Jobless Economy and Citizenless Democracy

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Robert McChesney and John Nichols say these are the two greatest issues facing the world in the next 30 years, as discussed in their book: People Get Ready

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The United States is the mitts of a digital revolution we’re told. But who does the digital revolution actually serve? Over the last 50 years the US been plagued by increasing income inequality. As it stands today, America’s wealth disparity is higher than nations like Columbia, Indonesia, and Mexico. As a result, the county’s political system reflects this inequity, maintaining dominance by what the Occupy Wall Street movement called the interests of the 1%. How are we to address this crisis in our democracy and what is the role of technology in all of this? A new book, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, seeks to answer these questions. Now joining us in our Baltimore studio are the authors of this book, John Nichols and Robert McChesney. John Nichols is a pioneering political blogger, has written The Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books, and of course mentioned many times in many different debates on the floor of congress. Robert W. McChesney is the author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy and he’s the professor of communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. Thank you gentlemen for joining us today.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: It’s a great pleasure to be with you.

JOHN NICHOLS: Same here.

PERIES: So Robert, let me go to a claim you made which is what gave you the impetus to write this book. That is that you watch Eric Schmidt who was the CEO of Google and now with Alphabet. He was speaking at Davos in Switzerland at the World Social Forum. He claimed that one of the biggest crises that we’re going to be faced with today is as a result of the technology that Google and other corporations are developing is the unemployment that this is going to cause. So I’m first interested in what at that moment were you thinking? What propelled you into writing this book.

MCCHESNEY: Well Eric Schmidt made that speech in January 2014 so just little over 2 years ago. What he said actually was that Google is working on a number of innovations and technology and breakthroughs that are going to eliminate a specific percentage of the jobs in the economy. There’s little reason to expect anything to replace them. Because of that there’s going to be tremendous unemployment and underemployment not just in the United States but worldwide. Much of the traditional middle class will be wiped out. The point he wanted to make was for the next 20 or 30 years, this will be the most single important political issue in the world.

Now that got my attention immediately and John’s as well because this is an issue that no one is talking about outside of elites; outside of businessmen who are running these corporations. The engineers who are doing this research. It was found there are sort of two tracks we can go down. There’s one for Eric Schmidts and the engineers, and the computer scientists where this is the issue that everyone is talking about. Journals are filled with this. Business press is filled with this.

Then there are the political journals and the commercial news media, NPR, PBS, political, all the politicians. Not a pin could be heard. A pin could be heard because they’re not even mentioning the issue. So we said, this is a problem because if Eric Schmidt’s right we should be investigating this to see if these claims are accurate. He has no reason to exaggerate. If he’s right and this is this political crisis, it’s going to take an already deplorable situation in the United States where we have a labor market that is greatly struggling with growth of inequality and poverty, downward pressure and real wages for decades now.

We have a situation for young workers in the United States right now that is worse than any time since the Great Depression. For college graduates it’s probably worse because there’s so many fewer college graduates in the 30’s. To this situation, this austerity and this stagnation, this lack of growth, we’re now going to introduce, technology’s just going to wipe out half the jobs? This is an absolute political crisis. So the idea of the book was to first verify if he’s accurate and get a sense of what the thinking is by the people that make these decisions. Then much of the book is considering the political implications, where does this take us?

PERIES: John, let me let you get in on this as well. Did that motivate you too? Listening to Eric Schmidt?

NICHOLS: Absolutely, not just him. This is an important thing. We start the book with a quote from Eric Schmidt because he’s such a well-known figure and a dominate figure in our discourse. We’ve grown into a new era of monopoly. We’ve grown into a new gilded age where we have multinational corporations that are these huge entities, known globally because they do a lot of good marketing, quite well liked often. But very, very dominate in our lives so this is a good place to begin. But he’s not alone. Bob and I have written a number of books and [Yu] is one of the best journalists that we know. Someone who we’ve talked to about with each of our books along the way. Some of our books have had quite a bit of traction in Europe. So we get invited to conferences with CEOs and tech gurus, people that are running these companies. Heads of think tanks. Really important players in our digital and automation future.

What Bob and I both noticed was that when we went to these conferences to talk about journalism and democracy and issues that we’ve been concerned about, things that we’ve talked with you about over the years. We found that they were all talking about this jobless future. Not jobless in the sense of a simple notion that there would be absolutely no jobs. But just that there would be such a radical downsizing of employment options. That we could tell immediately what this was going to be. Tremendous social change. Tremendous social challenges. Downward social pressure on people’s incomes.

The one really striking thing about it was, that all of these folks we’re talking about they’re not like nefarious figures who were plotting evil. They are business people, they’re capitalist who were doing what they do. But they weren’t doing is bringing the great mass of citizens into it. They spoke among themselves but they didn’t push this out beyond where they were. Especially this, I cover politics for a living so I travel around in the U.S. I think I read a lot of the political media, see the candidates and this is just not on the agenda. It’s not being discussed. So here you have a situation where something really dramatic is clearly coming. It’s being discussed in the elite levels, not being discussed in politics.

What we write about in the book is not something new. Things like this have happened before. We think the changes that are coming are more dramatic than anything that’s happened before. That we think that they really will cause whole industries to disappear and cause people to really think how they feel and think about work itself and how society deals with all these issues. However, we do know that there have been past moments that have been incredibly jarring. The first industrial revolution. The later stages of the industrial revolution that transformed first Great Britain and other countries from agrarian to industrial. The United States similarly moved from an agrarian to an industrial circumstance.

That movement was rough. It was sometimes so jarring that people sought, destroy the machines. You had the Luddites, you know in the north of England trying to destroy the machines. In America we had tremendous labor violence. Where elites attacked local people for simply asking for a minimally humane life. For votes for women or for an end to child labor. Once you see that come smack down on people who are saying these changes are overwhelming us, this is too much for us. Then you start to move to a point where people think, hold it, somehow we have to get power. That is where there becomes a great movement for democratization of the process.

What our book is about is not so much machines and robots and digital change although we right a lot about that. What it’s really is saying is that the only way to handle any great societal change is to expand the power of the people. To bring the great mass of people to the table, let them help to shape the future. You don’t get rid of technology but you assure that the technological progress we’re making is shared by all. If machines and digital technologies are supposed to relieve us of drudgery, then let us be relieved of drudgery.

Let us work less, have more time. But also let us have the underpinnings of security; so that if we’re not working as much we don’t fall into abject poverty or we’re not forced to cobble together in existence with driving our car trolling the streets trying to pick somebody up and give them a ride. Or turning part of our apartment into a Airbnb or something like that. Don’t make us take our lives apart and try to build something minimal out of that. No, let’s take that next step of society and say we’ve moved forward. We’ve made incredible progress let’s make a part of that progress a humane existence where we all have enough. But we also have the time given back to us to be creative. To live wonderful lives. To get to know our children.

PERIES: Robert, why don’t you go further into that moment again when we were talking about Schmidt’s speech at Darvos. How do you think the ruling elite around the table is responding to this issue of the kind of unemployment technology’s going to create? How are they planning to respond?

MCCHESNEY: I think that as a rule and I’m generalizing here, most people think about this. On one had you have business leaders who are primarily thinking about their businesses. What can make the most money what’s the most efficient use of their capital and they’re really not that concerned about [modules] except for public relations purposes. But I do think there are economists and there are some business executives and some policy makers that think, yea this could be sort of a problem. We have a dead in the water private economy that’s not creating jobs and that shows no new industries coming along. We have technology that comes and wipes out major sectors of existing employment. I think the longstanding response has been this. Look this has happened in the past, it happened with the steam engine, it happened with the first wave of the industrial revolution and every generation there’s new technology so it will eliminate jobs. Far fewer people work on farms than in the 19th century. They go to factories. Far fewer people work in factories they go to offices. The mainstream theory and the one that most business people hold as well, technology will take some jobs away but new sectors will be created and employ those people who are displaced.

That has worked to some extent in the past. Unfortunately, now there’s no evidence to think that it will work again. Capitalism in the United States is in a downward spiral. It’s deeply stagnant, the worldwide system is. There’s no one making any claims that that’s going to change. We have virtually zero interest rates. We have 2 trillion dollars U.S. companies are holding, they’re not investing and they’re getting nothing for this can’t find profitable investments. So there’s no sense there’s any dynamism coming along that’s going to create new sectors of employment and this new technology again, it’s difficult to do justice to it with such a short interview. But the expansion, this is a radical technology that is completely different from having a faster truck or a shovel that can lift more stuff. The computer power’s increased by something that’s called Moore’s law which is the idea that computer power double every 2 years or a year and a half. Well it’s been doing that for 50 or 60 years now. If you double something every year and a half or two years for 30 or 40 cycles, get up to 2 to the 30 or 2 to the 31st. The numbers become incomprehensible to even brain.

What we have now is a power of computing that makes all sorts of things that were unthinkable 10 years ago, now suddenly fair game. For example, if the speed of automobiles increased, as much as the power of computers has increased since 1971, the fastest car in the world today would travel 1/10th the speed of light. That’s how much computer power has grown. The tallest building in the world if it had grown the same rate as computer power had grown since 1971 would now reach halfway to the moon. So we have these computers that can do things like driver-less cars. That was thought unthinkable 5 or 10 years ago, that’s science fiction, but now that’s yesterday’s technology. We’ve got the technology now it’s just a political issue to implement it. Now in some ways that can be wonderful thing. You can be more efficient environmentally. Satisfactory save on resources in cities make it much less congested. In the same world that’s exactly what it might do. Problem in the United States is, you know what the number 1 job in the American economy for men is? Driving a vehicle. A car, a bus, a delivery truck, a van.

NICHOLS: Tractors.

MCCHESNEY: Tractors. The number 1 job and there’s no number 2 or 3, it dominates. Let’s just say it becomes rational for business to eliminate all those jobs. Well in our economy and this real world we’re living in. That’s an abject disaster. That takes well paid men, not always but often union jobs, people who have families and basically makes the unemployable and this is the crisis we’re facing is coming. This is why it’s really a crisis of capitalism and democracy not a crisis of technology.

We have an economy that can’t accommodate being in a post secure city environment. That takes a spectacular ability to produce. Instead of making it then a bounty that makes all our lives easier, turns it into a prison chamber where most people are sort of left out in the cold and the economy sort of stagnates and flounders. To circle back to the argument of our book it’s not even an academic problem. It’s a political problem and as a society we have to come up with a way to solve it. Reform our economies so these great, tremendous advances for making the technology make all our lives easier. Repair the environment, make life better for all of us. Rather than imprison us in some dystopian hell hole.

PERIES: When you say it’s a political problem John, let’s take that out because I don’t think people understand what that means. You’ve named certain things like democracy derailed and we do know that this kind of unemployment will give rise to a huge number of people that are discontent and when we are talking about masses of people discontent then obviously there is going to be some revolt of sort. Is the ruling elite not worried about that?

NICHOLS: A little bit of course. That’s why they do talk about that. In fact, that’s why in the book we have quotes from folks who actually express a bit of concern, quite a bit of concern. But here’s where the challenges come in. When we say a political problem, what we really mean is, in the broader sense of politics, the how do we structure the politics of what is supposed to happen. Right, that it’s a polity. It’s all of us, we are a part of something. Somebody asked me the other day, how do you define a healthy democracy? I said that’s very, very simple. Its where the person with the least understand exactly how to take care of their problems and seize `ways in which the structures of democracy, the structures of society, work for them. That’s healthy.

I would suggest to you that nobody not the richest person, not the poorest person, not the liberal, not the conservative, whatever would say that in our society, the person with the least would say yea, yea I know how to fix my problems. Maybe I have to build a coalition or maybe I’ll have to do this. No. We have erected so many barriers to responding to crises, responding to challenges. These walls and ceilings that we run into.

This is for people of color for women, for working class people, for young people, for the elderly. There’s always ways that it gets harder. Now we reduce these discussions often to things that are very immediate and appropriate. A barrier to voting, a voter ID law, things like that that we have to be focused on. But then if we build it out then you say to yourself okay well in presidential elections almost half of us don’t vote. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes because an awful lot of people think that their role can’t begin to, that they don’t have the ability to really change things.

What we are suggesting is that the changes that are about to come and that are actually playing out already, in fact we opened the book by saying we’re already living in the future. It’s just how it all plays out. They’re going to be so severe, so dramatic that we’re going to have a massive number of people saying we have to have answers. Now to our view, that’s very healthy. We like it when people get excited and passionate and even angry and say we want answers; we want a response to this that doesn’t leave us kicked to the curb. We want to be a part of shaping our future. But the problem is that in the initial stages of that. There will often be political players who exploit those vulnerabilities and they will say well your problem isn’t this technological change. Your problem isn’t this rise of joblessness. Your problem is that somebody doesn’t look like you is taking your job. Or some policy that we implemented a couple of years ago, that’s your real problem. Obamacare’s your problem or something. They’ll scream and yell about all sorts of other things and won’t get to the heart of the matter.

In our book what we try to do is say, that every time we go through this thing you have great choices and great dangers. Something’s going to happen. There’s going to be a political rising. There is no doubt of that. But will it be steered towards a response that brings us all in and lets us shape our future. Or will it be manipulated in a way that lets the people that are shaping our future now continue to do so by dividing us up?

When we wrote the book we thought we were talking about something that would probably begin to play out 4, 6, 8 years from now. In this, we got caught up with something. We understand Moore’s law and this idea of exponential increase in computing. We forgot about the Moore’s law of politics. That when you get to a certain point, it exponentially goes up. If you look at the 2016 election, you see this reality. We see media people all the time pundits on television. How can we explain this moment? It’s so difficult to understand. Why are people so angry? Right? Well because people are living this already. Young people growing up marinated in technology. They see what’s going forward and they see a future that don’t look so easy. Older folks sometimes, been displaced from one job pushed through others. They also have great frustrations. Now, does it play out in different ways? It surely does. But why are both political parties this year experiencing such wild volatility? Why hasn’t this year’s presidential campaign followed normal patterns?

Well, because we have people like Donald Trump coming forward and saying, we have huge problems. Now is he addressing the core of them? Not at all. But when he says make America great again, he’s talking to people who feel overwhelmed by what is happening and what is coming saying let’s go backwards. His answers are terrible and indefensible. On the flip side you have Bernie Sanders saying, a future you can believe in, that’s his message. I wouldn’t suggest that Bernie Sanders has all the answers at all. But I think a lot of the young people, especially who are going to his rallies are saying yes we want a future we can believe in. We are very unsettled by what we’re looking at. And words that used to be off the table like socialism, democratic-socialism, no longer are pushed aside.

But similarly as we talk about Trump, we hear words that we thought had been pushed to the past as well like fascism. So in this volatile moment we all have to become very informed and very engaged. Bob and I would argue that our engagement would has to be on the behalf of a humane and decent future. We can’t tell you exactly what it’s going to be, that’s not our job because democracy, a good and healthy democracy, brings us all in. Gives us all a stake. Gives us enough political and economic democracy so we can really start to say what we want. That’s the critical change that has to occur.

If we don’t get there, we’re still going to have the volatility. We’re going to have this incredible unsettling, maybe destabilizing change. But if we’re on the sidelines of that, we’re going to be manipulated. Some of the results could be much worse than they could be or should be. So when we say people get ready we mean it. We mean, get ready for a big change. But also get ready to claim your stake in that. To say, you know I’ve got to be a part of this future and I want this future to be great for me. You have young children, I do too. You know, we may make it through the change okay. But our kids are going to live in a radically different world. It’s our job to say another world is possible and mean it.

PERIES: Alright, John Nichols, we’re going to take up this political moment we are in. Which is 2016 election, presidential election cycle in our next segment. Robert McChesney and John Nichols thank you both for joining us.

MCCHESNEY: Our pleasure.

NICHOLS: Our pleasure.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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