Technological unemployment. – Inventing ourselves out of jobs? America’s debate over technological unemployment, 1929-1981 – book review

Horst Brand

Inventing ourselves out of jobs? America’s debate over technological unemployment, 1929-1981 By Amy Sue Bix, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 376 pp.

The displacement of workers by advancing technology has been a concern of thinking people since the beginning of the industrial revolution during the second half of the 18th century. The intensity of this concern grew during the 19th century, and in time involved government agencies and commissions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor was created in the early 1880s at the behest, not least, of trade union leaders often representing craftsmen whose income and status were being diminished by low-skilled or unskilled men and women operating industrial machinery. The Bureau of Labor’s first report in 1886 dealt with business fluctuations that had been experienced in the United States as well as abroad over the past 50 years. It found that mechanization was the essential reason for the unemployment characteristic of depression

In Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs, Bix does not dwell on theoretical issues. Rather, she seeks to tell “the intellectual history of an idea, the notion that Americans must come to grips with the human consequences in introducing powerful machines into the workplace.” She limits her discussion to the worker displacement effects of machines, and in this respect presents a thorough work.

As Bix shows, the Great Depression vastly magnified the public’s concern with the displacement effects of technology, which spread over a broad range of manufacturing industries and their communications and transportation infrastructures. Quoting from or citing numerous publications and some of the workers who had been displaced, she stresses the shocking contrast between the promise of technology offered during much of the 1920s and the enormity of the unemployment witnessed during the 1930s–perceived widely as a result of that very technology.

Worker displacement, however, had already been occurring, if gradually, during the earlier decade. For example, the telephone industry had begun to install dialing and the electromechanical switching equipment that made it possible–thereby reducing the need for operators. The railroad industry eliminated 535,000 employees as operational efficiencies were improved. In agriculture, the tractor displaced large numbers of laborers, and supplied the technological basis for land consolidation, thus encouraging the eviction of tenant farmers, particularly in the South.

Representatives of business sharply took issue with the notion of technological unemployment, and President Hoover, while not unaware of it, did not think it had long-term significance.

Trade union spokesmen, finding it impolitic to oppose mechanization and the increasing productivity it made possible, proved unable to formulate an effective program to deal with worker displacement, except to propose a shorter workweek. They were reluctant, probably unwilling, to challenge the political and economic forces that gave rise to displacement. For her part, Bix does not address the competitive forces that compelled businesses to keep updating its productive equipment and processes of production, and the reorganization of managerial and workplace structures such updating often necessitated.

Yet, as Bix demonstrates, business leaders were quite active in promoting the great fairs of the 1930s, which propagated the blessings of the technological advances that their exhibits featured. The “Century of Progress” fair in Chicago (1933), and the World’s Fair in New York City (1939) were designed to enhance the “faith” in progress that technology promised. Man must adapt to mechanization was the essential message of the Chicago exhibition, and this was indeed the implication of the influential idea of “cultural lag,” coined by the sociologist William Ogburn–that is, the lag between invention and its acceptance by society at large–and, as far as the worker was concerned, overcome by training or retraining.

Apprehension about mechanization’s negative employment effects pervaded much of American cultural life, Bix writes. She discusses relevant literary works, the transition from silent to sound film (which occasioned difficulties for a stratum of movie actors), and the struggle of musicians attempting to come to terms with recordings and other substitutes for “live” performers of music. Her treatment of these topics imparts considerable interest to her book.

Nevertheless, Bix avoids the theoretical and policy-oriented aspects that have revolved around the notion of technological unemployment. On the other hand, Bix cites the concerns of American presidents from F.D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. But the theory of unemployment implicit in the New Deal and its addressing of the problem was that it stemmed from inadequate purchasing power and other deflationary pressures. Remedying these weaknesses would restore employment. Measures such as unemployment compensation, social security pensions, farm subsidies, public employment programs, and the devaluation of the dollar against gold–whatever their ultimate success–were designed to bolster purchasing power. Articulated subsequently by J.M. Keynes and his followers, this has been the theory of aggregate demand stimulation if the unemployment rate would exceed a certain level ever since.

This theory, or conception, of the causes of unemployment, however, could not explain, let alone come to grips with, the many “structural” factors that jeopardized employment. During the 1960s, the fear that automation would give rise to massive job loss, and which drew government agencies and private researchers into lengthy investigations, gave currency to the concept of structural unemployment. Again, Bix does not mention this aspect of unemployment, which, however, subsumes the displacement of workers by technological change. Sporadic as well as continual attempts to mitigate structural unemployment have been made by government–for example, the subsidizing of redevelopment of industrially declining areas; training and retraining programs; and varieties of tax credits. (The Displaced Worker Survey instituted by the BLS in the 1980s also appeared to be a way to probe the extent of structural unemployment.)

Notwithstanding all the concern about unemployment and its causes, one of the U.S. Government’s overarching policies has been the promotion of productivity and the technological advances it spelled. This policy, the evidence for which cannot be detailed here, has certainly sustained the dynamics of American capitalism, and has also been believed to have favorable distribution effects as between capital and labor. In some ways illustrative of the dominance of the policy was the investment tax credit, legislated under the Kennedy administration in 1962, designed to spur “modernization” of plant and equipment. Additionally, depreciation write-offs were allowed to be shortened over time–this at the very time when apprehension over job loss because of automation was at its height.

Bix is invariably sympathetic to the victims of technological displacement, but she keeps her distance from analyzing the economic interests that have underlain the causes of such displacement, as well as from the reasons why the human losses such displacement has caused were not adequately, if at all, compensated.

–Horst Brand


formerly with the

Bureau of Labor Statistics

COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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