Rise of the robots and disappearing jobs

No human interaction is required to order a cuppa joe from the (non-union) robot at San Francisco’s CafeX. It takes orders via smart phone and can crank out an espresso drink in 30 seconds. Photo: CNET
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The U.S. unemployment rate is a low 4.9 percent, so they say. But current figures don’t cover anyone not actively seeking work because of age, disability, discouragement, or lack of nearby work. Government figures are rigged and most folks know it. Unemployment is a spiraling crisis.

Trump blames bad foreign trade deals and “swarms” of undocumented immigrants for disappearing jobs. He promises that dumping trade agreements and deporting migrant workers will return jobs and life will be good again. But where did the jobs really go? Trump and cronies will not tell the truth about the role technology plays in job loss.

The automation factor. Mining jobs, garment, textiles, auto, logging, telecommunications and airplane manufacturing — to name just a few — are not what they once were, because machines do much of what workers once did.

The U.S. lost 5 million factory jobs since 2000. Fully 85 percent of those losses were due to robots and other technology. But between 1998 and 2012 U.S. manufacturing productivity jumped 32 percent. This increase in production was accomplished with millions fewer workers.

Indeed, in 2000 it took 20.9 million workers to reach the same level of production that in 2010 was accomplished by 12.1 million.

The clothing and textile industry is presented to prove that cancelling trade deals would return good jobs to the U.S. Wrong. It took cheaper labor, trade agreements, and automation together in China, Mexico and other countries to ravage U.S. manufacturing, particularly textiles and apparel. In 1991, American-made clothes accounted for 56.2 percent of that bought domestically. By 2012, “Made in the USA” clothes were just 2.5 percent of what was purchased here. Between 1990 and 2012, textile and apparel lost 1.2 million jobs.

Beset with rising labor costs, distance from U.S. markets, and outdated technology, Chinese firms are now moving to the U.S. South, joined by reopening U.S. firms. Tasks that used to require 2,000 workers can now be done by 140, as in one example from the South Carolina textile industry. Firms hire a few hundred workers to run computers that operate robots — a fraction of the million plus who made up the pre-1990s workforce.

A writer for The New York Times penned, after visiting a newly automated textile mill, “… prepare to be overwhelmed by machines. … Only infrequently does a person interrupt the automation, mainly because certain tasks are still cheaper if performed by hand — like moving half-finished yarn between machines on forklifts… .”

Tellingly, South Carolina is a right-to-work state where less than two percent of workers belong to a union. Boeing Airplane Company is now moving thousands of Seattle area union jobs to its new plant there. The jobs are non-union and the plant is automated to replace thousands of workers with computer-operated drones.

In coal mining, U.S. production grew by eight percent between 1980 and 2015 while it shed over half of its workforce. Why? From underground mining in Appalachia to open pit extraction in Wyoming and Montana, the coal industry evolved from picks and shovels to huge bulldozers to explosives, to computer run trucks, crushers, automated drilling machines and tunnel boring systems. One miner now does what it once took three miners to do. Unemployment in Eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio, for example, still ranges between 8 and 14 percent. No wonder miners are upset.

Over a million U.S. farm laborers face competition from machines that never sleep, get tired or ask for a raise. Tilling, soil sampling, planting, irrigating, weeding, harvesting, transporting and warehousing can now be done by computerized robots, drones and trucks, many operated remotely.

Manufacturers are already preparing smaller, cheaper robots to make them affordable for use on U.S. farms. One farm in Japan recently announced that robots will carry out all but one of the tasks required to grow tens of thousands of lettuces each day in its indoor automated farm.

One of the earliest waves of technological job loss was in the telecommunications industry, with the “old” Bell System dumping 20 percent of its workforce by computerization of its switching, records, and operator service systems. Now, telecommunications workers are dispatched by computers, report to computers, get records from computers and refer customers to computers.

Automated checkers in place of mostly unionized workers in grocery stores are common. Shoppers are now forced to choose between long lines for the one remaining traditional checker and endless ATM-like machines. Machines to replace your favorite barista, and Amazon’s plan to open thousands of worker-free stores that run like automats, are coming soon to a street or mall near you.

Every new advance comes with the promise of convenience, speed, and lower cost. But with a sea of products and millions of jobs lost, who will be able to buy? This is how capitalism works. Decisions on what and how to produce things boil down to whether or not products will sell for more they cost to produce. The boss who cuts the most number of hours workers put into a job makes a profit.

Who builds things anyway? Working people do. What adds value to a pile of raw materials and equipment is human labor that transforms those things into something else. Thread into cloth, cloth into clothing, tools and a mine into coal or iron ore, vegetables into a meal. People’s labor is the source of inventions, discoveries, and of all technical and social progress.

The real reason for unemployment and poverty today is that the products of our labor are controlled by a class that does no labor itself. For life to improve, these products need to be removed from private ownership and put under the collective control of laborers.

Inventive workers create automation that is beneficial. A workers’ economy would decide what to produce and when, without destroying human beings and the environment. It can decide on advances in technology that shorten the working day. Computers and robots would be used to improve the quality of life. Mass transit will trump robot bombs.

Together, a globally collaborative working class can decide to junk armaments factories and build schools, quality mass housing and libraries. It can implement safe, environmentally sane agriculture with less concern for the speed of production than for the quality of the food produced. Science workers can focus on how to prevent and cure disease, clean up nuclear waste, and improve the quality of Earth’s food, water and air. Workers in control could recognize that national borders hinder quality of life, and instead open borders to encourage knowledge and sharing of culture and yes, technology.

What a relief! To be rid of a world run by relentless profiteers and instead, live in a rational and human democracy that uses machines to help make life a pleasure.

Send feedback to the author at muffy_sunde@yahoo.com.

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