Category Archives: Op-Eds

Contemplating a Jobless Future: I For One Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

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Writing in Reason magazine, Ronald Bailey asks (and tries to answer) a question you’ve probably been hearing a lot lately and may have silently asked yourself:  “Are Robots Going to Steal Our Jobs?” Bailey takes an optimistic view. “[A]s we look ahead now to the end of the 21st century, we can’t predict what jobs workers will be doing, he writes. “But that’s no reason to assume those jobs won’t exist.”

Bailey has history on his side. On the other hand, the question is certainly worth taking seriously.

Technological advances have historically ended up creating more jobs than they eliminate and increasing the aggregate wealth and power of the societies which adopt them. Oral Messengers and Backpack Wheat Carriers Union, Sumer Local #1, probably lobbied against the adoption of writing and the wheel, but it’s hard to envision a path from Sumer to modern civilization that doesn’t include them. And by comparison to the kings of Sumer, the lowest quintile of any developed society today live like, well, kings. Technological advancement makes more things available to more people more cheaply.  Technological stagnation produces social stagnation a la the Dark Ages.

Will the current era of automation culminate in the opposite of historical results — mass unemployment, a dramatic increase in the wealth and power gap separating rich and poor?

Or are we at the doorway to a “post-scarcity” era, a product of what Ray Kurzweil calls the Law of Accelerating Returns,  in which work as we know it becomes highly optional because the necessities and minor luxuries of life get so cheap that we’re free spend the bulk of our time doing whatever we please instead of scrabbling for food, shelter, clothing, and cable television?

The answer may not be quite so binary. Maybe things will just keep slowly getting better, or maybe they’ll start slowly getting worse.

But my guess is that if we can successfully shed the burden of our most regressive and wealth-draining social institution — political government, aka the state — before it drags us down into global totalitarian slavery or  nuclear suicide, the future will look a lot more like the latter than like the former.

In the US, government leeches more than third of GDP directly out of the productive sector and into its political schemes, and kills still more of the productive sector’s potential with regulation.

The democratization of technology (these days you can make things in your garage or on your desktop that could only be made in a large factory 50 years ago) and the rise of economic networks that can at least potentially function beyond the reach of state taxation and regulation represent an opportunity to take back the future. Let’s seize that opportunity.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION  HISTORY

Federal Education Budget: Teapot, Meet Tempest

English: The Lyndon B. Johnson Building, headq...
English: The Lyndon B. Johnson Building, headquarters of the United States Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Español: El Lyndon B. Johnson Building, la sede del Departamento de Educación de los Estados Unidos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 requires the president of the United States to submit a budget proposal to Congress for each fiscal year. Congress isn’t required to honor that proposal. In fact its budget resolutions and actual appropriations seldom reflect presidents’ requests very closely. But there are always fireworks over the request anyway.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for FY2018 calls for a 13% ($9 billion) cut to the US Department of Education versus 2017’s discretionary funding.

That may sound like a big big hit to your kids’ schools, and the usual suspects would like you to think it constitutes a gutting of “public” (read: government) education in America, but there are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about it.

First of all, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, total government spending (at all levels) on elementary and secondary education in the US came to $634 billion for the 2013-2014 academic year. Additionally, Americans spent $517 billion on postsecondary education, the bulk of it through government, that year.

Keeping in mind that those numbers have likely gone up, not down, in the intervening years, and that state and local spending will probably continue to increase, a 13% cut to the US Department of Education would in reality be at most a reduction of only eight tenths of one percent in total US education spending. Calling that a tempest in a teapot demeans tempests and teapots. This disturbance is more like dropping a grain of salt in a shot glass.

Secondly, there’s a good case to be made that federal education spending cancels out any positive effects of state and local spending rather than boosting them. As former New Mexico governor  and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson notes, “[t]he Department of Education grants each state 11 cents out of every dollar it spends on education. Unfortunately, every dollar of this money comes with 16 cents of strings attached. States that accept federal funding lose five cents for every dollar spent on education to pay for federal mandates and regulations, taking millions of dollars out of the classroom.” And don’t forget that that 11 cents started out as a 13 cent deduction from your paycheck.

Finally, although the federal government spends more than twice as much per student on education today as it did when the department was created in 1980, student performance remains, at best, stagnant.

After nearly 40 years, it’s reasonable to conclude that the US Department of Education is a failed experiment. Its budget should be cut by 100% — turn out the lights, send the bureaucrats home, sell the buildings and equipment — not by a mere 13%.

But we know that’s not going to happen, don’t we? This isn’t about education. It’s about politics. It’s not about teaching kids to read and write and calculate. It’s about buying votes from special interests with taxpayer dollars . I predict that the department’s FY2018 budget will be larger, not smaller, than its FY2017 budget.

If we want decent educations for our children, the solution is complete  separation of school and state.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION  HISTORY

The Problem Isn’t Willie Pete. The Problem is War Crimes.

White Phosphorous Bombardment of German emplac...
White Phosphorous Bombardment of German emplacements (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times reports  that US and/or US-allied forces in Syria may be using white phosphorous munitions in the assault on Raqqa, capital city of the Islamic State in Syria. The use of white phosphorous in war is a perennial complaint among human rights activists. And while it’s valid as far as it goes, it misses a larger and more important point.

White phosphorous — nicknamed “Willie Pete” by the US mortar, artillery and air forces who use it — produces highly visible plumes of white smoke, justifying its use to mark targets or screen movements.

It’s also highly incendiary. It sets things on fire, it causes terrible burns, and it can’t be put out with water (it must be smothered and deprived of oxygen). For that reason, international law prohibits its use “on personnel” and in populated areas.

When I worked with 81mm mortars in the US Marine Corps, those restrictions were treated jokingly. Sure, we couldn’t use Willie Pete on personnel, but we could use it on equipment. Rifles, rucksacks and helmets are equipment, right? If someone happens to be wearing or carrying that equipment, that’s THEIR problem, right? One of our favorite training missions involved firing white phosphorous rounds, theoretically to “mark the target,” followed by high explosive rounds. That kind of mission was nicknamed “shake and bake.”

I’m glad that I was never called upon to fire white phosphorous at other human beings in combat (I was, for all intents and purposes, a rifleman during the Gulf War). But when I tremble in retrospect at that possibility, it occurs to me that the focus on a particular munition doesn’t do justice to the problem of war crimes as such.

In war, people die. While there are better and worse ways to do so, it seems to me that we should be less worried about how people die than about which people die and why.

The problem with bombarding Raqqa, or any other populated area, isn’t that it’s being done with white phosphorous, it’s that it’s being done at all. In addition to Islamic State combatants — fair game, so to speak —  the area is full of civilian non-combatants. Killing them is a crime whether it’s done with white phosphorous, sarin gas or just plain vanilla bullets and artillery shrapnel.

Of course, we’re frequently and piously informed that innocent civilians killed by US or US-allied forces are accidental “collateral damage” or even “human shields.” The US Department of Defense always thoroughly investigates such killings and always ends up absolving US troops of responsibility. It’s only a crime to kill non-combatants if “the enemy” can be blamed for the killing, and — mirabile dictu! — that always turns out to be the case.

But in reality, when you pull a trigger and send a round of any kind downrange, you are responsible for where it lands and who it kills. Until and unless US forces accept that military responsibility, it’s our civic responsibility to treat them as the war criminals they are.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION  HISTORY