Automation and Education

Posted in error. Consider this tomorrow’s post–sorry to clutter your inboxes!

 

I  think there was a movie titled “While You Were Sleeping.” I feel as though that would be an excellent title for America right now.

While we are being governed by ideologues and fools intent upon destruction of our already inadequate social safety net, our most pressing problems go unaddressed–and in a number of cases, unidentified.

Unlike Congress and the Trump Administration, most Americans are concerned about climate change, and with good reason. Far fewer of us recognize that we are about to experience vast changes to our economic landscape. Automation and the Internet are already profoundly changing the way America does business.

A study from the Brookings Institution notes that prior automation has not eliminated the need for human work.

The Luddites in 19th Century Britain were convinced that machines would largely eliminate human work over time. Much more recently and in the U.S., anxiety appeared in the “automation scare” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when many Americans first became aware of computers and their potential to displace workers. And, even in the previous decade, fears that technology would enable employers to “offshore” vast quantities of US jobs to China or India have also been common at certain points in time.[1]

In each of these cases, the worst fears expressed by critics of automation have never come true; indeed, there has been no long-term trend whatsoever towards higher unemployment over time as automation has increased. As economists frequently explain, automation creates new jobs while eliminating older ones, in patterns that have held up again and again over time.

But is this time different?

The article concludes that many workers whose tasks can be automated will be displaced, but that demand for skilled employees—technicians or engineers and other tasks that the machines cannot perform, will increase.

The question is: will that increase be enough to offset the jobs lost? and what about older workers and those that lack the capacity to be retrained for more intellectually-demanding jobs? And what is our obligation to those who are permanently displaced?

One thing that is very different this time around is the ubiquity of the Internet and its effect upon retailing. Brick and mortar stores are closing at an alarming rate, displacing sales personnel, managers and others employed by those retail outlets, and reducing the need for property managers, realtors and others involved in the construction, maintenance and leasing of stores

What if this time is different? What if advances in automation and e-tailing reduce employment significantly, leaving millions of Americans permanently unemployed?

If we do nothing, we invite riots and a degree of social unrest previously unseen. Policymakers will have to consider social supports far more robust than any America has previously offered–most likely, something like a UBI, or Universal Basic Income stipend.

Mass unemployment would also require significant changes in education policy. The short-sighted emphasis on job training rather than actual education would be shown to be unwise; the jobs that remain, should this scenario become real, would require critical thinking and a broad liberal arts education.

Whether the worst-case scenario comes to pass or not, we know that the not-so-distant future is likely to bring massive change: as previously fertile parts of the globe are no longer arable, we can expect migration on a scale we’ve never before seen. Terrorism is likely to increase.

Meanwhile, as Americans are sleeping….the EPA is firing scientists, Congress is attacking healthcare and both state and local legislatures are making it harder to get birth control.

How The Big Lie Works

Most of us have heard the famous quote by Hitler henchman Joseph Goebbles, who said  “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

The importance of repetition to this formula has been confirmed by a recent study  conducted by three scholars at Yale–a psychologist, an economist and a professor of management. They were researching the so-called “fake news” phenomenon in the wake of the 2016 election, and a key conclusion was that repeated exposure to inaccurate or false information makes its acceptance far more likely.

Subjects rate familiar fake news (posts they have seen even only one time before) as more accurate than unfamiliar real news headlines. The perceived accuracy of a headline increases linearly as the number of times a participant is exposed to that headline grows, suggesting “a compounding effect of familiarity across time.”

The research findings suggest that “politicians who continuously repeat false statements will be successful, at least to some extent, in convincing people those statements are in fact true,” and that the echo chambers so many voters inhabit create “incubation chambers for blatantly false (but highly salient and politicized) fake news stories.”

The salience of repeated disinformation makes it incredibly difficult for experts and real journalists to debunk widely accepted beliefs, especially beliefs about the success or failure of complex public policies. I’ve previously cited papers written by Peter the Citizen, the nom-de-plume of a former staff member in the Reagan White House, whose area of expertise is welfare policy. Unlike current Republican lawmakers, Peter is interested in making welfare policies actually work for people in need, and for the past several years he has tried to “speak truth to power”–to call out his fellow conservatives when they engage in self-serving “big lies.”

For example, in response to a publicized interview titled “Maine Shows How To Make Welfare Work,” in which Jared Meyer, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, interviewed Mary Mayhew, former Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Peter meticulously countered what he labeled “conservative talking points and misleading data analyses.”

Another paper, “The Failure of Conservative Welfare Reform is what ‘Traps the Poor in Payouts’: A Response to Adam Brandon,”  responds to–and rebuts– one of the often-repeated assertions that reforms instituted by then-Wisconsin-governor Tommy Thompson improved the lives and incomes of poor people in that state.

As Peter’s research has convincingly demonstrated, when sound methodologies and scholarly rigor are applied, the pat defenses of welfare reform, TANF, and various other punitive state policies prove hollow. They have not incentivized work (after all, the majority of welfare recipients are children, the elderly and the disabled) and they’ve done little or nothing to actually help poor people. Worse, the block grant structure turns funding streams purportedly intended to ameliorate poverty into massive “slush funds” for Governors.

But the “big lie” apparently works as well with policy wonks as with the general public. Repeat sunny but discredited analyses often enough, and they become conventional wisdom. Repeat ridiculous conspiracy theories often enough, and they become memes.

Mitch McConnell and the Administration continue to insist that their “healthcare” bill is better than Obamacare. Rightwing media has repeatedly reported Kellyanne Conway’s denial that Medicaid is being cut.

I have proof that Donald Trump is really an alien. (That explains his inability to spell or use the English language properly.) He was sent from Alpha Centuri to test America’s ability to deal with a destabilizing madman…Post it to Facebook and tell all your friends.

The Closer You Look, The Meaner It Is

If your eyes glaze over at the prospect of getting down “in the weeds” of the Senate healthcare bill, Josh Marshall’s summary really tells you everything you need to know:

It has always been crystal clear for numerous reasons that the Senate health care repeal bill would be the like the House bill, both versions, just as it will be like the final bill that emerges from a conference committee. McConnell and Ryan knew that ball hiding about scores and legislative language would prevent reporters from saying this: Around 24 million Americans will lose their coverage, everyone will go back to the era of pre-existing conditions restrictions and lifetime limits. The freed up money will go to a big tax cut for the very wealthy. You didn’t need to see the legislative language to know this. It’s been a failure of journalism to pretend otherwise.

If, however, you want several specific compelling reasons to oppose this travesty, there are any number of reports and commentaries that can help. For example, we learn about several “buried” provisions from an article in the LA Times, in a column that describes the bill as a “poorly-disguised massive tax cut for the wealthy, paid for by cutting Medicaid — which serves the middle class and the poor — to the bone.” Then there’s this:

States will have more authority to reimpose lifetime and annual benefit caps and eliminate essential health benefits. This may be the most insidious provision of the repeal bill, and certainly is the most deeply hidden.

As several Governors–including Republican Governors– have noted, this grant of authority to the states will almost certainly be used, because the deep cuts in Medicaid and other federal funding will leave the states no choice.

The Affordable Care Act also had state waivers designed to allow for innovations, especially in state Medicaid programs. But under the ACA, those waivers could not  lead to fewer people being insured, or to the imposition of higher out-of-pocket expenses. The Senate bill repeals those limitations.

Under the measure, the secretary “must” approve a waiver request as long as it won’t increase the federal deficit. As a result, states would be able to eliminate the essential health benefits that all health plans must provide under the ACA — including hospitalization, prescription coverage, maternity care and substance abuse and mental health treatment. Since only essential health benefits are subject to the ban on lifetime and annual benefit limits, high-cost patients such as cancer victims and sufferers from chronic diseases could permanently lose their benefits in the course of their treatment.

And then there’s pre-existing conditions. As the Times reports,

Protection for people with preexisting conditions is destroyed. Senate Republicans claim in their talking points that the measure protects people with preexisting conditions from being denied coverage or priced out of the market. Don’t believe them…The Senate bill will open the door to states forcing people with preexisting conditions into segregated markets that will lead them to pay far, far higher costs than everyone else….This bill will bring the country back to a system in which insurance only works for the healthy, and the sick can’t afford the coverage they need.

There’s lots more. Older Americans will get hosed; under this bill as currently drafted, older Americans could be charged five times what younger, healthier Americans will pay. Meanwhile, the biggest tax cut for the rich is retroactive; a millionaire who already had booked a $1-million gain on a stock sale, for example, would collect a $38,000 benefit.(Even the Wall Street Journal was aghast at that one.)

And most despicable of all:

In fact, all the measure’s tax cuts taken together, valued at about $700 billion over 10 years, would be almost entirely paid for by the bill’s elimination of Medicaid expansion in the 30 states and the District of Columbia that accepted it.

The bill defunds Planned Parenthood. It cuts Medicaid so drastically that hundreds of thousands of elderly Americans will no longer be able to go to nursing homes, and rural hospitals that depend upon Medicaid will close. It will strip coverage from more than twenty million people, and take us back to the days when people had no choice but to use emergency rooms for primary care. The medical cost curve, which had been coming down under the ACA will once again rise more rapidly than the rate of inflation.

And why? To further enrich the already wealthy–and not so incidentally, to destroy the legacy of America’s first black President.

 

Religious Liberty And the Marketplace

Most of us have heard the military admonition against “fighting the last war.” The point is obvious: generals and political actors need to evaluate and respond to the reality in which they live; getting stuck in the past–fighting the last war– is a formula for failure.That admonition also suggests one way of analyzing America’s current political situation.

Much of our contemporary political and cultural polarization is between people I have previously described as Puritans and those I have dubbed Modernists.

America’s Puritans still see liberty as “freedom to do the right thing,” defined as behavior consistent with their particular theology. They still believe, with the earliest American settlers, that government should have the authority to weigh in on the side of “Godliness” as their theology conceives it.

Modernists–in and out of religious communities–accept the post-Enlightenment notion that liberty means personal autonomy, your right to do your own thing, so long as you aren’t harming anyone else and so long as you are willing to grant an equal right to your fellow citizens.

The shorthand for modernism is “live and let live.”

Conflicts over recognition of same-sex marriage and bathroom use by transgender individuals, and efforts to allow “religious” merchants to refuse service to LGBTQ customers are really conflicts between America’s Puritans and its Modernists. Puritans  believe that government should throw its weight behind their theological beliefs; Modernists understand the importance of separating church and state, of preventing  particularized religious doctrines from marginalizing or disadvantaging otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Even in the churches, the Modernists are winning. As the Religion News Service reports,

In no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.

This finding from a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey is a first, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonprofit research group.

The change in opinion among even conservative religious adherents has been relatively rapid:  In 2015, more than half of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons surveyed approved of merchants who cited religious belief to deny service to LGBT customers; in the 2016 survey, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants who expressed approval had dropped to 50% from  56% the year before.

The percentage of white mainline Protestants who approved of businesspeople who withhold services to gay people dropped to 30 percent in the recent poll, down from 37 percent in 2015.

Overall in 2016, twice as many Americans disapproved than approved of those who refuse service to a gay person based on religious beliefs (61 percent to 30 percent).

PRRI’s findings corroborate a more dramatic overall shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage and LBGT Americans in the past decade.

Most religious groups today support same-sex marriage, Jones noted. “The religious groups in which majorities oppose same-sex marriage make up less than 20 percent of the public.”

Despite the diminishing number of Puritans, state and federal legislators continue to support discriminatory measures aimed at the LGBTQ community, just as they continue to support a variety of measures disadvantaging women–all piously justified as “protecting religious liberty.”

They are fighting the last war. And thankfully, they’re losing.

 

Buy This Book!

I think I may be in love with Al Franken. In fact, I think he’d be a great President! (Of course, next to the one we have, my cat would be a great President–and I don’t have a cat. Still…)

I just finished reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. I recommend it highly–and not only for its humor. (But the humor is great.)

The book tells the story of Franken’s improbable voyage from Saturday Night Live (and other venues for less than decorous humor) to the U.S. Senate, and it is more informative than most textbooks if you want to learn about the political process, the operation of the United States Senate, the day to day job description of a Senator, and the pros and cons of a variety of thorny political issues.

As the flyleaf says, “it’s a book about what happens when the nation’s foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.” It’s also “a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.”

The book is a testament to democratic decision-making and public service, written by a mensch. (Google it.) Franken’s self-deprecating storytelling, his willingness to credit his staff and his family and even his constituents for his accomplishments, is particularly refreshing at a time when America’s Commander-in-Chief insists on taking personal credit for any event that is even remotely positive, whether he had anything to do with it or not. (Any day now, I fully expect him to take credit for the sun rising in the morning.)

If the real Al Franken is the same person who comes across in this book, he’s a great guy–down to earth, level-headed, self-aware–with a great sense of humor. (Genuine humor, when you think about it, requires a sense of proportion and an appreciation of reality.) Evidently, you can speak truth to power without being an asshole; you can be a committed progressive and still get along with equally committed conservatives; and you can take seriously your obligation to represent the people who live in your state without being a sanctimonious prig.

You can also learn how to be an effective “insider” without getting co-opted by “the system.”

The best thing about this book? It restored my faith in the possibilities of democracy. (Note the word “possibilities.”) Given Franken’s candid reporting on the current state of our nation, democracy is far from being realized, but it does remain a (tantalizing) possibility.

Buy the damn book.