Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paul Krugman, Luddites, and What the Future Holds

I should just come out and admit it: I am a confirmed Luddite. I have never owned a cell phone, refuse to listen to music in the form of digital files of individual songs—give me the complete Born To Run, Exile on Main Street, or Led Zeppelin II any day—and will resist reading a book digitally until the real things are consigned to the dustbin of history. My former students would be appalled that I actually wrote the first draft of my Ph.D. dissertation in (cursive!) longhand, a dying art indeed. Of course, not owning a computer at the time I was writing (1994-95) made such a time-consuming task necessary. And don't even think of mentioning such philistine atrocities as "distance" or "on-line education" while in my presence.

Thus it was with interest when I discovered Nobel laureate Paul Krugman's New York Times column of 13 June, which he comfortingly entitled "Sympathy for the Luddites." The catalyst for Professor Krugman's column was a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that "disruptive" new technologies are threatening the jobs, not of mere working stiffs (like me!) manning industrial production lines, but of "workers who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills."

Ever since the Industrial Revolution broke out in Great Britain in the 1780s, technologies have disrupted age-old trades and occupations, making venerable and once-lucrative skills redundant in a hurry. So it is no surprise that the digital revolution has had a disrupting effect on the labor market. Until recently, the biggest losers have been lower-skilled industrial workers and secretarial/clerical office staff. The solution? For the last twenty years the drumbeat has been relentless: more education. Go to college, it was repeated ad nauseum, and you will gain the "skills" necessary to compete in the new world.

Despite every politician, most recently Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, giving lip service to this push for education as the "solution" to America's growing economic woes, a moment's reflection would have revealed it to be a canard that is half true, at best. Yes, college graduates make significantly more money, on average, than those without a degree. But ... such a push inevitably views individuals as an undifferentiated mass. Many people, most especially young men, are not made for sitting behind a desk and fiddling with a computer all day. Many do not have the means to pursue such education. Nor can one expect hard-strapped middle aged people with family responsibilities to, as it were, start again from scratch late in life. At a philosophical level, such an emphasis on education as job preparation has played a major role in the dumbing down of college education, which in many instances has been deliberately (!) reduced to the level of glorified vocational technical training. And why not? If one is going to saddle oneself with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, it is at least understandable that one would gravitate to fields of study that might contribute directly to the ability to pay the debt back. But we are all the poorer for such mass shortsightedness, as Sunday's New York Times editorial entitled "The Decline and Fall of the English Major" argues cogently.

Sooner or later, however, the naked condition of the metaphorical emperor was bound to be noticed, and it appears that the technologies mentioned in the McKinsey report may precipitate that recognition. As all are aware, we live in treacherous economic times, both the same and different than in other transitional times. College graduates, laden with massive debt, face a job market that offers little hope that they will ever be able to repay what they owe. Highly educated and/or skilled workers in their 40s and 50s have been laid off aplenty, and some will never again earn anything remotely approaching what they had previously grown accustomed to. Structurally, the signs are not positive. The combination of newer technologies and a globalism that has driven workers' wages down bodes ill for millions of people if "free market" solutions are the only ones allowed. And in today's increasingly rightward-tilting political scene, who doubts that such will be the case?

What is the solution? Is it unreasonable to wish that the broad-based middle class that was created through the policies of FDR's New Deal and the aftermath of WWII would continue to define American society? Many don't think so. Others, beholden to a more explicit social Darwinism, don't care. Krugman, for his part, maintains that desire as a fundamental priority. His solution, as he readily admits, is unlikely to win any support among more ideological free-marketers:

So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?

The question is a good one. I, for one, have little to no faith in Adam Smith's "invisible hand" to create an equitable society in which all work is valued and compensated fairly. After all, it has been since 1980, when free market fundamentalism regained its hegemony, that income inequality has risen to its highest level since before the Great Depression. And the trends are not positive. Gains in efficiency and productivity have not been matched by a corresponding raise in wages and compensation, the money instead earmarked for corporate profits and executive compensation (for charts graphically showing the trends from 1979-2009, see here). Indeed, the shift in income from labor to capital has been one of the under-reported stories of recent American economic life. Many simply shrug their shoulders as if such a shift is the product of a blind determinism.

The question we must ask seriously is this: Is this acceptable? And by "acceptable" I mean morally acceptable to people holding a supposed "Christian" worldview. I write as a Christian to Christians, most of whom in today's America would be the most likely to disagree with what I have to say. So be it. One biblical text I have been reflecting on is 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, where St. Paul speaks of the church as the "body of Christ," with each member of the body, whether the prominent eyes, ears, and head, the less prominent hands and feet, and even the "less honorable" or "presentable" sexual organs, has its indispensable role to play in the operation of the whole body and should be honored accordingly.

Few realize that the apostle, by using this famous metaphor, was adopting and adapting a figure commonly used in the Mediterranean world of his day with respect to human society in order to promote social cohesion and concord (see Margaret Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992] 157-64). Whereas the ancient Romans utilized it to keep the restless plebeian masses, as it were, in their place, a truly democratic sensibility could use it more positively to affirm the essential worth and value of all members of society—not simply the wealthy doctors, CEOs, and entertainers, but especially those who do the hard, societally-undervalued and undercompensated-yet-important jobs on the margins. After all, who is really doing the more important work, the poorly paid nursing aide caring for elderly dementia patients or the millionaire hedge fund manager?

Of course, such thinking only becomes plausible once one abandons a selfish, pride-fueled, and uniquely American individualism which in effect denies the fundamental biblical notion that we are all our brothers' and sisters' keepers. Yet even in practical terms, a "society" in which everyone looks out exclusively for their own interests and tolerates the effective marginalization of increasing numbers of their fellow citizens, rests on a shaky foundation indeed. I know that many, if not most, of my readers would suggest caution in view of the "probable" scenario that things would even out after a generation or so, as it did in previous economic revolutions. But the people who are being displaced in the brave new economic world we are creating, just like those displaced in the past, are exactly that. They are people, not mere statistics. And God has charged us with prioritizing people over ideology. Moreover, unless anyone is wont to speak blithely about the system's ultimate self-correcting ability, I would like to remind him or her that 30 years amounts to 35-40% of the average lifespan—not a long period for the God for whom a thousand years is as a day, but quite long indeed for people truly wounded by our society's economic evolution. Things may indeed—or they may not, if things are left to themselves—even out in the long run. Nevertheless, we do well to remember what the famous British economist John Maynard Keynes—another of conservatives' least-popular 20th century luminaries—wrote in 1923 in response to economists who poo pooed concern about tempestuous economic seas by pointing to the calm ocean that would appear in the long run: "In the long run we are all dead."


  1. Jim, I'm offended that you included all your students by default when you stated that we'd be appalled that you wrote your dissertation in cursive. If I had done a dissertation or had any higher educational experience prior to 2002, I would have done the same. Please remember us old guys that we're your students please.... ;-P