Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
By this author
Our editorial on the nomination of Donald Trump is now up on the homepage. It begins:
In the July/August issue of the Atlantic, David H. Freedman writes about "the war on stupid people." The culture at large increasingly despises them, while the much-vaunted "economy of the twenty-first century" has no room for them. Smart people know, in theory at least, that one is no more responsible for one's IQ than for one's looks or height. So why don't our attitudes, language, and social arrangements reflect this fact?
Well, it's happening: The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation.
In a few hours we'll know whether the United Kingdom will remain a part of the European Union. The U.S. media has been full of arguments against "Brexit." Here are two good pieces in favor of it—one from the left (by a Briton who teaches political theory at Harvard) and one from the right.
People who warn about a future of "technological unemployment," in which most human labor has been replaced by machines, are often described as if they were Chicken Little, frantically predicting what others have frantically—and falsely—predicted for at least a couple of centuries. What if the more pertinent folktale was the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf? Such predictions have been false so many times before that we have been lulled into supposing they will always be false. What if one day, when we have almost ceased to believe in wolves, one finally arrives?
Of course, in the case of mass technological unemployment, the arrival is not likely to be sudden. It could be that we are already seeing the first signs of it. That is the possibility that Eduardo Porter considers in his latest column for the New York Times. Porter references the work of Wassily Leontief, one of the few economists of his time who was seriously concerned about the obselescence of labor. Leontief responded to those who dismissed this concern by reminding them of what had already happened to another species that once played a major role in the economy: the horse. Porter writes:
Horses hung around in the labor force for quite some time after they were first challenged by “modern” communications technologies like the telegraph and the railroad, hauling stuff and people around farms and cities. But when the internal combustion engine came along, horses—as a critical component of the world economy—were history.
Cutting horses’ oat rations might have delayed their replacement by tractors, but it wouldn’t have stopped it. All that was left to do, for those who cared for 20 million newly unemployed horses, was to put them out to pasture.
In 1915 there were about twenty million horses in the United States. By 1959 there were only four and a half million.
At the time, most economists dismissed Leontief's argument, and it isn't hard to see why. Human laborers can be retrained to do all kinds of jobs. Horses can do only a few kinds of physical work: they can pull and they can carry—that's about it. But the force of the analogy doesn't depend on the very limited similarity between human labor and horsepower. It depends on the similarity between the disruptive force of the internal combustion engine and that of machine learning. Because of the engine, at a certain point machines could do more efficiently almost everything horses had done. Today, many economists who have reflected on the potential of machine learning worry that robots will one day be able to do most jobs that human beings do now, including many white-collar jobs that have long been considered immune to automation.
Why should economists worry about this? Whatever our feelings about horses, do we really regret the advent of tractors and automobiles? Didn't life become much better when work horses were put to pasture?
From the current issue of n+1, George Blaustein on Antonin Scalia and American Religion:
Of all the events related in the New Testament, the Ascension is one of the hardest to imagine—and, at least as commonly imagined, it may be the hardest to believe. It is, in a sense, Jesus' last miracle. It is also the miracle that seems most like myth: a man rising like a rocket and disappearing into the clouds. Paintings about the Ascension can be very beautiful and very moving, but they almost never seem like representations of an event in history. They seem, instead, like the deus ex machina resolution of a story that had to end in a shroud of mystery—either a literal cloud (as in Acts) or a narrative fog (as in the Gospel of Luke).
All of which is to say, it is the kind of incident about which it would be very easy to write a bad poem and very hard to write a good one. Denise Levertov managed to write a good one. Last year I posted her poem for Holy Saturday, "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell." That poem, too, dares to take up an event most of us find very hard to imagine, and it introduces themes that Levertov also explores in "Ascension": the frictions between spirit and matter, the connection between Gospel triumph and surrender.
After the jump, the poem.
In the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson on "The Crisis in Brazil":
From the Washington Post, John Bellamy Foster on socialism and the American Dream:
Socialism has always been part of American culture. It would no doubt disturb today’s Republican Party to learn that one of Lincoln’s favorite political writers was Karl Marx, European columnist for Horace Greeley’s paper, the New York Tribune.
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