“Maybe not today… maybe not tomorrow… but soon and for the rest of your life…”*
Technology -- driven by customer interaction or some algorithm much smarter than we are – is taking our jobs. It’s been going on for decades. We gladly did the work of a bank teller in exchange for 24/7 access to an ATM beginning in the 1970’s. No more standing in line to cash our paychecks. More recently, we quickly adopted the convenience of using a kiosk rather than dealing with an airline employee to get our boarding passes or better yet printed them at home.
In economic theory, capital investment creates jobs. Yet, technology investment is booming and employment languishes.
Ken Jennings, who famously won over $2 Million on Jeopardy, was soundly whipped by an IBM computer dubbed Watson on that same game show. Combine Watson with the Siri app on your iPhone and guess what happens next. Your doctor’s job is in jeopardy.
If you think the technology is too rudimentary, consider this. Visionaries like MIT’s Andrew McAfee point out that Moore’s Law correctly predicted that computing power would double every 18 months way back in the 1960’s. And Moore was right. Now, apply that theory to Siri and Watson. If I ask my doctor about a particular drug, he looks it up on his iPhone. It’s a short hop to the iPhone looking it up and giving me clinical advice.
In the 20th Century, science assumed an important role in society. Great inventions were born at institutions like Bell Labs or MIT. Today, the Internet has taken the process of innovation global. This democratization portends great progress – both economic and social. McAfee suggest we will “live more lightly on the planet” and “eradicate poverty”.
Yet, I am not so easily convinced that the progress of innovation will mean progress for everyone. America, the land of opportunity, has been sliding backwards in terms of upward mobility. The OECD’s latestreport on economic mobility rates the U.S. poorly on that score.
How will great technological progress provide for the poor uneducated masses in the developing world and in our own inner cities? A good friend, Germaine Smith-Baugh, is CEO of the Urban League of Broward County. Their mission? “To assist African-Americans and other disenfranchised groups in the achievement of social and economic equality.”
I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Yet, Germaine and her underfunded organization soldier on undeterred. I asked her how she goes about making a difference. “I start with a family,” she says. “If I can get a family, I can get a block. If I can get a block, I can get a neighborhood. If I can get a neighborhood, I can get a community.” And so on.
But the problems of income inequality are much bigger than the Urban League and its like across the U.S. can solve. For all to thrive, for the middle class to remain a stable economic and social force in this country, we need to address the structural impediments to the solutions.
Those solutions lie in the need for massive investments in education and infrastructure. Conservatives eschew such investments by government in favor of free market solutions. Liberals misallocate funds to projects that focus on social outcomes rather than economic ones.
A college degree is so expensive to obtain that many people are beginning to doubt there is a financial return. And colleges themselves seem stuck on providing a great 20th Century education. For this country to thrive in the 21st, our education system must be revamped to train more engineers, moreentrepreneurs and more technicians.
Budget cutting fervor has reduced aid through Pell Grants and student loan interest rates have skyrocketed because, in the absence of government guarantees, bankers will not loan money to poor students whose prospects are not certain. If we are to produce a better educated workforce, we must identify the skills and knowledge valued by enterprise. If government were to work hand and hand with industry to provide graduates with the skills that are in demand, the landscape would change.
Government spending on infrastructure is funneled to unproductive projects by politicians who want to make sure that their district gets a share of the pork that’s being doled out. If we were to focus our infrastructure investments on the large urban centers that produce a return, we must overcome a political battle over how funds are allocated.
For sure, non-profits like the Urban League must play a role in bolstering a sense of family and community among our nation’s poor. However, our dysfunctional government structure and its sour relations with corporate America must be resolved before we can make substantial progress on behalf of the middle class and those less fortunate.
WHO WILL LEAD?
*One of my favorite lines from the movie Casablanca.