Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Productivity Policy for the Twentieth Century

We have it. One catch: it’s the twenty-first century. Yes we need greater access to higher education without the financial drains that seem to have decimated our Millennials and their successors. Yes our public education system at the primary and secondary levels is suffering from on-going budget cuts just as new enrollees add increasing demand pressures on the system. And yes, our tenure and seniority systems that protect substandard educators need to be updated into the current globally competitive world. But what we don’t have is any realistic set of national and state priorities that deal with how productivity should be fostered in the new world of automation and trending toward the subsets of robotics and artificial intelligence.
No matter how you approach the issues, there are deep societal impacts on virtually all of us. For every dollar earned by a human being that is shifted to an automated machine, that money moves out of the wage category where most Americans reside into a “return on invested capital” silo where the one percenters live. In short, moving from man to machine migrates the productivity values out of labor and over to those who own the machines, exacerbating an already distorted U.S. income inequality reality.
We also have dire warnings from the likes of Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk of the dangers of independent-“thinking” robots imbued with artificial intelligence – the horribles that made the Terminator films so compelling. Lean, mean killing machines are becoming an integral part of a new artificial intelligence arms race.
And we have warnings that the jobs we count on today will be gobbled up in the technology of the future: “With the workforce going through such radical changes in such a short amount of time, just what effect will an AI takeover have on our workplace? Some believe the robotics workplace will sabotage jobs for humans. This 2013 Oxford study reports that work automation will put 47% of existing jobs in the U.S. at ‘high risk,’ meaning human workers in those jobs will be replaced by robots within 20 years.”, July 28th. Some say we’ll only lose the “grunt work” of corporate America, but with skills dropping as educational standards erode, isn’t that the lower-level work that most young Americans are really being prepared for?
Despite the above projections, strangely, after many years of serious productivity gains as the recession eliminated jobs by the millions and handed over the underlying tasks to a smaller cadre of harder-working survivors equipped with updated and production technology support, we have begun to see a contraction of those productivity increases. In short, most of the last spate of technology upgrades and labor efficiencies have been absorbed by the economy. Thus, the income inequality skew is already reflected in society, so until the next jump in these factors, the impact of these past variables is settling down. Oddly, the investment vectors in updated technically-superior systems has also slowed as corporate chieftains reflect their own fears over global uncertainties, from ISIS to Greek-induced European instability and the fall of the Chinese stock markets.  
“Economist Robert Atkinson of the think tank Information Technology & Innovation Foundation says rising claims that robots are taking our jobs are ‘amazingly shallow analysis’ and, in fact, the exact opposite is happening if we look at productivity rates, which are dropping in the U.S. Atkinson attributes this drop to two factors: one, companies in the U.S. are not investing in machinery, equipment, and software like they did 30 years ago, and two, the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of increasing productivity has already been implemented—for instance, the kiosks where you check in at airports.
“He also blames the drop to the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have any kind of national productivity policy… ‘There are a lot of things the government can do to speed up the rate of productivity,’ says Atkinson. ‘But there’s no productivity policy anywhere in the U.S. government.’… He adds: ‘Other countries, for example, Australia, they have a National Productivity Commission whose job is to identify opportunities and policies to improve productivity. We don’t have anything like that. We just assume it’s going to happen.”
But our government, especially at the federal level, has fallen into a “reactive-only” legislative effort. We don’t prepare and direct the future, we react to massive disasters and “society-gone-wrong” variables that have already occurred. Planning for the future has left the Capitol building, as our woefully inadequate “catch-up” infrastructure policies reflect. We used to have a vision of who we are and where we wanted to go, but perhaps we don’t know and, in a world of following-the-polls and the distortions of Citizens United political influence spending, perhaps politicians have just given up their once-cherished job of leading. They are mostly followers today.
Even when elements of government try and fill the void – like the White House TechHire initiative (“to coordinate the efforts of the federal government, cities, corporations and schools to train workers for the thousands of current job openings in the tech sector” New York Times, July 28th) – these are only underfunded, Congressionally unsupported efforts that add mini-drops to a vat of failed policy directives. Take a college grad with a traditional degree, add some training in writing computer code, and watch the available menial jobs morph into highly-paid careers in the tech industry. But change is not just coming; tsunami-level alterations in skillset values have been with us for years.
Some experts see large-scale automation as inevitable, but not as total job destroyers, just job shifters. Like Atkinson, [Garry G. Mathiason, chairman of law firm Littler Mendelson, which has a specialization in robotics employment law issues] says there’s no reason to worry. He explains that the 47% found in Oxford’s widely cited study isn’t about jobs being taken over by robots, nor does it have anything to do with unemployment.
“He explains: ‘There will be a displacement and there will be a repositioning of people into jobs that we don’t even have today that we will have in the future. If you look back in history, you’ll see that this disruption has been going on for some time. Not as fast as what we’re currently experiencing, but nonetheless there.’
“As an example, Mathiason points to the agriculture industry, which in 1870 employed 70% to 80% of the population, but today, less than 1% make their money from agriculture… ‘If you look at the historical unemployment rate, you’ll see that with technology advancing, unemployment has actually stayed the same or declined. And I would see that happening for the next decade where the unemployment aspect taking our jobs will be less of a factor, but we’ll be dealing with displacement. People where their skills are obsolete will have to reposition themselves with training for different careers. After 10 years, there’s a real potential that it will start to affect employment in the workplace in a way that could be very positive.’” Even as most of the new jobs that have grown in the post-recession years are at average pay-level less than what existed before that economic downturn.
Lots of opinions, lots of trends, but whatever the issues, most Americans are truly unprepared for the changes, our leaders don’t have a point of view and our educational system simply is a rehash of what was with new unaffordable pricing to make the process even less beneficial for society as a whole. I for one, am more interested in leadership from smart people in government, but when you look at the utterances of candidates running for the highest office in the land, you have to wince. What are your views of what is happening and what really should happen?
I’m Peter Dekom, and as America struggles with solving problems of the past, there are too many countries in the world building for the future who are laughing at our lack of vision.

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