Changing Perspectives, Part 3
I went to grade school back in the seventies which means I’m really old, if not ancient. It also means I went through the horror of the disco era and lived to tell about it. But it also means that I was exposed to something we don’t talk about today. When I was in school they talked a lot about LSD, or as it is more commonly called, Labor Saving Devices. You know, machines that free man from his backbreaking toil.
I clearly recall being told over a period extending from early grade school up through middle school, that in coming years, LSDs would free us from much of the labor we are forced to do, giving us more time for recreation, family, etc. And amazingly enough, some of those LSDs came to be. Computers in particular, in all their many applications, save millions of man years. And even now, we are inventing new ways to automate and make processes more efficient. But somewhere along the way the part about recreation and family got left out.
Work as a rocket scientist requires a lot of math. I can scarcely imagine how Werner von Braun and his team of scientists were able to invent and design the inertial, feedback control system for the V-2 using only slide-rules and graph paper. It took a lot of guys a lot of tries to get that V-2 off the ground and hitting English cities. Today, I have a computer on my desk that is more powerful than the entire computing capacity of planet Earth around 1980. So does every other engineer in my company. And in every company in my rocket science town. Using applications designed for such work I can not only design the feedback control system for a missile, but also the navigation and guidance systems, and simulate the dynamics of the missile, and fly the entire system on my computer before I cut the first scrap of metal.
The labor saving factor of today’s machines is enormous. But almost every one of us still has to work eight hours a day, five days a week. And I’m probably one of the lucky ones. So while tasks that used to take several people several weeks, now take a single man mere hours. Unfortunately, all it has translated in to is doing more work in the same amount of time. Since productivity is increased, more output is expected, and since the only measure of performance is output, and people tend to think in relative terms, pressure on the modern worker has never been higher. So in effect, the labor saving devices, invented by engineers and scientists and assembled by blue collar workers, actually make the quality of life for these people lower.
Now the flip side of this argument: Because the employer now has a higher rate of productivity, and a resulting higher profit, he is able to leverage his increased wealth into… less labor for himself. Again, while I am in no way against the principle of profit or reward for hard, focused, intelligent work, it seems that there is a competing factor at work here. A rising tide may lift all boats, but it is only going to lift the boats that float. And some people don’t have boats. What happens to them when the tide comes in? And seemingly, the proportion of leaky boats and swimmers is growing. The question is, why?
I heard an interesting report on the radio yesterday. It was from an interview in Myanmar, better known as Burma, but we can’t say Burma anymore, or Rangoon, the capitol – it’s Yangon or something like that. The military junta that runs the country doesn’t like it when we say Burma, so we go along with them and don’t. Regardless, the journalist was talking to an out of work laborer who recounted how Burma, I mean Myanmar, was once the bread basket of South Asia. But through greed and mismanagement it’s economy had been destroyed, unemployment was up, and there was now a shortage of food.
There was a time, not that long ago, when I wouldn’t have understood how greed and mismanagement could destroy an economy. But I learn by example. It is greed and mismanagement that have destroyed our economy. Greed by investment bankers, fund managers, and market speculators that have seriously wounded our financial system. Mismanagement by government legislators and officials with politically motivated, knee-jerk reactions to problems that can’t be cured by an application of dollars.
The middle class is a fragile thing. It is fragile because it doesn’t really exist. There are in reality only two economic classes of people. Rich and poor. Those who have an excess of wealth which provides them with choices and expendable time, and those who don’t enjoy this surplus and must work to eat. The middle class is an illusion maintained by a stable economic system that delivers goods and services through the participation of highly skilled workers. Because their services are valuable and their numbers relatively few, these highly skilled professionals receive salaries that are far in excess of those commanded by unskilled laborers. However, in most cases, these salaries are not high enough to result in an actual, long-term surplus. Especially since the middle class can enjoy the same privileged lifestyle of the rich through credit-funded homes, luxury items, and vacations. And people love to be comfortable.
Unfortunately, it is a lifestyle that can only be maintained through a constant inflow of cash, usually in the form of a salary. As soon as this inflow stops, it is only a matter of time before the lifestyle is forced to change as well. When an economy contracts, the middle class contracts with it, cutting off access to the skills and talents of the people no longer working. The ripple effect puts more and more people out of work until what was once a thriving middle class is a thrifty working class laboring at the whims of oligarchs. This is the reality in most of the world.
In the past, one of the most significant differences between America and ‘everyone else’ was a bridge from poor to rich. This pathway has always existed in every country at any time in history for those ruthless enough to walk it. But only in America was it so readily available to the common man who was willing just to work hard and make good choices. Certainly luck has always been part of the equation, but with repeated attempts those so inclined could make the passage.
I fear this is no longer true. Or at least, the path is longer, narrower, and more fragile. What made this path so accessible was the spirit of fairness that permeated the American psyche since our birth in 1776. I’m not naïve enough to assume that business in America has always been fair, or that all businessmen were honest, but there was a pervasive sense of honesty throughout the citizenry derived from our shared, Judeo-Christian heritage that kept a significant percentage of people at least ‘more honest’ than they would have been otherwise. A man’s word was once his bond, and a deal settled on a handshake meant something. Whether you believe our nation was founded on Christian values or not, it can not be debated that ethics and morality as regards honesty in business have eroded greatly.
Most distressing perhaps is the almost complete abdication of ethics by the various religious bodies that claim to represent God’s will. The only difference between Christians and non-Christians in modern society is two hours a week spent sitting in a pew. And since the majority of Americans still claim a religious affiliation, this means the majority of Americans have no real moral or ethical anchor. By and large the churches are run by the same businessmen who have driven the economy into the ground. And since they are motivated more by a desire to be in a leadership role at the head of a large group, than as a servant to a body of sinners, it is questionable exactly what is being taught in their sanctuaries.
I will bring this short series of essays to a close tomorrow, drawing together the various ideas in these three essays: The fall of Easter Island, the desire to be comfortable, and the topics discussed herein. The conclusion I reach is not shocking but is perhaps inevitable, and very much at odds with my own sensibilities. But for too long I have been a lemming and simply run with the crowd. Time to stop, even if it means getting trampled.
Next: Changing Perspectives, Conclusion
-Futbol Guru, http://mises.org/community/blogs/not-a-lemming