The Future


There is enormous interest in the future of finance and economic growth generally.  Books, magazine and newspaper articles and television programing all deal with various aspects of this topic.  On one day the New York Times carried an article by Paul Krugman about the relationship of skills to jobs.  He contends that the purported gap between the skills workers have and the jobs available simply blames workers for their plight.  On the same day in the Washington Post Robert Samuelson examines the proposition that we may be in a permanent economic slowdown.  In the same paper E. J. Dionne discusses the concern of work and the great variety of ways authors approach the topic.  I’m sure this does not exhaust the attention given to this topic on this one day.

 My problem with most of this is that it does not deal with the reality of work.  Throughout human history humans have worked hard to develop ways and means of making work more efficient and effective.  We have come from massive amounts of slave labor to machines that increasingly perform tasks that humans used to do.

In my own lifetime I have seen farming go from the major category in the census to no longer being included.  Small farmers using horses and mules to provide power for plowing and harvesting have been replaced by tractors and massive machines that cultivate enormous amounts of land.  The small and medium sized towns that provided services to these small farmers have been replaced by Walmart and 7-Elevens.  Small and medium size churches are also gone, removing convenient centers for socializing and the informal exchange of information about work that could be used to find ways to develop new skills.

The same thing has happened in industry.  To use just one example, one of the Japanese auto manufacturers now has an assembly plant that requires very little human labor and that involves managing machines.  Office work, particularly the manipulation of information by computers is seeing the abolition of waves of clerical work through computer use.  Bank tellers are decreasing in number and increasing theft of credit card information is leading credit card companies to look for ways to prevent this by devising new types of cards.  In addition, smartphones are simply one type of technology that is working toward an alternative to money.

There is nothing new in this set of events.  They are as old as human society.  Depriving people of work through centralization of economic and innovative intellectual activity does, however, require change in the way we look at human life in community.  Timothy Radcliff identifies three new directions that have grown out of the capitalist market economy as justifying our surging movement away from labor as a central element in human community: the cultivation of unlimited desire, the worship of money, and the establishment of private property as the dominating aspect of contemporary human life.

Advertising itself illustrates the cultivation of unlimited desire.  There are so many varieties of material goods and varieties within a single product line that we have an internal struggle not to replace a possession or to add something we don’t have.

The worship of money is shown in the obscene compensation paid out to people in various financial institutions who handled monetary transactions in the years before the recent financial crash.  Everything is valued in money; Ideas have now entered the private property marketplace.

Although individuals and companies do have the right to the products of their innovative intellectual activity, there is the matter of the effect of this control on the good of the community.  One of the most egregious example of the effect on community good is in the development of pharmaceuticals. The value of these drugs is in the  treatment of disease which is really a community good and not just limited to their effects on individuals.  What is the role of the community (the state) in pricing and distribution of drugs?

This brief statement can do little more than call attention to drastic change that is occurring in our society and to focus attention on the need to devote more effort to thinking about what people will do for work.

  1. #1 by Terry Jackson on April 8, 2014 - 2:49 am

    We seem to have an unlimited capacity for “too much”, don’t you think? Perhaps it’s the nature of human beings, but there seems little concern for common good. I am a Baby Boomer who grew up and went to high school and college in the 1970’s – and the “me’ generation seemed to be our label – but that pales in comparison to what we see happening with greed and a lack of concern for those who still live in poverty – financial, educational, spiritual.

    Dr. Boswell, are we too idealistic to believe in these tenets? How are you, kind sir?

  2. #2 by John Boswell on April 8, 2014 - 2:37 pm

    Terry, it’s good to hear from you and know that some people are reading this blog. You will not be surprised to know that I am reading another book,GDP, that deals with the issue you raise. It’s brief, 140 pp, and is about the ways we try to describe our gross domestic product. When the author gets to the era you came through, she agrees with your observations completely (and for what it’s worth so do I).
    Rather than idealistic, I would label us self interested and we really don’t care about “the poor” today. Having grown up in the Depression of the 1930’s, I lived among “the poor” and it was my generation that attempted to do something for them beginning in the 1960s. As you know, those efforts left us with some problems we have today.
    I know you have things to do rather than read recommended books, but if this is a topic that appears in your mind from time to time it would be worth your while to read GDP by Diane Coyle. I found the part beginning with the Depression forward to mean the most to me because I had some experience with it. I am going to make it the subject of a blog soon where I will attempt to provide a brief abstract as part of my recommendation.

    As for me (thank you for asking) I have acquired my first cold in many years and I feel the way you feel with one of those and am irritated to have to put up with it. Other than that, I think I feel like most 82 year olds. Tell me about the heights to which you have risen since we last saw each other.

    JGB

  3. #3 by Terry Jackson on April 8, 2014 - 4:07 pm

    The point about the Depression era make so much sense. My parents (both gone now) were born in the mid-1920’s and experienced it as well. They were both very humble, nurturing, generous souls who taught us about the value of humility and lending a helping hard. My mother would ALWAYS say “there, but for the grace of God, go I” and they lived it. My dad was in outdoor construction and didn’t always have work, especially in the winter. I think they both knew what it meant to struggle and deal with poverty and we grew up with a sense of gratitude for what we did have. (Can you tell that I am a first generation college and graduate student?) And, when you do, you look at the needs of others in a very different light. Perhaps that is the crux of the problem – today, we really want for nothing (except MORE) and we’ve forgotten what it is like to struggle – and I mean fundamentally struggle for work, food – the basics. Thus, we don’t really have much empathy for those that do. Empathy – it really comes down to that!

    Feel better PLEASE – and recover soon from this cold. I have risen to no heights that I am aware of!?? The semester ends this weekend and I am behind and struggling to produce papers and other work before I drive south on Thursday. I am tired and question this journey all the time as I live in chronic busyness that I don’t like. But, I tell myself regularly that I have chosen this path and, if I decide, I can UN-choose it anytime also. It gives me some feeling of control and keeps in perspective that I am not the victim I would sometimes make myself out to be… 🙂 I will take your book recommendation to heart and hope this summer will provide me with some time to read it.

    Thank you for continuing to blog, Dr. Boswell. You inspire me – and have such a clear eye and heart for the world. <3

  4. #4 by Jonathan Elliott on April 13, 2014 - 6:29 pm

    First of all, Dr. Boswell, I hope your cold is subsiding. I had an aortic aneurysm repair and heart valve replacement on November 22nd. Our interests in life often change when we’re not feeling well. Fortunately I came through fine.

    I was also raised in poverty. My father left when I was 12. When I went to work for the Federal Government in 1989, I mentioned to the personnel person that I felt sorry for the investigator who was about to engage in my clearance. I had lived in 21 locations by the age of 18, and most of those occurred by the time I was 12. We often had little food in the house. As a result, I have been very aware of those in need and have been surprised and dismayed that a county such as Fairfax could have so much poverty. A year ago this March I organized a walk for hunger. Over the years I mentored 40 interns. A number of them showed up with friends in 39 degree weather to support our efforts to help feed the poor. 62 people signed up and many of them walked that day. I am still amazed, however, at the lack of interest in our fellow man. As an analyst at the U.S. Mint in the 90s, I tracked (on my own) the decline of the middle class. I noticed through BLS that from the mid-80s to the mid-90s we were losing an average of about 1/4 or one percent of the middle class to poverty. I’ve seen some stats that those numbers have likely only continued. The issues appear complex: 21% drop out rates or so from high school, coddled children of baby boomers, technology taking over jobs, and a lack of creativity or even real interest on the part of our politicians to attempt to make the necessary changes. As a problem solver both in my previous career (I’m retired now) and my personal life, I’ve always tried to deal with small problems before they became big ones. I learned early on that the bigger the problem, typically, the more complex the solution required. We have in effect, created a puzzle that requires more integrated cause and effect solutions with a greater probability that the chances of success become more minimal over time. What encourages me is something that you taught us and I continue to ponder: Are we asking the right questions? Asking the right questions requires interest in asking the questions at all. Therein may lie the rub.

    Finally I have been out of pocket healthwise but love your blog. I hope that you’ll keep it up.

  5. #5 by John Boswell on April 14, 2014 - 8:43 pm

    Jonathan, my cold compared with your operation leaves me feeling small. I know I will get better and I am glad you have recovered. Your’s is a very thoughtful response to discussion of this blog. Obviously, you have spent a lot of time addressing what we both see as a problem. Your description of what you have done certainly demonstrates that you have been asking the right questions and working to address them.
    Establishing a compulsory school system has led to problems in implementation that we cannot overcome. Your experience with youngsters has shown you the need for great diversity in addressing the different aspirations, abilities and levels of family support for children. Unfortunately, a single institution, schools, cannot meet this diversity because they do not have the resources to do so. I went into teaching a long time ago convinced that I had THE answers and I shortly learned otherwise. To me, it is impressive the number of adults who work with youngsters as volunteers like you. This is not THE answer, but it does go some way to meeting needs that schools cannot.
    One more anecdote and I’ll stop. When I first started teaching at GW the city police had the biggest presence in working with youngsters of low interest in schooling. Once a year they came by our offices and classrooms in their uniforms and asked for donations. Unfortunately, the do gooders of the 60s found this to be compulsion, the city stopped the practice and all sorts of activities for these kids came to an end.
    JGB

  6. #6 by Jonathan Elliott on April 22, 2014 - 10:49 pm

    Dr. Boswell, when I feel that I’m asking questions regarding some of the issues you have addressed, I find myself feeling very hollow at times. The issues of pharmaceutical companies and prices they charge is very close to my heart (No pun intended.) My brother found out that he has metastatic melanoma the same day that I found out that I had an aortic aneurysm. Coincidence? Today is my five month anniversary for my new Gortex patch on my aortic artery and pig valve. Other than becoming easily fatigued, I feel very much on the mend. My hospital bills? Approximately $300K. I am well-insured. But what of those who aren’t? My brother took four IV treatments of a drug that cost around $100K for each treatment. He is also well-insured. I do understand that many of the pharmaceutical companies spend a decade or so in developing a drug. I’ve invested in some of those companies. Many of those efforts will be for naught. Their response to charging large sums of money for new drugs? They have to recover the cost of their successful drugs but also their failures. I find the argument compelling on the one hand but am very aware of their earnings on the other. These companies are in high risk/high return businesses. The downside of this thinking is that they are also in businesses where social contracts in caring for the masses are null and void. They sometimes pay large sums of money to advertise that those who can’t pay for their products should contact them to receive the needed drugs. I find that behavior egregiously inadequate. As more and more people work in menial jobs or are unemployed, these people will be in the “business” of great risk with little to no return. Congress and the President agreed to cut spending at NIH where some research has been quite successful (e.g., DNA mapping, etc.) while our military spending is somewhere in the neighborhood of the next 12 largest nations’ militaries combined. Easy answers? I can’t think of any. However, asking ourselves, “What will help most in healing a nation?” there are a couple of areas that seem ripe for the picking.

    • #7 by John Boswell on April 24, 2014 - 3:50 pm

      Jonathan, I have similar questions and so far, no answers. The Wall Street Journal has an article about these huge drug conglomerates changing their tactics from buying up competitors to buying up drug productions they think they can market for more money than purchasing other drug companies will. It looks to me like the government isn’t regulating the size of “monopoly” acquisitions any more. It’s money, money, money!
      JGB

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