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March 13th, 2017

The Education Fantasy

I posted a New York Times article to my Facebook feed about how West Virginia used to be a Democratic stronghold, back when the Democratic Party stood up for working people. I selected a pull quote warning that "when the average American feels looked down on, his interests minimized or ignored, he can not only become less generous, he can also sometimes become downright ugly." To this, I added my own admonishment; "Keep demonizing and denigrating rural whites".

Some people clicked "like." Some posted their affirmation with references to the work of the late Joe Bageant. One person doubled down and posted a link to a video that explained what vile, hideous scum white people are and always have been, and one person, an old college friend of mine, wrote that it was too bad that the displaced workers of Appalachia didn't vote for the candidate who would have funded the vocational re-training that would have allowed them to once again contribute meaningfully to the economy.  He explained that it is automation that is putting people out of work and that that is nobody's fault. The now useless blue-collar workers can only look to education for redemption because "the days of high pay for work you can train a monkey to do aren't coming back."

Before I go on, I should say that the person who trotted out that familiar panacea about education being the shining hope for keeping the vast majority of workers relevant and engaged in the glorious high-tech future was a lovely person in college; a gentle soul with a passion for playing the guitar. He wasn't anything like a merciless Randroid or libertarian bootstrapper. I haven't kept up with him since college, but if his Facebook profile and photos are any indications, he is a mainstream Clinton Democrat with off-the-shelf "enlightened" values. I mean only to demolish the retail received wisdom that he produced on cue, not to demean him or impugn his character.

I reminded him that the notion of technology putting people out of work is anything but a novel concept. Humans have been fantasizing about offloading dangerous and monotonous work to robots since long before anyone had any practical notion of how to fabricate an integrated circuit. The dream of automation was that it would free people up from monotonous and dangerous work, but instead, it has allowed companies to shed workers thereby increasing corporate profits while denying large swathes of the population of their livelihoods.

Automation is not a force of nature, and there are many ways that it could be incorporated into our economy. Corporations now use automation to serve large customer bases with an ever-shrinking corps of actual employees. The former employees, who receive none of the profits their cybernetic replacements generate, are left to improvise some new means of meeting their financial obligations. Many of them find sympathy with a judge and manage to limp across the finish line into retirement on disability. Most are not so fortunate.

It didn't have to play out this way, and it is incorrect to say that the resulting hardship and humiliation is nobody's fault.  The tax code makes employees a liability to companies while the machinery that replaces workers is considered a capital investment which lowers the corporations' tax bill. The tax code incentivizes replacing workers with machines. Again, that would be fine if the work of the machines subsidized the diminished livelihoods of displaced workers, but the gains all go right to the masters.

The idea that education will turn middle-aged, blue-collar laborers in Appalachia into high-tech entrepreneurs able to go head to head with Millenial wunderkinder in the digital marketplace is absurd. That's the implication when people allude to job training and "education" as the remedy for technolgocial unemployment. No amount of government-subsidized job training is going to turn 40-year-old former coal-miners or steel-mill workers into Silicon Valley whiz kids. Heck, in Silicon Valley, they burn through those young prodigies like disposable lighters. They live packed into tiny dorm-style apartments, paying as much for a closet to live near Google and Facebook as they would for a 3 bedroom house in West Virginia.

When technology eliminates categories of labor that used to provide lots of people with middle-class wages, it creates a tiny fraction of high-skill jobs for all of the "low-skill" jobs it destroys. Again, no amount of job-training or subsidized education is going to overcome that dynamic.

Yes, Donald Trump is a disaster, and most of the people who voted for him, i.e. the non-billionaires, voted against their own economic interests, but comparing people without a college education or IT skills to monkeys only increases their sense of being despised by the liberal classes and drives them further into the arms of populist demagogues like Trump. The argument that the beleaguered working class should have made better educational and occupational choices and no need to buck up and get with the program rather than rally behind the short-fingered vulgarian comes across as, "Stupid hicks got what they deserved." People who make that argument deserve 8 years of Trump and company, and that's exactly what they'll get. Unfortunately, so will everybody else.


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