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Jobs Jobbing

Steven Bannon is spinning his political agenda as “jobs, jobs, jobs.” His candidate, Donald Trump, is pushing three methods for creating jobs. The first is tax cuts for the wealthy and business, a replay of the failed “trickle down” economics first foisted upon us by Reagan. The second is to protect American jobs from foreigners by restructuring our trade relationships and deportation of illegal immigrants. Finally, we have infrastructure spending, long a Democratic priority frustrated by the Republican Party’s “no new taxes” policy that has locked the federal gas tax at $0.28 per gallon.

None of these proposals make much sense over the long term. Since Reagan, top-down stimulus policies have resulted in the largest income disparity in the nation’s history, with manufacturing jobs replaced by retail work. Overseas workers are themselves being displaced by automation, with electronics manufacturer Foxconn in China laying off 60,000 workers this year after installing robots, and illegal immigrants do the jobs that Americans won’t. Finally, infrastructure spending is not a permanent solution to unemployment – it will only make a significant dent now because the situation has been allowed to become so dire, with so many bridges, roads and dams in danger of collapse.

The future of employment was cast in a new light for me by a recent OECD study on computer use. In an assessment of users in advanced economies, the study revealed that only one-third of users could do more than fill out forms. This was also typical of most manufacturing jobs. As variability in sources of supply were reduced, it was less and less that the skills of the craftsman were required. Workers were trained to perform procedures.

Unfortunately, artificial intelligence and automation is assuming most of those tasks. Cortana will fill out our order forms for us. The Army is testing robot chefs that learn to cook watching videos on YouTube. In the near future, self-driving trucks will begin to erode the last great mainstay of blue-collar work, throwing 5 million drivers out of work.

From my experience as a fab tech in college, I know that it wasn’t the work that made such jobs enjoyable. People whose minds aren’t engaged by their work invest that energy in politics – whether innocent socialization or profiteering. During a year spent routing, sanding and soldering, my peers would disrupt each others concentration by squirting isopropyl alcohol on unsuspecting bums. And while I was building book cases using a wood working shop owned by one of the technicians, he took me out to a party run by a packer who had built a cinder block building behind his house stocked with goods that had “accidentally” fallen off of the forklift. I came away with stain and varnish.

While both examples sound abusive, they demonstrate an aspect of work that no machine will ever be able to replicate: building trust that allows us to have fun. Studies of laughter among apes shows that it serves primarily to indicate that aggressive behavior is regulated by empathy. Scratching, biting and hitting doesn’t progress, except accidentally, to actual injury.

One interpretation of our 24×7 political system is that this activity is being elevated as work in its own right. It is currently financed principally by mining out of the wealth held in the middle class commons. On the one hand, financial services companies no longer take a percentage of portfolio gains, they reap a service charge on each transaction, regardless of gain to the investor. Churning of retirement funds transfers wealth to the financial elite. That elite then finances the careers of politicians that vote for deregulation and lower taxes. The middle class, sensing incipient doom, then commits from its remaining wealth to fund the campaigns of revolutionaries such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

This impulse toward social cohesion is not always driven by desperation. Regional currency systems ensure that neighbors buy from each other, conserving wealth in a form that the money-center financiers can’t access. Sustainable multi-crop farming requires ten times as many workers as monoculture. With the spread of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, the inefficiencies and environmental degradations of family farming can be overcome, and communities rebuilt around the social cohesion that historically characterized agricultural societies.

My friend Sister Gloria celebrates her resuscitation of plants that appear to be dead in their pots. She simply applies her will to their survival. The biological capacity to heal through spiritual investment is explored in more depth in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s beautiful treatise, The Lost Language of Plants (reviewed here and here). This is the skill exercised by our nurses, and expressed as nurturing by teachers. It is a skill that our captains of finance and industry, so focused on exploiting resources to capture wealth, have been hostile to for thousands of years.

It is faith in this capacity that I believe will restore our broken political and economic systems. This capacity of intuition, that guides living things into a mutually supportive future free of fear, will be supplemented and supported by information systems that analyze information and prescribe treatments. Those decisions, however, are meaningless without the fundamental benefit of nurturance: the transmission of the spark of joy that fortifies our desire to survive.

As was the industrial age, this economic transformation will be frightening to those that cannot perceive its virtues. We are seeing such a fundamental shift. I doubt that Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon understand its nature, for they attained power by trumpeting doom. What they fail to understand is that in the new era, it is exactly those social and emotional skills that cemented the cohesion of industrial teams that will be of most value. The information age will unleash the nurturing potential that was held captive by the industrial age, ushering in an age of healing and sustainability.

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