Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration

My friend last night dropped me off a copy of Time magazine (September 9, 2013). There was an article he wanted me to read which I just now finished reading. It’s about robotics and human employment.

Winners and Losers in the New Robot Economy
by David Von Drehle

I wouldn’t highly recommend the article. The author doesn’t offer any deep insights. Still, it is always an interesting topic to think about. The article is worthwhile n terms of a conversation starter, and indeed conversation(s) needs to be started.

There is disagreement about how quickly this robotic revolution will transform society. I suspect it will happen sooner than most people realize. It has already begun, that is for sure. Robots taking over jobs here and there, doing minor functions that no one cares about. But so far it has been fairly isolated. At some point, though, all the pieces will come together and whole job sectors will disappear almost over night. It has been a gradual process, but the final result will feel like it came out of nowhere because the average person isn’t paying attention (neither are many above average people).

This really is an extension of deindustrialization which has been going on for a half century. Before that, industrialization had been an equivalent replacement for an agricultural society. As the article points out, half the population was employed in farming a little over a century ago. Most of those people moved to the cities and found factory jobs. That seemed like progress. But things have been quite different with deindustrialization for there has been fewer jobs created than destroyed.

This connects to my recent preoccupation with mass incarceration. Black communities have been hit hardest as blacks have been concentrated in the inner cities. Racist houing and home loan practices and sundown town policies forced blacks into the inner cities. Housing projects, highway bypasses, poverty, underfunded schools and general ghettoization (along with other aspects of structural racism) have trapped them there. And now they are less than desirable places to live. But that wasn’t always the case.

During the early 20th century, the inner cities were thriving communities. This is where many of the early factories were located and so blacks were highly employed. Deindustrialization, along with globalization, decimated these communities. In the 80s and 90s, much of the American population was doing great, but blacks were being hit by unemployment rates not seen by whites since probably the Great Depression. Most of the jobs left and with them the hope of escaping the inner city. Poor blacks became surplus humans. At least under slavery, they were necessary to the economy. Now they had become useless eaters, a problem to be solved or eliminated.

The War on Drug became the perfect solution and so it was purposely targeted at the victims of deindustrialization. Since we had no jobs to offer poor blacks in this brave new world of globalization, we decided to wharehouse them in prisons and housing projects or else concentrate them in isolated inner city ghettoes. That way at least they would be hidden from sight where the rest of us wouldn’t have to acknowledge this evidence of our society’s failure and dysfunction.

Whites who aren’t impoverished might ask, what does this have to do with me? Screw those losers in the game of life. It’s a jungle out there. Eat or be eaten. If you are useless to our society, then you should count yourself lucky to be imprisoned where we good taxpayers will pay for your room and board.

To this, I’d point out that poor blacks are the canary in the coal mine. What has been happening to them for a half century is now beginning to happen to the rest of us. We are all slowly but surely becoming less-than-useful, all of us accept the upper classes that is. This is why unemployment, poverty and economic inequality is growing and why socio-economic mobility is shrinking. The jobs are disappearing and we have no reason to expect them ever to return.

Do you really think it can’t happen to you?

Back when blacks had high employment, they had healthy and thriving communities. Their marriage rates were very high and their families were stable. They saw socio-economic mobility like never before seen for blacks in America. Economic inequality was decreasing for all Americans. It was what we once referred to as living the “American Dream”

Now, whites are starting to have worse marriage rates than blacks had back then. Also, consider the fact that blacks now with all the problems inflicted on them have a higher average IQ than whites had a half century ago, and presently the black/white IQ gap is quickly closing. Those low IQ whites of the oldest generation lived the American Dream, despite lacking much in the way of education or even formal training of any sort. In order to find work, all that was required was a willingness to work. That world is quickly disappearing for many Americans.

What makes those not a part of the upper class think they are somehow special, somehow exempt from the forces of brutal capitalism?

The future provides us with two basic options. We might all become part of the under-caste like poor blacks. In that case and if we are lucky, the majority of the population will be ghettoized and incarcerated. If we aren’t so lucky… well I don’t want to think about that. The only other option is a massive welfare state like portrayed in Star Trek, specifically Next Generation. In that show, all poverty and related problems have been solved. Anyone is free to do what they want without fear of homelessness, starvation and sickness. But everyone knows that isn’t the American way. We’d rather let people suffer and die than to create such a welfare state. So, I guess that means mass incarceration (or its equivalent) for us all will be on its way.

That is my happy thought for the day. You’re welcome!

7 thoughts on “Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration

  1. Thanks for your thoughts. I think this early in the process, a set of relatively simple rules that parallel earlier union rules around safety, working hours, etc. are appropriate. It’s not appropriate that many jobs be taken over by robots- such a takeover is tantamount to putting efficiency above human values, and it will be quite obvious soon that that tradeoff is real, and should be addressed explicitly by society.

    An example of how capitalism is a part of a healthy society, but only a part, and that a supportive role. This is currently an ideological issue, with tugs on either side of efficiency as unimportant or all-important. But soon, as structural unemployment (tech displacement, among other things) reaches twice and three times today’s levels, conservatives will begin to reshape their vision of freedom vis-a-vis capitalism, to enthrone right-to-work laws that prohibit certain kinds of technological encroachment. A lot of pain ahead until then, but that’s the direction we’ll inevitably head.

    • You bring up a good point.

      Before it gets too far, we could set up some rules and policies, some democratic organizations and processes. But that is precisely what is sought to be avoided by those in power. They are happy with mass incarceration and housing projects, as long as they can pretend it isn’t their responsibility.

      It reminds me of a thought I’ve had before. If welfare ended right now and mass incarceration with it, if the entire under-caste suddenly had nothing left to lose and the freedom to act on it, we would have revolution over night. This is why, despite all the talk, Republicans would never end welfare. They know it is a useful tool of oppression. Give people bread crumbs and they’ll stay in line, at least for a while.

      The difficulty is that the real agendas and ulterior motives, the real problems and solutions, all of it is rarely if ever discussed in the mainstream. Nearly every discussion is some combination of symbols, emotion and rhetoric.

      I honestly don’t have any strong opinion about capitalism, for or against. I’m for anything that creates, promotes and supports a civic-minded and community-oriented democratic society. If that means capitalism, then I’m all for it. Or if it means socialism, I’m all for that. I suspect, though, like with Milwaukee sewer socialism that the solution will be some kind of mixed economy. But I definitely don’t see capitalism by itself as the main framework for a functioning democracy.

      I do think change is inevitable. That old-school progressive populism is likely to become strongly supported again, if I were to guess. Or maybe something entirely new. Time will tell.

  2. If you don’t care about democracy, justice and morality, mass incarceration is an awesome solution to mass unemployment, mass poverty and mass desparation. You kill two birds with one stone.

    The poor have been hit the hardest by deinduustrialization and globalization, both the poor blacks in urban areas and the poor whites in rural areas.You get to lock away and put out of sight a large number of poor urban blacks. And you get to hire the poor rural whites as prison guards.

    The last part is particularly brilliant. The only growing industry in many small towns these days is the building of prisons. Once built, prison guards need to be hired and there just so happens to be a large unemployed white population in many rural areas, especially in the South where they are the biggest supporters of mass incarceration.

    As a bonus, you set the poor urban blacks and the poor rural whites against each other. Divide and conquer. Its a dual method of social control. Meanwhile, you also get to fearmonger into submission the shrinking middle class and simultaneously give them a powerless and defenseless scapegoat.

    Whites against blacks. Rural against urban. Middle class against the poor. And then throw in some culture wars as well just to make sure to work people up into a proper tizzy.

    Pure brilliance, I tell ya. What mad genius thought up this scheme of divisiveness and oppression?

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