The Time Crucible, Perception of risk in the age of Corona Virus
Scott Dennis 10 April 2020
Why do we pay our rent or mortgage at the beginning of the month? How long will it be necessary to self-quarantine during the corona virus pandemic? When will experts be able to provide the public with a vaccine for covid-19? Will the number of dead and infected begin to reduce once the curve is flattened over the next few weeks?
As I write the world is in the grip of a global pandemic related to a novel virus, but perhaps even more essentially- a worldwide panic about time and uncertainty. As this article moves forward with age and is looked back upon, the major question that will be answered is what trade-offs society was willing to make to relieve the anxiety around uncertainty and what changes took place during what I would call the “time crucible”, where waiting for all of us is the daily focus. For too many people in society there is no time to philosophize on this question because as the popular expression says “there ain’t nothing going on but the rent” and this has been an ongoing problem for most of their lives. Now the circle has widened and a much larger group of citizens are putting in jobless claims and are asking themselves if this cycle of work and money attached to time is really sustainable?
The confusion with our present system can be demonstrated in any typical New York apartment building with a mix of rent stabilized and market rate rents. One individual who has lived in the building for twenty years can be paying $500 a month; the new neighbor next door can be paying $3000 a month for the same size flat but feel like they are getting a deal in comparison to other rental prices in the area. It is common for a management company in our example to offer the twenty year resident one hundred thousand dollars to move out of the building because they know in time they will make a return on the new market value of rent. Perhaps the building owner is shielded by all of this volatility because the mortgage on the building was paid off thirty years ago. Everyone in this story has their own perspective of time and its effect on value. Suddenly during the pandemic period everyone in our apartment building scenario is now in limbo because the activity of society that greased these gears of simple capitalism has stopped and the time crucible has formed around all the parties involved. I could write ten thousand words on the history of rent control in New York during the 20th century, it is a bitter tale of legislative struggles against unfettered rentier capitalism. Basically all blue ribbon committees that have studied rent in densely populated cities have found the obvious, when real estate rent is not controlled; the prices will skyrocket to the benefit of the few over the many. In normal times one might throw their hands up in resignation of this fact but I submit that during this pandemic there will be more scrutiny by the middle class and the weighing of risk in the economy may change.
Fairly soon unique social trade-offs will have to be made, basically society will have to venture out with some new protocols but without a proven solution to the virus. Some of us will continue to stay inside until they see our friends and family (masks on) at the park or restaurant and the urge will be too much not to join in. Already there are images of people in China who were hit early on by the virus out and about. There will still be individuals that get sick and die but the media will move on to the next thing to worry about, getting the economy working again. Here is the take away however; people will begin to realize that this tight rope walk has been the same one they have been on for many years. Families in America have been one major health crisis away from disaster for a generation or more. The rationale for the time and money system that prevails on us now begins with perception management, the idea that financial capital is the heart of all risk and then the enforcement of financial instruments like debt and rent payments must be upheld to make the risk profitable. A by-product of rejoining the rat race may well be the awakening of the average citizen to their own risk and reward scenario. Their own health and the ability to produce work may begin to be more clearly viewed and valued as their own source of capital at least as important as an investor’s equity. Only time will tell.
The Future of Work|| Robots, AI, and Automation
Author Darrell M. West
A Review by Scott Dennis
If you have never considered the impact of automation on the workplace, this quote from a top technology CEO provides an opening salvo from Darrell West’s “The future of work” and should get your attention. “We will soon launch a robot that can perform tasks currently done by people with a high school education or less. The robot will only cost $20,000.00”. Throughout the reading of this important book I refer back to this quote and meditate on my trepidation for friends and fellow citizens that fall into this category.
The future of work is an insightful analysis of the precarious state that our society finds itself in. West describes industries’ heedless adoption of automation technology balanced by everyday workers that find themselves with little or no voice about change impacting their livelihoods. At the fulcrum are policy makers that are under informed about the impact of technology on their constituents. Politicians are also faced with the conundrum of accepting corporate funding from companies that will eventually pressure social programs by putting their citizens out of work.
The chapters of the book are intuitively ordered into the categories of “accelerating innovation”, “economic and social impact” and “an action plan” so that a logical and nuanced understanding of the technological challenge to society can be understood by any reader. Importantly possible strategies to avoid social catastrophe are offered for policy makers and activists alike to consider. In “accelerating innovation” West takes the reader on a tour of the technological advances that have infiltrated our daily lives. These advances have made our lives easier in many ways, robots that can perform dangerous or monotonous tasks, machine learning breakthroughs that have evolved into our faithful personal assistants or even something more intimate. Imagine an autonomous vehicle that could safely drive you and your children to appointed destinations in the morning and perhaps make some money for you as a driverless taxi when you are not using it. Autonomous driving and many other innovations discussed in the book are only possible through a chain of technologies being controlled by artificial technology or “AI”. Advances in AI are akin to a modern day space race with enormous corporate and national budgets employed to keep ahead of the curve. West quotes a 2017 statement from China’s state council to “build a domestic AI industry worth almost $150 billion by 2030”. The key take away from this discussion of deep learning machines is what kind of data sets are we providing AI and can ethics truly be programmed into what are essentially electronic brains? The author wisely advocates for a policy of transparency and a vigilance regarding the decisions humans are making during this nascent moment in the history of robotics.
“We will soon launch a robot that can perform tasks currently done by people with a high school education or less..”
The section on Economic and Social Impact opens with the utopic musings of author Edward Bellamy, in his vision of the 21st century automation has led to shortened work weeks and happy citizens who can spend their leisure time mentoring the young. The betterment of themselves and their community has become their focal point in life because their basic needs of housing, food and health care have been met. Here West takes the positive view suggesting that despite the fact that we are in a time where health benefits and secure careers are a more distant reality for workers that it takes a societal change about the very nature of work to shift to a more equitable economy. The shared or collaborative economy is defined by services exchanged peer-to peer, usually through an electronic platform, the major example being Uber drivers. Employees enjoy time flexibility and a certain amount of autonomy but give up the certainty of the health care support system. In order for these models to be sustainable West argues there will have to be unionization or at the very least agreed upon minimums in remunerations for these “new collar workers”. There are now millions of Americans joining in this type of work, popularly known as the “gig” economy. The future of work does a good job of introducing the reader to a host of models that could help restore the traditional benefits arrangement of full employment, the key concept to all of them being the notion of portability of benefits. The idea is laid out this way, since corporations are moving towards limited contracts workers then benefits such as medical leave and retirement should move with the employee instead of the employer; this creates a new social contract between company and worker. Regardless of which scheme is adopted the most heated area of debate is who will pay to support this shift in the economy? Assorted tax proposals are discussed within this book with one common conclusion, namely that the wealthy will have to give up something to help those displaced. Reading between the lines here the reader must ask themselves, who is actually benefiting from cutting back workers and technological efficiencies? In our lifetimes have we not seen the focus of business move from rank and file workers to the shareholder? Whatever the outcome it is clear that working citizens will have to leverage the power of democratic and educational institutions to regain their seat at the table of our shifting economy.
In the section “Action Plan” West asks if our political system is up to the challenge of structural change, even a casual observer of the present state of deadlock in the beltway the answer seems dubious. Unlike political struggles in the past however inaction concerning displacement of workers due to automation will increase the distrust of democratic institutions West agues. Anyone experiencing the tumults of the twenty four hour news cycle would have to agree. The book draws on some of the best economic historians to outline a fascinating new legal structure referred to as “Republic 2.0” where the various initiatives for change could have a chance to flourish. The basic understanding is that politics cannot be separated from economy and that even the amending of the U.S. constitution to reflect a people first attitude in the new economy must be considered. The future of work is required reading for anyone concerned about their place in the future labor force, once read it should serve as a guide for equitable change for activists and policy makers alike.
Mr. Darrell M. West is Vice President of the governance program at the Brooking Institute
Scott Dennis is the Executive Director of the Blue Collar Think Tank @bcthinktank