Could Income Inequality Lead To Civil Unrest in the United States?

Washington’s blog has a post on the possibility that: Raging Inequality May Cause Unrest and Violence In America and the Rest of Western World.

This is something that I’ve been wondering about for quite a while. I’ve been writing here primarily about the impact of technology on the job market, and I think it is clearly one of the primary reasons for the ever-increasing inequality we’ve seen over the past few decades.  Although there are certainly other important factors, including the demise of private sector unions, globalization and perhaps the entry of millions of women into the workforce. 

There is also, of course, a positive feedback loop between the concentration of income and wealth, and the concentration of political influence.  Extreme income inequality allows a few wealthy members of society to effectively capture the political process and push through an agenda that is in their favor. In the U.S. this has resulted in dramatically lower marginal tax rates on the wealthy, and also an unsustainably low rate of overall taxation: The U.S. currently collects about 14% of GDP in federal taxes, as compared with a historical average of 18%.

The problem I see going forward is that there is really nothing whatsoever on the horizon to counteract the trend toward increasing inequality. The trend was reversed in the 1930s by direct government intervention.  The time when policies of that type might have been implemented seems to be past — we are now moving aggressively in the opposite direction, and austerity measures seem likely to accelerate the drive toward even more inequality.

While we can have a reasonable debate  about which forces have led to the concentration of income we now face, I would argue strongly that technology will be the primary factor going forward. I believe this because of the exponential progress of information technology.

If you get in your car and gradually double your speed, so you are travelling at 5, 10, 20, 40 and finally 80 miles per hour, that would be similar to the way computing power continues to advance. And the point is that when you are going 80 miles an hour you cover far more ground that when you were just starting out.

That’s where we find ourselves today: information technology has beeen progressing for decades and is now reaching the level where advances in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to unfold far more rapidly than most people expect. This could impact jobs at virtually all levels:  from fast food workers to professionals with college degrees. 

Corporate managers won’t hesitate to deploy these technologies throughout their organizations, and they’ll collect huge bonuses as a reward for doing so. The result may well be even more dramatic concentration of income as those who own or control large amounts of capital (CEOs, Wall Street) win big and the vast majority of people who rely on wages or salaries continue to lose out as they face higher unemployment and stagnant wages — perhaps in the face of significant food and energy inflation.

If inequality continues to increase relentlessly, it seems likely that major social disruptions are inevitable. We see this in Europe and the Middle East already. What people should keep in mind is that — despite conservative rhetoric about the welfare state — the U.S. has the weakest social safety net of any advanced country. Once you exhaust your unemployment benefits and your savings, you are in serious trouble if you can’t either find a job or get someone to take you in.  

The current recession has now been going on for so long that one has to begin to wonder how many families out there are getting close to the brink. At the same time, huge numbers of young people are unemployed and probably see little prospect of that changing anytime soon. That has been one of the primary drivers of unrest in the Middle East.

One argument against the possibility of unrest in the U.S. is that there seems to be no clear organizing mechanism. In the past, private sector unions were heavily involved in organizing people, but their influence is now greatly diminished. In the Middle East, social media has played a key role.

Another issue is that many people seem to be confused or uninformed about what policies are in their own self-interest. A large percentage of the population does not realize (or acknowledge) that it receives substantial benefits from the government. We see Tea Party supporters — many relying on Social Security and Medicare — who seem to truly believe that it would be better if the debt ceiling is not raised.

Is it possible or likely that we’ll have social unrest in the U.S?  Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.


This is also running over at Huffingtonpost, where it has over 1000 comments so far…

Maybe I should have said “United Kingdom” rather than “United States.”  But stay tuned, U.S. austerity measures have not been fully implemented yet…

63 thoughts on “Could Income Inequality Lead To Civil Unrest in the United States?

  1. Inequality? Limits on wealth and income. Mandates that certain % of GDP go to income–enforced by taxation. Guarantee medicare, education through college, housing as a right,
    and retirement as a right, guarantee a living wage as of right with the government as an employer of last resort. Eleven million jobs were created by the New Deal in a jiffy. Obama and the Republicrats can’t create any.

  2. As you already say, the legacy methods of organizing and doing activism have become ineffective for various reasons. This makes that people that are dissatisfied with the way things are run are feeling increasingly powerless.

    Still, worldwide unrest seems to be brewing. For an example, see the broad support of organizations like wikileaks and the recent waves of “hacktivism”. These are not so much aimed at inequality of wealth, but at the concentration of power currently forming. Much of which is made possible due to (surveillance) technology. In the long run, it will be interesting to see whether the current trend of having the power of the world’s information technology controlled by a smaller and smaller group of people is sustainable.

  3. I agree. As we continue to automate jobs at the current geometric rate, we equally need to have more social welfare from the government. Eventually, I hope, the governments become social democracies and then direct democracies. Otherwise I’m truly afraid of civil unrest on a grade scale.
    P.S. Machine learning is really taking off. Like at Microsoft’s Infer.NET website. They’re offering a simplified way to add machine learning to any software project:

  4. I think it’s possible. As you state, there doesn’t seem to be anything happening to counter the forces of inequality. Obviously the future is impossible to predict with any kind of certainty, but as more and more people have less and less to lose then the risk of social chaos rises. Where is the breaking point in the U.S.? I hope we don’t find out, but our leaders seem determined to press the issue. Maybe when B of A or Citi needs another bailout? Maybe during the 2012 presidential campaign when nasty rhetoric and finger pointing escalates while unemployment is still above 9%?

  5. People in United State will accept increasing inequality even when it kills them as long as the genocide is slow enough. The entire policy of elites is to replace workers with machines and kill the landless American peasantry slow enough to that we won’t be able react because of the constantly confused by corporate media disinformation. It’s the Capitalist “great leap forward” i.e when Capital no longer needs labor and euthanizes the working classes.

    Unfortunately, American are incapable of admitting the truth of the situation. Either the 99.99% of planet murders the psychopaths that rule us with a iron rod of the price system within a controlled monetary market system or the 0.01% which make up the ruling class murder us.

    Until Americans understand you can’t regulate crime and the extreme inequality of the Capitalist is solely the result of theft, fraud, and force are the foundation of the system created for the psychopaths, by the psychopaths, and of the psychopaths and revolt violently and relentlessly.

    Once the psychopaths are either killed or imprisoned we must establish an technocratic system with an absolute physical wealth equality based solely on increasing the physical power of everyone to act in the universe and that objective physical standards alone defines freedom and all politics is replaced by simple and objective standard of universal housing, food, water, clothing, transport, medical care, etc…

    The entire culture must re-oriented around sharing the human experience and sharing consumption to developing the intellectual and emotional capacity of every individual as the basis for happiness and so idea of physical hoarding, power politics, and the psychopathic tendencies are treated as the diseases they are. Only when that vision is understood will and instituted will our nation become a true republic.

    Instead of games like monopoly will we have games about resolving disputes, avoiding conflict, and building up friendships. Movies and plays will be about story and character development with word play which creates complex metaphor rather than special effects or meaningless violence. Can you imagine a culture that is about building up the individual rather than tearing them down in order to induce buying a product? Imagines Art that doesn’t assault and insult you but makes you better just for looking at it? I dare you to imagine a culture which is aimed that humanizing humanity. Dare to imagine a culture for humans rather than mindless crass buying machines.

    Why will American except being killed? Because we have consumed a crass crude culture that brutalizes and mocks every humanist tendency and classical virtue which define civil society. Welcome to your Post-Human future which doesn’t need or want you.

    1. To adapt Churchill’s saying: “capitalism is the worst system in the world – except for all the others”. We in the UK have had a socialist government for 14 years and its finance minister, Brown managed to mismanage the economy on an unbelievable scale turning a falling debt of a few billion that actually went into credit in 2001 into an estimated £4-6 trillions in debt and our economy is a 20th that of the US. No capitalist, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and the rest could possibly do that. Even they actually enriched the US people. Capitalism is the best wealth creation system ever invented.

      The bottom line is that automation really is going to cut costs and de-employ people until virtually no-one will work but getting there is going to be messy because of its unequal impact or if politicians try to borrow and inflate their way out but it seems they won’t be doing that. In the end, getting all we need for no work is good – its the journey that will be tough.

      I think the solution is to force big firms to provide the basic essentials of life such as food, housing, transport, clothing and communication for nominal fees plus a flat rate welfare income, non-means tested and added to income for tax purposes with the tax threshold very, very high. Using modern technology this could be done very well. For example, factory built housing could be provided on a vast scale for very little. Food, clothing stamps are not expensive. We in the UK have a freedom pass for the over 60s – do that on a national scale and public transport would not only be heavily used but people could travel to work for free. Internet connections could be self financing through advertising. .

      1. This is pretty much what I see happening in the end. The problem is whether we can reach this ending without either a civil war or an economic collapse. This is needed to cushion the change over from a labor-based economy of scarcity to a automation based one of abundance in which material goods have lost all value to non-material goods (software, art, creative design, knowledge creation, content creation, etc)

        An interesting device just showed recently:

        It seems kinda off topic doesn’t it? But watch the video and think about what this means for the future automation of producing “art”, Then think about similar “high level” interfaces for creating 3d printed objects, machines, computers, etc. We are developing the tools to unlock the creativity in EVERY person, not just those few with “talent”. This is part of what I am talking about when I discuss “Non-material wealth” Given such tools, everyone can contribute creatively in a world in which automation manufactures everything.

  6. I think civil unrest (in this technological age) is IMPOSSIBLE!!! It will NEVER HAPPEN!!!

    Most people are too complacent, apathetic, confused, polarized, deluded, in denial (of the reality of the situation), subdued (with drugs, propaganda, subliminal messages), engrossed (with latest handheld devices & social media/networking), and can’t (or won’t) see the big picture.

    I’ve read a lot about progress in advertising/propaganda, social psychology, neuroscience, and technologies such as TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, something like a ray gun to change you mind).

    Need a update/sequel to Adam Curtis “Century of the Self” (you can find video clips of Curtis’ interesting documentaries online). Also see Wikipedia’s “crowd manipulation”.

    The rich elite have too many tools/resources at their disposal to subdue the masses!!!

    1. John: Please don’t be so dystopian, you believe a lot of the lies to keep you down. Yes, a traditional civil unrest will be more difficult at this stage. But I don’t believe we’re so far yet that it is impossible to push back.

      Technology in itself is neutral. It can both empower the population as the “elite”. Handheld devices, social media/networking can just as well be used to organize dissent (as has happened in the Middle East). The same could be true for AIs, everyone could benefit from that technology.

      Currently, a significant chunk of the world’s information resources is owned and controlled by the population, not the crony capitalist “elite”. This is being encroached on multiple fronts, though; I think the major ones are:

      1) Draconian copyright and patent laws can make it that you don’t own/control the device you’re holding, because corporations still claim the ownership (The same laws are used to retain control of medicines, farming tech etc).

      2) Internet censorship; which starts out with “legit” ideas such as to make it harder to find kiddie porn, but in the end is used to control political dissent and other “dangerous information”. Everyone knows this, but there are very strong interests pushing for it nevertheless.

      3) Financial manipulation; it is completely unclear what has been happening to the financial system after the 2008 crisis. No one was punished for the fraud on massive scale that caused it, and it seems that the opportunity was used by the big banks to become even larger and more powerful, and strengthen ties with government interests.

      However I don’t think a violent struggle is needed to reverse the tide. Open source hard/software (“Open source ecology” is interesting), distributed grassroots currencies such as Bitcoin, 3D printing, open educational sites such as Wikipedia and Khan academy, local online markets for services/goods, mesh networks, and onion routing, are currently flourishing and could allow the population to become less dependent on global centralized interests.

      I think Peter Thiel worded it very well: “The future of technology is not pre-determined, and we must resist the temptation of technological utopianism … A better metaphor is that we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. The future will be much better or much worse, but the question of the future remains very open indeed”

      1. Sorry! That’s pretty easy to miss. I’ve fixed it here and also emailed HuffPost…I cannot change it there once it goes live.

  7. Much of the American middle class is caught in what appears to be an inexorable downward economic spiral. Falling home prices, eroded incomes, rising college tuition, rising fuel prices, unaffordable healthcare, continued concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, all point to a middle class that faces a survival crisis. Civil unrest may be the only way to put the brakes on corporations hell bent on lowering our standard of living. It all makes some kind of perverse sense: why outsource jobs to other countries when if there is a way to lower the standard of living here in America, corporations can profit right here in America with an American workforce that has achieved third world status.

    And since wealth does not have to be shared with the working class, the corporate management class can continue to benefit from an ever increasing concentration in wealth. Think economic aparthied, corporate indentured servitude, a government of the man, by the man, and of course, for the man.

    Since the economic downturn began, look at how much wages have fallen. Corporations have capitalized on the fears and desperation of unemployed workers by lowering wages on almost every job classification. How far will this squeeze on the middle class go? It will go very far, and will not be stopped until there is a great deal of unrest, and it will happen unless a near miracle happens and politicians are caught in the squeeze between their corporate sponsors and enough angry people who actually vote. Paul Ryan got a taste of what can happen when the middle class feels too threatened.

    I just hope that Americans wake up before it’s too late to avoid civil unrest, but we Americans are not famous for being quick on the uptake.

  8. OOPS: I inadvertently left my comments on civil unrest after “Google & Social Networking” article. If interest, see that there.

  9. One last note in response to “John”: Yes, the technology, weaponry & tools of the “elite” are considerable; however, if the elite are arrogant enough to train large numbers of people on the use of them and then ‘discard’ many those people as they have done in the manufacturing sector after modernization enabled them to do more with less people, hopefully some of them will join the cause of “We, the people”. I still hope I’m wrong about the violence, but if Mexico, etc., do continue to fail and the flood of illegals substantially increases, we could actually have a multi-faction revolutionary war here.

  10. P.S. If we can find out very specifically who got that “bailout” $ (Bush/Obama Administrations) and who made the decisions, “we, the people” could better identify our enemy–that money did NOT serve the purposes stated when the plan was ‘sold’ so where it did go matters much. Has anyone heard the truth about the specifics?

    [(Someone — some web site–(forgot who/where) suggested the following:

    (1) Saudi royal family got lots of it ‘to keep oil flowing’ (2) or maybe Saudi king wanted/needed to be reimbursed for their cost of recruiting and training for and the implementation of the 9/11 attacks (Yeah, ?’joke’?–not sure it was meant to be a ‘joke’–on back end of comment is a bit sick) and (3) supposed motive for not stopping attacks–also state was to initiate ‘big brother’ society (Patriot Act) in anticipation of US civil unrest–to assure those in power stay in power.]

  11. I think we’re doing a disservice to the issue by using terms such as ‘income disparity’, ‘income inequality’, ‘economic apartheid’ etc.

    Martin has summed up the real anxiety of tens of millions of people in the US alone by asking, what happens when your employment insurance runs out and there’s nobody to take you in. The issue here is much more than income disparity: it’s having no income at all to meet your basic needs(shelter, food); so, questions of inequality and disparity do not even apply here. I don’t think even the ‘elite’ would want to live in societies with marked despair and crime.

    In addition to matters such as automation, outsourcing, and shifting of manufacturing bases, there remains the other elephant in the room: growth -as defined now- is not infinite. I.e. for most developed nations the end of full-employment is already here.Look at Japan.

    If we look at employment statistics in the US, we see that since the ’70s there has been two or three years of full-emplyment in each decade. The rest has been a climb up to or down from.

    A serious look at all alternatives within the realm of individual freedoms is required. But I don’t see that happening any time soon;society is really polarized, and there’s no serious leadership on the horizon.

  12. there is no doubt that technology is a leading cause of ,the loss of jobs.Only higly skilled workers will find work in the future that pays a reasonable wage.There is no way to change this phenomen.The political class is totally corrupt and this has allowed the plutocrats control of the economy as well.TheUSA is heading for a total disruption of our society.
    What the future holds is some haves and a lot ofhave nots.Notgood anything can happen there will be one industry that will really grow,PRISONS.

  13. I have said this over and over, but no-one ever listens.

    No dictatorship in history has ever lasted for more than a few generations, most have not even lasted one. Every dictatorship has created it’s own downfall.

    If all you ever do is look at the creation of a dictatorship and refuse to raise your eyes to look at the future BEYOND that dictatorship, all you will see is a tightening noose. But there is a weakness in every dictatorship, even the most technological ones. A Dictator CANNOT ALLOW CHANGE. Every effort of a Dictator is to prevent change, to control information, halt progress, and prevent any advancement. A dictator wants STASIS above all else, because change means loss of control.

    Thus, a dictator must expend ever greater resources maintaining stasis, while those who seek to displace him have no such limitations.

    Is there a group seeking to maintain control at all costs? There most certainly is. Every single one of you know this. But what you fail to realize is that this group is doing so BECAUSE IT IS ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION, and it is trying desperately to prevent change, and prevent it’s demise as technology is rendering it obsolete.

    The industrial revolution had as it’s goal the creation of ever greater exploitation of natural resources to create ever greater numbers of “products” AND IT SUCCEEDED SO WELL IT IS NOW KILLING ITSELF. There are no products that can be considered truly “scarce,” no resources that are not available in supplies VASTLY exceeding demand. Every product now manufactured has to have a demand artificially created for it to meet supplies because they are so abundant. We have to create the shoddiest possible goods we can just to ensure that they break, all so that a demand can be re-manufactured. And as Martin points out, we can now manufacture them increasingly without human labor. BUT THERE IS A LIMIT TO HOW FAR ARTIFICIAL SCARCITY CAN BE PUSHED, and we are fast hitting that wall.

    In an effort to prevent the extinction of the corporate beast, it is trying every method it can to survive, through government take over, fraud, even outright theft, but it is STILL DYING, because it is destroying the very thing it needs most to survive, CONSUMERS who have DEMANDS equal to their SUPPLIES.

    Yes, the corporations are seeking a dictatorship. Yes, they are willing to see millions die rather than go extinct, but it’s already too late. Civil unrest is inevitable. The ONLY question is how many people will die, not whether it will occur. No matter how they try to confuse the issue, their fate is already sealed. All any of us can do is try to the keep the number of corpses that they take to the grave with them to a minimum.

    And hope that we will not be one of them.

    1. You make a bold statement about millions dying through corporate dictatorship. That makes me think you have visualized how that scenario is likely to play out. If so, by what means will these deaths likely be effected in your opinion?

      1. Look at your TV, where you are daily told what to buy, what to wear, what to look like, who to emulate, and what you are and are not allowed to do. We are already in a Corporate dictatorship where we’ve been told from birth to worship the wealthy. Regardless of what happens over the next decade, millions will die of starvation, disease, violent crime, exposure, or other preventable causes because food, shelter, education, medical care, and security are all being used as commodities, a privilege reserved for those who are deemed socially acceptable enough and denied to “undesirables”

        But yes, beyond this, there are two highly likely scenarios that will probably occur

        If the GOP is ousted from power and serious efforts to return the control of the government to the masses begins, there will likely be an armed coup attempt by militant right wing extremists trying to overthrow the government in favor of a false “grassroots” dictatorship funded and controlled by corporations seeking to prevent being held to account for their actions over the last decade. This will likely result in civil war between the “left” and the “right”, large loss of life, and the eventual violent elimination of large corporations, and widespread violence against the “elites” perceived to be behind the coup attempt. In short, a “French Revolution” which, though violent, could result in a significant social reform in a extremely short period of time, and a rapid advancement to a post industrial economic model with limited damage to infrastructure and a quick return to “government by the people”. It could be over and done with within the decade.

        If the GOP retains control and gains the presidency, then there will be increasing levels of unemployment, homelessness and so on as the efforts to strip Americans of all vestiges of self government and establish a pseudo feudal “aristocracy” of the ultrawealthy go into high gear. However, since such a system is being sought in an effort to maintain stasis, to essentially try and prevent the business models established by those corporations from being rendered obsolete by advancing technology. However, since those models DEPEND on the existence of a large enough consumer market to absorb the massive amounts of goods produced, the impoverishment of the middle classes will inevitably destroy the very wealth that stasis is being sought to save. In otherwords, success in the attempt will merely speed up the very process of extinction. This will likely result in a economic collapse, anarchy, and widespread suffering, This is the “Russian Collapse” scenario, which could take years to recover from, with America becoming a 3rd world nation for a decade or more.

        Neither outcome is desirable, as both result in massive loss of life. A third scenario, which is highly unlikely, would be the establishment of human needs, i.e. Food, Shelter, Medical care, Education, and Security, as basic rights, guaranteed to every citizen. This would involve government take over of the housing, food, medical, and educational “industries” and eliminating them as “for profit” institutions, followed by the establishment of strong regulations on all other businesses to prevent rampant exploitation, the establishment of a “Basic income” to prop up the “market” and the institution of a massive “public works” effort to upgrade the existing infrastructure to meet anticipated future needs. This would thus “cushion” the system against the decline of the corporate era while simultaneously working towards the “post work” era in a manner that minimizes mass suffering and loss of life.

  14. It would be helpful to talk about what forms civil unrest in the U.S. might take and determine if any of them would be effective.

    Boycotts? Strikes? Street Protests? Sabotage (both infrastructure and cyberstructure) Secessions?

    All could possibly have an effect, but at what point are things bad enough for people to be able to stick with it long enough to work?

    The Declaration of independence says:

    …and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    So my question is, what has to happen for those “evils” to become insufferable? And what power will people have to effect change when they are insufferable?

  15. It is highly likely. Huge numbers of working poor are suffering and the situation is not improving. They are confused and angry and have no constructive outlet.

    60 years ago earning a college degree of any type would be seen as an exceptional merit . Most US citizens didn’t even graduate highschool in the 50’s and still prospered. Now unskilled workers, who have always been a majority of every society on earth, are being told that it’s their fault for being poor and they should get engineering degrees or start their own businesses if they want to survive comfortably. They have no bread so they are told to eat cake instead.

    Civil unrest could be avoided if our leaders acknowledged our systemic flaws and researched a new economic paradigm. Instead, arch-capitalists are kicking the poor while they’re down. That is going to make our situation increasingly volatile.

    Bill, specifically I think a conflict will arise due to large demonstrations or protests that occur without permits or adherence to “free speech zones”. Look at how badly our 1st world governments react when we have essentially harmless protests such as G8 where the worst thing that happens is a few broken windows. They completely flip out, breaking out tear gas and batons and proceeding with indiscriminate mass arrests. If we had actual severe long term disruptions such as what the Egyptians did in Tahir Square imagine how violent the response would be. In the US, instead of police beatings and arrests the national guard would probably end up shooting people who refused to disperse. The more harshly the government treats protesters the more civil unrest will grow.

  16. It’s nice that Valkyrie Ice gives us all some hope by reminding us that bad shit doesn’t necessarily last forever — “No dictatorship in history has ever lasted for more than a few generations, most have not even lasted one. Every dictatorship has created its own downfall.” Of course, that being said, it’s still not fun living in the early phases, even if you are confident that the bastards are eventually going to reap what they sow, because you’ve still got the next dozen years to (try to) live through. But at least you can hope that “this too shall pass,” even if it takes too long and hurts too much.

    Many people here have mentioned taxation as a way to recover the economic value that flows upward and then gets stuck there. Then other people call the idea insane, or evil, or great, or nice but impossible, etc, etc. But this just makes me think of a sentence that’s been sticking with me lately … “The promise of the mirror-image variant would be that humans need not turn to taxes for the value recovery (at the top) nor to central planning for the distribution details (at the bottom). As long as the “minimum wage” (referring to the new-style wages) and other employment standards are being enforced, then government’s role ends there.” (

    Anyway at least it’s nice to see (at a site like this one) that not everyone just swallows the easy answers or refuses to think ahead … Thanks Martin for fostering the discussion.

  17. Dystopian John here again. I still don’t think it’s possible. Especially now since they’ve come up with some pathetic deal to allow MNCs to continue to rape us!

    Also think there will be no civil unrest after listening to consumer advocate radio talk shows (like Clark Howard, Ilyse Glink) that ask consumers to tell them what they’d do to fix this! Majority of responses essentially supported privatizing everything!

    Another recent news article about the weapons the elite have to subdue us! —

  18. A few comments:
    Does anyone watch “How It’s Made”? Automation, automation, automation.

    I don’t know how much civil unrest we’ll see. People have two responses to a threat: fight or flight.

    And – every year, a new batch of high school and college graduates are getting pumped into the world, ready to work. For a number of years, many of them have been supported by parents. What happens when those parents are no longer able to support them?

  19. Martin, would love to see your thoughts in a blog post about FoxConn replacing workers with a million robots.

    Love your site and book, thanks.

  20. In additions to the ones you outlined, I’d add these reasons that it’s unlikely to happen any time soon:

    – We’re geographically dispersed. Even with social media, getting France or Egypt-style protests is much harder here. It’d be like getting the whole of the EU protesting together. Some entities are simply too large to govern; the same adage applies to organizing protests or resistance.

    – Over the past three decades, large parts of our culture here in the US have internalized the lessons of the new Social Darwinism, with a significant body of literature to explain and justify it. Many of us have internalized, without even realizing it, the ideas of “dog eat dog”, “every man for himself”, “society should be structured like the animal kingdom, where the weak and sick simply die because they cannot compete, and this is healthy”, and “everything that happens to you is your own fault. There is no such thing as circumstance that cannot be overcome, and certainly no birth lottery.” With so many knowingly and unknowingly agreeing with these ideas, the chances of anything resembling a unified front seems a very distant prospect; belief in the “Just World” fallacy runs deep here.

    Most likely, we’ll simply endure decades of tattered social safety nets, increasing wealth disparities, disappearing services, crumbling infrastructure (though this one the government might eventually feel forced to correct since it’s just so obvious), a much higher unemployment rate, possible higher levels of property crime, and a two-toned zeitgeist of exuberance/euphoria and despondency.

    Anyone who has wondered “what did it feel like for many people to actually live day-to-day during the Gilded Age?” (rather than the more abstract “what was the time /like/?”), you now get a possible answer.

  21. As long as real income of lower econ quintiles in economy is not falling, no, income inequality in relative terms will not create any unrest.

  22. There’s one big glaring hole in all that whining about automation supposedly replacing humans: the only thing automation will do is falling prices. Sure, some workers will be displaced, like, say, manufacturing workers for horse carriages.

    OMG, sky is falling. Except it has not done so, historically, and there is no reason to think it will do that in future.

  23. Suppose technology displaces 10% of workers and doubles production of, say, widgets (like iphones).

    Then the price of widgets halves, some 10% of workers do have a real, if passing problem, of getting other skills, and that’s basically it.

    OMG, this will kill all of us. Not.

  24. eq, it is fine that you expressed your thinking; however, the counterargument that you cite is extensively acknowledged, explored, and refuted in Martin’s book. Therefore, the fact that you posted it here shows that you haven’t even read Martin’s counterargument on why it is invalid. The crux of the counterargument (made not just by Martin but also by other writers) is that what you described *did* work in the past but will not always continue working, because associated parameters are changing. It is just like saying “my retirement plan’s stock picks have always given a great ROI, therefore it is logically proven that they will always continue to do so.” Again, what changes is that you can’t get the same answer from an equation once various constants and variables therein have acquired new values. I know you didn’t mean to, but you just made yourself look foolish. (No worries, all forgiven.) By posting the argument here as if it proves Ford et al wrong, without having even /read/ Ford et al, reveals that you’re “piping up in math class with sarcastic ‘proofs’ without having done any of the homework that invalidates those proofs”, to explain it in math-class metaphor. I explain this here not to put you on the spot—only to explain what’s wrong with the argument, because rest assured, you’re not alone in advancing that argument. So this is educational for others who might read here, as well. Thanks for at least giving the topic some thought, which is more than many others do!

  25. I was interested to see that Google paid big bucks for Motorola Mobility. Is one of their motives, as was suggested in one article, to gain more/better access to the mobile advertising market? It reminded me of one of the aspects of Ford’s tunnel metaphor, that as the there are fewer lights in the tunnel, those still in business will focus more of their attention on bigger and bolder advertising in an attempt to get the business of those still left holding money. It will be interesting to see how the cell phone and mobile advertising markets play out in the next while…

  26. I agree, Audrey. We keep reading news stories that mention how many companies are sitting on record cash piles waiting for a favorable climate in which to use them—waiting for the next big money-making scheme to invest in, but seeing none on the horizon. And we’ve also read numerous news stories in recent years speculating about what the business world might be like if “the end of growth” arrives. I don’t put much faith in “the [true] end of” anything—history, growth, or anything else; I think the game just changes—but yet it seems interesting to compare these data points to the desperately glowing-and-flashing lights in the tunnel as the value recirculation flags. Then throw in the Kondratiev-wave people talking about how the “velocity of money is slowing” and that “the conveyor belt is broken” [or breaking by degrees anyway]—same theme being referenced in all of these cases: lack of value recirculation through the economy because too many players are being sidelined. Now, we could blame all of this solely on the trough of a business cycle alone, replaying 1929-1939. And who can say with certainty. But I don’t see where millions of new jobs are going to come from when we climb back out of the trough this time around, *unless* ideas like wage recapture or mirror image are given some thought. Unlike in 1942-1945, we’re not all going to get jobs stamping widgets in war materiel production. The war people already have enough widgets to destroy the world 10x over. We’ll have to think harder this time around if we want to rebuild at all.

    1. The problem with this line of reasoning is assuming that the current economic model MUST BE MAINTAINED. It can’t be. We’ve made material resources too abundant to continue with an economy base on material resources.

      We’re at a paradigm shift stage in manufacturing, one where the “intensive physical human labor” is being replaced with “intensive mental human labor” and we have little choice but to accept that an economy based on scarcity has reached it’s “end of life” and that the future will be one in which no material good can be considered “scarce” and therefore “valuable”, and only non material goods will retain any value. Until and unless we invest in the mental development of individuals, and educate everyone in the skills and knowledge needed to become a creator of non-material value (basically various forms of IP) we will not begin to see massive numbers of new jobs created.

      There are many technologies available which can ease the transition between these two economic models, but no coordinated efforts to put them to use in a manner which would alleviate the problems that are presently occurring.

  27. The defense is Drones and cameras! Seriously, we are entering a new age. The old paradigms and looking back at history only tells part of the story of the future. Rather than people buying lots of guns, the gov should invest in cameras and surveillance technology to prevent violence. This I feel is inevitable. The fight should not be against it, rather it should be to fight for the rules and who has control. For example, the tech should identify burglers, robbers, muggers, killers, and gangsters. It should NOT be used against drug dealers, homosexuals, different races and other non violent crimes. The difference is, if tech is used to prevent violence that everybody agrees on, then we will identify the 5% of the population that would resort to violence and prevent/identify them. Everybody would agree. If its used to find marijuana smokers and porn watcvhers, it will identify 30-50% of our society. This would in turn cause massive social upheaval and peoople would vote against the drones and cameras and go out and buy guns to defend themselves. Technology will get rid of privacy, but we can enshrine freedom in the constitution. Freedom is ultimately what people want, not privacy.

    1. Have you seen “Minority Report” or other similar films? Do you advocate an Technocracy?
      Have you read about what Britain/UK/London is doing now? Where all the violence is now?

      With the help of the ever cheaper, available video/imaging technology, I can make anyone I want to look like they are breaking the law! Think about all those trustworthy, honest people running those “red light cameras” now.

      Gun? Are you kidding? Forget guns. Go w/ biological/chemical weapons.

      Why not create a genetically altered virus that only eliminates certain people. That Star Trek:TNG episode called “Vengeance Factor” comes to mind.

      1. Actually biowarfare is the REAL reason we will have ubiquitous surveillance. The ONLY way to defend societies against a bioweapon or similar is thru cameras etc and AI. Once a city on Earth gets annihilated, 95% of the survivors will beg for cameras. Its what our bodies use in our immune system, every cell identifies what its up to, when a cell is foreign or weird it gets identified and destroyed. Think the Diamond Age. A side benefit of this could be helping safeguard our society from anarchy and thugs. What was wrong w Minority report anyways? And yes, in London, they are using their cameras after the fact to identify and prosecute rioters/hooligans very severely. Great!

  28. Has any gone to one of those church-based job networking events? I can tell you, those long-term unemployed people have HAD IT! They’ve not only lost their jobs, but quickly losing faith in their religion. Certainly a lot of “civil unrest” brewing there!

    I’m sure everyone’s been reading about the religious convictions of the Presidential candidates of late and I certainly feel that many folks (especially long-term unemployed) are MAD AS HELL that these rich, ‘fat cat’ elite are twisting or corrupting religion for their own gain!

    More people (like religious conservatives) are questioning their religious convictions, revisiting things like “the problem of evil” (rich ‘know better’ and aren’t evil because it’s justified for a ‘higher good’) and Book of Job in the Bible.

    How much pain and suffering are they going to put up with before some kind of “civil unrest” breaks out?

    About 5,000-6,000 comments to the following articles on long-term unemployment. Some are contemplating violence and even suicide!

    1. I can only imagine how the long term unemployed must feel, especially when confronted by well-meaning (working or retired) people who insist that there is a job out there for anyone who wants one bad enough. It isn’t true any longer.

      I wonder about all those 17 through 20-somethings who are going to come out on the job market from high school and college next spring. Do they already sense that something is different now than when their parents were graduating? It’s hard to tell about teenagers – it’s a volatile age anyway – but I imagine they seem a little warier and a little more nervous now than when I was that age. And more plugged into the technological stuff…

      Will civil unrest originate with them?

  29. Is this how it ends? When I first read The Singularity Is Near, I felt it was the most optimistic theory on man’s future ever. In the book Ray Kurzweil said there is probably no extraterrestrial life because the whole universe is subject to accelerating technology; so the universe should be ablaze with visitors. We are probably the only ones. We are the top of life, he said.
    But Perhaps there is something in life that snuffs itself out at this point.
    I read on this blog how ignorant we are of the value of individual liberty and the human drive for improvement being fostered by individual responsibility. This will go away in our coming socialist machine world I’m afraid. Collective responsibility fosters blame and rational violence. After the violence is gone. The progressives have killed the capitalist, who built this world from the starving feudalist. Their souls rot and die, weak in self-loathing reflection. I have great doubt about the Lights In The Tunnel. I fear a train.

  30. I saw today that there are high end restaurants that use Ipads for customers to order off of.

    And then Steve Jobs stepped down. Is it his health? Or is Apple at the end of the road of it’s prosperity?

    In any case, it’s an interesting tidbit concerning automation, and I thought I would post it.

  31. Well, here it is close to LABOR DAY & still NO CIVIL UNREST! Continue to think that people are still too divided, confused, deceived, and just sitting around complaining while their ability to protest or work on solutions just slips away! Many seem to feel powerless with inability to bring themselves together.

    Recent new articles lead me to believe the Republican rich elite will find some kind of distraction or new crisis where it comes down to people thinking they must vote for them or lose everything.

  32. I imagine you are right about the Republicans, sadly.
    Also, it’s hard to know how to protest against robots!
    An another blog: Illusion of Prosperity, saw a chart today that looked at nonstore sales plus gasoline sales (i.e., no human interaction necessary to make a retail purchase), divided by total sales for the last 20 years. And that’s not even counting the increase in self-checkouts in actual retail stores.
    Those simple robots (at gas stations and Internet store checkouts) are steadily taking their share.
    They don’t really have to get any better!

  33. Well, I can tell you, I’m SICK AND TIRED hearing about people feeling like that can’t do anything and just living off their savings, hoping somehow things will turn around eventually. They think their vote next year will somehow make a change, but I believe the system is “fixed”. Obviously the elite continue to “game the system”. Almost everyone is made to feel they can’t trust anyone!

    I’ve been listening to a talk radio shows this week that addressed the jobs crisis and obviously the hosts were overwhelmed with callers EXTREMELY ANGRY over what is going on, YET they couldn’t provide a solution and are either undecided or independent voters, who CANNOT NOT think of anyone worthwhile voting for!!!

  34. I am waiting.
    We are all waiting for the next breakthrough.
    Dropping energy cost to near zero is the only thing that will be able to buy the world out of our economic hole. I think it is coming. I hope it is coming. It may be hydrogen. If energy is abundant, which it is; all things are possible.

    1. I’m sure the bloated, record-profit oil companies are working hard on that. In fact, I wouldn’t doubt they already have the technology or know-how, but want to “milk the old system” as long as they can.

  35. In my local paper today, the public preschool has Ipads for the 3 and 4 year olds. Do we really need this? Robot teachers for preschoolers? It does not seem like a good idea. Granted, they still have human teachers also, but I am dismayed that automation is finding its way so far down the spectrum.

  36. While there is some virtue in what you state, you are missing two points as related to the United States. For the last 20 years or so, politicians in the US have inreasingly taken campaign donations from corporations and special interest groups. The bribery has come home to roost. When corporations started to move jobs overseas, the politicians could not say a word because the fix was in. Overall, politicians for all intents and purposes have started working for corporations and special interest groups at the expense of the voting public. Layered over the entire matter is the unfortunate loss of social responsibility that companies and support groups held for the American worker. That environment existed after WWII but now can only be found in the smaller Mom & Pop businesses. To make matters even worse, our Supreme Court recently decided corporations are the equivalent of persons. Every change we see is designed to further entrench politicians in the pockets of these entities. I fear more unrest is ahead. The old money in this country is the only factor holding back the “Troubles”.

  37. In America the rich pay most of taxes. For federal taxes, rich folks pay a great deal more.

    The tax and regulation codes are an ever growing spiral of complexity because that’s how politicians exert power and favor as payoffs and punishment. It must be complex to hide the corruption. That’s why they like comprehensive bills.

    As lesser jobs go away because of automation, the lesser qualified folks will be subdued with virtual reality games and legalized drugs. They will go away quietly. The common liberty citizens of freer countries like America will be harder to subdue because they are well armed and have a different expectation about life.

    The economies will shift/change/collapse because all the socialist/regulationist countries will be buried in debt. New currencies such as Bitcoin will takeover.

    It will be very messy for 40 years. Nano-bots will thin the population and the elite will be left with their beautiful utopia and no more peasants needed for labor. They will keep a few peasants around so the elite can bet on fight spectacles, having found robot fighting boring.

  38. As I experienced a college degree no longer guarantees a person a job. Once you graduate the companies need many years of experiences. Once you don’t get a job after graduation, you never get a job. Therefore, your degree becomes obsolete. With the automations and robots taking over the jobs and effects of global warming, humans will be heading to a disaster. Social unrest, crimes, wars and diseases will take over. Even the rich people can not escape from this hell. All will be burn together.

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