Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Amidst all the nonsense and hysteria of the most recent US election, Barack Obama gave an interview to Wired magazine where he talked about the impact of driverless vehicles. On the one hand, he suggested that driver error was the single greatest cause of fatalities on US roads, and that driverless vehicles would significantly reduce that. On the other hand, he pointed out that three million Americans earned a living driving everything from trucks to school-buses to taxis.
It was classic Obama. Slightly wonky, calm, measured, thoughtful. A rational discussion about future challenges and opportunities. Just wait and see how lucky we’ll all realise we were to have him as president of the United States when the next guy is sworn in.
But it made me think: are Irish politicians giving any thought to the future? Given the occasional hysteria about technology, especially in the Seanad which seems to regard anything beyond a flip-phone as high-falutin’, one would have one’s doubts.
I had a discussion with some work colleagues recently where I was a dismissed as a Cassandra for worrying about automation in the workplace and its effect on employment. It made me realise that you can’t blame Irish politicians for reflecting their voters’ concerns, or lack of. But don’t we pay these guys to be looking over the hill at what is coming next?
Consider this: Andrew Puzder, President-Elect Trump’s nominee as Labour secretary, the man tasked with managing employment rights in the US has as a fast food CEO openly speculated about replacing his staff with automated systems. Apparently robots won’t call in sick or strike or sue him for discrimination. This is real.
Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at the shifting balance between staff operating a till and the automated tills where you serve yourself. Remember when those tills were introduced for convenience? To avoid queuing behind that person in front of you who on reaching the till always seemed either startled by the concept of a paper-based money system or indeed that they had to pay at all? Now we queue to serve ourselves as the number of human servers dwindles.
Remember when every bus had a conductor? Is there anyone willing to say 100% that there’ll be no automation of the Luas? Ludicrous, they will say. Sure you can’t have a driverless train given how mad Dublin drivers are. But that’s not how it will happen. What will happen is that the trains will be automated but the drivers kept initially to “supervise”, allowing the company to gradually reduce numbers by natural wastage. Then we’ll all discover that the Luas has actually been automated for years. If you have been to Disneyland or through many major airports you’ve already been on an automated train.
The question for Irish (and every other western) society is how do we deal with the employment implications? Automation will push down labour costs as more people accept less wages for fewer jobs, until automation gets even cheaper. But in many instances jobs will be actually destroyed. The old argument about creative destruction still holds to a certain degree. Many former blacksmiths ended up building the cars that destroyed their old trades. But now those jobs are being replaced by robots in car factories. Some of the old car workers may well become engineers who design or build the robots, until robots start building and designing themselves. But at every stage the sheer volume of people needed to upskill to the next level gets less and less. That’s the point: it’s cheaper to make do with fewer but more highly skilled people.
That’s the challenge: not everybody can be a software engineer, and what do we do when the jobs beneath simply don’t exist in the same numbers? When a supermarket late shift has maybe two or three very modestly paid teenagers supervising 30 robots repacking shelves? There will of course be jobs that humans might be better at, such as senior care which we know will be a growth industry given western demographics, but lower paid repetitive jobs are ripe for technological obliteration. There may not be, quite simply, enough decent paying jobs to go around.
If the Dail is not thinking about this, then who is? Who should be planning for a future where labour exceeds demand, and where many of those with even with jobs barely exist on low wages? Is a universal basic income the answer? Is technology restriction? Is an expansion of public sector employment? Should we bring back jobs like bus conductors not because it will make buses more efficient, but to simply give people the dignity of work? Will we pay people to actually be artists and playwrights? How will we pay for it all?
We often look upon Ireland as a permanent victim nation, constantly battered by the decisions of greater nations or global forces. But we also have an advantage we rarely speak of: as a small nation we can change direction fast. From eradicating tuberculosis to switching to the euro, this country can do something fast if it wants to. But we have to have the vision. How do we start?
Perhaps it’s time for some of the younger members of the Oireachtas to put together an Oireachtas committee on the future, with a clear brief to bring in those looking at the problems of the future, from technology to senior care to employment to pensions.
Let’s at least begin the debate.
Posted by Jason O on Dec 22, 2016 in Not quite serious.
- Over the breakfast bar, love?
He kind of fell into the job. He’d been with some mates in the Hampton Hotel on Grab-A-Granny night, caught the eye of an aul wan showing more skin than Katie Price, more orange than Peter Robinson, and with her 2012 5 series outside, courtesy of her ex-husband, he’s back to the townhouse off Morehampton Road for a scoop-fuelled knee trembler. He wakes up in the morning, shudders at her ReadyBrek glow on the sheets, and is then shoved out the front door by her as she settles down for “Midday” on the telly and two Neurofen, but not before she pats two €50s into his shirt pocket “for a taxi”.
He’d been out of work for a while, and suddenly, there it was. The hotels and nightclubs with a more “mature” clientele were identified, a new suit and a bottle of Paco Rabane was purchased, and he was away. Sure, some of the old dears, God bless them, had thought that their wily charms had done the trick, but a quick request “to borrow a hundred quid” had clarified the matter. He even left a card with them, just in case. 12 months later, he had a list of regulars and was pulling in about €800 a week, notes in the hand, never you mind Mr. Revenue Man.
Of course, there were overheads. He’s in the gym everyday, and is visiting six different doctors to get the magic blue pill, which even he needs after a busy schedule. He could swear after one mad day he’d seen smoke emit from his member. Some of his clients liked a bit of spice, a visit from the scruffy plumber with his tool belt and “don’t forget to bring some pipe!”
Then there’s the husbands, whether they’re arriving home from Aintree early or sitting in a wardrobe in nothing but rubber gloves watching (that’s an extra €25). He’s never had a problem, at least, not yet. One husband, who opened a broom cupboard to find him bollock naked save for a cowboy hat, looked him up and down, said “rather you than me, mate”, and fecked off for a round of golf and one freshly minted “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
Are there side effects? Funnily enough, he hasn’t suffered any STIs, as the aul wans tend to be careful. Having said that, he has to fight the feeling, when he’s with his own girlfriend, that he’s giving away free stock.
Posted by Jason O on Dec 3, 2016 in European Union
, Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Elites. There’s the villain of the day, the word bandied about by both the hard right and the hard left to signify those from whom all woe emanates. It’s a nice handy shorthand, and works everywhere. In Trumpian America, Brexit Britain, Le Pen’s France, Paul Murphy’s Ireland. If we could only get rid of elites, sure, wouldn’t we be in clover?
Yeah. I’ve yet to find a definition of “elite” which has common agreement. Is it the mega-rich? Not if you look at who just got elected to the White House on a Down-With-The-Elites platform. Is there anyone who thinks Donald Trump and the Republican congress is going to dismantle capitalism? Even his supporters don’t expect that.
Surely, if it were a revolt by the poor against their economic betters then Jeremy Corbyn would be topping the poll? Or the alphabet left in Ireland would be at least bumping around the same 25% in the polls that the distinctly counter-revolutionary Fianna Fail and Fine Gael each command? Marine Le Pen is certainly more economically left wing but even that’s more to do with populism than a dismantling of capitalism. Nigel Farage is a former City of London trader. The same struggling white working class who elected Trump also elected a majority Republican congress, a party that has systematically and unashamedly tried to dismantle the modest US welfare system.
Sure, you can point at Davos and Martha’s Vineyard and Blair and Clinton types all meeting in pretty salubrious surrounds, and of course the sharing of wealth is an issue.
But the reality is that when many talk about the elites they are talking about a group, even a class, that they say is not just economically but culturally apart.
Look at the breakdown of who voted Trump. 53% of white women voted that he was closer to their values than an actual white woman. 29% of Latinos voted for him. They saw something in him that they couldn’t see in Hillary Clinton. Was it that she represented some sort of elite disconnected from their lives?
Let’s look at this elite. Who are they? They’re pro-immigration, more secular than not, internationalist, pro-free trade, socially liberal, economically centrist.
Against them, we’re told that the “ordinary people” are nervous if not openly hostile to immigration, traditionally religious, nationalist and suspicious about it, against free trade and economically in favour of both lower taxes and higher spending.
The problem with the disconnected elite argument is that when you trace it through history, the liberal elite are right more often than they are wrong. It was the unrepresentative elite who pushed for an end to slavery. Votes for women. Desegregation. Indeed, all three were condemned at the time as being lofty interference from on high by pointy-headed intellectuals in their ivory towers. Desegregation was forced on the southern states of the United States almost completely against the democratic wishes of the people of those states. The fancy-pants liberal elite literally sent soldiers into those states to enforce elitist liberal laws that black children could attend the same schools as white children.
Take our own country. A liberal elite here scrapped the marriage ban in the civil service in a time when Fianna Fail had a motion at its Ard Fheis suggesting that married women in work were unfairly depriving others of work. Homosexuality was decriminalised without much national debate, with no party of significance taking a stand against, despite the fact that there probably was a significant minority opposed.
Having said that, our own constitution has probably helped in this regard, in that many changes on everything from the special position of the Catholic Church to divorce to marriage equality to the death penalty all had to go before the people. But movement on all were started by a small liberal elite whose views eventually became a majority view.
Across the west, the liberal elite has been right more often than it was wrong. It championed international cooperation on security (NATO) and economic prosperity (the EU) and on trade (the WTO). It pushed for the sanctions that toppled apartheid.
But more than anything else, it did details. That’s what made it work, and now threatens it.
The liberal international elite was the force that patiently negotiated the compromises that let an Irishman work in Estonia, or a Japanese car be bought in Belmullet. They negotiated the agreements that lets planes cross from one jurisdiction to another, using the same air traffic control protocols. That lets a man in Dublin buy insurance in Tokyo to safeguard a container being shipped to Helsinki.
Rail all you want about the WTO and NATO and TTIP and faceless international bureaucrats, but there are mortgages in Cork getting paid because a product shipped from Cork can go on a shelf in Beijing or Boston. It’s the elite that put those deals together.
The alternative offered by almost every opponent of the elite is to regard a slogan as a policy. Scrap NAFTA. Take Back Control. Build the wall.
Last week, a movie, “Arrival”, came out. It’s about a group of elite scientists desperately trying to communicate with newly-arrived vast alien spacecraft whilst shock-jock DJs are whipping up mobs to attack the alien ships under the slogan “Save our species”.
It’s a curiously appropriate metaphor for where we in the west find ourselves today.