Re: Science and Unemployment...

Clint Brome (
Fri, 30 Jun 1995 21:49:22 GMT

salem@pangea.Stanford.EDU (Bruce Salem) writes:

> Clint raises some interesting points in response to me. I shall
>try to explain my position.

<Sorry, but I'm going to be drastic in snipping quotes of quotes of
quotes of quotes in this -- otherwise it'll be way too long!>

>> Interesting. You admit (nay, declaim) that technology radically
>>increases production per worker, and yet, we are headed towards scarcity?

> Well feast and then famine, or even feast in some places and famine
>in others. Lets suppose that 20% of the population provides 80% of the
>goods and services and holds 80% of the wealth of the nation. The 80% of people
>left is vulnerable because it is seen as being non-productive. If automation
>displaces 80% of the population from work in the traditional sense, and the
>cost of providing mass needs drops, maybe these people can survive on 20%
>of the wealth, but those kinds of disparities breed unrest. My real question
>is what happens in the inevitable business cycle when the fortunes of the
>haves decline somewhat? If the present is an indication they will take
>their loss at the hands of the displaced majority, who are seen as expendable
>as surplus. If they are to be treated well in a technocracy where 20% runs
>everything then we are expecting a total reversal of the tendancies of all
>pervious human history.
There are some pretty deep, and not necessarily obvious, assumptions
here. First of all, please notice that in America today about 5% of the
population probably provides everything that all 250 Million of us (Americans)
need to survive. This is not to say that these 5% (farmers, construction workers,
truck drivers (to get the food to the cities!), etc) are in control. You might
make some argument for the farm lobby, but it would be a weak one, IMHO.
The other 80% will grow bored long before the number reaches 80%. Finding something
to entertain them, whether it be tv programs or writing, or painting, or movies,
will certainly take some effort -- (I'm sorry, I really have no numbers here, but
I think if we include the press here, we'll get a substantial percentage of the
US work force -- counting everybody whose livelihood is direct contribution to
these things). These people all have jobs, and are not considered any less than
farmers, etc.
While manufacturing jobs are radically decreasing, "service" jobs -- that
is those which depend on inter-personal relations as primary and not secondary
are not, and in fact, are on the rise. Ok, some of these are working counters
at McDonalds. It's a living (not a great one -- but better than the life of
a rural peasant in an undeveloped country, whatever the Swami may like to think.)

The challenge was issued to come up with a inventions which were improvements,
without a dark side. I came up with a few off the top of my head:

Before I get into the blow-by-blow, you seem to have missed some of
the point, Bruce. The idea wasn't that these inventions were perfect
solutions to every problem, and abolished utterly problems of the past,
but only that these inventions in-and-of-themselves were wholly beneficial.

>> Vaccinations.

> Not every person reacts favorably to treatment. People are allegric
>to the agents in which killed bacteria and viruses are usually made in. The
>case of Pertussus, "Whopping Cough" is classic. The U.S. endorsed use of
>a vaccine which was abandoned in every other country because it was known
>that with it was a risk of deaths. It is true that the rate of death was
>less than without the vaccine, but there were safer alturnatives. I am relying
>on my menory to add that I recall that the vaccination used was cheaper than
>the newer safer ones and that some phamecutical firm has enough clout to
>keep the older, more dangerous, vaccine on the market.
The point here is "rate of death was less than without the vaccine". Ok,
a safer alternative existed. (I don't know, but I accept your claim)
Put yourself in the shoes of a poor American at the time. You have three
options (having been made fully aware of the intricacies of the situation ;->)
1) spend every penny you have getting the better vaccine.
2) take the government's vaccination, and with it a reduced chance
of your children dying.
3) neither of the above -- don't risk the secondary dangers.
The problem with (1) is that if it was even possible for our hypothetical
fellow to scrape together this money, it is very likely it could have been
better used in other ways -- better food, for one -- nutrition was a large
cause of ill health in children.

> Vaccinations, indeed any introvenous method carries with it the
>transmission of disease.
Yes. But the point is that the risk is greatly reduced.
To reduce someone's chance of dying from 10% to 5% does not make one guilty
of killing the 5%, but rather of saving the 5% who would have died otherwise.

> Improper application of a course of antibiotic can cause selection
>for virulant strains of disease causing bacteria that are resistant to
>antibiotics. "Killer Strains" could be a modern day plague.
*SIGH* I explicitly avoided anti-biotics so as not to get into this.
Please notice that the "Killer Strains" are no more serious than the original
diseases. The only difference is they are not treatable with currently
known anti-biotics. In other words, the worst-case horrific (and I agree
whole-heartedly that it is horrific -- this fact scares me) scenario is that
we return to the way things were before anti-biotics. In other words, the
ill that you are claiming comes from anti-biotics is only the potential
future lack of the good which anti-biotics have brought.
This is a clear fallacy.

>> Antiseptics (esp. during medical treatment -- like childbirth)

> These can destroy comsensal microfauna and microflora which
>crowd out oportunistic infections. Despite antiseptic, hospitals are
>very risky places to be sick in. Even as you are recovering from
>antiseptic procedures, the nasty bugs are concentrated in one place
>from all the people brought in sick. Secondary infection is a very
>significant risk during any hospital stay dispite antiseptic techniques.
Again, it's a matter of scale. Secondary infection used to be
a MAJOR risk. (I don't know how to properly emphasize this in light of
the fact that you believe the current risk to be "significant". Perhaps
the fact that most people were (rightly) scared to go to hospitals until
the end of the last century (or later? history buffs?) should bear some
testament to this)
I'm not saying infection was wiped out utterly. However, it was
reduced tremendously. Can you seriously imagine someone opening up your
heart in the middle of a dirty field without washing their hands??!?

>> Hydroponics.

> A highly selected and non-diverse population of plants bred
>for maximum profit is estremely vulnerable to disease in a closed-
>system type of environment. In the area of food crops generally, most
>people use only a few varieties of the available groups. Biologists are
>going to the wild and relional stocks of related groups of potatoes,
>corn, tomatos, etc. etc. to be sure that they can get at this biodiversity
>when a crop varient is threatened by a pest or disease.
I'm not sure I see your point. I think you are argueing that some
people might use hydroponics unwisely, and thus not reap all the benefits.
I don't see why you feel that hydroponics limits the farmer's ability to
wisely select the strains of plant he wishes to use.

>> I'm sure other people could, if it would mean anything to you
>>come up with dozens of examples in addition to these, but these will
>>do for a start.

> I think that all you have to do is read comp.risks if you want
>an extensive history of risks and unforseen effects due to electronics
>and computers. Engineering is full of case studies of designs gone ary
>because of unforseen effects.

> I don't think that the investors of the automobile saw the
>downfall it would cause because of air pollution, or its long reaching
>effects on our culture and sense of values, which is not necessarily
>either good or bad, maybe just unforseen.
In the long run, on the large scale, the main effects of the
invention of the automobile, have been the making available of transportation
to those who don't have the means to support a horse full-time. (Not
so hard in the country, perhaps, but try keeping one in an apartment in
the city!)
Air pollution is a recognized problem. However, the air pollution
caused by coal burning in the early phases of the industrial revolution
far, far outweighed the pollution anywhere (yes, even in downtown Tokyo or
Los Angeles!) today. And it is decreasing all the time. (not that this
means that you can't claim, for example, drunk driving fatalities as bad
aspects of the invention of the car -- at least with horses the only one
in danger when riding drunk is the rider (of being thrown and breaking
his neck) -- but notice, I didn't pick the car as an example of an
invention without negative aspects.

>> Declaring that the economy is a zero sum game after freely admitting,
>>(dare I say it... ) nay, declaiming (I dared.) that production is increasing
>>dramatically is extremely inconsistent.

> I am not sure that the economy is a zero sum game at all. It isn't
>one if most of the players have so little to bet on it. It may require
>less of a percent of production to assure everyone of subsistance, but
>then you have to give all those marginal people some status and stake in
>soceity. I don't think that 20% of the wealth of the economy is enough to
>"entertian", "placate" whatever, 80%. What if the end of work has approached
>and a minority of people run things.
^^^^^ all of this goes back to the idea that a) people won't find
anything to do with their time (think? philosophize? write books?)
and b) "controlling the means of production == ruling the world"
Well, sorry, but even though everybody needs to eat, I have yet to see
a nation ruled by the farmers. (except for democratic nations in which
almost everyone was a farmer) -- possibly Colonial Virginia could be
given as such an example, but I hardly see us returning to that!

>How, what economics process, decides
>how the fruits of production are to be parceled out? Scarcity will be created.
>Even though basic needs will be met, some things of value to all will become
>more valuable because they are rare or being used up too fast.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ THIS is a very, very, very interesting question.
One which I could discuss at great length over several beers over the
length of the summer. Or, if we must, start a thread, though I'm not sure
which newsgroup to start it on. What happens in an era when society
really and truly doesn't need everyone to work. I think that your idea above
is fairly naive. I don't see us returning to the point when the lower classes
can't afford to feed themselves, and I don't think that the 20% you keep
quoting is going to build a walled fortress around their possessions (remember
that for food production massive amounts of land, even if they can be farmed
by fewer and fewer individuals, are required). In short, I don't know
where we're going, but I don't think it's Marx's Hell (Capitalism).
Personally, I think we were already there (say at the turn of the century plus
or minus thirty years) -- we got through it (without a revolution -- Marx came
from an autocratic society, and didn't properly understand the difference that
the democratic system could make -- not to say he didn't understand very well
the age in which he lived, and the forces working up from underneath)

> It is one
>thing to have an egalitarian tradition when it comes to voting, quite another
>when it comes to wealth and the power it brings.
When it comes right down to it, there really and truly is a level at
which we have everything *physically* that we need. No shortage of food,
shelter, water, clothing, etc. Then other things become primary -- mostly
things that money can't buy -- things that aren't scarce in the economic
sense, though too often they are scarce in practice.

>Bruce Salem

Clint Brome