Embracing the Future of Labor Today

By Ron Rivers,

Throughout history, labor has been a primary defining factor in human experience. For the majority of us, it is the task we dedicate the majority of our time and mental resources to each week. Labor, like everything else in our universe, is subject to varying degrees of change that bring along new sets of human-centric problems to solve. Unfortunately, history has taught us that resistance to change is almost as common as the change itself. The solution is to encourage the proactive embrace of our present shift from a manufacturing economic model to knowledge-based labor, linking labor, economics, and politics together to form new structures and ideas facilitate an evolution that is pluralistic. To prepare we should begin by understanding why we are here.

A Whole New World

Globalized trade and labor function on theories of global exchange between wealthy advanced economies and emerging economies with low-cost human labor. The historical relationship between the United States and China is one example that illustrates this point[1], the outsourcing of labor-intensive low-value goods has been a cornerstone of U.S. business strategy for decades. Putting aside the ethical and moral conversation about the conditions in which Chinese workers operate under for another article, this strategy has proven to be a useful model in the past.

Today U.S. tensions with China and other international trading partners grow, both because of the present administration’s policies and the transformation of global economies to a Knowledge Economy model. Knowledge Economies are ones where the most advanced form of productivity is highly skilled, highly transferable labor. Companies operating under Knowledge Economy models integrate production, research, and innovation into one continuous process that allows them perpetually transform the organization’s products and services.

What sets knowledge economy organizations apart is not strictly correlated to better outputs relative to inputs, but rather their ability to quickly rise to the top of a specific market niche and remain there. Consider Google as an example, their talent, technology, and operational culture give them incredible power to ensure that they stay at the forefront of innovation within their desired niche. Google’s position as an innovative leader is secure because within their organization innovation and production are linked as one.

The ability to stay at the forefront of innovation within a vertical is the future of many existing and future companies operating under Knowledge Economy models and one of the primary reasons for progressive policymakers and thinkers to proactively foster the growth of these organizations. It is already changing the nature of how we cooperate with other countries and has tremendous potential to transform global societies. The challenge we face in embracing the transformation is how to decouple the antiquated political and economic ideologies of the past.

Designing Uncertain Employment

One of the primary roadblocks to breaking open access to this new innovative labor model is that the organizations at the forefront shield themselves from challenge through our existing laws of property and contract. Developed during a time when the present arrangements were inconceivable, these structural arrangements impose a limitation on American innovation. Observing our current circumstances, we know that the mega-corporations of today have essentially commoditized their production models — outsourcing labor to other parts of the world where human capital is cheap, and taxes are low. The ability to maximize capital gains at each level of value generation creates a cascading impact, where the most advanced Knowledge Economy firms can grow at incredible rates and solidify their power.

While nothing mentioned in the above paragraph is news to any student of business or economics, the implications are compounding and disheartening. If we observe the present trajectory of labor it is clear that we are rapidly entering a space of permanent uncertain employment, often cited to as the “gig economy.” We can observe this shift around the world but especially in wealthy economies like the United States.

Politically the impacts of these economic shifts are already being felt and will only open up future opportunities for ill-intentioned abusers in the future as industry-wide disruption begins to occur more rapidly[2][3]. The old mass production economics models were the foundation of the same political thought and theory that we practice today. Proactively embracing these new economic models through innovations in our legal arrangements will help insulate ourselves from bad actors while simultaneously heightening our ability to address unexpected and immediate challenges.

Image Credit: Nordic Business Forum

Opening Access to Innovation

As continuous innovation is central to the function of firms the best and most advanced practices and technologies, become further concentrated in just a handful of companies. This isolation of knowledge is supported legally by property and contract laws written from a place in space-time and human consciousness that is not reflective of our present trajectory. In a sense, we are actively participating in the stifling of innovation and experimentation here in the United States — the exact opposite of what we would be doing under a proactive embracing of the Knowledge Economy.

I believe that a unifying purpose for every American should be to actively fight for the spread of Knowledge Economy practice and procedure to every productive vertical that can use it. We can approach this effort from numerous directions such as requiring large firms to develop free continuing education programs, revising patent laws, legally requiring finance to be tied to the real economy, and deepening cooperation between existing large firms and new innovators.

Opening up access to more people to learn, explore, and work with the most innovative technologies and techniques will significantly raise the floor that every innovator stands on. Imagine a new startup working in logistical technologies having access to Amazon’s proprietary patents and practice and being able to use them in their chosen direction. By revising patent laws to support new innovators over existing market giants we give ourselves the ability to expand beyond anything possible today.

If it sounds radical and incompatible with the present arrangements, you’d be correct. But what is the alternative? Do we continue to allow the select few companies to dictate all experimentation and innovation at the highest levels? No, we do not. That is a pathway to the dystopian future that we’re all tired of reading and seeing.

Our reality is that the future is not waiting for us; it is here. If we’re open to embracing the future of labor and acting in a way to create structural arrangements that empower innovation over profit we will provide ourselves more opportunity to express our productive power in the direction of our choice. In rejecting the past’s grasp on the present, we take a significant step towards a more pluralistic future that evolves proactively, without the need of crisis.


[1] Understanding the US-China Trade Relationship by Oxford Economics U.S. China Business Councilhttps://www.uschina.org/reports/understanding-us-china-trade-relationship

[2] Robots could replace 1.7 million American truckers in the next decade by Natalie Kitroeff The Los Angeles Times https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-fi-automated-trucks-labor-20160924/
[3] Japanese white-collar workers are already being replaced by artificial intelligence by David Gershgorn Quartz https://qz.com/875491/japanese-white-collar-workers-are-already-being-replaced-by-artificial-intelligence/

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The Impact of Trust in a Knowledge Economy

By Ron Rivers,

The nature of work is changing rapidly here in the United States and across the world.  A growing pool of technological resources, best practices, and a highly skilled and innovative workforce is shaping the way humanity can work into a new and exciting potential that will forever change our lives.  The transformation is already occurring and demonstrates that high-trust environments producing flourishing environments. Here we explore the impact of trust on businesses in the past and present economic models and how we can utilize government as a tool to ensure that the new high-trust work methodologies benefit all business sectors. In doing so we build a stronger foundation for cooperation and collaboration in every day life.

Welcome to your first day of training… (Photo Cred)

Trust and Competition

All exchange in the world is based on trust.  Market economies are essentially a form of institutionalized cooperation between strangers.  If we consider the present market arrangements, we can conclude that in an environment completely devoid of trust exchange as we know it would not be possible.  In other words, if our fear that the person we are going to exchange with outweighs our trust for them we would never choose to complete exchanges. You would avoid buying things online entirely, and merchants would be hesitant to accept transactions from unfamiliar people.

The mass production economic model that historically defines the United States generates a relatively low trust model of exchange.  In many respects the way the laws enabling these operations encourage behaviors that do not put much faith in employees or outside parties.  An internal example would be an assembly line worker who is given exact direction on how to act and does not have the autonomy to break from routine to experiment with new processes that might better create results and efficiencies.  Externally we observe low trust through the existing patent system which in many cases imprisons some of our most advanced practices and technologies in the hands of single companies, denying others the ability to take those advancements in new directions. These two examples are practices that help to create low-trust organizational structures.

Drawing from personal experience, this low-trust structuring of work can hinder the development of strategic advances for businesses of all sizes.   Before selling my previous small business, I spent time developing strategies to organize purchasing cooperatives among competitive firms within our geographic radius.  The benefits on paper supported the collaborative efforts and would have generated net profitability benefits for all involved parties. Unfortunately, a few members were unwilling to participate because they did not want to share the quantities and products they were purchasing with the other members of the cooperative.  By closing the door on a more cooperative form of competition they lost the ability to add 3-6% to their bottom line revenues.   

Alternatively, in an environment with high trust, our present market arrangements become unnecessary.   This is the future that is at our doorstep presently, it’s not a question of if but when this model of exchange assumes dominance within the world.  We can imagine a system of exchange where people can choose cooperative teamwork or independent ventures and have access to the most advanced technologies and practices independent of their preferred work style.  Using advanced techniques such as 3-D Printing and deeply networked communication, the experimental nature of development, labor, and exchange becomes instantaneous.

High trust contributes significantly to the success model of Silicon Valley companies.  Cooperation is deeply embedded in its productive ecosystem. A software developer expresses their talents through sets of programming languages that allow them to express their creativity differently depending on needs.  Their abilities make them highly skilled labor, but their ability to work anywhere makes them highly transferable. If you know how to code in a specific language, you can apply those skills to any organization that needs them in any direction they desire.  Each time an individual leaves one team for another, they bring a wealth of knowledge in both practice and procedure to the new organization. By creating a web of talent that moves fairly freely between organizations, Silicon Valley as a whole has harnessed humanity’s potential like no other productive sector ever has.  The beauty of this high trust model of labor is that the more it spreads, the better it gets, perpetually expanding its capabilities alongside its participants.

Building the Foundation for High-Trust Economies

High trust is not the natural default for every laborer in present society.  On the surface, high trust for others seems more natural for generations who have grown up with the internet.  For many Millennials, myself included, personal connections were made and maintained without ever meeting people in person.  For many people, these interactions build understanding and trust with others outside of their immediate circle. Compare the future scenario where the majority of people of different ages, races, religions, and economic classes are interacting with each other around shared interests for decades before entering the workforce.  We could imagine that if given the opportunity to do so, work will transform into a more inclusive and high trust process that better reflects the openness of evolving communication. A predisposition to high trust combined with exponentially increasing innovation sets the stage for a radical transformation of how trust and labor intertwine in society.  

In many respects, we are on the cusp of a moral evolution fueled by our institutions.  The direction of that evolution is uncertain, but not entirely out of our control. With enough social and political willpower, we could work to expand a high trust collaborative competition model throughout numerous economic verticals.  While this may seem like a radical utopian ideal, the reality is that opportunities exist now to create structural innovations to increase the frequency of high trust transactions within society.

Let us examine a relevant moral and economic issue in the increasing of the minimum wage to $15 per hour and how Knowledge Economy practices might impact our possible solutions.  The argument for a minimum wage increase is supported both by the historical data and the moral obligation to help support our brothers and sisters throughout the nation.  Discussions against the minimum wage increase typically center around rising costs for small businesses, the potential for inflation, and the old fashioned “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”  mentality. This presents us with the false narrative that increasing the minimum wage is a battle between small businesses owners and the poor. The truth that fails to our current leadership fails to represent is that the evolving nature of work requires innovative thinking outside existing structural arrangements to avoid a crisis.

Understanding the value small businesses provide to our communities requires us to recognize that with the changing nature of work small companies may need assistance to rethink their strategies on how to prosper.    Here the state could be used to facilitate high-trust frameworks through deeper government cooperation with small business owners to help with this transition.

For example, government administrations could work with small businesses owners in the state to implement a more collaborative form of competition.  We could facilitate regional purchasing cooperatives for similar businesses. The state could provide the tools in the way of information resources, logistical resources, and a digital platform to help coordinate orders for small business owners in specific regions.  This allows individuals to organize on their own without direct state intervention beyond the initial foundation building.

If we use a Pizza shop as an example, collaborative purchasing would drive down resource costs such as flour, sauce, cheese, etc. for the shop and increase their profitability per slice. This way small businesses can better focus on the things they do best, offering real and personal value in the experience.  The revenue gains recognized from this type of structural innovation would likely exceed the costs associated with an increased minimum wage.

Beyond revenue initiatives, participating businesses could cooperate to facilitate research into best practices that could be shared to all participants, network employees together to create shared labor pools, and develop cooperative marketing strategies.  There is no limit to the latent cooperative potential existing both inside and outside our existing market arrangements. By facilitating cooperation and high trust among small business owners, we empower industry participants to work towards redefining the markets they operate within, continuously pushing the envelope of what is possible.  When necessary their combined forces could influence the creation of laws surrounding property and contract within their specific niche.

While it is difficult to quantify the intangible benefits gained arranging higher trust into our economic arrangements, it is worth mentioning.  As humans, we’re context driven beings. Much of our experience and feelings dictate our perception of the world and the others that inhabit it. While the argument that a higher level of trust and cooperation within society would be a good thing is relatively self-evident, the scale of this impact is still yet to be determined.  The Knowledge Economy presents us with an opportunity to radically transform the nature of our most frequent interactions and doing so creates a significant chance to build higher trust and stronger social bonds into our everyday interactions.

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A Progressive Rejection of Universal Basic Income

By Ron Rivers,

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is gaining popularity in America as the next logical economic step in a post-automation world. Touted as a way to save America’s Capitalism, it ensures that people have enough money to keep consuming while raising the quality of life for our most impoverished. UBI boasts some attractive benefits for the majority of Americans, but is it worth the cost? I argue that given the present ideologies driving UBI implementing the policy will do more harm than good.

Scratching the surface

Universal Basic Income is a form of social protection that provides an amount of money to every citizen within a population.  Money transfers occur periodically and without condition. The premise is that this method of wealth redistribution will alleviate many of the economic burdens facing so many American families.

There have been numerous studies on the impacts of cash-transfer programs that have shown positive results.  A 2007 program by New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity [1] demonstrated that small cash stipends reduced poverty and material hardship for recipients but saw those impacts decrease once the money was rescinded.   The World Bank reports [2] that it’s a myth that our poorest squander wealth transfers on wasteful activities such as increased alcohol and cigarette consumption. These studies and more [3] are pushing UBI from a fantastical idea to a legitimate policy discussion.

Visionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Elon Musk all have vocalized support for  UBI given the trending automation that will redefine labor as we know it. Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang is making UBI a significant focus of his campaign, saying “UBI is necessary for the continuation of capitalism through the automation wave and displacement of workers.”  

How do we even begin to structure an argument against a program that demonstrates positive, data-driven results and is supported by some of the greatest minds of past and present?   It all starts with why.

Understanding Intention

The purpose of all proposals of Universal Basic Income is to increase the access and agency of every individual operating within a capitalist system.  The core argument is that as the nature of work continues to change so will the necessity for higher levels of economic distribution, typically funded by new taxation models such as a Value-Added Tax.  UBI is in many respects a recognition of a new human right. A fundamental requirement for every individual to function within our world today.

Here we identify the first problem with UBI as it exists presently.  Is Universal Basic Income a human right or is it an attempt to attenuate the inequalities created by capitalism?  

If we believe UBI is a human right, then we should be approaching the implementation in the form of Constitutional Arrangements, not economic policy.  We would want to ensure that a standard of living is codified into our most sacred laws, preventing present and future politicians from meddling with the ideal.  Funding could occur from a variety of sources, but each solution would ensure that decisions regarding the implementation and collection of those funds would be in the hands of society.   Universal Basic Income as a human right would lend itself to the restructuring of present arrangements. This is not what is being suggested by most proponents today.

If Universal Basic Income is a means to address inequity created by current structure than it does nothing to create agency for its recipients, a UBI funded by tax and transfer would calcify poverty and class structure within the U.S. even more than the present arrangements.  Accepting that the solution to the hyper-concentration of wealth is a small stipend for the masses is a choice to perpetuate class structure and division. Remember that Universal Basic Income is being proposed as a solution to the future impact automation will have on labor.  It does nothing to address the ownership of said automation, only focusing on ensuring that the vast majority receive a minor kick-back.

A Universal Basic Income focused on economics is a system that appeases the individual by providing just enough to survive while denying them the opportunity to transform their situation in a meaningful way.

Image by Mike Ramsey

Belittlement or Bigness?

When we think about the transformation of individual agency through a suite of social protections, we must ask ourselves if our actions are complimenting structural change or merely substituting one inferior arrangement for another.   Exploring implementing an entitlement like Universal Basic Income must begin with the question of what direction is this leading us?

We understand that most popular and dominant ideas in society today do more to reinforce existing arrangements than they do to support institutional reformation.  When we frame UBI as the savior to our present form of single-market Capitalism we unwittingly submit to the past’s dominance of the present. If UBI is not accompanied by structural alternatives to codify the raising of the human condition, then we must see it for what it is, more of the same under a different name.

As someone who supports a suite of vital protections for every person, it seems counter-intuitive to argue against a wealth redistribution model that would generate immediate benefits for so many.  But, if our shared objective is the raising of the human condition, then we cannot settle for economic policies that would appease the burden of a structure that places 99% of the wealth and power in the hands of 1% of the population.
Together we must reject belittlement under the guise of support, focusing instead on the rearranging of institutions that generate the very inequities we seek to address.


[1] Conditional Cash Transfers in New York City by  James A. Riccio, Nadine Dechausay, Cynthia Miller, Stephen Nuñez, Nandita Verma, Edith Yang MDRC.org https://www.mdrc.org/publication/conditional-cash-transfers-new-york-city

[2] Do the Poor Waste Transfers on Booze and Cigarettes? No  by David Evans & Anna Popova http://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/do-poor-waste-transfers-booze-and-cigarettes-no

[3] Basic Income Earth Network https://basicincome.org/research/


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Progressive Lessons from our Productive Past

By Ron Rivers,

Production is a transformative process, consistently and perpetually changing to solve new problems.  All regimes of government are tied to their most advanced form of production. This bond fuels the growth and expansion of the government organization while at the same time defining the social, economic, and political arrangements of the society.  By deepening our understanding of the modes of production fueling the political economy of the United States we can expand our imagination of possible alternatives.

 

Time and Technology

Historically social democracy in the United States is aligned with a mass production economy.  One of the most recognized examples being Henry Ford’s assembly line. The mass production model benefits from low skilled, highly transferable labor.  The ideal worker in this mode of production would be able to focus on a singular task, obedient, have a basic grasp of literacy for safety and operational purposes, and the fundamental physical skills necessary to operate the machines.  Under this model, labor could be moved from one factory to another and quickly adapt to the new operational requirements. This system of large-scale production of standardized goods and services was structured in a very hierarchical and technical division of labor.  You can imagine mass production as a template that could be applied to various production verticals to produce similar outputs.

Fast forward to present day, and we can observe that time and technology have diminished mass manufacturing’s economic dominance here in the United States.  Today our most advanced type of production is the Knowledge Economy. Most advanced defined as the method of output creating the highest returns for input.  The Knowledge Economy is an economic system where the most work relies on highly skilled labor that is easily transferable between organizations, Silicon Valley developers being a single example.  Similar to the manufacturing organization of the past, developers working at one firm can easily transfer to another and be able to begin productive work within a relatively short time frame. The defining difference of this new era is that labor is highly skilled, dramatically limiting the number of people who can access these opportunities.

 

The structure of Access

Comparing the present to the past, we can observe other critical differences in the structuring of access to advanced production resources.  Today the Knowledge Economy exists in almost every industry sector but remains isolated to a few organizations, usually those with dominant market shares.  Its insular nature is due to a few aspects; one is that it is challenging for the new knowledge-intensive labor practice to spread organically unless the general population is brought up to speed with the educational requirements for this type of work. We can also observe that the concentration of access to this mode of production favors the present dominant interests, both political and business, making the path of least resistance to keep it isolated.

If we compare our present modes of production to historical examples, we can observe significant differences.  In the past, the most advanced form of production was disseminated on a national scale. The mass production revolution shared access to advanced production technologies and methodologies such as standardization of products, assembly lines, and methods of batch production.  This philosophy of shared access to technologies developed an economy based on the competition of production value rather than the concentration of access. In the present day, we observe the opposite happening. Our most advanced firms maintain access to the most advanced technologies support machine learning, logistics, data analytics, and more to themselves.   Comparing GDP growth rates [1] of past and present, we can observe that we consistently received more significant economic growth when access to the most advanced methods was shared.

 

New ideas, new systems

If our objective is to create a better engine for productivity and innovation, then data regarding productive growth favors opening up access to the most advanced forms of production to more people.  More people with more access to the tools necessary to innovate will result in more innovation. More innovation creates more opportunities for labor and potential collective impact. Under the current institutional arrangements, we are hindering our possible progress in favor of a small group of mega-corporations.  Therefore the solutions of modern Progressives must be to find ways to reshape our legal and institutional arrangements to unlock access to more people. In transcending our current legal, political, and economic limitations defining who can access the best technology we lay the groundwork for experimentation and innovation that could grow exponentially larger and faster than anything we observe today.

Critics of my argument might claim that people want to join companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon because they provide the most money.  Capital is indeed a big incentive for tech workers, but I would argue that the critique cannot be validated because Knowledge Economy workers have no options.  By choosing to work at the largest firms, the developers gain access to more capital and, more importantly, the ability to work on the most advanced projects in the world.  These opportunities are denied to other sectors of our economy, shrinking the scope of the potential for innovation and access. The claim I make is that if workers of the current Knowledge Economy had more options to use their talents in different directions outside of the monopolistic minority of tech conglomerates, they would do so.  Innovators want to innovate, but it’s hard to do that in a world where your laws and government support the isolation of access.

It’s a fact that the nature of work is changing.  In his second lecture on Progressive Alternatives, Roberto Unger discusses how the future labor will be separated into cooperative organizations and self-employment. Collaborative efforts in the joining of individuals of similar interest working to solve a common problem and self-employment in the form of meaningful work drawing from the creative talents of the individual.  Transforming our approach to labor from a means of survival into a series of passion projects is the goal of the suggested incremental changes. This isn’t a dream of a distant future, instead a call to the leadership of today and tomorrow to recognize the potential we squander every day we do not embrace our transition. No person should have to do a job a machine can do.  Through a combination of institutional reformation, focused automation, and cooperative projects we can begin to construct the future of labor today.


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