Creeping automation

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine!

I’ve had some interesting emails from regular followers/readers about automation. I don’t think people quite understand how invasive and creeping automation is.

Here is a perfectly simple example. I live on a new development in Colorado. Some 70 single family homes, and now they are moving into the multi-family condo and town homes. They’ve built two condo buildings, and a 3rd 12-plex is going up now, literally right across the street.

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Pressed Siding, Floor and Ceiling Boards from Canada
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Crane lifts pre-constructed parts into place

First, let’s be clear, this isn’t a pre-fabricated building. It’s a unique design to this location, that most would consider “traditional construction”. Only it isn’t, it’s massively labor free, and largely “skilled-labor” free.

The construction is typical timber frame, in the old days, there would have been an army of craftsmen working on site, the continuous sound of saws and hammers. While there are some professional craftsmen on site, the bulk of the construction is being done by “nail gun jockeys” using pre-cut, assembled panels and components. They just nailed them into place.

Of course, walking pass this, you’d never normally take a second look. Since it’s directly opposite my home office, everytime I look out the window I see it. What do I see?

Creeping factory assembly and automation. All the major parts arrive pre-cut to size; the joists and all the boards for the side that need holes for windows and door arrive pre-cut. The original boards come from Canada and Mexico. Anyone who has seen the home improvement shows knows that the boards are not cut by craftsmen and craftswomen, but simply cut by operator assisted laser cutting machines. What do all these things have in common? Automation.

It would be easy to simple, let’s at least bring back the board creation, prep and the component assembly to the USA. Indeed easy to say. That assumes we have the raw material, and that the factories exist that can manage the increased workload. If they can’t then let’s assume they can be built.

What happens then? Well, the businesses that do the manufacturing either produce the same goods at the same price as they are available overseas, which will be hard. The US no longer has the same wealth of natural resources. Those that we do have are harder to extract, or come with environmental, planning or development restrictions. Even if these were lifted, they would still come with a price tag.

Those costs, plus any for plant construction, or increased raw material cost would be passed onto us. Effectively doing a “Carrier” and raising prices to cover their increased costs.

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine! Ready made meals, the whole production line from animal slaughter to food prep and cooking are all now largely automated. It’s invisible, invasive and all encompassing.

Dystopian Future it is then

In his acceptance speech, President elect Trump said, among other things:

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

This from a man, who tweeted:

I’ve no idea what to expect now from the Trump Presidency, but it’s an amazing  coincidence that the original Blade Runner film was set in In Los Angeles in November 2019, just two years from now.

Hopefully Blade Runner isn’t a metaphor for a Trump Presidency; the weather and the blade runners, especially Gaff, do not foreshadow Trumps Immigration cops; and hopefully the Los Angeles in the film, nothing like the real LA in 2019; and the replicants not an extreme of the automation I wrote about yesterday.

blade-runner

What we don’t know is how Trump will do this. Just running up the deficit doesn’t seem likely given he’s from the GOP/Republican party. Taking much of what he’s said, closing tax loopholes, defunding Nato, closing overseas bases in place like Germany, Japan and more won’t likely save enough money. Your move President Trump.

Bring back what jobs?

Look, the jobs that are lost, are not coming back, get over it. When Trump claims he’ll bring back jobs, he either has no idea what he is talking about, or he envisions some dystopian future where Americans are more like slaves than they’ve been since, well, slaves.

China and Mexico are not the problem, automation is. Even if Trump were able to force companies to bring manufacturing back to ‘Merica, through punitive tax and trade barriers, the manufacturing won’t be the same as it was, ever.

Listen to this recent extract from NPR’s All Things Considered. Bertram de Souza of The Vindicator talks about steel mills following a recent visit of Trump to Youngstown Ohio.

The next wave of automation is coming, it’s in driverless vehicles, it will have a dramatic impact on employment. Automated delivery trucks, automated taxi’s, autonomous vehicles will make a large dent in the current employment of some 3-million in America. While many cities are salivating over the ability of self-driving, autonomous vehicles to fix their broken road and transport infrastructure, that’s missing the point.

There are many detailed, and complex reports on the impact of automation, pick your favorite organization and search their website, McKinsey and Company(2014); Stanford Business School(2015); Pew Internet(2016) and on, and on.

Equally there have been a few superficial recent reports in the news media, this one from US Today. One of the better, more recent articles is from Rex Nutting over on Marketwatch.Rex Nutting over on Marketwatch.

I’ve been horrified by the lack of actual policy discussion and examination of the context, detail and and lack of clarity even where there is policy. This is something we should have had a real debate about when, what and how we handle the future of automation.

It’s not as if the impact of automation is new. Depending on how you classify automation, it’s been going on since the invention of mills, but importantly since the computer became pervasive in business.

As far back as the late 1960’s it was a discussion topic. In the early and mid-1980’s automation had become a key issue for governments and businesses. This was a classic of it’s time.

A human teller can handle up to 200 transactions a day, works 30 hours a week, gets a salary anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 a year plus fringe benefits, gets coffee breaks, a vacation and sick time… In contrast, an automated teller can handle 2,000 transactions a day, works 168 hours a week, costs about $22,000 a year to run, and doesn’t take coffee breaks or vacations. – Bennett, 1983

This is a well used quote from a report called “Bank Systems and Equipment” by Bennett et al 1983 and often misquoted and attributed to Nobel Prize winner, Wassily Leontief and  Faye Duchin, who used it in their seminal 1986 work “The Future Impact of Automation on Workers“.

img_20161107_125230I worked on an IBM Corporate study in 1998, following the release of Dunkerleys book, the jobless economy.  I still have the books on my home office book shelf.

Many of us were uncomfortable with what technology was capable of doing to our society, much more than our jobs. I’d seen it first hand and contributed to the loss of hundreds of jobs. When I first arrived at Chemical Bank in New York city in 1983, there were hundreds of people, mostly women, sat in large rooms, processing incoming credit card authorization phone calls. Within 3-years, they were all gone. Their positions had been eliminated. Replaced by simple automation of the repetitive tasks they did using search and a “database” lookup.

Some of the information and outlook from that IBM study found it’s way into this presentation I gave at meetings and conferences around the world at that time.

Automation was, and is unstoppable without a much bigger debate. Trump alone can’t fix it or stop it. Automation is a result of three, equally powerful trends.

One. The absolute fear and revulsion in America of Unions, their impact, power and influence. Sterns 1963 paper “Automation-End or a New Day in Unionism?” captured the potential impact of automation on Unions.

Two. Big corporations and the way the market values them, their ability to balance investment against revenue and more importantly profit. Investors and the market don’t care how business makes profit, and the tax authorities allow investments to be written off against profit. So removing expense, in the form of employees, and improving profits is always on the agenda.

Three. The continual consumer march towards ever more consumption and disposable, cheap goods. Perhaps more than the loss of jobs, if pernicious tax and trade barriers were implemented by any politician or President, we would see a revolt among the people, who more than anytime in history, want their stuff as a measure of their value.

So, we can’t stop automation, the jobs are not coming back. Where does that leave us?

I’m inclined to agree with Musk. The only way around the impact of automation is a universal basic income. That’s what we should have been debating this election cycle. Not fucking emails, walls, muslims and pussygate, let alone if somewhat left leaning Bernie Sanders proposals were socialism by the back door. Without serious discussion on these difficult topics, America will continue to into social conflict and fear.

Even if Trump gets elected today, those 5-million jobs we’ve already lost, and another 5-million are not coming back.

War and BREXIT

I wasn’t surprised to wake-up this morning to an email from my regular “hater” Rick. Back when I lived in Austin I’d regularly get anonymous letters, sometimes just pages from magazines with words highlighted to make messages. Much more often than that though, I’d get emails from Rick.

Today’s email Rick said:

As I’ve told you before, you should get off your high horse and stop blogging; you are just conflating two things to suit your own agenda, I just wish you’d go away, no one cares about your opinion.

While the Iraq war might seem to have little to do with the BREXIT vote, it actually has everything to do with it. Last nights Panorama, where reporter Adrian Chiles goes home to the West Midlands to meet Leave voters. [Currently(Rick) you can watch it here and here on youtube, but neither are official and both likely to be taken down].

Listen for the causes for the justification to vote LEAVEs, lack of jobs, lack of school places, problems with Doctors and Medical, Pensions and more. All of those things have been hit by the austerity required to attempt to address the debt occurred from the British involvement in recents wars. Rather than discuss wars, the blame is squarely put on the EU and the open borders, thus the immigrants.

Typical of the people interviewed is Tracy, she says she isn’t racist and that a few racist people are giving the leave voters a bad name.

It’s got nothing to do with race, I mean, immigration is what makes the world go around, it’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. To me that’s how the world should work.

I feel like this country is falling apart, I voted leave because I don’t feel like the government isn’t putting enough back into the community, our councils, our housing situation. We are helping everybody else yet we are forgetting here.

For the record, I totally believe Tracy when she says she isn’t racist, but what she is confused about are the causes of her anger and frustration, and simplistic reasons for believing LEAVE will solve her problems.

It isn’t that the immigrants have been taking what’s “theirs”, it’s that along with an overall decline,  it’s that with the increased cost of war, the British Government cannot afford to invest to keep up with demand, and hence even maintaining levels of spending leads to austerity.

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Source: http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk
As a follow-on from my post of yesterday, Blairs willful denial of the true cost of Iraq, I went to look for the cost to Britain of some of the recent wars and on defense spending.

So while Britain now spends 3% annually of GDP on defence spending, and notionally the UK will now no longer have to pay and annual £12.9Bn to the EU, that is less than half defense and war spending. The UK though has the 3rd largest defence budget, larger than Russia, Germany, France, India and everyone except the USA and China.

The British Pound has now fallen below the Argentinian Peso as the worst performing currency, and the consequences of this, plus the other financial issues, will mean that the LEAVE voters will have to get used to things getting worse with little outlook for them getting better. OK Rick?

The Post BREXIT Pound Era

Watching former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speak in response to the Chilcot report, was depressing. Blair clearly hadn’t grasped, or at least wasn’t prepared to acknowledge the sheer cost in lives and money of going to war. Wars are expensive, very expensive.

As of writing this morning, the UK/British Pound is worth $1.2989. Essentially an all time low. My prediction is that it will settle around $1.25. That is a staggering decline over the last 100-years from all time high of nearly $5.

I’ve been sorting through my archives over the last 5-months, written, photographic and audio. I’ve even spent a few days building shelving to organize it, from scrap wood discarded by the local construction projects. I came across the WQXI Atlanta news piece last night, and it reminded of the first time I became aware of the exchange rate.

I was only 10 years old at the time, but I can still recall to this day how serious the devaluation of the pound was at the time. The devaluation was done over the weekend and in a broadcast at the time, Prime Minister Harold Wilson said this, which I can still hear in my head and a phrase that came to Haunt Wilson.

It does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalue

The Pound has declined in lockstep with the fall of the British Empire. The first major fall was post the failure of the classical Gold standard in 1914; when the cost of entering the World War meant the British had to assume massive debt. and as a result, devalued the pound. After the war was finished, Britain spent 10-years trying to return the pound to it’s prior value, using severe fiscal and monetary austerity. In 1925, Britain returned to the Gold Standard for a short time until 1931, post the great crash, when Britain again devalued the Pound.

The Pound bounced back again shortly later in the 1930’s, but rather than being a strength of the pound, it was actually due to the weakness of the US Dollar following the 2nd FDR New Deal reflation.

With the start of the Second World War, Britain again took on great debt; by 1944, that debt, combined with the debt from the First World which they’d never paid off, forced another devaluation and for Britain to join the Bretton Woods Exchange rate system which fixed the pound to the US Dollar, and the dollar was still linked to the Gold Standard. While the British could argue they’d defeated the Germans and ensured the freedom for all Europeans, it was at a massive cost that Britain has never recovered from. Politicians of the time tried, they’d set the exchange rate too high for a damaged economy. By 1949, they were again forced to devalue by 30% and the pound fell for the first time to sub $3.

For the next 18-years Britain struggled, and the government had to go to the IMF more than once for help. The Pound was finally allowed to float freely against the US Dollar in 1979, but only after 1978’s winter of discontent. What followed for the next 30-years was increasingly futile efforts through the disastrous entry into the ERM, informally linking the Pound to the German Mark, and more, all to no real effect.

Britain has consistently failed to recognize the real impact of the fall of British Empire, and the loss of the Pound as a reserve currency. Prior to World War 1, Britain, and by implication the pound was the dominant currency. It has gradually declined  since then and while Britain still likes to think of itself as a global economy, but it really isn’t.

When politicians like Andrea Leadsom, Former Economic Secretary to the Treasury and leading contender for next British Prime Minister, deny the financial impact of BREXIT, she clearly hasn’t learned the lessons of the past. Prime Minister Wilson’s government denied devaluation 27 times the same year they went on to devalue the pound. If Britain were in a fixed exchange rate system, BREXIT would have been another devaluation. The fall of the Pound since the BREXIT vote is the biggest since  1967 potentially. Welcome to the era of $1.25 and pray the Pound never falls below the mythical $1.00 rate.

Making Britain great again… didn’t happen under Blair, won’t happen under Leadsom.

 

 

*Footnote – This is of significant interest to me as I have an inheritance in the UK that I’d like to transfer to the US, and a former employer’s pension is both impacted by BREXIT and will be paid in UK Pounds, so it’s already worth less, and given the exchange, has probably halved in value this year.

Making Britain “Great again”

One of the more visible memes in the “Brexit” campaign, apart from the overt racism and lack of genuine empathy over immigration and the refugees, “make Britain great” and “take back control” was regularly heard and claimed.

Much like Trump in America, there is a notion that you can pull up the drawbridge, build a wall and everything will be OK. Well we are no longer in 1605 or 1776, global trade has stalled and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future, 150-years of tinkering and artificially manipulating and imposing borders in the Middle East has lead to turmoil and the disruption of the lives of millions, and the deaths of tens of thousands.

It’s worth remembering what made Britain great, because if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where to go next. The foundation of modern Britain was created in the 16th and 17th century through trade and colonization. Almost all the wealthy families in the UK, the UK’s largest institutions can trace their wealth and power back to then.

What that really meant:

  • Enslaving millions of people in Africa and shipping them around the world
  • Helping to Colonize America, and in the process slaughtering millions of natives
  • Colonizing Australia  through the first effective industrial prison complex
  • During the 19th century, indenturing their own citizens in prison and workhouse like complexes in drive the so called “industrial revolution”
  • The forced separation of India and Pakistan which directly caused the deaths of 11-million people
  • Pillaging the world through it’s colonies of almost any natural resource that could become useful, starting with sugar, tea and tobacco, and continuing to this day with oil.
  • Being the joint protagonist in the world’s two biggest wars, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of ordinary people and soldiers.

So when Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson say let’s make Britain great again by taking back control, I don’t know what the fuck they mean.

Corrections: 6/24 19:30 changed enslaving to indentured which is what I meant

Commiserations are due

My namesake, TOM, didn’t win the Republican primary for South Carolina district 42. As always, you get what you vote for, and the voting numbers were pretty low.

The victor, Mann’s total vote district-wide was 1,245 while Cathcart’s was 770.