The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Maiello's picture

    Work, You Wretches!

    Meanwhile, back over at TPMCafe, Jon Taplin makes an interesting argument in his post "Merchants Of Fear."  Two, actually.  The first is that some people, especially peddlars of gold and survivalist rations, are purposefully overselling the state of American decline in order to make a buck.  Granted.  But then there's this:

    "Consider the great sore on our body politic---unemployment. It may just be that the forces of innovation and technology, are finally delivering the long forgotten dream that we would invent machines to do all the grunt work and man would have free time to educate himself, make art, volunteer for charity or perhaps do nothing."

    Whoah!  Now it might be that Taplin, who can be a bit, um, removed from the plight of the working man at times, is just not getting it.  We're not losing bad, dangerous jobs to automation.  We're actually losing good trades to underpaid workers abroad.  But there's something somewhat true about it.  Maybe robots, not people, should be the ones who get trapped in mines or spend their days picking fruit.

    I've never been able to find it again but I recall reading a Woodrow Wilson address where he basically apologized for not having the means to spare people from having to work for a living.  Can you imagine a president saying anything like that today?

    I think Taplin grew up on the same triumphalist science fiction that I did.  Star Trek is probably the best example -- mankind develops technology that frees the species from resource deprivation and as a result is that people for the most part can pursue whatever careers or aims they want.  With food and energy in limitless supply they won't suffer for choosing an unprofitable course through life.  The invisible hand of the market is effectively broken or at least made to serve humanity rather than the other way around.  To us the economy is something of a god.  In this kind of science fiction utopia that god is tamed by our own ingenuity.

    Is this possible?  Time will tell.  The math doesn't look great at the moment and the laws of thermodynamics are problematic so we'll have to start an online petition against them.  But forget the possible.  Shouldn't something like this be our goal?  Shouldn't we view the hours and hours of work that people do, some of it dangerous and much of it unpleasant, as a problem to be solved rather than the foundation of modern life?

    In this thread about Social Security cmaukonen channels George Carlin for us:

    "You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money."

    You know, I always suspected that the childhood game "Operation" was there to make parents think they were encouraging their kids to be doctors when it was really teaching them micro assembly line work.

    Carlin is exactly right.  Our society is set up to encourage the vast majority of citizens to work for other people and to spend most of their time pursuing profit-laden dreams that are not their own.  Not working at all is, of course, frowned upon and if you try to do it too long and aren't lucky enough to have the means to support it, you will be left to starve to death if you're not imprisoned for some reason.  But even working for yourself isn't really encouraged.  I know some of you have your own businesses (as does my sister) and I really admire that but I can tell you this that you already know -- the tax code and the structure of benefits sure doesn't make it easy!  A truly accommodative system would have public health care so that entrepreneurs aren't forced into a pricey private market for individuals.  A truly accommodative system wouldn't split Social Security between employers and employees while leaving the self employed to foot both sides of the bill.

    The social order as it stands depends on having most people answering to some one else, showing up at a certain place at a certain time to perform assigned tasks.  Heck, we even allow employers to do things to employees that the government is not allowed to do.  Employers can examine your credit records, test you for drugs, require you to quit smoking and even regulate your political activity and freedom of expression.  The workplace also regulates the culture, putting people in either official uniforms or the norms of business casual.  The government can't do any of that.  There is a very purposeful power structure in place and most all of us are a part of it.

    So bring on the robots so that more of us can be poets and sculptors!  Thing is, you have to share the productivity gains broadly for that to happen.



    Ha. When I first started to read Peak Oil websites and blogs I noticed that gold bug ads figured prominently. And speaking of survivalists, a few days ago I had to laugh. A lawyer named Matt Savinar jumped on the peak oil bus early. His website, Life After the Oil Crash, was publicly endorsed by Roscoe Bartlett, the conservative Republican representative from MD who has spoken out about Peak Oil over the last decade. Savinar peddled survivalist books, reposted the most dire of articles, and ran a LATOC discussion board. From time to time he would drop hints that he was preparing to move to a safe place before THSHTF. A few weeks ago he posted notices that he will no longer be updating the site.

    Now, The Oil Drum has also begun changes to their site, refocussing on energy issues, but Savinar took an entirely new tack:

    Last Friday's update will be the final LATOC Breaking News update. LATOC will remain as an archived resource here on the web but will no longer be updated. I'm moving on to focus on my astrological and related practices. Those of you who have asked about consultations, my standard rate is $200 for a full anaylsis of your chart in MS Word format.

    Sadly, the run in investable gold has confused those who buy overpriced coins to put in their fallout shelters.  Give it 3-5 years and we'll be seeing some serious lawsuits.

    Destor, you surely have given one something to chew upon today.  The first part of the blog does remind me of the situation in the logging industry.  One of the constant refrains one would hear in the attempt to prevent clearcutting and move to a more sustainable method of timber extraction was that we treehuggers were costing them their jobs.  And it was true there was a decreasing amounts of timber jobs (this was up in British Columbia).  But the "funny" thing was more timber was being extracted than in the past.  The problem was  that the timber industry was becoming more and more mechanized.  Fewer and fewer workers were needed to take down more and more trees.

    Then you added that the raw timber was being exported by the multinational corporations overseas (to Asis in our case) where it was processed and value added (turned into furniture, etc).  Then that was turned around and sent back to the land of timber to be sold.  We can all see how that system was going to last very long, since there were fewer and fewer people who could afford to by the furniture. 

    As British Columbia and its counterpart in the Pacific Northwest also showed, just because one wants to switch gears (we used to cut trees now lets do some other trade) through job retraining etc., it isn't that easy.  One of the things the efforts in the post-spotted owl days in the Pacific Northwest showed, even if one still buys into the whole "work" thing, a lot of people are intensely resistant to switching the kind of labor that they have grown accustomed to. 

    Which kind of leads me to the rest of your blog. The facet that is kind of lurking there beneath it all is that people incorporate their labor, their work, what they "do" into their self-identity.  Any attempts to confront people's conceptions and understanding of labor inevitably leads to the necessity of confronting their concept of self, which is by extension, also confronting their understanding of the world around them. 

    One last tidbit: Pew Research just came out with their latest poll on people's view of creationism and evolution. According to the results, about 4 out 10 people believe in a strict intepretation of creationism (i.e. the world is about 10,000 years old).  I have to wonder culturally speaking to what extent this particular worldview has in terms of an individual's relationship to employer (i.e. the one higher up on the hierarchy).

    Mighty convenient to blame the environmentalists. I'm sure the timber industry stood up and cleared up that mistake.

    Good point about people identifying with their jobs / purpose for living. We may find it an interesting concept; others will definitely see it as a threat to their understanding of the world.

    So bring on the robots so that more of us can be poets and sculptors!  Thing is, you have to share the productivity gains broadly for that to happen.

    Yes, it's just that last part...the part about sharing productivity gains broadly that is one of the rubs with this scenario.  Because last time I checked, you have to earn money to pay for stuff, no one gives you leisure or the stuff you need just because the technology to produce it exists. 

    There is a baffling loopiness to the way of thinking that says if we just invent robots to do the scut work humans don't want to do or should not do because it's too dangerous, we can all do art, hang out, etc.  I participated in an amazon exchange on this with a reviewer, one Julian Jaynes, of the Martin Ford book The Lights in the Tunnel (until I checked out of the thread because I wasn't interested in continuing a conversation with Jaynes because he was acting like a dick):

    Yeah, that's just it.  Unless you invent the and own the robot and set it out to do all the tasks you don't want to do, you get no benefit.  If some one else owns the robot they just replace you with it, rendering you useless to them for those functions but if you're lucky they might hire you to do something else.

    Which is why I thought Woodrow Wilson's insight, though it was a fleeting one and seems to have caught no one's eye but mine, was interesting because at least he acknowledged that an eventual aim of society should be to free us all from drudgery and unrewarding labor.  Once you accept that as the goal of this human enterprise then you start making different decisions and you say "we don't need them to build cars anymore, let them do as they will."

    But you're right.  Under the current system the savings afforded by the robot go right to the person using the robots and then they say, "you don't need to make cars anymore.  Now clean my robot."

    But somehow I'm told we don't have classes in America.

    It's an interesting dilemma, and one that no less of a luminary than Einstein himself opined about (albeit, well outside his realm of expertise):

    If two factories produce the same sort of goods, other things being equal, that factory will be able to produce them more cheaply which employs fewer workmen- i.e., makes the individual worker work as long and as hard as human nature permits. From this it follows inevitably that, with methods of production as they are today, only a portion of the available labor can be used. While unreasonable demands are made on this portion, the remainder is automatically excluded from the process of production. This leads to a fall in sales and profits. Businesses go smash, which further increases unemployment and diminishes confidence in industrial concerns and therewith public participation in the mediating banks; finally the banks become insolvent through the sudden withdrawl of accounts and the wheels of industry therewith come to a complete standstill. (Albert Einstein, 1934)

    One thing Einstein may not have considered was the increase in consumption that our consumer-drien society has produced. (It's also worth reading Einstein's other ideas on Socialism.)

    Destor, I don't know about robots, why do they get all the good jobs, while we still have to clean bath rooms.

    On a sabbatical I taught woodshop at a design school. There was an interesting phenomenon. Teaching students to use a table saw the Asian students would step up with gusto, rip a piece of pine like it was second nature. The other kids (American?) looked puzzled. The girls giggled, the boys looked down at the floor. Couldn't figure it out, culture, hand-eye coordination, what?

    In any case, my opinion is that the satisfaction of working with materials, the brain nourishment and rearrangement of cells, the micro task at hand versus macro angst--I think these are part of evolution. Our problem is that we have  become separated from the basics. Manual work has been overly denigrated--a large part of the cause of which is the organizing of work into shitty assembly lines.

    I also think, speaking for myself, that the best recipe for down moods is to get up, take a walk, or clean toilets. Screw the robots.

    You had me up until the "clean toilets" bit. I can understand the joys of chopping wood, or of building things (if you're any good at it), but I've never enjoyed cleaning - unless I'm allowed to use explosives, or at least a sandblaster. (I wonder how well a sandblaster would work on a toilet?)

    I agree with both of you.  We shouldn't denigrate physical activity and labor.  I love the gym.  Toilets, not so much.  But then, I've worked retail with public restrooms. Blech.

    Well someone's got to clean the toilet. At least that's what my wife tells me.

    2 words: robots.

    I recommend reading some of what Walter Russell Mead has been writing on this general topic for quite some time, with an open mind, simply because he's quite thought provoking on it.

    I ended up starting with this recent one the other day because I saw it recommended at Arts & Letters Daily with the lede along these lines: Right now, too many intellectuals try to turn this into a left/right debate rather than one about the past and the future-

    The Crisis of the American Intellectual

    And went to this one from there, from early this year, which I recommend people should really start with:

    American Challenges: The Blue Model Breaks Down

    where he argues quite convincingly how there's no going back to the stable non-competitive post war years of stagnant big American corps like IBM, three big car cos. and Ma Bell type monopolies that helped us continue the New Deal paradigm in government.

    Then I saw Emma Zahn point to another recent one here on stardust's "Liberal/Progressive Values" blog.

    Note: his essays aren't as long as they first appear, it's the comments taking up a lot of the bottom of the page.

    Fascinating stuff and immediately bookmarked.  I like his worried optimism.  Nobody on our side believes that bringing back paternalistic monopolies is the answer.  I came out of an industry that got knocked on its kiester by massive changes in the economy and the dissemination of information.  A lot of the old things that I grew up loving are just kind of dead.  The Woody Allen myth of the comfortably upper middle class Manhattan existence in an interesting knowledge profession has been, well... people now do for free what a lot of those characters did for a living.  I know, boo hoo.All the blue collar professions have gone through this already. But I don't see how you don't get more and more anger at an economy where people leave school in debt, where the most interesting jobs don't pay and where every day more and more risk is transferred to them while the supposed rewards of education, including access to the finer things in society are inflated out of reach.

    Meade seems to have a good handle on the problems, and a good handle on why the old answers won't work, but I wonder what he's going to suggest as his Liberalism 5.0 unfolds.  Oh wait... newspapers unfold.  Software launches, doesn't it?  Or does it roll out?  I'm only 35 but sometimes I feel old.

      I'm only 35 but sometimes I feel old.

    Well I have a couple of decades on you and all I can tell you is that I'm sure you wouldn't have had to learn how to use no internet nor no cell phone if Ma Bell was still around. as there wouldn't be any. (And you might not be able to afford their touch tone fees either.) And going to the DMV was absolutely positively much more torturous in those good ole days, the "Blue" essay sure did bring back some maddening memories.


    You say "paternalistic monopoly" like that's a bad thing.

    Mead does make the interesting argument that it was a bad thing for feminists and minorities, hence "patern." I believe when I was a youngin' we called it "the man" as in "you can't fight the man."

    He also points out that Americans don't like to be patronized or told what to do.  We have a desire for individual freedom that he calls "honor."  I think there's something to that.  The big companies of old were extremely intrusive.  Henry Ford monitored how his employees were paid and forbade them to spend money on alcohol or any extravagance.  That kind of meddling diminished after World War I and certainly after World War II but the figure of the businessman statesmen who would help design society for all us little people endured.  I actually think Michael Bloomberg is the legacy of that.

    Right, I think those are interesting points. Any time I hear the word "program" come out of a
    Democrat's mouth I cringe. I don't think Republicans use that word, it does sound "patronizing".

    Mead's phrase:"Nobody has a real answer for the restructuring of manufacturing and the loss of jobs to automation as well as outsourcing."

    I think the answer is out there in bold type.It was well couched by a guest on Bloomberg radio this morning, paraphrasing:"The jobs that have been created are in the service sectors, lower level jobs.That won't do it to bring back the economy. We need to be more competitive in the trade-able goods sector."

    Translated. Slightly better manufacturing jobs than flipping hamburgers; low wages; shipping our goods to the emerging classes of India, China, Indonesia, etc; maintenance of our corporatocracy-run government; rising tide lifting all boats, but our boats getting smaller and big boats getting bigger. 

    "Exports" is now the watch word in financial commentary. The unsaid words are "low wage manufacturing jobs"--that's how you get "competitive goods for trading."


    In case you haven't seen it yet, Mead has part 2 up.

    Give The People What They Want

    Lots I don't agree with but he like everyone else I read is still stuck in the paradigm of a job-based economy.  Mead and Destor's post here are about the only ones I have seen to start thinking beyond that.


    I agree with Mead that replicating the "Blue Model" is not a sufficient response to the problems facing our society but take exception to at least two elements he presents.

    While the old manufacturing giants have passed away and a certain class of monopolies cannot operate in the global economy, there is nonetheless a "stable" class of wealthy people who intend to keep it the way they like it. So when Mead says: "The stable economic structure allowed a stable division of the pie", it is not like those people all disappeared or handed off their gains to mysterious elements that cannot be comprehended. It would be more accurate to say that the pie that has been moved to a Commanding Height above the grasping masses. Mead weakens his call for new solutions when he blows off considering one of the elements that caused the New Deal to come about.

    I object to the notion that intellectuals are a protected industry that relies mainly on the perception of a false scarcity. The charge could certainly be leveled at the blowhards of various established institutes of broad disinformation but Mead doesn't acknowlege the real division of labor where years of work in specific disciplines is necessary to do certain kinds of work and study. Now if he were to look at how the academic world is generated by various means of production, then the contrast to the changes before the information age would be more about how things are made and less about a guild storing work.When looking at the disconnect between academic and "ordinary" discourse, I think Marcuse is correct that the lacuna is about keeping a critical activity from breaking up the monopoly of what can be said.

    I just recalled the following with which I can throw a big wrench into this discussion:

    What the whole world wants is a good job

    Hey, mebbe the U.S. can continue to be the big revolutionary leader in the world by being the first to no longer be caring so much about having a "good job"? Go back to wanting some of those other things people used to say they wanted more, like "love, money, food, shelter, safety, and/or peace"?


    Random thoughts: I thought it was you, Destor, who said not long ago that people like to work, an like factory jobs; and many, in fact, take pride in making things.  I think so, too, as long as the conditions are good, the pay is good, and the benefits are good.

    Robots and other machines: Kimmel did a funny piece the other night (that's what I was looking for when I saw the Obama/robot piece) on the Chinese having developed a Service Robot: Just what the Chinese need with eleventy-billion people needing work.  More machines: loads of the stimulus money (the part that wasn't the 40% in tax breaks) went to machines.  Especially highway resurfacing and construction.  Now many said those were the only 'shovel ready projects' the administration could find after claiming there were loads of them ready, but you can't forget what a machine actually costs to do those jobs.  George Will's quote of Friedman or someone watching some of the workers with picks and shovels on WPA projects was: "Why don't you give them spoons to use?" showed the same arrogance and disdain for human work, which back then was considered 'honorable work'.  But we're supposed to howl along with George.

    But machines have plenty of hidden costs beyond the original price, and we need to be rigorous comparing kinds of work and costs.  We can scoff at manual labor, and then pay dearly for wonderfully made, artisan goods that are made by hand, but well. Maybe we just started making schlock, functional but ugly crap that has zero life, and isn't worth repairing.  Which is a whole 'nother problem: importing unsafe plastic crap, or inferior crap which we throw away soon, and it becomes a huge problem for landfills and the oceans.  You know: that foating island of debris, circling around the Pacific Ocean?  Leaching hydrocarbons and killing every plant and animal life form it coats with its devilish liquid slime?

    Meade: is stuff sounds a lot like the push the Clintonistas pushed when defending NAFTA: sure, tons of US workers will lose their jobs, but we'll retrain you!  then those new jobs were off-shored; more re-training, except less the second time, then the third, until some workers were too old to bec considered 'worth retraining'.   Talk about losing 'honor'.  They called it 'creative destruction', and it may have worked for some, but it's a lot easier to buy on paper, or intellectuallize than put into practice. 

    Emma laughed about new ideas of progressives; well, just to name a few that would be very viable industries are retro-fitting office towers to green standards; tax breaks for building office towers or apartments that require almost zero energy, using the sun, and circulating water through the buildings to heat and cool them: the models already exist.  Painting roof-tops white: great for low-skilled labor, and energy saving.  Rail, especially high speed for metro areas.  Yet we build highways.  It's crazy.  More machines, more macadem to soak up heat in summer, more fossil fuels to run cars, which of course, has been the point all along: keeping our fossil fuel dependence from Carter to the still -secret Cheney energy task force.  and our friendship and weapons-system gifts to Saudi Arabia: control the price and flow of oil to keep it cheap enough we don't have the will to go to alternatives with any big push.  Very little ever accomplished with CAFE standards: same reasons, yet they tell us it;s the auto manufacturers balking at it.  Now would be a fine time for them,, yes?

    I hope some seious people consider Meade's actual proposals when he publishes them--and not the Tom Friedmans of the world.

    One more thing on factory alternatives: remember the early attempts at employee-owned factories and businesses?  There've been some successes; does anyone know why there aren't more? Too much employee turnover or something?  They couldn't compete with foreign products and Walmart discount purchasing?  Speaking of which: there seems to be no will to make Big Box Stores really be fair to employees: they kkep people working at just few enough hours to receive benefits.  What crap.

    Anyway: one rant down.  ;o)  Interesting subject, Destor.

    The solutions to unemployment are WPA projects and, like you say, a massiver retooling of our infrastructure along energy efficient lines. Massive expenditures on education and technology. Sadly. I feel that that option, except for isolated projects, is not going to happen. 

    Yes, definitely. It was Star Trek and other sci-fi stories that led to my ruination as a card-carrying capitalist drone. I say ruination because the daily grind really grinds when you realize how pernicious the prevailing worldview truly is; when you cannot even question any aspect of it without being demonized and dismissed as a commie socialist. Questioning the prevailing economic theories and interpretation of capitalism is heresy but I do it anyway. I am very, very lonely. :-)

    I live in a red state and work(ed) in finance where it is difficult to find anyone like-minded. It has been almost as hard looking left online. Pre-2008 financial meltdown, so many progressives identified themselves as fiscally-conservative social progressives and almost all ran screaming from the liberal label. We are or were too comfortable econmically. Like passengers on the Titanic, never imagining the ship might sink.

    As painful as the financial crisis may end up being, maybe there will be a silver lining if enough are shaken out of their economic rut.

    More to come (hopefully).

    I was talking to a guy today who was working so many hours that he couldn't do anything else. Still, he knew enough people who were out of work that he felt lucky. It is a reminder how the union's success in getting time and a half after forty hours spread the work around until the cost of benefits made it cheaper to work two employee to death at 1&1/2rather than hire a third.
     Just one more reason for single payer universal health care.

    The thing about robots doing all the work sounds great....except that then most people don't have an income. So we don't have this great society where no one has to work...we have a few rich people getting all the profits and everyone else basically homeless.

    The problem is that is exactly what's going to happen if things don't change.

    For a great overview of this, see this book:

    "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future"

    A free PDF is also available here:

    Also see the author's blog at

    I think the issues raised in this book are among the most important that we will have to confront as a society. I encourage everyone to read it...

    Thanks, Anonymous; I got lost in the Google Cloud computing piece.  The point at which so few have good jobs or discretionary income driving people from the service, causing it to tank...hmmm.  We are such a short-sighted species.  OT, but a thought: somewhere I read today that the future of the economic revival would be women.  Maybe because they plan out for the future more often?  (I only read the headline.)

    Check out the fifth comment in this thread, which also referenced the Martin Ford book The Lights in the Tunnel.  My worldview is hereby slightly modified.  Until now, I had thought that it is only women who say smart stuff in meetings or discussions that gets ignored, followed by a man saying the same thing, probably less well, and eliciting huzzahs all the way around the room for being a freakin' genius.

    Yes, of course I am pulling your leg, anonymous, with an attempt at light-heartedness about an unfunny reality I'm sure many here at dag have experienced.  I think there is less of an expectation in online threads that commenters will read all of the earlier comments in the thread before hitting send than there is that people in FTF or videoconferenced meetings will listen, or at least pretend to listen, to what is being said. 

    That said, I could swear that 80% of what gets said in meetings I attend is not actually heard, or at least is processed, if at all, somewhere in the medulla or amygdala or other primitive, low cognition parts of the brain.  Which raises a variant of the tree-falling-in-the-woods-with-no-creature-on-hand-to observe it question: If a word is uttered in a meeting but not heard, was it spoken? 

    "Meetings: The Practical Alternative to Work" reads a sign a highly productive, frustrated colleague of mine has posted on her office door.  Do any of you work at places where the meetings are actually good, productive?  Surely there must be some such places, somewhere.  How does that happen?

    On your recommendation, I'm a third of the way through Light now.  Thanks for the tip!

    I've never been able to find it again but I recall reading a Woodrow Wilson address where he basically apologized for not having the means to spare people from having to work for a living.  Can you imagine a president saying anything like that today?

    No. One of America's most prominent commentators already spends most of his time bleating on about Wilson being the devil incarnate.

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