The Price of Progress

We have two crises brewing. One will come to a head in my lifetime, the other in my child’s lifetime. According to a Washington Post article, The New Reality of Old Age in America, one in five Americans have no savings, and nearly 30 percent of households headed by someone 55 or older have neither a pension nor any retirement savings. I don’t know what these people are going to do or what our country is able to do about it, but this is a black swan that’s staring us right in the face. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are going to run out of money. I wish this was hyperbole. It isn’t.

Income inequality has always existed, but it seems like the chasm is getting a little bit wider every day. Rockefeller might have been the richest man ever, certainly relative to his employees, but in his day, a 3o year retirement wasn’t in the cards for most people. Retirement and death were synonymous. Fast forward a hundred years, and modern day Rockefeller’s all exist in the same world, the world of technology. We’ve gotten so good at building things that what once took a few hundred people can now be accomplished with a few strokes of a keyboard.

In Scott Galloway’s excellent new book, The Four, he writes: “Uber only has a few thousand employees, and they’re very technically literate. Uber has figured out a way to isolate the lords (4,000 employees) from the serfs (2 million drivers), who average $7.75/hour, so its 4,000 employees can carve up $70 billion vs $2 million on an hourly wage. So, Uber has said to the global workforce, in hushed but clear tones: ‘Thanks, and fuck you.'”

When Ed Thorp started college in 1950, tuition was $70 per year. That’s $730 in today’s dollars. But tuition at UC Berkeley isn’t $730, or anywhere close to it. At $13,485 a year, the cost of education is up more than 19,000% since Thorp walked through those doors. If this 8% annual growth rate were to continue, by the time my son goes to college, tuition would be $54,000 a year, before room and board and books and supplies.

Professor Galloway spoke about the soaring costs of a college education: “I teach 120 kids on Tuesday nights in my Brand Strategy course. That’s $720,000, or $60,000 per class, in tuition payments, a lot of it financed with debt. I’m good at what I do, but walking in each night, I remind myself we (NYU) are charging kids $500/minute for me and a projector. This. Is. Fucking. Ridiculous.”

If you’re fortunate enough to come from a family that can afford this type of education, you’ll do just fine professionally. But a lot of people who aren’t so lucky will be forced to work in jobs that probably won’t exist in the future.

The coal mining industry has been in secular decline for most of the last century, but the pace of deceleration has really picked up in the last twenty years. And while it’s very sad on a human level that these people no longer have an opportunity to work in the industry they know, cheaper and cleaner sources of energy have created far more jobs than the ones that they eliminated. These humans were replaced by other humans. What happens when we’re replaced by robots?

In 1990, there were 168,000 workers in the coal mining industry. Today there are 81,000. Those are big numbers, but they pale in comparison to other industries that might succumb to progress.  There are currently 3.4 million Americans who work as cashiers, and another 3.5 million that drive trucks. What happens when these people wake up and are told to go home, that a robot can replace them?

Galloway writes, “The wealthiest man in the twentieth century mastered the art of the minimum-wage employees selling you stuff. The wealthiest man of the twenty-first century is mastering the science of zero-wage robots selling you stuff.” Economic progress is all about efficiency, and efficiency is all about doing more with less. But it feels like progress, inevitable as it is, is coming at too steep a cost.

The economic machine that we’ve built in the United States has done extraordinary things and I can’t wait to see what we come up with in the future. But what do we do when progress leaves so many behind?

This is right up there with the most complicated, nuanced of topics. For example, I think it’s fair to say that capitalism is a petri dish for income inequality. On the other hand, capitalism has done incredible things for our society. How do we square these circles? I don’t know. But unfortunately, the less black and white issues are, the less reasonable people become. Tribalism immediately replaces reason.

I hope my concerns are overblown and that we as a nation and a society can come up with a solution. But I fear the drumbeat of people getting left behind economically will only grow louder with the passage of time, and it’s a drumbeat that scares the hell out of me.

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