The Triple Revolution Revisited (1964-2012)
Forty-eight years after it was proclaimed by American Socialists and their co-thinkers, the effects of the “Triple Revolution” continue to reverberate in our economy.
In 1964, a 34 member group calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution proclaimed three simultaneous revolutions taking place, “the cybernation revolution,” “the weaponry revolution” and the “human rights revolution.” Those signing the statement included Todd Gitlin, then president of SDS, Tom Hayden, of SDS, Michael Harrington and Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party, Irving Howe, editor of Dissent magazine, Gunnar Myrdal and Robert Heilbroner, economists, Rev. A.J. Muste, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Gerald Piel, publisher of Scientific American, Bayard Rustin, Robert Theobald, futurist, W. H. Ferry, Linus Pauling, Noble laureate, among others. Three generations of American socialists sponsored the statement in 1964. The Manifesto was sent to Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson. It was a hopeful period for the democratic Left.
American Socialists had experienced important gains in the early 1960s. Michael Harrington published The Other America in 1962; Students for a Democratic Society issues The Port Huron Statement in June 1962; the 1963 March on Washington, in large measure organized by Bayard Rustin and others. The Triple Revolution was published in March 1964.
The Ad Hoc Committee made its claim:
A new era of production has begun…Cybernation is already reorganizing to meet its own needs…As machines take over production from men, they absorb an increasing proportion of resources, while the men who are displaced become dependent on minimal and unrelated government measures—unemployment insurance, social security, welfare payments.
The authors of The Triple Revolution manifesto boldly declared “the traditional link between jobs and incomes is being broken.” The Ad Hoc committee noted that the “cause of this break is the cybernation revolution—the combination of the electronic computer with the automated, self-regulating machine.” The Committee noted that “the fundamental problem posed by the cybernation revolution in the United States is that it invalidates the general mechanism so far employed to under grid people’s rights as consumers.
“Up to this time,” the Committee states, “economic resources have been distributed on the basis of contributions to production, with machines and men competing for employment on somewhat equal terms. In the developing cybernated system, potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.”
The New York Times March 22, 1964 article Guaranteed Income Asked for All, Employed or Not, by John D. Pomfret focuses on the demand for a guaranteed income. Pomfret writes, “The recommendation for a guaranteed income was one of a number of suggestions put forward by the committee to deal with an economy in which, it declared, “the traditional link between jobs and incomes is being broken.” The demand for an annual guaranteed income was a significant contribution to the policy debates of the period.
In John Markoff’s article, Skilled Work, Without the Worker appearing in the August 18, 2012 of the New York Times quotes Binne Visor, an electrical engineer who manages a 128 robot arms on a Phillips assembly line in Drachten, the Netherlands, as saying, “With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world.”
The article describes the immaculate industrial building in which “the robot arms making electric shavers are enclosed in glass cages for safety and work without a coffee break—three shifts a day, 365 days a year. In the Phillips electronic plant on China, hundreds of workers still use their hands and specialized tools to assembly electric shavers.”
Markoff speaks in sweeping terms, “This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one [here] in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of low-skilled workers.” Actually, hundreds of thousands of workers would be more accurate.
An astronomical number of robots are being planned for in China. It is viewed as a supplement to the existing labor force. Markoff writes, “Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years, to supplement its work force in China.”
“Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when,” says Markoff. He quotes Foxconn’s chairman, Terry Gou, speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”
Black Americans and Employment Rates
The Triple Revolution noted that Black Americans were demanding jobs as well as freedom and said that Black Americans were the hardest hit of the many groups exiled from the economy by cybernation. Negro unemployment rates cannot be expected to drop substantially. Promises of jobs are a cruel and dangerous hoax on hundreds of thousands of Negroes and whites alike who are especially vulnerable to cybernation because of age or inadequate education.”
It is not surprising, therefore, Norm Bond argues in Work Disappearing for Black Males in Urban America, that, “During the past four decades, the job market for working age African American males has fundamentally collapsed in urban America.”
Norm Bond quotes the conclusion of a recent study by Dr. Marc Levine of the University of Wisconsin-Madison looking at “employment rates” in forty of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas based on every Census taken from 1970 to 2010. The results are shared in “Race and Male Employment in Wake of the Great Recession: Black Male Employment Rates in Milwaukee and the Nation’s Largest Metro Areas 2010,“ see: http://www4.uwm.edu/ced/.
Dr. Levine reports that in five of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, fewer than half (<50%) of the working-age Black males held jobs.
Dr. Levine states that The US Census defines “working age” as 16-64, and “prime working years” as 25-54. In Milwaukee, the Black male employment rate [emphasis added] in 2010 (latest year available) was over 20 points lower than the Hispanic male rate and 32.7 percentage points lower than that of white males.”
Unemployment Rate “seriously flawed and often misleading”
Why does Levine look at employment rates, instead of the more commonly reported unemployment rates? “The Triple Revolution,” notes that the “unemployment rate statistic” is seriously flawed and misleading.
They wrote in 1964:
These official figures seriously underestimate the true extent of unemployment. The statistics take no notice of underemployment or featherbedding. In addition, methods of calculating unemployment rates—a person is counted as unemployed only if he has actively sought a job recently—ignore the fact that many men and women who would like to find jobs have not looked for them because they know there are no employment opportunities.
Underestimates for this reason are pervasive among groups whose unemployment rates are high—the young, the old, and racial minorities.
Even more serious is the fact that the number of people who have voluntarily removed themselves from the labor force is not constant but increases continually. These people have decided to stop looking for employment and seem to have accepted the fact that they will never hold jobs again. This decision is largely irreversible, in economic and also in social and psychological terms. The older worker calls himself “retired”; he cannot accept work without affecting his social security status. The worker in his prime years is forced onto relief: In most states the requirements for becoming a relief recipient bring about such fundamental alterations in an individual’s situation that a reversal of the process is always difficult and often totally infeasible. Teenagers, especially “drop-outs” and Negroes, are coming to realize that there is no place for them in the labor force but at the same time they are given no realistic alternative. These people and their dependents make up a large part of the “poverty” sector of the American population.
Statistical evidence of these trends appears in the decline in the proportion of people claiming to be in the labor force—the so-called labor force participation rate. The recent apparent stabilization of the unemployment rate around five and a half per cent is therefore misleading: it is a reflection of the discouragement and defeat of people who cannot find employment and have withdrawn from the market rather than a measure of the economy’s success in creating jobs for those who want to work.
Norm Bond notes in his in his article Disappearing for Black Males in Urban America, “The official unemployment rate only includes those who “do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks, and are currently available for work“. This narrow definition ignores discouraged workers and those “marginally attached” to the labor market. It also removes the tens of thousands of Black men sitting in U.S. jails — since they are “not available”. Adds David Leonhardt of The New York Times, “It’s simply no longer the best barometer of the country’s economic health.”
Instead, the “employment-population” ratio, better known as the “employment rate” provides a truer picture. It really provides a better indicator of the extent to which the working age population in a community is actually working. Here are some insights from Race and Male Employment in Wake of the Great Recession: Black Male Employment Rates in Milwaukee and the Nation’s Largest Metro Areas 2010:
• In 2010, in only two of the largest forty metro areas (Washington, D.C. and Dallas) was the Black male employment rate higher than 60 percent.
• In only two of the largest forty metro areas, (Portland and Detroit) was the employment rate for white males lower than 70 percent. So while Black men cannot exceed 60 percent actually working, a minimum of 70 percent of white men are actually working — in the forty largest metros in America.
• By 2009 even though working-age Black males outnumbered Hispanic males by 55% in Milwaukee, there were more Hispanic male production workers (7,200) than Black male production workers (4,842) in the region.
• The top-ranked Black male employment rate in Washington, DC was lower than even the lowest white male employment rate in any of the forty large metropolitan areas examined in the study.
The study points to some policies that should be considered to counter the findings including:
• Public job creation and leveraging
• Enhanced training and job placement
• Drug policy reform and public health policy
• Enhanced procurement by large businesses and large public and non-profit institutions from inner-city enterprises
• Strategies to better integrate the inner-city economy into the regional economy
“The Triple Revolution” manifesto suggested a more far reaching program in 1964. They proposed:
1. A massive program to build up our educational system, designed especially with the needs of the chronically under-educated in mind. We estimate that tens of thousands of employment opportunities in such areas as teaching and research and development, particularly for younger people, may be thus created. Federal programs looking to the training of an additional hundred thousand teachers annually are needed.
2. Massive public works. The need is to develop and put into effect programs of public works to construct dams, reservoirs, ports, water and air pollution facilities, community recreation facilities. We estimate that for each billion dollars per year spent on public works a hundred and fifty thousand to two hundred thousand jobs would be created. Two billion dollars or more a year should be spent in this way, preferably as matching funds aimed at the relief of economically distressed or dislocated areas.
3. A massive program of low-cost housing, to be built both publicly and privately, and aimed at a rate of seven hundred thousand to a million units a year.
4. Development and financing of rapid-transit systems, urban and interurban; and other programs to cope with the spreading problems of the great metropolitan centers.
5. A public power system built on the abundance of coal in distressed areas, designed for low-cost power to heavy industrial and residential sections.
6. Rehabilitation of obsolete military bases for community or educational use.
7. A major revision of our tax structure aimed at redistributing income as well as apportioning the costs of the transition period equitably. To this end an expansion of the use of excess profits tax would be important. Subsidies and tax credit plans are required to ease the human suffering involved in the transition of many industries from man power to machine power.
8. The trade unions can play an important and significant role in this period in a number of ways:
a. Use of collective bargaining to negotiate not only for people at work but also for those thrown out of work by technological change.
b. Bargaining for perquisites, such as housing, recreational facilities, and similar programs, as they have negotiated health and welfare programs.
c. Obtaining a voice in the investment of the unions’ huge pension and welfare funds, and insisting on investment policies which have as their major criteria the social use and function of the enterprise in which the investment is made.
d. Organization of the unemployed so that these voiceless people may once more be given a voice in their own economic destinies, and strengthening of the campaigns to organize white-collar and professional workers.
9. The use of the licensing power of government to regulate the speed and direction of cybernation to minimize hardship; and the use of minimum wage power as well as taxing powers to provide the incentives for moving as rapidly as possible toward the goals indicated by this paper.
Triple Revolution proposal number 5 states.” A public power system built on the abundance of coal in distressed areas, designed for low-cost power to heavy industrial and residential sections,” reflects the Manifesto’s pre-sustainability status.
The Obama administration says this technological shift presents a historic opportunity for the nation to stay competitive. “The only way we are going to maintain manufacturing in the U.S. is if we have higher productivity,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Are we Losing Jobs Quickly?
The cheep and smart robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. The New York Times notes, “This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”
“In their minds,” the New York Times writes, “the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today. The analogy is not only to the industrialization of agriculture but also to the electrification of manufacturing in the past century, Mr. McAfee argues. “
Rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide array of manual jobs within the abilities of robots, according to the New York Times:
For example, Boeing’s wide-body commercial jets are now riveted automatically by giant machines that move rapidly and precisely over the skin of the planes. Even with these machines, the company said it struggles to find enough workers to make its new 787 aircraft. Rather, the machines offer significant increases in precision and are safer for workers.
Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material, threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame for each panel.
Robot manufacturers in the United States say that in many applications, robots are already more cost-effective than humans. At an automation trade show last year in Chicago, Ron Potter, the director of robotics technology at an Atlanta consulting firm called Factory Automation Systems, offered attendees a spreadsheet to calculate how quickly robots would pay for themselves. In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings.
Robert Theobald Reflects
Robert Theobald reflects on his participation writing The Triple Revolution in An Interview with Robert Theobald, by Alan Atkisson, 1991. Looking back on my career, one of the efforts that seems most successful was creating the document called The Triple Revolution in 1964. It basically said that we are moving out of one period of history and into another—and in 1964 that was an extraordinary new idea. It also came at the right moment. People heard it. The rhetoric it introduced—the idea of a change in eras from hunting and gathering, to agriculture and industry, to something new—has stayed around and, I think, been very helpful.
Another thing I was associated with—which has also changed our thinking—was an idea called “basic economic security.” That came to be known as “guaranteed income” and was almost adopted by Nixon as part of the Family Assistance Plan. Why did that idea fly, despite many people’s doubts? Because people were in fact already getting guaranteed incomes. We weren’t about to let anybody starve in the US—or if we did, it was by mistake. But they weren’t getting that income very efficiently because of an incredible bureaucratic mess. Providing assistance would have been done more simply and more cheaply by a far simpler scheme.
Socialists have always been deeply concerned about the workplace, work process and our working lives. The work place and production processes are experiencing rapid technological change. The technological change is no longer restricted to a few industries (see Daniel Bell “The Bogey of Automation,” August 26, 1965, in The New York Review of Books.) Cybernation has entered into disciplines which didn’t even exist in 1964. It has become almost American folk wisdom to assert that we live in an era of “accelerated technological change.” With the continued improvements associated with robotics and cybernation, productivity has shown impressive increases. The Bureau of Labor Statistics issued “PRODUCTIVITY AND COSTS BY INDUSTRY: MANUFACTURING INDUSTRIES, 2010” in March 2012. The BLS study found,
Labor productivity – defined as output per hour – rose in 83 percent of the 86 detailed manufacturing industries studied in 2010. This was up from 30 percent in 2009. Unit labor costs, which reflect the total labor costs required to produce a unit of output, declined in 73 percent of the industries in 2010 compared to only 21 percent in 2009, as productivity increased more rapidly than hourly compensation.
For many industries, the productivity increases in 2010 were driven by large increases in output coupled with declines or more modest gains in hours. Output rose in 64 of the 86 industries in 2010, and hours rose in 40 of the industries. The number of industries with increases in labor productivity and output was higher in 2010 than in any other year since 2005. The number of industries with increases in hours was higher than in any year since 1997, and the number with declines in unit labor costs was the highest since
the series began in 1987.
The rise in productivity in the American economy is more closely linked to cybernation then when it was first detailed in The Triple Revolution. A larger proportion of the unemployment problem has become, as predicted, “structural” unemployment. The New York Times writes, “The ascension of robots may mean fewer jobs are created in this country, even though rising labor and transportation costs in Asia and fears of intellectual property theft are now bring some work back to the West.”
As technological change becomes more radical, robots more intelligent and capable, many unskilled and poorly educated will never be able to find jobs of any kind. The unskilled and poorly educated run the high risk of “expulsion” from the modern economy. Shoshana Zuboff, a sociologist at the Harvard Business School, writes In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, “…who becomes skilled and unskilled, subordinate and superior, are all intertwined questions. “We are all struggling for our turf,” one manager told Zuboff. “Technology will mean a change in our social system.” The change in our social system was envisioned by The Triple Revolution.