such a job-destroying juggernaut while dozens of companies are racing to develop driverless technology.
Boston Consulting Group has estimated that fully autonomous vehicles could reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent or more. That would avoid hundreds of billions of dollars of injuries, vehicle damage and lost productivity caused by traffic accidents, which kill more than 30,000 Americans each year.”
Did you know that there are already international conventions related to drone technology, legalities and sales?  I just learned that Central New York and the Mohawk Valley will host an international convention this fall that will attract hundreds of the world's top drone researchers from business, government and academia. The 2016 UTM Convention, which stands for Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management, will be held from Nov. 8 to 10. UTM is a comprehensive research effort led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA has been leading research into how to manage an expected boom in air traffic from the operation of low-altitude unmanned aerial systems, or drones, across the nation, and will be releasing findings from research it is currently conducting.
While drone deliveries of products to front doors are already happening experimentally, the future of this technological wonder is certainly almost boundless.  To put an exclamation point on the word “boundless”, consider this outrageous thought: such things as robotics, driverless cars, computers like Watson, and even 3D printing are all simply the warm-up act for what is to come in the next three decades!
 “Young men really are inserting grain-of-rice-sized microchips in their fingers in order to unlock doors and start cars – hoping that they will increase their employment prospects.  Fast-food restaurants really are taking orders with apps (‘centralized ordering systems’ that could ‘make cashiers redundant’) and preparing them with robots (‘automated kitchen equipment’).  Multinational corporations really are investing in global knowledge-sharing schemes that openly propose to replace universities and community colleges…with distance-learning ‘certificate’ programs that train workers for a task, not a career.” 
The authors of PEOPLE GET READY make it clear that we are “not in charge” of this revolution that is taking place.  It is a time of “power inequality”, where the “ability to determine what the future will look like and feel like and sound like and taste like is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  Every decision about our lives that matters is being made by a corporate CEO or campaign donor or a programmer or a hacker or someone else we have never met.  The politicians themselves have become rubberstamps for the trade deals, tax rates, and deregulations demanded by an enriched and empowered one-tenth of one percent.  The rest of us are mere spectators.”
It is simply amazing what chronic “deniers” some politicians have come to be.  But denial may not be the only problem.   It appears that a large number of our so-called leaders are both deniers and procrastinators, depending on the prevailing winds at crucial times.  One thing is clear:  many of our representatives in government are simply failing to do the jobs to which they were elected and instead are carrying out missions that they have constructed for their own self-aggrandizement.  I do not exclude any political party from this scenario, but I find it hard to deny that the Republican Party is in power at every level, and upon them must be placed the major blame for the pending debacles: drastic, perhaps unbearable climate change, a crumbling and totally inadequate infrastructure, as well as the massive unemployment that will be caused by the technological revolution.
The deniers and procrastinators may well be putting us all in jeopardy by continually ‘assuring’ us, for instance, that climate change is but a passing ‘phase of nature.’  But, what if they are wrong?  Just to play it safe, shouldn’t our representatives, on behalf of their constituents, at least investigate the effects of all that is happening environmentally to the people they supposedly represent.  Denial and procrastination are bad enough, but the absolute ignoring of voter concerns and voter safety is the ultimate betrayal of representative democracy. 
It is my contention that way too many of our representatives (and office-seekers) do not represent anyone but their sponsors and their contributors, many of whom do not even reside in their districts.  Too many represent special business (or other) interests that are given priority before constituent needs are even considered.  There is one very potent reason why we have denial and procrastination running rampant in the Congress:  because democracy meant to work for ‘The People’ is now purposefully designed to serve business and industry and commerce, and the financial concerns of Wall Street bankers and financial managers.
It is variously estimated that there are, in our nation, millions of chronically unemployed; who have stopped looking for work, can’t find a job, or are in the process of accepting a non-working or part-time role, but they are not counted as part of the rate of unemployment.  We are told to blame manufacturing industries that have moved overseas, or an education system that is not training future employees for a changing economy, or too much government spending, or too little investment in the private sector. 
Whatever we are told by politicians, the whole truth is not being told.  For instance, has any politician impressed upon you that the rate of growth in American capitalism has been on a downward trend for a good five decades (50 years), and that this process has accelerated in this new century?  Have you heard that economists across the political spectrum now “speak openly of the U.S. economy as being in a period of long-term…stagnation?”  Indeed, it has been pointed out that private investment, “which is at the heart and soul of a capitalist economy has been declining as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.” 
It is virtually impossible for most of us to conceive of a society with extremely high unemployment, or of a society without enough jobs to employ everyone who qualifies, simply because we have come to believe certain axioms and myths that can potentially block our ability to deal with a new reality. 
Urged on by corporate public relations, these and other popular axioms and myths hold sway among the populace and they help define what people believe is good or bad about the economy, and about governance.  Here are a few examples of basic conservative beliefs that are promoted endlessly by the conservative elite, the conservative media and their conservative cronies in the Congress.
The American Dream – that anyone, given the chance or opportunity, can actually achieve wealth, position or status that is not so likely elsewhere. 
Or, how about the myth that if you follow the rules, make every effort to educate yourself, and work hard, that you will succeed in life? 
Or how about the ever-popular: hard work is good; leisure is bad (the ‘Devil’s playground’);
or, how about: government Welfare promotes dependence?  
Here are a few more “constructs” being used by the Right-wing to manipulate your vote and your wallet:
·         Government simply screws things up by an endless barrage of counterproductive regulations.  A ‘caged’ democracy with a limited mandate is best
·         Such regulations and ‘interference’ are often referred to as being ‘socialistic’ or even ‘communistic’ which expresses fear of the ‘masses’ long-held by the elite class.  It is why many elite throughout history have detested ‘democracy.’ 
·         To protect freedoms (particularly private property rights), to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, and to foster competitive markets is their idea of a limited mandate per the Constitution.  Anything more is fraught with danger and invites ‘tyranny’. 
·         Governance is best left to those who fully appreciate that the needs of investors come first and are foremost.  And that is most likely to happen if most everyone else tunes out politics and focuses on other matters, and worries about (real and imagined) threats like foreign countries, immigrants (especially Muslim immigrants), viruses, crime, and gay marriage.
·         Change, in general, should be seen as seasonal, temporary, cyclical, so don’t worry about it.  Just go on believing the myths, as corporations and CEOs want you to do, because it is to their advantage and profit to silence the voices of discontent, reform, or, God forbid, of revolution.  Support profit made from fossil fuels, hydro-fracking, and mining coal; dumping chemicals into air and water, making cars and trucks that produce limited miles per gallon, blame Obamacare for rising health costs instead of private insurance and drug companies, who all push the prices higher by manipulation of the governance and health care system.
·         Besides, if you stay out of the way and let the CEO’s run the ship, enough of those profits will ‘trickle down’ to you to enable you to live the “good life.”
Many of us fall willingly into this well-concealed and well-baited trap constructed by Corporate America.  Because of these strongly promoted myths, we are unprepared to face the dawning of a new era -- that of technological revolution.
Here now are some examples of what we are facing, due to our buy-in to conservative ideology, and to rapid advances in technology, most of which are being ignored by our congressional representatives, who prefer to investigate non-problems of their own making, such as ben Ghazi and Planned Parenthood:
  • “Capitalism as we know it and governance as we know it are ill-prepared to define the future in favor of humanity”
  • “The unemployment, poverty, and calamity resulting from the merger of the profit system with the coming wave of automation will be the defining issue of the coming decades, yet the “one and only time in American history that automation and employment were formally studied and considered by an official government commission was in 1964-1966 when President Johnson formally created the National Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress to examine the issues and file a report” which it did in 1966.  The radical Right-wing Republican-controlled Congress of today has little or nothing but mythical axioms to offer on the matter. Donald Trump has declared that he loves such vast destructive possibilities because they open up many new opportunities for profit.
  • countless hard-edged business executives and boards of directors across the world are engaged in discussing the coming changes, not in terms of how human beings will be affected, but as “creative destruction” from which will emerge tremendous opportunities to cut costs and increase profits
  • “the transition to this new era will likely be marked by social upheaval the likes of which has only rarely been seen; an already troubling situation is about to get considerably worse”
  • A Harvard economist, Edward L. Glaeser, wrote a paper in 2014 in which he said that America’s most worrying social trend was the 40-year rise in the number and share of jobless adults.  But what comes next will be an explosion of automation that “will eliminate millions of additional jobs”
  • A broad assessment of unemployment, including people who are no longer seeking employment (the ‘hidden unemployed’) reveals that the employment situation is not simply a function of a short-term boom-and-bust business cycle, but instead a longer-term problem of stagnation in which recoveries after downturns now take longer and recessions grow more severe and longer-lasting.
  • The economy is generating fewer middle-class jobs and an increasing proportion of available jobs provide incomes at poverty levels (this is also a phenomenon across all sixteen EU nations)
  • Since the 1970’s, worker output has grown, in some cases sharply, but wages have stagnated
  • “The emerging automation wave that (some have) called attention to, is going to replace millions of jobs and alter the nature of many of those jobs that remain.  University of Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins expects an actual unemployment rate in the neighborhood of 50 percent.”  While such predictions strike the authors as somewhat extreme, at the very least, they say, “what is about to transpire is going to put severe downward pressure on wages and working conditions, which already are deplorable.”
  • At best, say the authors, “we can hope for ‘under-employment’ where men and women work part-time; accept jobs far below their skill level; or else undertake unskilled work of the sort traditionally assigned to immigrants.
Something our so-called leaders have also basically ignored, or have attempted to diminish, is essential to our future actions.  There is what the authors call a “democratic infrastructure” without which an advanced economy – no matter its particular construct – cannot exist.  “It involves the institutions, instruments and procedures provided by the state that render the use of democratic rights possible.”  This involves not only the right to vote, but all of the Bill of Rights, plus:
    • effective elections where there is genuine competition and one person-one vote is the order of the day 
    • stringent limits on money in politics
    • limits on the power of the Judiciary to act in an arbitrary and unaccountable manner
    • the ability to launch effective new parties or associations
    • free trade unions with effective collective bargaining
    • open, transparent governance
    • a credible, independent and uncensored free press/media
    • universal free schools with civic education
    • a basic level of social security, limited only by the overall productive capacity of the society
    • an environment that can sustain and nurture life
“When a democratic infrastructure is dynamic and growing, notions of fairness, justice, egalitarianism and public service are respected and widespread.  Trust increases.  Provocative new ideas are put in play and subject to debate. 
When the democratic infrastructure is weak or in decline, the political culture shrivels, self-interest reigns, and demoralization and pessimism ascend.  After four decades of relentless attack on the democratic infrastructure, it has severely shrunk in the United States today, and much of what remains is in jeopardy… aggravated by a pathetic and corrupt political response.  It is here, on this battlefield…that the outcome will determine whose future it will be…
It is where those concerned about how America responds to the jobs crisis we are facing must turn their attention.  In a time of crisis, it means everything.”
And so we come to the major reason why denial and procrastination, reluctance to problem-solve and the overall tendency to protect business enterprises prevail -- We no longer possess a representative democracy.  We now possess a protective, industrial-financial oriented plutocracy that exists for very different reasons than originally envisioned in the ‘democratic infrastructure.’.  Instead, conservative mythology has taken over and placed all of us in jeopardy as we face the present and emerging future because they believe:
“The main job of governance is to make sure that the profit system works smoothly, contracts and private property are respected and enforced, the dispossessed are kept in line, and, if there is an economic crisis, the government intervenes as necessary to make it lucrative for businesses and wealthy individuals to invest again.  Big government is A-OK when it advances the interests of capital… small government is the order of the day.  Governance is best when it is left to those who fully appreciate that the needs of investors come first and foremost.  And that is most likely to happen if most everyone else tunes out politics and focuses on other matters.” The Plutocracy generally endorses this conservative viewpoint and works at all governmental levels to exert its influence to bring their concerns, and this pro-business ideology, to the forefront of governance.”
According to the authors, “The one thing Americans are in overwhelming agreement on, in poll after poll and election result after election result, is that neither major party has a plan for the future.” While Pope Francis counsels that ‘contemporary man has not been trained to use power well,’ few political figures have thought deeply enough about the issues to recognize, as the Pope did in his 2015 encyclical, that ‘our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience’.”
The book’s Introduction concludes: “We the people are the only force that can make a future worthy of our hopes and our humanity.  And our tool is the only tool that has ever taken the power to define the future away from the elites and given it to the whole of humanity: democracy.” 
The point is to shape progress, not as customers or consumers, not as clicks to be counted or employees struggling to synch ourselves into automated workplaces, but as citizens engaged in a democratic process of organizing a new economy that reflects our values and our needs.”  The purposes of Labor Day demand no less. Our future destiny demands further exploration of what can be done by government to advance not just industries, but human values, responsibility and involvement.