What's Next?

 

Humans crave certainty. We want reliable. We want predictable. We pay a premium for that, if we can afford it, and it's going to become increasingly costly.

Like it or not, we're in the grip of uncertainty that brings change that is neither reliable nor predictable.

Covid-19 not only caught us by surprise. It caught us completely unprepared. Most governments, Canada's included, hesitated to respond and then, when they did, the response was bungled. It wasn't like we weren't warned that this sort of thing would be coming. We were warned. Avian flu, H1N1, Ebola, SARS, MERS and yet we were caught unprepared, stymied.

For months Ottawa has been peddling empty assurances. Yes, we had ordered  massive stocks of vaccine, enough to deliver nine doses for every person in Canada. Then there was a disruption in supply and we were told that would be made up in a matter of weeks. We'd be up to our arses in vaccines before we knew it. 

Now the provinces have decided that, instead of getting the first shot and then the booster four weeks later, we'll stretch that out a bit. We'll get the booster four months later. Four months, why? Well, it won't be because we'll be deluged with vaccines as Ottawa keeps promising. It's because Ottawa, the Liberal government, Justin Trudeau cannot deliver what they persistently promised. We're not doing the four month thing because it's ideal. This is "lifeboat-grade" rationing. This is proof that we've been duped.

But what's next? What do we do when Covid-19 is in the medical books? Articles are now appearing that predict the global economy will rebound rapidly. Pent-up demand will drive growth and prosperity. Others are pouring water in that wine, warning that there will be no going back. Instead they suggest we brace ourselves for a wave of automation, permanent displacement of segments of the traditional labour force.

Think back to the age of mechanized agriculture when the internal combustion engine led to tractors that rendered farm horses redundant almost overnight. The population of horses plummeted. They all but disappeared. Tractors meant the farmer could work more land. Small farms were consolidated into bigger farms, fewer farms but bigger. The young people (including my own parents) migrated to the cities, were educated to find lucrative employment and prosperity in the manufacturing era.

Over time we went from a largely agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy to a consumer economy. Labour migrated from one to the other in succession. Now, however, labour as we've known it throughout all these changes, may have run its course.

Several years ago, economist James Galbraith, predicted the obsolescence of labour in his book, "The New Normal."

Already in the early days, the computer developed the capacity to displace the arts of typewriting, bookkeeping, filing and draftsmanship. When linked to routers and fiber-optic cable, it could go on to displace the mail, the telephone, the phonograph and CD player, the camera and film, board games and sports, the movie theater and the VCR and the DVD player, not to mention the clock and the watch. It long ago displaced the physical bookstore and is now displacing the physical book, the newspaper, the magazine, and the academic journal, not to mention the physical library as a repository for these things. Televisions have survived only by having been transformed into computers with large screens. Analog signals have left the airwaves. In rich countries, cathode-ray tubes are now scarce as typewriters. There is no equivalent here to the persistence of coal in the oil age.

While the patterns of creative destruction generated by oil and information resemble each other, there are important differences. Most notably, automobiles wear out on their own. The heat of the engines, the friction of the road, rust, and collisions limit the effective life of any car or truck. And this is true even before the notorious effects of planned obsolescence. The effect is to create an ongoing demand for new cars, and also a vast industry devoted to maintenance, inspection and repair. 

With computers and the internet, this scope for secondary employment is far less. Hardware wears out slowly because it has few moving parts and because it is operated, for the most part, in stable, clean, temperature-controlled offices and homes. The infrastructure - optic cables and routers, say - once built, lasts a long time. There is no equivalent of the effect of a heavy truck on tarmac. And when the hardware does wear out, it is replaced. Because of the cheapness of components, repair is rarely preferable to replacement, and so the computer-repair sector remains small and is shrinking as the equipment becomes ever more uniformly solid-state. Software lasts indefinitely unless compromised by a viral attack; it may be updated or replaced automatically with no on-site labor required.

Thus if the new industries wish to grow, they must constantly produce new designs and new products. Software must be upgraded. Hardware must be upgraded to run the upgraded software. Faster speeds, more storage and bigger caches -these are quality improvements, but in many applications, they are eaten up by more demanding programs. (As they used to say in the trade: what Grove [Intel CEO] giveth, Gates taketh away.)Most of all, the big thing is new applications: new ways to make the computer (or the tablet or the smartphone) the platform of choice for tasks previously done elsewhere and otherwise. Thus new ways for the information-processing device to perform tasks that used to be carried out by someone else for money; new ways to kill off activity elsewhere; new ways to devalue somebody else's skill. New ways to waste time and new ways to show the world that one has time to waste.

The ratio of jobs killed to jobs created in this process is high. The service and office workers, checkout clerks, account managers, and salespeople whose jobs can be consolidated and rendered redundant by the digital revolution are the modern version of the horses driven off their Depression-era farms. And the process does not stop: the costs saved by moving to digital platforms continually claim new victims as prices fall and technical barriers to introducing the new methods in one venue after another are overcome. Moreover, many of those displaced are not only unemployed but obsolete. They had fairly narrow skill sets to begin with; now they are useless.

...For the large numbers of people once sustained by the now-displaced activities... actual living standards decline. Having lost their jobs, they lose their incomes. This is the effect that the classical economists emphasized. That they can communicate for nothing or check the news or download songs and movies or watch sports or listen to the radio from around the world is offset, for them, by the reality that they cannot maintain payments on the houses in which their computers and internet connections reside.

A part of the cash flow that previously supported these people - the managers and the checkout clerks, the secretaries and the TV repairmen, the booksellers and the reporters and the photo-lab technicians - now flows instead to a minute number of people at the top of the digital food chain. This was a dominant source of rising inequality in the late 1990s, when fully half the rise in income inequality measured across counties in the United States could be accounted for by rising incomes on Wall Street, in the three counties of Silicon Valley, and in Seattle. It continued to be a large part of the continuing high inequality in the decade that followed, although the locus of most rapidly rising incomes shifted, first to the military-heavy counties around Washington, DC, and then to the most flagrant centers of real estate speculation in the months before the collapse.

The rest of the cash flow that technology eliminates finds no immediate outlet. Businesses that had previously met a larger payroll now meet a smaller one. their cost saving, like all saving, implies lost employment, diminished incomes, and the waste of displaced human talent. This affects all those directly displaced and also those who previously worked to provide goods and services to those now unemployed. In effect, the "saving" disappears. There is no paid activity to replace the activity lost. The plain result of the new technology is unemployment.

In this sense, the digital products all around us have cost us millions of jobs. How many? It is practically impossible to say, and the reason for that is, you can't distinguish a job lost to technology from a job lost to a business slump. The two are, actually, the same thing. In the nature of business cycles, jobs are lost to slumps. This is when businesses must either downsize or fail. So we attribute the job losses to the slump. But if that were all there was to it, the jobs would reappear with economic recovery. But they have not. As economic recovery begins, businesses find that in the next round of investments, the next redesign of their operations, their needs can be met with fewer workers.

...The new technologies do save resources. They do help business cut costs, and businesses have to control costs or they do not survive. And it would all be worth it if we could only find some other way to maintain, up to a point, the incomes and consumption possibilities of those who have been affected: keeping them in their homes, their kids in college, and their medical bills paid as required.

Galbraith's analysis seems to corroborate the arguments of proponents of a guaranteed annual income. This requires a rebalancing of the economy versus society, a recognition that a healthy, secure society is an essential prerequisite to a healthy economy. In other words, the destructive impacts of technology make the case for the abandonment of neoliberalism, the inevitable malignancy of free market fundamentalism. Redistribution of wealth isn't just a nice thing to do, it's a vital process of social renewal and advancement. When technology eliminates "paid activity" on which society depends that loss must be balanced, offset.

Comments

  1. It's going to take time and labour, Mound. But, for social peace, we're goingto need a guaranteed income. Perhaps the pandemic has established the paradigm.

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    1. I deeply hope you're right, Owen. The idea that we could treat the least valuable among us as obsolete is a Darwinian nightmare.

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    2. Good luck with the idea of a GAI. The entrepreneurial dream of the lowbrow grifter in Canada is to be awarded a Tim Horton's franchise to peddle horrible coffee and to "employ" young women at minimum wage for an hour less per week each than requires benefits. It's the Walmart and Loblaws way, too.

      Hell, you can't even get provinces to legislate sick day pay, especially important during this pandemic. But WTF, it's only regular nobody people who get ill in crowded work situations, and who persist in going in to work to maintain their economic heads above water, so who gives a flying fuck? The idle rich, landlords collecting rent and "entrepreneurs" employing people at starvation wages don't. Not for them the idea of starting up a company that makes excellent product that commands a premium in the marketplace, enabling them to pay their staff a living wage. They are visionless no-hoper old Cons, keen only to exploit other's labour. So what if those nobodies they employ infect each other with Covid? That's their attitude.

      Doug Fraud rolled back the minimum wage increases already on the books, kept his old pal Harris in clover providing minimum service at maximum prices in old folks homes after they died off like flies last Spring. What a goddam hero! Try getting Cons like him or kenney to agree to a GAI.

      Your dunning of Trudeau over vaccine supply is misplaced. Also, the one-shot and if we're lucky another booster in 16 weeks idea is NOT his idea, or Tam's. No, it was your sainted Bonnie Henry in BC who started that crap idea. You cannot deny it. Henry's an intellectual flyweight compared to Strang in NS. BC has hardly been great compared to the Maritimes on Covid.

      Meanwhile, for anyone actually half-awake like Health Canada, the success of AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK on seniors was duly noted. I've been keeping up on it, and there are BMJ articles on it. So it has been used for over 65s in the UK, particularly Scotland since late December. But some busybody outfit in Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Vaccines, whoever the fuck they are, said no -- don't use AZ on seniors. Yesterday, Germany approved AZ for seniors, based ENTIRELY on analysis of British results. AZ has a 12 week between shots recommendation, btw. Fauci is against drawing out the three to four week between shots of Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines. So Henry is the one who duped us in Canada into this BS idea of extending the time between mRNA shots, against the owner's manual recommendations. And she's so much more qualified than Fauci, ain't she? And the dopes on the National Advisory Committee on Vaccines rubber-stamped her idiocy, while all the provincial Chief Medical Officers sang like trained seals in chorus, and ignored the info on AZ from Europe.

      Colour me distinctly PISSED OFF. In many ways it's been amateur hour time all around. Vaccine hoarding in Europe, AZ in the UK and now Italy which has stopped shipments to Australia, show that Trudeau is hardly the only leader who's been screwed by Big Pharma and nationalism.

      BTW, having a retired doc for a brother who keeps up on the technical side of Covid things has helped me come to my conclusions. To whom do you turn to for advice for your punditry on the matter?



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    3. "Your dunning of Trudeau over vaccine supply is misplaced."

      Thank you BIll.

      There's this persistent glitch in the otherwise humming Mound-system. ;-)

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    4. Bill, do you even read your arguments before you post them? Yes, I'm dunning Trudeau because he deserves it.

      Do you imagine if Trudeau's oft-promised tsunami of vaccines had materialized that B.C. and other provinces would be going to a four-month booster regime? Do you think if they were up to their arses in vaccine vials they would drop the recommended 28-day booster specified by the manufacturers? I think you've got more logic than to lay this at Henry's feet. I'm sure you can think this through. Mull it over for a few minutes.

      I coined a term to describe the four-month regimen - "lifeboat grade" rationing. It's what you do when you're adrift at sea with no rescue in sight or, in a more modern version, when you're shot down behind the bad guy's lines. You don't restrict the passengers to a couple of swigs of water and a bite of chocolate per day because you're up to the gunwales in water and chocolate. Everyone is put on iron rations in the hope it will keep them alive one more day. Aircrew are taught a similar lesson in survival and evasion school.

      I don't disagree with the idea that partially protecting many is better than completely protecting few. That's lifeboat-grade rationing which is the predicament we've been left in.

      Canada's vaccination record speaks for itself. Last I checked we were 37th, behind some pretty dodgy countries. On a classroom scale that's a C- to D+ all day long. Not very impressive.

      Like your friend, NPoV, you can say this isn't Trudeau's fault - except that it is. When a bus goes out of control due to brake failure it's the guy behind the wheel who is on the hook, not the dozen other drivers who previously drove that unsafe bus but did not have accidents. That's our standard of accountability and fault.

      Your critique of Dr. Henry is about as fallacious as most of your arguments. This "light weight" you speak of has extensive experience in fighting viruses from polio to Ebola to SARS. Years of experience. I assume your guy Strang is similarly accomplished but I'll let you fill me in on his details, Bill.

      Henry is not the one "who duped us," Bill. She's the one who has to take the heat for Trudeau's failures, the person at the pointy end. Please, Bill, take a minute to think this through.
      I agree that Canada isn't the only country getting screwed. That's why it's best to see how we're doing compared to some pretty backward countries with far less clout and that's dismal.

      As for advice, I don't have one source, Bill. I do, however, have my own brother - a graduate degree biochemist who did a mid-career switch to owning a couple of compounding pharmacies, if you know what those are (hint: they're not Shoppers Drug Marts).

      I will grant you one point on which I wholeheartedly agree. I will colour you distinctly PISSED OFF.

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  2. .. Haha.. A goodly brouhaha a brewing in the House of Mound..
    I myself spoke to my family doc's junkyard dog.. Yes his 'receptionist' is a semi retired RN who suffered a heart attack and now runs his practice like a Master Sergeant in the military police. When he dashes off to deliver a baby at nearby Michael Garron Hospital, she steps into the breach admirably. Thus we had a good yak yesterday. She can bang a hypo as well as I can. She has had 1st injection, the good Doc both. No they have no (ZERO) info from Ontario Health.. but but we agreed Sunnybrook is taking reservations ie 'cuing' but with ZERO guarantee of ever actually getting a vaccine there. We talked refrigeration, best practice & how about those Leafs !

    My never humble opinion of Dr Henry, Dr Hinshaw of Alberta and Dr Williamson of Ontario is dismal. I see clinicians who've 'been dragged into the cages' of Premiers.. and now they can't find their way out. As I keep pointing out to our dismal Mainstream Media.. It's a Covid Conundrum - a Health Issue.. that was already dragged into the same cages. None of the related Premiers can be trusted any further than I could throw them.

    I'm light years ahead of these jacks & political parasites.. I can keep up, I do so.. and I have advanced standing as an expert level producer director writer of hundreds of CME (Continuing Medical Education Programs) for clinicians, medical or pharmaceutical - to maintain their medical licences.

    So yes.. I identify Exemplars, track their opinions, advice, concerns. The premise of now - temporarily or down the road increasing the gap between injections is based on efficacy of a 1st shot & the proviso that we know massive dumps of vaccine are arriving and/or on stream.

    It's befuddling only to see that Scotland's early prelim data supported or at least projected the Astra Zeneca efficacy and safety for those in my age group. I knew it would be only days coming. We now have FOUR vaccines approved

    If we follow only the trail of partisan MainMedia we are doomed. If we believe sad sack political parasites like Pallister, Kenney, Ford, Moe, Horgan, they can start filling in our graves

    Can someone tell me if Kenney had a 'flu shot' or a 'COVID vaccine shot' seeing as he keeps calling it 'the flu'.. riddle me that !

    I will track The Ontario 'rollout' mercilessly & other Provinces.. After all, crap that shows up in one Province is bound to already be underway in other Provinces

    PS.. When is 'Mountaintop Removal not Mountaintop Removal?'
    In Jason Kenney gibberish if there's still 10% of the mountain still there..
    H/T Andy Nikiforuk - The Tyee ..

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    1. You nailed it, Sal, when you said that our medical professionals have been dragged into a political arena.

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  3. Covid-19 not only caught us by surprise. It caught us completely unprepared...............

    So did 911.
    In both cases we were aware of the possibilities of our failures in preparation but chose not to do so lest it upset or eat into our growth projections .
    We 'should' know that we are feeding from the carcasses of third world countries to keep our wonderful western lifestyle!
    Closing the gate of the fort until the cavalry rides in won't cut it anymore.

    Covid 19 has been a blessing to politicians of all stripes.
    Never in the field of human conflict have so many been deprived of good governance by so few that so many would suffer whilst the affluent would profit..

    TB


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    1. I largely agree with your sentiments, TB. What perplexes me is that not one comment has responded to the bulk of this post - what awaits us after the pandemic has receded and we return to some "new normal." What has the past taught us? Will the average Canadian emerge diminished, society weakened, by those who are positioned to exploit chaos to their benefit? Disaster capitalism.

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  4. The average Canadian will likely suffer as those in other countries will.
    Bezos has already increased his wealth as the retail industry is turned on it's head.
    I see more couriers in the neighborhood daily this is one shopping habit that will be difficult to counter or break.
    We have changed and somethings are better.
    More people now own dogs so fewer of these animals are destroyed.
    More people are now enjoying the outdoors and will be healthier
    From Bezos to Moderna and Pfizer, disaster capitalism is having it's day in the sun.

    TB

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  5. .. Actually.. You nailed it Mound..
    When you shifter my term 'cage' to 'arena'
    It really has become a Christians & Lions thing
    The shouting crowds, the Senate & Emperors

    The gory dust, raging beasts, clash of swords

    the Christians (doctors, nurses)
    torn & gored by the political beasts like Kenney
    and the opening act was the Educators
    attacked by political animals like Doug Ford

    Mainstream Media chortling over their poutine & wine
    No skin in the game for them.. up there with the capos

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    1. I think we're having to learn how to exist in a "post-cohesion" democracy, Sal. The importance of social cohesion is a horse I've flogged to death for many years. The response I got was negligible.

      Readers of these blogs don't show much interest in bridging the worsening divide between Liberal and Conservative. The breakdown seems to suit them. There is even one in the progressive ranks who periodically writes of Tories "drowning in their own excrement."

      It's all part and parcel of our decline into a Lord of the Flies democracy as though democracy and tribalism are somehow compatible. They're not.

      It is a fucking "arena," Sal and it's a pox on both sides of the divide.

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