Monday, November 3, 2014

The Triple Revolution Statement – 50 Years Later, It’s as Perceptive as Ever

In the spring of 1964, a group of scientists, professors, social activists, and experts on technology issued a report and addressed it to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.  The document, published in Liberation magazine, claimed that mankind was on the edge of not one but three profound historic transitions. 

The second shift was “the weaponry revolution.”   In the center of the Cold War, fears about nuclear bombs, which per the report “cannot win wars but can obliterate civilization,” peaked.  The third was “the human rights revolution,” fueled by the American black equality movement, which it described as “only the local manifestation of a worldwide movement toward the establishment of social and political regimes in which every individual will feel valued and none will feel rejected on account of his race.”  Both of these were highly accurate, though with different outcomes.  Nuclear weapons, for various reasons, especially as Sting put it that the Russians did indeed “love their children too,” have not been used in war since.  In America the civil rights revolution has erased maybe 90% of the legal, structural, and major social inequalities – hardly complete, but a very admirable result given the difficulties in changing human behavior.   However, the country, and other developed ones, has done less well on the second part of Martin Luther King’s march – the need for jobs.  That brings us to the first upheaval – “the cybernation revolution.”

It may seem hard to imagine that in 1964, only 18 years after the first true computer was released and few existed outside governments, the military, universities, and the largest companies, that people were concerned about the effects of automation, but they were – and well before then.  Mathematician Norbert Wiener had published The Human Use of Human Beings:  Cybernetics and Society in 1950, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano, about a future where machines had made the great majority of work unnecessary, had arrived two years later.  The Triple Revolution paper called cybernation “a new era of production,” following the agricultural (extraction) and industrial phases.  For the revolution, it credited “the combination of the computer and the automated self-regulating machine,” which would result in “a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor.” 

If that doesn’t seem predictive enough, we can look at what else the article foresaw:

  • Machines would use most resources, leaving more and more humans dependent on government handouts.  (We now have 3 million officially long-term jobless.)
  • “A growing proportion of the population is subsisting on minimal incomes, often below the poverty line, at a time when sufficient productive potential is available to supply the needs of everyone in the United States.”  (That reflects the rising gap between mean and median individual or family income, and the ever-growing piles of money in the hands of the 1% and the largest companies.)
  • “The general economic approach argues” that demand for goods and services is understated, and that all of the capacity in workers and other resources will be needed again.  (That is still the largest reason for observers not seeing the jobs crisis as permanent.)
  • “The underlying cause of excessive unemployment is the fact that the capability of machines is rising more rapidly than the capacity of many human beings to keep pace.”  (Rising prosperity and demand prevented the jobs crisis from really taking effect until 1973, with various booms and bubbles slowing it down for 36 years after that, but automation, along with globalization, has been the main cause of the work shortage.)
  • “A permanent impoverished and jobless class established in the midst of potential abundance.”  (Exactly what has been happening here; see “The American Rasta Class” in Work’s New Age.) 
  • “The number of people who have voluntarily removed themselves from the labor force is not constant but increases continuously.”  (The article didn’t anticipate the mass influx of women, which allowed the labor force participation rate and employment-to-population ratio to keep rising for decades, but both measures are now at or near the lowest ever since that trend was only halfway finished.)

The document contains many recommendations for dealing with the jobs crisis.  They include, as “the traditional link between jobs and incomes is being broken… to provide every individual and every family with an adequate income as a matter of right,” as a replacement for welfare, unemployment compensation, and other similar programs.  It also advocates, among others, the following:

  • A huge public works program (which I have supported since 2011, and columnists from Paul Krugman to David Brooks have since called for)
  • Much more low-cost housing (a lot has been built since 1964)
  • A new public-power system based on coal (actually, in the case of anthracite, an almost  pollution-free fuel)
  • Repurposing old military bases (has been done a great deal since then)
  • More of an “excess-profits tax.”

For various reasons, especially within the service-sector phase which the committee either played down or missed, truly widespread joblessness has not happened yet.  The majority of adults are still working, with most of those getting the bulk of their income that way.  It is not true, though, that because the worst effects of automation did not come to pass as quickly as this committee expected, they never will.  On this planet we have probably run out of labor-intensive work areas.  Large online servers, for example, employ less than a hundredth of those once working for the auto industry.  The Triple Revolution authors also did not anticipate competition from foreign workers, with at least ten times as many suitable for American-style jobs as in 1964. 

Sometimes prophecies don’t take effect for a while.  Christians, whose spiritual forbears were Jews waiting for the son of God for millennia, will tell you that.  And there are frankly no good reasons to think we will have full employment any time this century, which will bring, and is bringing, new problems we must solve.  As this visionary statement said, history will record that – even if it takes fifty years longer than expected.                     

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