Age of the Robots

When I went to a hearing in our own case against the Ventura County, California, clerk over access to new filings, I parked in the underground lot across from the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, as do most lawyers with business at the court.

A couple hearings ago, I noticed there was no longer an attendant taking the hefty parking fee. I used to exchange a couple words with the guy.

In his place was a machine. So that’s one job lost in a sea of millions in the United States.

But it’s not just one. I was in southern Oregon a couple summers ago and the talkative manager at the Jack in the Box had a good handle on local jobs in the timber industry, where I had worked summers during college. He said there was a new mill nearby but it offered very few jobs – nearly all the work had been mechanized.

Last month, I read a long article in The New Yorker about Case Farms, the company that runs chicken slaughterhouses which have a record number of work-safety violations and exploit the most vulnerable immigrants. A similar story was told more than 100 years ago by Upton Sinclair, who described the meat-packing industry in Chicago. “The Jungle” caused a public outcry and brought federal legislation.

To think that this Congress in these times would react in such a way is not in the realm of the rational. But more importantly, the article ended with a kind of bell, like the end of class. It was a short description of a shiny new robot that the managers had unveiled for the author.

The company would no longer need to exploit immigrants. It would no longer need them at all.

In all the sturm and drang over the Paris Climate Accord pullout and in the remnants of the plan for a border wall, that little bell is playing a tune in the background. But the media seems deaf to it. And it fundamentally affects the discussion.

West Virginia’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, was on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN recently, and he told a story about touring a massive surface coal mine that covered thousands of acres of West Virginia hilltops. There were, he said, only 27 people employed at the mine.

But Cooper and his panelists refused to take that complicated bit of bait, just passed on the underlying point that there are almost no coal jobs to be had – regardless of environmental accords.

So that all the Trump administration is accomplishing through the abrogation of environmental regulation of the coal industry is freeing the mine owners to sell more coal while the industry dies in the long run. He is not helping the miners.

I got tired of radicals when I was in college decades ago. But the times are starting to call for something like the language of Sinclair’s times.

In economist Jared Bernstein’s commencement speech at Columbia University last month, he said in an address both funny and powerful: “The forces of discrimination, of vast inequalities, of immobility, of exclusion, racism, sexism, ignorance – these forces are flexing their muscles, sinews greased with the ill-gotten gains of an investor class that increasingly buys the politicians and the policies to protect and promote their power and privilege.”

It stirred the blood. Because it is not that far off the mark, not anymore.

Come to this week, with the president in a kind of Twitter meltdown, and you do really wonder how long he is going to last before the wheels of government start coming off. But the forces Bernstein described are there to put their system back together, and the slick, white-haired vice president would be happy to lead them further down the road they have already traveled.

So it would be best if the Democrats let the man thrash around for the rest of his term while following Manchin’s lead and reclaiming their old mantle as the party of the working man and woman. Then they might win some elections in the heartland.

But what do you do about the robots, the new labor force that has upset the old balance between the owners who needed people to work and the workers who were therefore able to command a living wage, if less so these days.

I remember that I was in a car on a slight rise in another redeveloped downtown of the many I have been in lately. Near a federal courthouse, maybe it was in Milwaukee, maybe Reno, could have been Kansas City. But I was saying to our bureau chief next to me that it comes down to who owns the machines. And if that is the one with the most money, then the rest of us are irrelevant, extra weight in a warming world.


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