Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Our Economic Future and What We Should Be Teaching Our Children to Prepare Them for It

The future of labor in our ever-evolving economies has become a topic of much discussion.  Automation has been a concern for a half century, but while transforming the nature of labor it has not threatened to create mass unemployment.  The replacement of mechanical tasks performed by humans with tasks performed by machines has diminished classes of employment, but has managed to create other jobs at a comparable pace—albeit at lower levels of compensation.  What has threatened to upset this standoff is the rapid expansion of capabilities in computers and computer applications—the so-called knowledge economy.  Just a few years ago self-driving cars seemed like the work of science fiction and now they are already beginning to patrol our streets.  That development could eventually eliminate millions of jobs.  There is now a real fear that no job is safe from replacement by a machine or by a computer program.  And if that is the case, then how do we prepare ourselves to survive in such an environment?  In particular, what type of education is appropriate for children as preparation for this new world?

Alec Ross addresses these issues in his book The Industries of the Future.  It turns out the industries of the future will change our lives in numerous ways, but what they will not do is create many jobs.  The future, it seems, will be dominated by a few highly-trained and very competent people and everyone else will respond to the changes they impose.  For Ross, the goal is to raise children who will be able to gain access to this small group of elites.

Ross expresses his concern about his children’s future.

“The most important job I will ever have is being a dad, and I can’t help wondering what all these coming changes—the ones that this book anticipates and the ones that it does not—will mean for our children’s economic future.  My kids will have an entirely different set of opportunities and challenges than I had growing up in West Virginia.  What will it take for them to compete and succeed?”

Unfortunately, Ross does not seem very concerned about the future of kids in general.  For answers to his question he turns to others like himself who are immersed in this burgeoning knowledge economy.  The responses he receives are what one might expect from this class: learn foreign languages to better compete in a globalized world, and learn computer programming languages to better compete in the knowledge economy.

“My approach in our family is my kids need to learn two languages: one is Spanish—they’ve learned it from day one—and the second will be like Python or some other technical language, which they will learn when they are six and older.”

Ross even encountered people who suggest that learning computer coding is the best way to hone the mind for contending with complex problems.

“….Jack Dorsey makes the case that the benefits of programming language fluency go well beyond coding: ‘I don’t think you do it to become an engineer or to become a programmer; you do it because it teaches you how to think in a very, very different way.  It teaches you about abstraction around breaking problems into small parts and then solving them, around systems and how systems intersect.”

Ross does allow that there may be problems with his tight little narrative.

“Charlie Songhurst provided an interesting counternarrative.  He sees today’s need for highly technical and mathematical skills as a short-term phenomenon.  ‘There’s a demand curve for certain skill sets at a given time,’ he says.  ‘At the moment there’s a demand for aspergy-math minds.  But I think we’ve only got ten more years of the Asperger’s economy, because once the tech platforms are established, they won’t reinvent.”

Ross adheres to the conventional wisdom with respect to technological threats to employment by claiming that technology demands that we become better educated in order to compete in a rapidly changing world.  This approach might make sense if the changes afoot were potentially going to create work for vast numbers of people.  But that is not the case.  In fact one of the few areas of employment expected to grow in the future is low-paid, menial labor involved in caring for the increasing number of elderly.  Ross dashes even that hope by pointing out that the Japanese believe many of those tasks can be performed by robots and are investing heavily in the development of such machines.  And if anyone should think there is much future employment in building those robots, then recall that building things is what robots do best—the robots will be built by robots and the few people who design them will make a bundle of money.

In spite of Ross’s belief that his children will need programming skills to compete in the future, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not see that field as a growth activity.

“Employment of computer programmers is projected to decline 8 percent from 2014 to 2024. Computer programming can be done from anywhere in the world, so companies sometimes hire programmers in countries where wages are lower.”

That assessment is somewhat different from that arrived at by those who judge the field based on what is happening in the rarified atmosphere of Silicon Valley.  As one of Ross’s experts pointed out, programming is the art of breaking big problems into a lot of small pieces—pieces so small that almost anyone, anywhere on earth can solve them.  There are a few generals and a lot of low-ranked soldiers.

Do we face a future filled with gloom and doom?  Not necessarily.  It is possible to consider a future in which unemployment is the norm not with fear, but rather with excited anticipation.

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky consider just such a future in their book How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life.  The authors use an essay written by Keynes in 1930, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” as their point of departure. 

“Its thesis is very simple.  As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all.  Then Keynes wrote, ‘for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.’  He thought this condition would be reached in about a hundred years’ time—that is by 2030.”

For Keynes, capitalism could still be thought of as a servant of society, a tool by which wealth could be accumulated to serve society as a whole.  It seems that none other than Adam Smith, he of “the invisible hand” fame, thought “the hand” would not only produce efficient markets, but would also distribute wealth equally.  The authors serve up a number of precious quotes—none more so than this from Smith’s writings.

“[Though the rich] mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose....be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.  They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interests of society.”

So, both Keynes and Smith vastly misunderstood human nature in even considering that humans could have a limited set of “needs” that it is possible to satisfy.  Humans have instead proceeded down a path whereby “wants” are continually created and treated as “needs.”  Given that paradigm, needs can never be satisfied—not for the rich, nor for the poor.

  The authors argue that acceptance of this need for unlimited acquisition of things is a fairly recent development.  They survey classical societies of the past and conclude that the accumulation of wealth was never viewed as a valid end in itself.  Rather, the higher goal was to attain the ability to live “the good life.”  The definition of the good life might vary from society to society, but inevitably it involved having the leisure to pursue purposeful activities without the need to make money in the process.

Scientists, sculptors, musicians, and teachers are provided as examples of people who would be using their leisure to pursue some goal based on the enjoyment of the pursuit rather than any monetary reward.  Simpler people might have simpler pursuits available to them: learning a new language, a hobby, reading, writing, gardening....the list is long.

Some readers might be dubious about today’s ‘couch potatoes’ making good use of any increase in leisure.  The authors address that concern.

“The image of man as a congenital idler, stirred to action only by the prospect of gain, is unique to the modern age.  Economists, in particular, see human beings as beasts of burden who need the stimulus of carrot or stick to do anything at all.”

Humans are capable of more than they are currently given credit for.  However, some reeducation of the population would be required.

“Athens and Rome had citizens who, though economically unproductive, were active to the highest degree—in politics, war, philosophy and literature.  Why not take them and not the donkey as our guide?  Of course, Athenian and Roman citizens were schooled from an early age in the wise use of leisure.  Our project implies a similar educational effort.  We cannot expect a society trained in the servile and mechanical uses of time to become one of free men overnight.  But we should not doubt that the task is in principle possible.”

A future of “leisure” would then be better served by a more classical education.  We could focus on teaching our children things like history, civics, music, art, and so on.  Perhaps they might even have the time to learn about the land they live in and the planet they live on.

Are such considerations patently ridiculous?  Is our current avaricious state so fundamentally human that it cannot be tamed?  Or perhaps, is it a learned response that can be unlearned?

When hypothesizing on evolutionary explanations of why humans behave in the manner in which they do, male anthropologists tend to emphasize male characteristics such as aggression, murder, and mayhem.  Female anthropologists are more likely to focus on more socially positive attributes such as sharing, cooperating, and empathizing.  Which view you wish to believe makes a difference when considering whether our current capitalistic behavior is innate or learned.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has produced a fascinating discussion of what characteristics make humans human and different from the other apes.  Consider reading her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

According to Hrdy the most distinctive human attribute is the ability to interpret, understand, and empathize with the feelings and intentions of others.

“From a tender age and without special training, modern humans identify with the plights of others and without being asked, volunteer to help and share, even with strangers.  In these respects, our line of apes is in a class by itself.”

“This ability to identify with others and vicariously experience their suffering is not simply learned: It is a part of us.”

Any number of psychological studies have verified that these social traits persist in us as adults today.

Anyone who has observed infants will be familiar with their interest in staring into peoples’ faces and trying to understand what they observe.  Also familiar are the attempts to imitate the actions they observe around themselves.  Soon they make conscious attempts to perform acts that they think will endear themselves to others, followed by anxious looks to see if their performance has been met with approval. Children are observed to willingly share their possessions with others.  These are behaviors that are uniquely human among the ape species.  Hrdy identifies these survival-driven abilities to interpret and understand the emotions and intentions of others, and to acquire the approval of others, as the bases for subsequent human development.

So, two very young children, each with an object that interests them, are more likely to share their little treasures than to plot a means to take possession of the other’s treasure.  Yes, capitalism must be a learned trait.

As of this writing, we have about 14 years in which to recreate our economic world to match the predictions made by Keynes.  We may not be able to do it, but we would be better off if we can.  And we should not believe that human nature is inherently and unalterably destructive.  It isn’t.  Our observed characteristics are learned and can be altered by a process called “education.”

Education is truly important and it is more than what is learned in schools.  But schools are a good place to start.  Should we continue to convert our schools into employment application assistance providers in hopes that our children will get lucky and land one of the remaining good jobs?  Or, is it time to revert to a more traditional role in which students are taught how to learn, not what to learn?  It depends on your vision of the future.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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