Resolved: The Average Worker Is Being Left Behind by Technology

 

Last Sunday, I found myself once again standing before a standing-room-only crowd at the Oxford Union, the world’s most famous debating society. 

For a suburban kid who stayed as far away as possible from my high school speech and debate program, this is a pretty intimidating experience . . .especially when you realize the spot where you are standing was once filled by Churchill, Gandhi, Thatcher and a bunch of other folks who actually deserved to be there.

Eleven years ago, with the late Dean of Oxford’s Said Business School Anthony Hopwood, I created “Silicon Valley comes to Oxford”, which to my amazement has grown to become the largest annual event for entrepreneurs in Europe.  Three years ago we added a Union debate, and I’ve been involved in all three – the first as a commenter from the floor, the second as part of one of the two teams of four debaters (we won), and this year again as a commenter. 

As always, the Union presents cocktails and dinner before the debate, so everyone involved typically has a good buzz on.  And victory usually goes to the team that can best combine facts, shameless appeals to the audience’s prejudices, and wit.  That’s all you need to know – other than that I rose in support of the opponents – and that the proponent team included (reluctantly, because I don’t think he really believed it) my old pal Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and these days the most famous entrepreneur/superstar on the planet.  Hence my less-than subtle digs at him and his company.

~

Resolved:  “This House believes that the average worker is being left behind by advances in technology”

Madam President, honored leaders of the Union, ladies and gentlemen, this is the third time that I’ve stood at this table, and my wonder at being even a small part of this great institution only grows.

I’ve risen to speak in support of the opposition because not to do so would be to give tacit support to those who would put the brakes to the technology revolution, to the most important force for the improvement in the quality of human lives – and indeed, of human work – ever created.  I ask that you stand with me.

It is with no little irony that we hold this debate just a few miles from where, exactly two hundred years ago, the Luddites began their revolt.  Like my esteemed friends in proposition tonight, they too believed that technology was leaving the average worker behind. 

And yet, somehow, those average workers managed to adapt to the changes taking place around them, to find their way, and in the process embark on the greatest burst of wealth creation ever known.  The “average” worker – and as an American even that term makes me uncomfortable – has somehow, over those last two centuries created a world in which he (and now she) enjoys better health, a longer life, more education, much more personal wealth, and an access to information and knowledge once only available to monarchs.

There are many laws in the world of technology, such as Moore’s Law of semiconductors and Metcalf’s Law of networks.  And, as it happens, there is also one named after me.  It says that “Technology revolutions always arrive slower than predicted, but quicker than we are prepared for.”  In other words, we are always shocked when a revolutionary new technology like the personal computer or the Internet or smartphones or social networks arrives on the scene. 

But a corollary of Malone’s Law is that “the technological miracle of one generation is the everyday appliance of the next.”  This afternoon, schoolchildren were walking down the street outside this building listening to their iPods and talking on their iPhones – an image that will be repeated within a few years on the streets of Lusaka and Pnom Penh.  At many of the world’s biggest corporations managers and employees who have worked together for years, have never met in person.  My oldest son, who came home from Oxford in June, found a job in two weeks on Craigslist.  My youngest son talks to his teachers via Facebook. And just before I came here, I checked my email to find that three people – average workers all – wanted to connect with me on LinkedIn.

Yes, advances in technology do leave us all behind – temporarily.  But that’s the point.  And those same technological advances also give us the tools to quickly catch up – and to improve our lives.  One need only look at the productivity tables of the last half-century for proof of that.  That same mainframe computer that once threatened our jobs, is now the laptop computer that lets us work at home and virtually communicate face to face with anyone in the world.  Technology isn’t leaving us behind; rather, as always, it pulls us along in its wake.

To believe otherwise is to surrender, to join the army of King Ludd in trying to slow the pace of innovation, to throw a spanner into the gears of the most rewarding force in the modern world.  It is to abandon your belief in human progress, imagination, and will.  And it is to deny the future the same fruits of innovation that we so casually enjoy today.

Let me close by saying that if you believe, like the proponents of this resolution, that technology is only leaving us behind, that there is no countervailing technological force to help us keep up – then, to echo my dear friend Reid Hoffman’s words from last year, I suggest that you pull out your smartphones right now and cancel your LinkedIn accounts.

~

So, how did it all turn out?  We lost – which surprised even members of the other side, who agreed that the opposition had made a far stronger case.  I suspect, sadly, that our defeat said more about the increasingly pessimistic European character than the quality of our performance.  In my experience, every new tech breakthrough, every new Google or Facebook, is met with fear and dread, rather than the enthusiasm we see in Asia, and here in the States. 

As for us losers, we drowned our sorrow in a few pints at a nearby pub and told ourselves that next year we’d get ‘em.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @user_24701

    Technological advancements are only one part of the equation. What has happened over the past 40 years is that “American” multinational companies have transferred management expertise, capital and technology to low-labor-cost countries.

    The loser in this isn’t the “average worker”. It’s the average American worker.

    • #1
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    @MorituriTe

    Bravo, Mr. Malone. You were on the right side of the argument. Not only is the “average worker” not being left behind, but his life is being changed in fundamental ways by this technology.

    I think the underreported story of the last few decades is of the changes being wrought in the nature of social life and interpersonal relationships by the ubiquity of communications technology. I am old enough to remember when the Sunday evening “long distance” phone call to my grandparents, living 80 miles away, was one of the week’s major events. We gathered around the phone and took turns talking with them, all the while watching the clock as the dollars ticked away. Driving a car with no passengers, walking down the street alone, or sitting in a coffee shop were all solitary experiences. Friends who moved away were often lost to us forever, as communications dwindled then stopped altogether. Now our networks of friends span the globe, defined not by common location, but by common interests and inclinations. Given access to electricity, we are never alone if we don’t want to be. One cannot exaggerate what a profound change this is.

    • #2
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    @PaulARahe

    Great fun! Back in the early 1970s, I debated against Benazir Bhutto in that venue. The topic: “Resolved that this House would impeach President Nixon.”

    I lost.

    • #3
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    @MelFoil

    Maybe America’s biggest problem is that our public education system is not keeping up with the rest of science and technology. They’re not even keeping up with small business. And that stagnation is entirely by design. The goal of redesigning the system comes way behind the goal of creating more and higher-paid positions for unionized bureaucrats. Too many in the system have a financial or job-security interest in keeping the education system just the way is–a politically corrupt monopoly. It stinks, and it’s been dragging us down as a nation for decades.

    • #4
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    @Douglas

    Technology does leave workers behind. They just have to catch up. It’s been this way ever since we’ve had technology. Buggy builders were left behind when Automobile factories were built. The future is ever advancing. Learn to adapt or get left behind. Only in countries where old products are subsidized because their people don’t want to buy them are workers not “being left behind”. The Soviets were very big on not leaving workers behind, to the tune of producing garbage in the 80’s that looked like bad copies from the 50’s (which, they were). Workers have always had to adapt to changing realities. This isn’t new.

    • #5
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    @PaulARahe
    James Gawron

    Paul A. Rahe: Nov 24 at 3:58pm

    Edited on Nov 24 at 04:08 pm

    She lost Paul. When the fuzzy socially hip left of the sixties and seventies ran out of stream and she didn’t have a wave of shallow cultural stuff to ride on she really didn’t have a clue. She walked into a powder keg situation. Instead of moving to the right and taking a Thatcherite hard line she tried to bring back the seventies. In Pakistan with radical Islam running around this was a very foolish thing to do for any women. To say radical Islam is misogynistic is an understatement. Without protection from the right the radicals rushed to murder her. She should have learned from you, if so she’d probably be alive and effecting things in Pakistan in a postitve way. Instead a great talent was wasted on left wing cultural vanity and Pakistan spins out of control without leadership.

    Sorry for commenting off topic but I found what you said interesting. · Nov 24 at 7:34pm

    I enjoyed your response. You may well be right.

    • #6
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    @DavidFoster

    Jerry Broaddus..”The imagination of the engineer designing the system plays no part in this”

    A manufacturing plant based on Lean methods may will generally require a higher level of worker skill, thinking, and commitment than a classical Taylorized plant. In customer service, you can set things up so that the CS agent is prompted exactly what to do and what to say in every situation, or you can expect more exercise of judgment by the agent and design the support system more as a flexible tool.

    The idea that stage of technology automatically and fully determines job design is not correct; job design is a function of how management chooses to employ that thechnology. Of course, factors such as union work rules can serve as a major constraint.

    • #7
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    @LowcountryJoe
    Douglas: Technology does leave workers behind. They just have to catch up. It’s been this way ever since we’ve had technology. Buggy builders were left behind when Automobile factories were built. The future is ever advancing. Learn to adapt or get left behind. Only in countries where old products are subsidized because their people don’t want to buy them are workers not “being left behind”. The Soviets were very big on not leaving workers behind, to the tune of producing garbage in the 80’s that looked like bad copies from the 50’s (which, they were). Workers have always had to adapt to changing realities. This isn’t new. · Nov 24 at 5:32pm

    Great post. Unfortunately I read from far too many people that this scenario is much too painful. These people seemingly focus on the seen pain rather than the unseen benefits; it’s as though their ‘make-work biases’ causes them to see the changes only for the disruptions they cause and never the realized progress. These same people will lament the lost factory jobs even though they don’t really want to see their own family members fill those positions. Major disconnect!

    • #8
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    @PeterRobinson
    Daniel Frank: Bravo, Mr. Malone. · Nov 24 at 3:51pm

    Edited on Nov 24 at 03:52 pm

    My sentiments exactly.

    And Happy Thanksgiving, Mike!

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @JamesGawron
    Paul A. Rahe: Great fun! Back in the early 1970s, I debated against Benazir Bhutto in that venue. The topic: “Resolved that this House would impeach President Nixon.”

    I lost. · Nov 24 at 3:58pm

    Edited on Nov 24 at 04:08 pm

    She lost Paul. When the fuzzy socially hip left of the sixties and seventies ran out of stream and she didn’t have a wave of shallow cultural stuff to ride on she really didn’t have a clue. She walked into a powder keg situation. Instead of moving to the right and taking a Thatcherite hard line she tried to bring back the seventies. In Pakistan with radical Islam running around this was a very foolish thing to do for any women. To say radical Islam is misogynistic is an understatement. Without protection from the right the radicals rushed to murder her. She should have learned from you, if so she’d probably be alive and effecting things in Pakistan in a postitve way. Instead a great talent was wasted on left wing cultural vanity and Pakistan spins out of control without leadership.

    Sorry for commenting off topic but I found what you said interesting.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @KCRob

    Technology is costing jobs. By definition, productivity gains result when output per worker increases.

    I began my electrical engineering career as a technician in the 70s. In the years since, the number of people needed to design a product and put it into production has plummeted: far fewer drafters, fewer PC board designers, fewer engineers. PC board assembly is almost totally automated.

    The products we have now are great but we’ve not figured out what to do with surplus labor (keep the bell curve in mind).

    I don’t want to sound like more of a snob than I am but in my trips into the real world, I run into very few potential chemists, physicists, engineers…

    • #11
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    @rayconandlindacon
    Elena: Technological advancements are only one part of the equation. What has happened over the past 40 years is that “American” multinational companies have transferred management expertise, capital and technology to low-labor-cost countries.

    The loser in this isn’t the “average worker”. It’s the average American worker. · Nov 24 at 3:07pm

    The $3 an hour worker in Mexico or anywhere else in Latin America is worth little more than the $17 an hour worker in the US. The decision for corporations to choose the aggravation and risk of relocating a factory there is far more related to the regulatory costs imposed on hiring that $17 per hour worker here in the US than it is the money supposedly saved by paying lower wages.

    And, in many countries, because of the prosperity brought by those jobs, the cost/benefit equation is rapidly diminishing the benefit first realized, and if the regulatory climate here relaxes, many of those jobs will once again be done in the US by American workers, augmented by the capital required to modernize those tasks.

    • #12
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    @KingsKnight1

    Yes, the advance of technology is rough on workers of all types. Not least of all in my field. I’m a software developer and I’ve had to scramble to keep up with the technology de jour. But you find a way and in the end everyone benefits. But there is a price to be paid by those, even temporarily left behind; the work and stress of having to constantly catch up and then stay on top.

    • #13
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    @DavidFoster

    Good to see you posting here, Michael.

    The idea that advancing technology makes jobs more complex is very common; it is only partially correct. Very often, advances in technology–especially when applied unimaginatively–result in the radical simplification and de-skilling of jobs.

    Some related thoughts at my post Thanksgiving and temporal bigotry.

    • #14
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    @JerrytheBastage

    Since your talk was about workers, I assume the subject is primarily manufacturing. There are several ways to measure the effectiveness of a change in technology on a production line.

    Is the product of equal or better quality to what was made before the change?

    Is production increased?

    Does the process make better use of resources? Better use of power? Of labor?

    Does the process produce less scrap? Does it produce fewer waste products? Does it make compliance with environmental regulations less expensive?

    Is it safe for the workers?

    My business is factory automation. In my experience, most of the technology we design and install will improve every single one of these measures.

    That means that given improved technology, a plant can make more product of a higher quality using less raw material and less labor. So the cost of the final product to consumers is less.

    You are exactly right about how the technology is seen by the first and subsequent generations of operators. The first generation understands the process very well, but the automation makes much of that knowledge redundant. And they fight the change. Subsequent generations embrace the new tools and improve on them.

    • #15
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    @barbaralydick

    Enjoyed your post very much.

    Now, given that “…victory usually goes to the team that can best combine facts, shameless appeals to the audience’s prejudices,” I’d be interested in the nub of the opposing side’s argument. They must have appealed much more to emotion than fact as your argument was spot on.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @JerrytheBastage
    david foster: Good to see you posting here, Michael.

    The idea that advancing technology makes jobs more complex is very common; it is only partially correct. Very often, advances in technology–especially when applied unimaginatively–result in the radical simplification and de-skilling of jobs.

    It is an unfortunate side effect of technology that it makes some skills superfluous. The imagination of the engineer designing the system plays no part in this.

    I suppose an imaginative engineer can build a system that only keeps a worker from sweeping up, but still requires him to perform trigonometric functions in his head.

    But of course, this is just silly. It’s easy and extremely inexpensive to provide answers to mathematical questions by machine. That machine will go millions in a row without making a mistake. The operator should still understand the concepts, but if the machine performs the calculations, the operator will not be as practiced. And the results will clearly be better.

    If the quality of the results improve the bottom line, eventually the changes required to achieve them will be implemented.

    Eventually, the job is de-skilled, even radically.

    • #17
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    @DavidFoster

    An interesting analysis that is relevant to this discussion: Made in America, Again, from Boston Consulting Group.

    • #18
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    @
    Jerry Broaddus: Since your talk was about workers, I assume the subject is primarily manufacturing. There are several ways to measure the effectiveness of a change in technology on a production line.

    You are exactly right about how the technology is seen by the first and subsequent generations of operators. The first generation understands the process very well, but the automation makes much of that knowledge redundant. And they fight the change. Subsequent generations embrace the new tools and improve on them. · Nov 24 at 8:47pm

    Jerry, I’m in a similar line of work, and I agree completely.

    I am always inclined to paraphrase Russ Roberts when this type of objections are raised.

    “At what point in human history do you want technology to cease? Right before the advent of the personal computer? Right after?

    Before or after the Cellphone? The smartphone?

    Before the automobile that saves millions of lives when serving as an ambulance or after?

    Before the invent of photoelectric detection systems that save thousands of lives in manufacturing environments or after?”

    If the answer is always after, then is it possible that the technology itself is not the problem?

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Elena: Technological advancements are only one part of the equation. What has happened over the past 40 years is that “American” multinational companies have transferred management expertise, capital and technology to low-labor-cost countries.

    The loser in this isn’t the “average worker”. It’s the average American worker. · Nov 24 at 3:07pm

    Then fight tooth and nail against minimum wage, excessive bureaucratic oversight and labor unions.

    Companies don’t leave or stay because of average American wage/hour. They leave because it is cheaper to produce their end product in unit per total worker compensation.

    Unless you are interested in paying $1000 for your iPhone or $5,000 for your laptop.

    Are you?

    Have you ever worked in a factory? How many factory workers do you think pray that their children work in some blighted cubicle instead, since that’s what we got in trade?

    • #20
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    @rayconandlindacon
    KCRob: Technology is costing jobs. By definition, productivity gains result when output per worker increases.

    I began my electrical engineering career as a technician in the 70s. In the years since, the number of people needed to design a product and put it into production has plummeted: far fewer drafters, fewer PC board designers, fewer engineers. PC board assembly is almost totally automated.

    The products we have now are great but we’ve not figured out what to do with surplus labor (keep the bell curve in mind).

    I don’t want to sound like more of a snob than I am but in my trips into the real world, I run into very few potential chemists, physicists, engineers… · Nov 25 at 8:02am

    Your last sentence defines a serious problem with American education and personal motivation, NOT technology.

    Regarding how many fewer people needed, as a design consultant I have my AutoCad now, replacing the aforementioned cadre of drafters, etc.

    On the other hand, the baby boom generation is beginning to retire or die off, and the replacement population are waiting on tables, manicuring our lawns and plucking chicken feathers for Tyson.

    Does “technology” threaten their jobs?

    • #21
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    @AaronMiller

    Well said, Douglas. Factory closings and such are only an injustice when they are closed due to poor management… and should be accepted even then. Life can be rough, but there’s always opportunity (though it sometimes requires relocating). Suck it up, rise to the challenge, and pray. That’s what kids need to hear.

    Michael S. Malone

    As for us losers, we drowned our sorrow in a few pints at a nearby pub and told ourselves that next year we’d get ‘em. ·

    Ironic that you should seek out an invention that millenia could not replace.

    Technology is usually a double-edged sword. The internet and modern telecommunications are great examples. On the one hand, people have unprecedented access to information and incredibly open interactions with strangers which would not otherwise take place. On the other hand, the flood of exposure to foreign cultures and ideas has provided fertile ground for multiculturalism (cultural indifference) and other poisonous ideologies which prey on confusion.

    There’s opportunity for employment anywhere, given a modicum of trust and physical security. The greater challenge is inspiring the will to take risks and the responsibility to moderate creativity, curiosity and ambition with moral regard.

    • #22
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    @user_140429

    There’s a line in one of Ian Hogg’s books something like, ‘If supremacy for the Royal Navy required moving from barefoot sailors, wooden ships, sails, and muzzle-loaders to shoes, iron ships, steam, and breech-loaders, then Jack Tar would just have to make the change.’

    It seems that attitude no longer prevails in Britain.

    IBM used to run an advertisement in the WSJ back in the 1970’s about a wool-weighing operation at a sheep station in Australia. The more-automated IBM system was not producing the expected increase in efficiency. Per the ad, it wasn’t so much opposition to the technology as such, it was a lack of confidence in it that was holding performance back. After the IBM representative gave additional training to the foreman, getting him to believe in the system, results inproved dramatically.

    Perhaps that illustrates a difference between Aussies and Brits in their willingness to embrace the new. Or something else, of course.

    • #23
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    @DavidWilliamson
    Michael S. Malone

    So, how did it all turn out? We lost –

    Probably because of the high level of youth unemployment in the UK — somewhere around 20%.

    There is a restaurant in London where you order your meal at the table on a touchscreen — no need for waiters or waitresses — more unemployed. The touchscreen is made in China.

    So the average worker is not so much left behind, as left outa work — in spite of LinkedIn.

    • #24
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    @

    1) I earn my own soup.

    2) Are you kidding?

    3) Who gets to define unproductive. You?

    4) Having read what you’ve been writing here I’m not surprised.

    5) Markets do lead to declines.

    6) No, but they should favor actual fixes and not fantasies that are political sure losers.

    • #25
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    @LowcountryJoe
    KCRob:

    I know of at least one fast food chain that has augmented counter help with self service kiosks that can easily replace the humans. And then there is RFID technology that will make cashiers obsolete.

    Great! Short term the shareholders of the companies that employ this technology will profit more and the shareholders will reap the benefits. Longer term, if the technology is enthusiastically adopted by the entire industry, the consumers will benefit due to inflation adjusted prices being decreased; consumers win and the labor will be ‘freed’ to do other things [such as repair the technology or distribute the food/goods withing the supply chain].

    KCRob:

    You are correct as to education and motivation but am I wrong when I say that a lot of people are, to put it bluntly, not smart enough to do some of today’s jobs? ·

    If you feel badly enough about this you’re more than welcome to contribute to their charity [or future learning of desired skills — “teaching the man to fish”]. I, for one, want the market to send appropriate signals so that displaced people will react to those signals in a meaningful and productive manner…or else!

    • #26
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    @
    LowcountryJoe

    So, you support the minimum wage legislation on principle or because of you think it make for a less odious political platform plank for voters to stomach (or both)?

    I happen to think supporting minimum wage legislation, excessive bureaucratic oversight, and labor unions are winning in the same manner that Charlie Sheen is. I never want the GOP to adopt that crap. ·

    Note the actual words I used, which did not mention bureaucratic oversight or unions.

    I favor neither, and I have special loathing of unions.

    But the idea that having the GOP came out in favor of abolishing the minimum wage is a political winner is just bizarre.

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Such a harsh tone you take. Forgive me if I do the same.

    Beasley

    Then fight tooth and nail against minimum wage, excessive bureaucratic oversight and labor unions.

    There’s a winning platform for the GOP: Abolish the minimum wage. FAIL.

    Have you ever worked in a factory? How many factory workers do you think pray that their children work in some blighted cubicle instead, since that’s what we got in trade?

    Have you ever worked in a factory? I have.

    I got all sweaty. It was terrible. But it was a lot better than unemployment, which too often is the alternative today. Or worse, unemployment and drug addiction- which I think I recall hearing Rob Long mention on one of the podcasts.

    Funny that you rail against bureaucratic oversight but endorse cubicle jobs, because one of the prime generators of cubicle jobs is the relentless expansion of bureaucratic overseers. Plus, those sweet cubicle jobs that aren’t in the endless government are also quite vulnerable to outsourcing.

    So in the end we’re left with nothing.

    This is not a winning platform for a political party to endorse.

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Member
    @
    LowcountryJoe

    If you feel badly enough about this you’re more than welcome to contribute to their charity [or future learning of desired skills — “teaching the man to fish”]. I, for one, want the market to send appropriate signals so that displaced people will react to those signals in a meaningful and productive manner…or else! ·

    Or else what?

    You cancel elections you know you’ll lose? Or do you roll the tanks out a la Tiananmin Square and start shooting?

    Because a political platform that invites the electorate to go Hades is a loser, and basically that’s your plan, even if you haven’t figured that out.

    And that’s been the plan handed down to the American people by the political class for a long time. Hence the terrible approval ratings for Congress, and the willingness of the electorate to elect Mr. Hope&Change as president.

    Time is running short to fix this. A regime that only offers its people steady decline into poverty and bankruptcy, accompanied by lectures about their stupidity, won’t last, nor should it.

    The political class with fix this, or else!

    • #29
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    @JerrytheBastage

    David Foster, The state of technology is never determinative. The economics always are in the long run.

    Management’s primary goal eventually overcomes any loyalties a manager might feel for The Buggy Whip Braider’s Union.

    This is not a bad thing. It makes products cheaper and of higher quality. And in the long run it frees up workers for other tasks not so easily automated.

    • #30

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