If our educational system refocuses and enters a robust training and research partnership with America’s value-added manufacturers, our technology will remain the envy of the world. Then, if our politicians don’t stifle the private sector’s crucial task of creating new wealth, we will be able to compete in the 21st Century global marketplace. That scenario would not score a runaway, lopsided “victory,” but we would remain the most prosperous large, diverse population.
We already are the world’s leading manufacturer, foremost producer of “STEM” Ph.D.’s, and hotbed of technology research. One would think continued success to be a done deal with all those assets, but it’s not. Those aforementioned matters of a limp national will, and government’s tendency to serve government by growing government, are foremost reasons to fear failure.
In this brief article, though, let’s assume America executes a successful landing not on the moon but in the new technology-driven global economy. Even then we will encounter—already are encountering—an enormous piece of bad news that our society seems not yet willing to discuss. We must discuss that bad news now, or our economic victory will be chaotic, bittersweet, and perhaps even pyrrhic.
That bad news, of course, is the prospect of irreversible advances in technology demolishing old concepts of what it means to work for a living, what “full employment” means, and how to sustain a participatory socioeconomic system—how, in other words, to provide opportunity for all to be productive, fulfilled citizens. This is not small stuff, not something that can be addressed with a wave of a political wand from either side of the aisle. This problem needs to be examined and defined in serious public discourse rather than in sparsely populated corners of academia or in shouted and broadcast sound bites. After defining the problem we need to solve it as best we can. This is a revolution, and we should make it as bloodless as possible. Judging by the new normal for political rhetoric (what word means “divisive” to the fifth or sixth exponent?), I can only wish us all good luck. I have yet to hear any sound bites that even put this enormous problem on the table.
Like all revolutions, this one did not begin overnight, nor will it be completed anytime soon. Almost since I first understood technology’s forward march I have wondered what society will do as less and less human labor is required to meet basic human needs. Meanwhile, even the youngest reader of these words will still be able, in his or her old age, to ask the question technology has always prompted and will forever prompt: “What won’t they think of next—and how will it change my life?” Most life-changing aspects of technology over the centuries clearly have been, on balance, positive. This century’s technology revolution, however, already has been knocking on many doors in personal ways far more life-changing than the farm-to-factory migration that began more than 100 years ago.
One might argue that “all” the farm-to-factory revolution did was transfer Americans from rural to urban lifestyles and give them a pay raise. Identities were changed, not atomized. Livelihoods were enhanced, and any industrial fallow periods mimicked the farm-based drama of drought and flood. Workdays did not disappear; they merely became fewer and shorter (though less airy). Change was vast, troublesome for many in degrees ranging from minor to traumatic, and it transformed our culture. But, like a self-sealing car tire that runs over a nail, our ship of state and our economy kept right on going and growing. Manufacturing-driven growth meant a need for more workers. It was the American Century. Who could imagine a growing economy that did not need more employees? Welcome to the 21st Century, and our current political-economic train wreck.
It seems to me that the carnage should be triaged as follows. First, resuscitate the free-market economy and get it growing faster that it is today again—because otherwise all other rescue attempts will be futile. Second, spare no effort to get out the defibrillators and jumpstart that nascent synergy of education reform and tech-based, value-added manufacturing. Those first two choices are obvious and—in conception if not execution—easy. Part three of the triage is readily visible for anyone willing to see it, but lacks that kind of clarity. It is a progress-threatening socioeconomic problem, likely to be worsened by political intervention. The proper course of treatment certainly is no easy call. An operation of some sort will be required, but competing teams of political surgeons are certain to disagree on where to make the incision . . . and neither team shows any sign of getting it right.