Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Great Divergence?

Photo by Gwydion M. Williams | CC BY 2.0

The long-term growth of an advanced economy is dominated by the behavior of technical progress

–Martin Weitzman

Innovation is the outstanding fact in the economic history of capitalist society

— Joseph Schumpeter

The role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.

— Wassily Leontief

Imagine a world where androids exist. Would they replace humans as workers? According to the authors (Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) of The Second Machine Age humans wouldn’t even stand a chance. They would be priced out of the labor market for good.

This clever thought experiment, even if not particularly imminent, underlies a crucial observation: that technical innovation in the last 30 years or so while increasing productivity and the overall size of GDP is at the same time causing structural unemployment for millions.

According to these same authors, this was not always the case.

Ever since the invention of the steam engine, so the authors and their respectable academic sources, mankind has been on an entwined upward trajectory of technological innovation resulting in higher standards of living through increasing productivity.

Yet, according to carefully researched statistics, in the last thirty years this unique historical benefit has apparently begun to change.

While the world has arguably undergone almost exponential technological change related especially to information and communication technologies; the displacement of labor has also sped up throughout the world (including China).

Thus, a great new divergence has apparently opened up where technology is able to provide increases in productivity and GDP but not able to sustain the same levels of well being throughout labor as it had been doing, at least in the west, for the past two hundred years.

The threat of massive levels of redundancy is real and recalls Marx’s vision of machines replacing men:

Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the… automatic system of machinery… set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.

Unsurprisingly, the most hard hit section of labor are the workers who perform repetitive type work whether classified as cognitive or manual. The repetitive nature of their work lends itself easily to automation.

Yet, unlike the dire predictions of Marx our authors offer a glimmer of hope.

According to them, labor can save itself, at least for the near future, by partnering with the new technologies through the use of unique human capabilities such as “ideation”. In short, humans will still be more creative than any robot and/or AI and will be just great at “coming up with stuff”. Ideas, thoughts, visions that is where the “human comparative advantage” lies.

Undergirding this optimistic idea are a series of policy recommendations. Firstly, a very American idea is proffered: “an excellent education”. The current and future workforce should be skilled in “pattern recognition, ideation, and complex communication”. To this end, the use of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) should be encouraged and supported by higher education and if necessary the government.

Furthermore, the federal government should resume its leadership role in research and development particularly as regards basic research. Another role for the government is the repair and upgrade of infrastructure. Other policy areas are the increase and support of immigration and the rationalization of the tax code which would include a negative income tax which would help to encourage people to keep working.

Interestingly, while discussed, a guaranteed income is not recommended by the authors who view work as not just a means of subsistence but as a moral psychological necessity for individual and community well being.

In and of themselves, the authors’ policy recommendations are good ones.

Yet from a NeoMarxist perspective one might, at this point in history, raise ones eyebrows and think how curious it is that at almost exactly the same time that capitalism has reached every corner of the earth; the leading capitalist nations are apparently threatened by their own technological innovations. Will labor be able to adapt, as they have done in the past, and tame the new technologies to their benefit? Will a new partnership between man and machine emerge leading to untold opportunities for well-being and human development? Or will the Great Divergence prove to be the beginning of the final epoch of capitalism’s inner Great Transformation?

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 25, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
Could Anything Cause the GOP to Dump Trump?
Pete Tucker
Is the Washington Post Soft on Amazon?
Conn Hallinan
Iran: Sanctions & War
Jeffrey St. Clair
Out of Space: John McCain, Telescopes and the Desecration of Mount Graham
John Laforge
Senate Puts CIA Back on Torture Track
David Rosen
Santa Fe High School Shooting: an Incel Killing?
Gary Leupp
Pompeo’s Iran Speech and the 21 Demands
Jonathan Power
Bang, Bang to Trump
Robert Fisk
You Can’t Commit Genocide Without the Help of Local People
Brian Cloughley
Washington’s Provocations in the South China Sea
Louis Proyect
Requiem for a Mountain Lion
Robert Fantina
The U.S. and Israel: a Match Made in Hell
Kevin Martin
The Libya Model: It’s Not Always All About Trump
Susie Day
Trump, the NYPD and the People We Call “Animals”
Pepe Escobar
How Iran Will Respond to Trump
Sarah Anderson
When CEO’s Earn 5,000 Times as Much as a Company’s Workers
Ralph Nader
Audit the Outlaw Military Budget Draining America’s Necessities
Chris Wright
The Significance of Karl Marx
David Schultz
Indict or Not: the Choice Mueller May Have to Make and Which is Worse for Trump
George Payne
The NFL Moves to Silence Voices of Dissent
Razan Azzarkani
America’s Treatment of Palestinians Has Grown Horrendously Cruel
Katalina Khoury
The Need to Evaluate the Human Constructs Enabling Palestinian Genocide
George Ochenski
Tillerson, the Truth and Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department
Jill Richardson
Our Immigration Debate Needs a Lot More Humanity
George Payne
The Direction of No Return: a Meditation on America’s Decent into Tyranny
Judith Deutsch
Pension Systems and the Deadly Hand of the Market
Shamus Cooke
Oregon’s Poor People’s Campaign and DSA Partner Against State Democrats
Thomas Barker
Only a Mass Struggle From Below Can End the Bloodshed in Palestine
Binoy Kampmark
Australia’s China Syndrome
Missy Comley Beattie
Say “I Love You”
Ron Jacobs
A Photographic Revenge
Saurav Sarkar
War and Moral Injury
Clark T. Scott
The Shell Game and “The Bank Dick”
Seth Sandronsky
The State of Worker Safety in America
Thomas Knapp
Making Gridlock Great Again
Manuel E. Yepe
The US Will Have to Ask for Forgive
Laura Finley
Stop Blaming Women and Girls for Men’s Violence Against Them
Rob Okun
Raising Boys to Love and Care, Not to Kill
Kevin Martin
It’s Not Always All About Trump
Christopher Brauchli
What Conflicts of Interest?
Winslow Myers
Real Security
George Wuerthner
Happy Talk About Weeds
Abel Cohen
Give the People What They Want: Shame
Douglas Valentine
Memorial Day
May 24, 2018
Gary Leupp
Art of the Dealbreaker: Trump’s Cancellation of the Summit with Kim
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail