A Surplus Population Carol

‘Tis the Season to be jollied. So, for a few weeks each year at this time, the Christmas Spirit dictates that we imagine the wicked, old world can be filled with light. Pleas for good causes abound, and we respond. Crabbed pessimists lighten up a bit. Or so our popular culture alleges. The Grinch’s heart grows several sizes.

The Grinch, of course, is just a retread of Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” who is scared straight by four ghosts. It was Dickens’s genius to create one of the nastiest villains in literature, a miserable miser emblematic of his age, and then turn him into a role model for those needing a primer in faith, hope and charity. At the final curtain there’s not a dry eye in the house, And this incarnation of greed, ironically, has been doing boffo business ever since he appeared in 1843.

It is worth recalling that Scrooge, and the forces he represented, was no joke. Dickens, reflecting his Victorian world, is full of wealth inequality, wretches starving in the street, crime-ridden slums, dying children, satanic mills, orphans, urchins, the workhouse, the blacking factory, debtor’s prison.

His age, like ours, was the worse of times and the best of times. The Industrial Revolution was creating a new world and new wealth, but it was destroying an old one and creating grinding poverty. Jobs and industries were being created, but old ways of life were no longer profitable, viable, useful. And men, women and children were cast off, discarded, forgotten. The victims sank into alcoholism, petty crime, prostitution and early death.

The problem was so vast that it defied easy solution. Remember how dismissive Scrooge was in the first scene of “A Christmas Carol” when men seeking a charitable contribution darkened his counting house door? Far from offering aid, he suggested the poor and destitute go where they belonged, to prison or the workhouse that his tax dollars supported. Sound familiar?

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die,” replies the charitable fellow.

“If they would rather die,” says Scrooge, “They had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

And that grim Malthusian advice is not so different from the solutions offered for inequality in our own day by the one percent to the 47%. “Pull yourself up by your nonexistent bootstraps, or wait for the pie to trickle down from the sky.”

And our current inequality is just the beginning. In “Rage Against the Machine” in “The New Yorker,” Elizabeth Kolbert reviews several new books considering our own dislocations, increasingly caused by the robotic revolution.

They suggest that the angry Trump voters who have lost their livelihoods to cheap labor ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Within two decades, it is suggested, half of all jobs in the United States will potentially be subject to automation. The process is well under way.

Foxconn, the Chinese electronics company whose “city-size factories and grim working conditions are legendary, is blamed for stealing U.S. Jobs, the better to build our iPhones and other gadgets on the cheap. But soon its ill-paid sweatshop laborers will be joining our own unemployed on the ash-heap of history. By 2020, Foxconn aims to automate one third of its jobs, with more to come. Already a pioneering plant near Shanghai has reduced its 100,000-person workforce to 50,000 using robotics.

In a supposedly cheering note we are told that some plants that went offshore are returning, to save money on transportation. But wait, they are not bringing the jobs back to America when they come. Robots will be the workforce in so-called lights-out factories. Why waste money on lights when the machines work just as efficiently in the dark.

In the late 1970s, GM employed 800,000. Today it is down to 215,000, not because it’s making fewer cars or less money. It just doesn’t need many people to do business. And it’s a big nuts and bolts operation. Pure products of the digital age employ almost no human beings. Facebook is valued at $270 billion, almost five times as much as GM, but it employs a mere 13,000 people. And, as Kolbert, notes, when it bought the fifty-five person WhatsApp for $22 billion, you could “fit its entire workforce in a Greyhound bus.”

In short, the future is one in which a large percentage of the population is going to be honest and truly surplus. Will they live in Dickensian squalor while the shareholders and coders of Apple, Amazon and Alphabet live like feudal lords? Or will we devise a use for the population replaced by robots?

Donal;d Trump has no answer, despite promises to bring back the jobs of yesteryear. Machines mine coal, people don’t. The big brains of Silicon Valley don’t seem to have a clue either as to how jobless, homeless, penniless people will pay for the products, they dream up and the machines produce. And since the robots don’t earn a wage, they don’t pay a tax. So where will the money for health, education, welfare and defense come from?

Even a redeemed Scrooge only managed to provide one family with a Christmas bird, to save one Tiny Tim from death, and to tithe a bit for the legions of sufferers haunting his London’s streets. What will we do with millions, billions of surplus souls? The robots will probably be as immune to the blandishments of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future as their corporate overlords.

As Tiny Tim might say, with good reason, “God help Us, Every One!”

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