WHEN MACHINES REPLACE WORKERS
(Denele Campbell blogs from Arkansas. You can read more at www.denelecampbell.com)
On March 11, 1811, hand loom weavers (the Luddites) swarmed the streets of Arnold, Nottingham in the dark of night. They broke into textile factories equipped with the latest technologies, smashed pieces of factory equipment and burned the mills. Over the next five years, the movement spread throughout England. Industrialists invested in safe rooms inside their factories to protect themselves from attack.
The movement died in its tracks when the government stepped in with mass trials, with over thirty men ultimately executed or transported to penal colonies in Australia. The government went on to pass legislation making equipment destruction a capital offense.
The Luddites didn’t start with violence. Rather, like regular hardworking people, they expected their industrialist employers to make nice as new machines were brought in to replace workers. The employers didn’t bother because nobody made them. They found that higher profits fit quite nicely into their fattening pocketbooks.
The Luddite eruption speaks to a trend that ticked up to light speed in the twentieth century. More and more workers are forced to find new careers. No one could argue that this has been a bad thing. Gone are the backbreaking labors of producing food, clothing, and life’s many necessities. We have refrigeration, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, automobiles, and iPhones.
But for each of these inventions, there has been a devastating impact on jobs. Without the sense of accomplishment and self-respect that a job well done provides, modern people face an unexpected dilemma.
Latest job forecasts say if you want a job in the next twenty years, you’ll need to plan for one of the following careers: registered nurse, retail salesperson, home health aide, personal care aide, office clerk, food service, customer service representative, truck driver, laborers and movers in freight, or post-secondary teaching.
Jobs that have no future include farming and ranching, postal workers, sewing machine operators, telephone operators including answering services, and data entry. Some might argue that even these forecasts are overly optimistic.
In opposition to Trump’s promises to turn back the clock, the harsh realities are that not only is automation and not immigration increasingly displacing America’s middle and lower-class workers but also that the government must step in to provide relief.
While conservatives fervently argue that shrinking government will reduce taxes and therefore provide much needed economic relief for Americans, the opposite is true. Government is the only entity that can solve the problem of job loss resulting from increased automation. Government must grow in order to accomplish such a gargantuan task.
At its core, the Luddite movement sought protection for workers so that in the case of advancing technology, mechanisms installed by the industrialist and enforced by the government would provide for the workers’ welfare.
Whether retraining, retirement, or a modest stipend in unemployment income, some provision must be made to care for those displaced by technology. After all, machines vastly increase profits by speeding up production. Some of those profits should benefit the former workers instead of lining the pockets of the already wealthy.
The discussion needs to be had. We need to understand that corporate investment in advancing automation does not necessarily mean that it rests on the workers alone to solve their under- or unemployment problems. They didn’t cause the problem.
Corporations should be taxed at rates sufficient to provide better options for cast-off workers. Increased profits resulting from automation should automatically be taxed at a very high rate to offset worker losses from displacement.
Modern culture needs to recognize that as we move deeper into a post-industrial, automated world, increasing numbers of people will not have jobs as we understand them today. Political leaders are sorely needed who will clearly voice this reality and put forth meaningful alternatives to ridiculous and empty proposals like Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs.