The Technology Imperative
By John Psarouthakis
Published: September 2012
Format: Hardcover, Softcover or E-Book
Print Type: B&W
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If the 20th Century was the American Century, why does the 21st Century seem so daunting for America? If we are still the globe’s leading manufacturer (and we are), why does globalization terrify us? If the entire world sends its best and brightest to American graduate schools, why does our education system need reform? Why is the most affluent nation mired in a stagnant economy? Why do politicians of every stripe find maximum traction with empty chants of: “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”?
This small but powerful book insists we must define our problems before seeking solutions. Dr. John Psarouthakis uses that fundamental engineering principle to demonstrate, in clear and enjoyable prose, that a single problem (and opportunity) underlies all the above questions.
Just as our 19th Century farmer nation endured social upheaval but prospered in a massive shift to an urban and manufacturing 20th Century, we face a new upheaval today. Both enormous transitions stem from the same all-powerful, irreversible force—technological progress.
This time around, Psarouthakis demonstrates, the great danger is that populist political rhetoric will strangle the free-market generator of wealth for all Americans, leaving us with a failed economy and a failed nation. The American capitalist economic engine needs repair, now. It must find new ways of sharing the wealth it creates—as it did via job creation in the 20th Century—or the politicians will ensure that the prevailing gloom will be warranted.
That challenge is The Technology Imperative.
Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .vii
Part of the problem and part of the solution . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Opportunity and irreversible truths . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21
It’s the technology, stupid . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .35
Common sense, or bust . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
We still need, very much, that factory floor . . . . . . . . . . . .65
If it’s all about technology, it’s all about education . . . . . . 81
The agony of collateral damage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .97
It’s a connected globe. We’re all on it. It’s that simple. . . 115
First, do no harm . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
Instead of soaking the rich, create some riches . . . . . . . .141
What hath technology wrought? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 163
Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .169
About Dr. John Psarouthakis
John Psarouthakis has observed the world from a remarkable range of vantage points, taking a proactive role in each. As an orphaned child he endured the Nazi occupation of Crete. He arrived in the United States nearly broke and speaking only a few English words, but graduated from MIT. Early in his career he led a Martin Corp. team researching nuclear power for deep space travel. He later led the Allis Chalmers R&D lab, then became a key player in finding, assessing, and acquiring manufacturing companies around the world for Masco Corp. His first entrepreneurial venture, JPI Inc., became a Fortune 500 company before he sold it. Inc. Magazine twice named him Entrepreneur of the Year. He has served on countless boards and advisory panels, and lectured at MIT on Business Enterprise. In recent years he has vectored back to his academic roots-teaching as an adjunct at the University of Michigan and as a visiting fellow in Europe, currently at the University of Edinburgh. THE TECHNOLOGY IMPERATIVE is his latest book. He has written or co-authored six others, including How to Acquire the Right Business, and Elisabeth’s Gift, a memoir of the remarkable impoverished aunt who raised him in Crete.
THE TECHNOLOGY IMPERATIVE is a must-read book for every citizen of the modern globalized world. This short book is a tool to unlock our minds from the preconceptions of the fuzzy cloud of dead-end politics, the omnipresent government that attempts to solve all our problems for us without us and barren partisan slogans (jobs! Jobs! Jobs!).
The book is many things, but above all, reads like a blueprint for shaping the future of a leading, successful, free market nation. It goes one step further with the concept of the Economic Growth Corporations (EGCs). It provides tangible and directly implementable ideas to serve as the spark to light up the fire of creative destruction. This will provide the necessary breathing space, incentives and most importantly real capital, which are the basic ingredients of free market economic growth, for a chain reaction of wealth creation and efficient progress.
“Dr. John’s”, unique professional background and experience as an MIT engineer, a space scientist, a Fortune-500 capitalist, a university professor and academic trustee, makes it easy for him to pinpoint the threat from within: the political process. Being by construction short-sighted targeting the next election, the later seldom rises above the clichés. Instead of creating the necessary infrastructure and a healthy institutional framework for private entrepreneurship, academic research and technological process, it merely accumulates debt, suffocates and sometimes punishes entrepreneurship putting in danger the future of the nation.
The narrative transcending outdated and sterile partisan lines is a polite wakeup call before it is too late not only for America but for any free progressive nation. These nations need to face the fact Dr. Psarouthakis puts so simply and nicely that “distributing wealth without creating wealth is the path to bread lines”.
of Economic Analysis and international Economics
Department of International Economics and Development
Democritus University of Thrace, Greece
“Few books combine timeliness, readability, and forward vision in one compact package. John Psarouthakis does so while illustrating technology’s escalating impact on our workforce and our society. The good news: Increased productivity means we are entering an era when even if we assemble a new car in China at zero labor cost, the costs of transportation will outweigh the labor savings. The bad news: American assembly line workers need much more education, and we will need fewer and fewer to make the same number of vehicles. This is the kernel hard economic truth of our times, one our leaders should give highest priority. Psarouthakis offers an important idea in the search for solutions.”
—David Cole, Chairman Auto Harvest, Chairman Emeritus Center for Automotive Research.
“Clear thinking and clear writing. I hope the book is widely received and commented on.”
—Allan Gillmour, President, Wayne State University, former Vice-Chairman for Finance, Ford Motor Co.
“The U.S. economy faces significant challenges. Dr. Psarouthakis has written a scathing attack on the political system and wants to generate a conversation about the appropriate policies—he is sure to do that.”
—Aneel Karnani, Professor of Strategy, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.
“I hope our politicians and businessmen will read this timely and very well written book.”
—Izak Duenyas, Professor of Manufacturing Management, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.
”(This book) deals with the big challenges of our times, including adapting to destructive technological changes, globalization, massive budget deficits, falling educational attainment, and dysfunction of democracy. It is a clarion call to action while we still have time to set the ship upright”.
—H. Nejat Seyhun, Ph.D, Professor of Finance and Jerome B. and Eilene M. York Professor of Business Administration, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.
“The Technology Imperative formulates and explores the paradox of progress in an engaging, readable, forward-looking manner. This important book serves as both a measure of our technology’s success, and the consequent loss in human value. As Psarouthakis’s book makes clear, finding economic answers to this paradox in this century is not merely a matter of esthetics and philosophy, but a matter of survival.”
—Theodore Scaltas, Professor of Ancient Philosophy, University of Edinburgh.
“This short book is an excellent tool to unlock our minds from the preconceptions of dead-end politics, and a blueprint for shaping the future of a leading, successful, free market nation.”
—Periklis Gogas, Assistant Professor of Economic Analysis and International Economics, University of Thrace, Greece
It’s the technology, stupid
Technology is neither good nor evil. It is neither progressive nor regressive. It is whatever we—individuals, communities, nations, the global economy—make of it, positive or negative or both. The internet, for example, has done more than any religion or any language or any empire in world history to put humans in touch with each other. That’s a breathtaking superlative no one can deny. A citizen of a backward dictatorship in some forlorn corner of the world can—given a handheld device and internet access—communicate in real time with, say, expatriate groups in San Francisco or London. Simultaneously. Hooray for the internet. On the other hand, the internet can disseminate more pornography in one day than all the world’s printing presses have disseminated since Gutenberg bought his first barrel of ink.
The parallel trade-offs are endless. Our most advanced airplanes can carry people, or can carry weapons of mass destruction. A new medication can ease human misery, or can be diverted to the narcotics trade. Almost any new technology can be deployed in positive or negative ways. The choices are ours. But rest assured that the internet, modern aviation, and pharmaceutical research cannot and will not go away. Nor should they.
Decades ago I made the transition from government scientist to research-and-development director for a major private-sector manufacturer. From that day forward I began acquiring a deeper and deeper understanding of how competition drives prosperity and progress, and how new technology far more often than not lies at the center of the action. Let’s pretend you own a company that produces machines used by other companies to make other products. Let’s also pretend your flagship machine works well, and you have no competition. Your customers do not clamor for you to develop more efficient products, so you begin to believe your company is a perpetual motion machine disguised as a cash register. It doesn’t work that way. Free markets will ferret out any void (in this case, your failure to innovate), and competition will fill that void. New technology is found and harnessed. Your market sector becomes continually more efficient, with you or without you. Competition drives this syndrome. New technology makes it possible. Absent a Soviet-style authoritarian state, movement along this channel of progress can be impeded but it cannot be stopped. Even an authoritarian state will, sooner or later, find itself penetrated by competition from outside, as surely as rainfall finds the sea.
But what about the connection between new, technology-driven efficiencies and our current employment problems—which are far more profound than any statistical “jobless rate” will ever reveal? Millions of smokestack jobs no longer exist. Millions of other American jobs, from nearly every sector, have been exported. Tens of millions of Americans are sustained only by the safety net, or by working multiple part-time jobs at low wages with no benefits. More than one-quarter of working Americans lack sufficient resources to sustain themselves three months if laid off, a number one imagines has worsened since it was last compiled. This is a very, very bad time to be an unskilled worker, an underskilled worker, or what one might call a “formerly skilled” worker. The link between this picture and technology is absolutely as direct as the fact that you haven’t seen any elevator operators lately. This is the crux of our discussion here, really; because when progress takes away someone’s livelihood, then progress has created low-hanging fruit for demagogues peddling big-government solutions. That is the non-competitive, no-growth, dead-end way of filling a void.
As dismal as the employment landscape might look, and as formidably challenging as the future might be, our new technological age is not unprecedented in terms of American workplace upheaval. I am not speaking of a financial crash, as in the Great Depression of the 1930s. I mean a time when new technology-driven efficiencies caused irreversible change, radically altering forever the face of daily life in the United States. If you have no job or no good job, you probably view such historical parallels as a distinction without a difference. But to put this newest new world in context while sizing up the task before us, it might be good to think about what happened to the American farm.
In the late 19th Century, more than half of American workers were employed on farms. Countless others earned their livelihoods selling goods to farmers or transporting and processing farm products. Today fewer than two percent of Americans work on farms. Meanwhile, our farms’ productivity per acre, thanks to technology and mechanization, has soared. In 1940—not 1840, but 1940—one American farmer’s output fed 19 people for a year. By 1960, one farmer fed 61 people. Today’s American farmer is estimated to feed, on average, more than 150 people. This startling transition was set in motion generations ago, meaning these statistics have lost the first-hand, breath-taking impact they had on your grandfather or great-grandfather as they lived through it.
Today’s typical American is distinctly urban, not agricultural. He probably thinks of farmers (to the extent he thinks at all about a minuscule number of fellow citizens, whom he never sees) as being the least affected by technology. To the contrary, it takes a word larger than “enormous” to describe technology’s impact on agricultural employment numbers and on skills required of those who still farm. Agriculture’s statistical ships passing in the night—farm employment plunging, farm skill requirements soaring—eerily foreshadowed the transition we now see in manufacturing. And manufacturing, of course and ironically, is where the bulk of agricultural workers migrated across the first half of the 20th Century. Fortunately for all of us, it was a migration to the private sector, free markets, and therefore a path to economic growth.
Think about the scope of change that occurred in little more than 100 years, all of it driven by new technology. Our greatest 19th Century public engineering project spanned a vast continent with railroad tracks, allowing homesteaders to ship farm produce and livestock to our cities. Americans rode a horse, or used a horse to pull a carriage. Before the advent of mechanized harvesting equipment, Americans once fielded an eye-popping 22 million working animals. You know what happened in the next wave of technology. We now produce far, far more food per farmer, and per acre, than we did when most Americans were dedicated to producing and processing food. That is undeniable technology-driven progress, but it was accompanied by upheaval and fear and, for many, pain.
Our task early in the 21st Century is to make our latest technological upheaval turn out as well as when farmhands became factory workers. Back then the great American economic engine created a vast middle class, and “the American Century” was born. That will not be an easy trick to replicate. In fact, in any exactly parallel sense it will be impossible. An unskilled farmhand will never again be able to walk onto an assembly line and sign on for a lifetime job at a wage that would provoke genuine jealousy among the middle class of any other nation, oil sheikdoms excepted. The 21st Century worker making an equivalent transition will need to work with his mind, and technical savvy, to an extent never before approached by a vast workforce.
In 1995, a dozen years before General Motors filed the largest manufacturing bankruptcy in U.S. history, I gave a speech to the Grand Rapids Economic Club. Michigan’s second largest city, on the west side of the state, hubs an area with an economy somewhat distanced from the traditional boom-and-bust cycle of the car industry. In 1995, in fact, Grand Rapids and the university town Ann Arbor were the only Michigan cities that had recorded recent growth in real per capita income. Nonetheless, Michigan unemployment was the lowest it had been in decades—below the national average, believe it or not. By traditional measures the economy, in the state and nationally, was doing OK. In Grand Rapids, things were looking splendid. So when I described an urgent need to bolster our manufacturing sector by encouraging diversification, and by steering capital toward smaller companies—which usually are technology-based—a clear response of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” filled the air. In fact, as I delivered my remarks about larger companies becoming centers of unemployment rather than centers of employment, I could see some polite eyeball-rolling among Michigan’s Republican governor, John Engler (now president of the Business Roundtable), and his companions down front.
Here is part of what I said that day (italics added):
“I describe the economy in terms of two vectors. The first vector represents the very large corporations. They dominate their industries. In many cases such industries have a defined and developed market. If we use the American auto industry as an example, the market in this country, given a static population, is saturated. The only elasticity in demand is relative to consumers’ decision to accelerate or postpone purchase . . . The drive for increased productivity through downsizing and increased automation are characteristic of companies in this vector. These are companies that may generate wealth but are unlikely to generate new employment.
“The second vector involves those companies, usually smaller, which are entrepreneurial-based, and which grow out of new and emerging technologies. These are companies which are creating new markets, new industries or sub-industries . . . (This vector) is much more employment growth-oriented. Companies in this vector, if they are successful, may see an explosion in their growth curve. Their growth is more likely to be exponential or geometric. Companies in the first vector are looking for ways to reduce employment and enhance productivity. Companies in the second vector, as a function of their growth and their nature, are likely to add employees. They need the human resources to build product or provide services to satisfy a newly created demand.”
Not surprisingly, I didn’t utter a single sentence about how technology revolutionized agriculture. It certainly would have been appropriate, though, to include a footnote on the biggest workplace upheaval in U.S. history to date. Irreversible technological change always has a place while discussing the future. Audiences as recently as that day in 1995, however, were uncomfortable just to hear a successful auto-parts CEO talk about the need to regard the automotive Big Three as important current major employers, while urging more attention be paid to capital needs of emerging future employers.
This evolutionary vision of the workplace had been a kernel part of my thinking for a long time. It represented the overall tenor of my advice as chairman of the Michigan Strategic Fund, a board formed by Governor Jim Blanchard, John Engler’s Democratic predecessor, to encourage technology-driven startup companies and diversify the state’s economy. Blanchard appointed me to the Strategic Fund chairmanship in 1989. It was a perfect fit for my experience and my interests, and I gave it serious attention until Governor Engler took office and sent me a letter advising that my services were no longer needed. I was surprised, even though sweeping out a previous administration’s appointees is standard political practice. I regard my own occasional public service as strictly apolitical. Over the years I have donated small amounts of cash to candidates and officeholders of both parties. I vote for whomever I regard as most qualified, then wish success to the winner. I had thought of Jim Blanchard as our governor, not as a Democrat.
My Grand Rapids speech centered on the need to nurture new centers of employment while old employment megaliths inevitably mature, stagnate as job creators, and then shrink their workforces. That, in other words, is why I urged “fixing something that ain’t broke.” The auto industry’s jobs—any industry’s jobs—were, and are, nothing to scoff at. But new technologies, new efficiencies, new consumer demands, and new products will irreversibly change any industry. So my counsel that day—and before, and since—said in essence: We need to ensure that capital flows to job-creating segments of the economy.
In some quarters “capital” has been reduced to a whisper word, at best. We are thankfully still a capitalist country, however, and capital is not merely a word for inspiring ideological food fights and sound bites. (Though I must say that “Capital, capital, capital!” comes nearer the mark than “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”) Capital remains the tangible fuel that keeps our economic engine running, and the marketplace remains the only way to create new wealth, which is where all those new “jobs, jobs, jobs” must come from—even that lesser percentage of jobs that must be attached to a government paycheck. That’s why the core of my dusty old Grand Rapids speech remains central to confronting our new technological age—unless, of course, one believes our prosperity can best be sustained by still more federal transfer payments as a source of personal income, and by choking free-market economic activity with further expansion of what George Will calls “the regulatory state.”
So where can we find a handy roadmap marked with a route out of our current malaise and into a fast-changing future? Where, exactly, are the solutions? I’ll give you, as I often do, an engineer’s answer. To solve a problem, one first must define it as accurately as possible. Engineers know that some of the most spectacular structural failures are not buildings that collapse, but those that are constructed solidly but to no good end. Such a structure does not really address a need or solve a problem—leaving you with resources used up, no solution, and a solidly built public nuisance. Best to analyze any problem in tight focus, then take up detailed design issues. That is why, if you think of this chapter as a movie, it intentionally brings just one element into focus: technological change. Everything else is intentionally blurry, or not even in the frame.
Government does have an important part to play in this movie, a larger role than merely keeping hands off enterprises and functions it should leave alone. The private sector provides our movie’s producer, director, and even the stage on which the story unfolds. But technology hogs the storyline and rivets the attention of anyone with better vision than Mr. Magoo, the 1950s cartoon character whose near-sightedness was surpassed only by his inability to identify the problems he encountered. Globalization co-stars in this film—but a closer look reveals globalization deriving all of its depth, all of its drive, from technological change. One does not, after all, get one’s tech support from Mumbai via snail mail. Educational reform and a new manufacturing paradigm comprise the movie’s vital supporting cast, roles that raise the story beyond a fatalistic “and then, and then, and then.” All other roles are bit parts. All subplots are mere distractions. Take the 2008 Great Recession as an example.
You might not lately have heard what happened in 2008 described as a “distraction.” For most Americans the 2008 recession has not ended at this writing, four years after it began. If one accepts the statistical model’s decree that the recession has ended, or is ending, then one enters the oxymoronic world of a jobless recovery, a concept central to our main concern here. Technology-driven efficiencies have been, and will continue to be, the main reason an economy can recover far faster than the unemployment rate. Those jobs are not lost to the impact of a financial crash; they are lost to the impact of new technology. Technological innovation is the flood tide we need to intercept and harness. Otherwise an endless recession will be followed by an endless depression. In such an event, financial events of 2008 will only have speeded the process a bit. Failure to seriously engage 21st Century technology will have been the cause.
In no way do I wish to diminish the impact of 2008’s Great Recession. In fact, let me recap what a crushing series of events it has been.
If the Dallas Cowboys were “America’s Team,” for example, then home ownership was “America’s 401K.” Many generations of Americans believed that because a house was their biggest and most durable purchase, it was also their safest investment—one that would always rise in value. Today all those foreclosure notices dotting the landscape (in most cases representing families stripped of their nest egg) comprise the mere tip of the 2008 iceberg. Beneath the waterline one can find old people who haven’t lost their home but who are unable to retire, or unable to move, because their home cannot be sold at a reasonable price, if at all. In many areas of the country one can choose a relatively new neighborhood and in a few minutes find younger people who bought a home in a short sale for a fraction of what it had sold for a few years earlier . . . but who are now themselves several feet underwater. Factor in damaged equity portfolios belonging to individuals or pension funds and this litany of hurt still barely outlines the scope of this “distraction.”
If the 2008 crash had been a multi-car wreck along a busy highway, pity the poor traffic cop tasked with writing a report ascribing a percentage of blame to each driver. Amid the wreckage he would see bizarrely concocted financial derivatives that were bundled, sold, and sold again, then hedged against by the last party to the sale. He would see politicians and government and quasi-government agencies cheerleading for the sale of homes—new homes, large homes, expensive homes—to buyers who would never be able to make the payments. He would see home buyers who should have known better. He would see Wall Street entities that got out of the capitalization business and into the gambling business, sometimes betting against their own clients. He would be looking at anyone and anything, from individuals to governments, who grossly overleveraged his or its lifestyle, making “equity” a meaningless word. He would have to choose among so many causal agents for assigning a percentage of blame that he would run out of ink and paper while writing his report.
The misery index this mess left behind from coast to coast has not been equaled (except among families who sent sons and daughters to the battlefield) since the Great Depression. So how can I possibly call this, for purposes of our discussion, a mere distraction? Two reasons.
First, that now-familiar highlighted word: irreversible. It’s difficult to imagine a better context, in fact, to ponder just how profound irreversibility is. Everything about the Great Recession, viewed as the consequence of financial lunacy, can be repaired. We might debate what went wrong and what needs to be repaired and how to repair it. But the carnage, painful as it is, is not permanent. It can be reversed, so long as we remain a great economic power on the world stage. The nature of financial crashes, in fact, explains why for at least four years pundits and ordinary people have been looking out the window waiting for “the recovery.” Our economic engine historically has been so powerful that we have come to expect any financial disaster to self-repair, or something very near it. Call 2008 the most painful economic distraction most Americans now alive can remember, but unless we take the wrong path forward, it will be temporary.
Second, even if the tragic 2008 confluence of misfeasance and malfeasance and greed had not transpired, we would still have communities all across the land decimated by the loss of a major employer to another state or to another country or to the scrap heap of industrial evolution. Trusting in the status quo and in the end a gold watch for each employee, rather than diversifying even down at the level of a small town’s economy, would have taken its grim toll—and will continue to do so. Absent 2008’s economic nosedive, some towns would be less severely impacted, but would still be towns where “the plant isn’t hiring like it used to.” We would have that same depressed dynamic occurring in industrial pockets of our great cities. Even communities that are not struggling would be contributing to the aggregate millions of citizens who lack skills to find jobs, or to find jobs at a “living wage.” Why? New technological efficiencies and globalization—a phenomenon all of us finally must stop wasting time demonizing, because globalization is irreversible. Competition rushes to fill every void of every business model, and 21st Century competition knows no borders.
Lashing out at global competition and globally connected economies is a futile thing, like a passenger trying to bail the Titanic with a teaspoon salvaged from the captain’s table. Besides, unlike a sinking ship, there can be considerable upside to new technology—far more upside than downside. In fact, the simplest and perhaps most accurate way to define “our 21st Century problem” would not be “technological change,” but “failure to embrace technological change in a smart way.” This returns us to the four Benchmark vectors. Technological change enabled the global economy. Education reform as a vital piece of the domestic employment picture is all about technology. Sustaining a manufacturing sector is all about developing and applying new technology; the new manufacturing sector will be a not just a producer of goods (and some direct jobs), but a sort of laboratory annex that keeps our skills as technology innovators from being lured offshore. That is a tight circle for which technology serves as both circumference and radius. The potential upside (and downside) of new 21st Century technology dwarfs the economic “distraction” that began in 2008. Technological change will be the dominant ingredient of all foreseeable challenges and opportunities.
I have a friend, who despite being an engineering educator (a very good one), suggested in a conversation that perhaps technology was, on balance, a bad thing. Maybe, he mused, all the destructive things human beings have done with technology outweighed all the progress technology has produced. This particular mind exercise is one I solved to my own satisfaction long ago. I summed up for my friend just the bare outlines of that progress, and asked in each case if he would willingly revert to the “good old days.” How about life expectancy, I asked. We are living twice as long as humans did just a century ago. Would you give up that progress? “No.” Improvement in our nutritional lives (even with all the bad dietary choices millions make) can be illustrated by the “they’re bigger, stronger, faster” label put on modern-era athletes. Would you give up that progress? “No.” Our pharmaceutical prowess accounts for the fact that no one now alive has witnessed a fatal epidemic of medieval proportions. Would you give that up? “No.” We can travel in a few hours to places it once took many months to reach. Would you give that up? “No.” We can communicate with each other from any place on earth. Would you give that up? “No.” The fact is, many things that are irreversible—extraordinarily important things—are things we don’t want to reverse.
Technology’s power to determine economic and social history is so profound that one day it will require a whole new paradigm for defining the good life—meaning not just our prosperity, but what we do with our lives. As long as I have been in the private sector I have wondered how society will respond when technology-driven efficiencies make “full employment” impossible in any traditional sense. Computers and machines and robots will never be able to do everything. Other factors—obviously including global competition—contribute to the fact that the world’s foremost consumer nation employs fewer and fewer people to make the things it consumes. But there will come a day when a stunning and growing percentage of working-age Americans simply will not be needed to punch time clocks or draw salaries. The very word “job,” I believe, will need redefinition.
I am not speaking as a utopian. Quite the opposite. I see the future’s “unneeded” citizens—not because they lack skills, but simply because there is no traditional thing for them to do at any attainable skill level—as the ultimate foreseeable workforce problem. I really do. Speculating as to what percentage of the population the economy one day will no longer invite into “the shop” each day, and send a paycheck each week or month, cannot be done with any precision. I would guess half of Americans, at least. I would not be shocked if in some deep-future decade more than half of Americans will not be able to “find a job,” as we now define how we spend our “workday.” The human spirit was not designed for the couch potato life. We will need to do something about this. And, yes, I believe this “something” should still be driven by the private sector.
Dealing with, say, a 22nd Century 75 percent “unemployment rate” will be a genuine task for problem-solving in the very deep future. Right now we need to deal with unemployment and underemployment in the traditional sense, in a nation and era where high single-digit unemployment is unacceptable and where we should be putting millions more people to work. I believe this can be addressed, even as we look far ahead to a new paradigm for living a productive, contributing life (and having a financial livelihood) without a “job.” Like agriculture a century ago, this future upheaval is mentioned here for just one reason: To illustrate that technology, not ideology, is the place to look for causal mechanisms and for repair and replacement mechanisms as we perform some needed maintenance on our old reliable engine of prosperity.
We need to become and remain firmly focused on The Benchmarks, the four parameters of current generations’ interface with the 21st Century. We must avoid being distracted by old realities and old ideas. This is not a time for debating whether unemployment compensation benefits should stretch into a third year for workers whose old jobs are gone forever. It is a time to assess how to convert technological change from a workplace liability to a workplace asset, and to revive the power of our economic engine. It can be done. Not addressing that task right now, if not sooner, is our biggest problem.