Detroit’s Bankruptcy and America’s Future: Robots, Race, Globalization and the 1%

The big question is whether Detroit’s bankruptcy and likely further decline is a fluke or whether it tells us something about the dystopia that the United States is becoming. It seems to me that the city’s problems are the difficulties of the country as a whole, especially the issues of deindustrialization, robotification, structural unemployment, the rise of the 1% in gated communities, and the racial divide. The mayor has called on families living in the largely depopulated west of the city to come in toward the center, so that they can be taken care of. It struck me as post-apocalyptic. Sometimes the abandoned neighborhoods accidentally catch fire, and 30 buildings will abruptly go up in smoke.


Detroit had nearly 2 million inhabitants in its heyday, in the 1950s. When I moved to southeast Michigan in 1984, the city still had over a million. I remember that at the time of the 1990 census, its leaders were eager to keep the status of a million-person city, since there were extra Federal monies for an urban area of that size, and they counted absolutely everyone they could find. They just barely pulled it off. But in 2000 the city fell below a million. In 2010 it was 714,000 or so. Google thinks it is now 706,000. There is no reason to believe that it won’t shrink on down to almost nothing.

The foremost historian of modern Detroit, Thomas J. Sugrue, has explained the city’s decline. First of all, Detroit grew from 400,000 to 1.84 million from 1910-1950 primarily because of the auto industry and the other industries that fed it (machine tools, spare parts, services, etc.) From 1950 until now, two big things happened to ruin the city with regard to industry. The first was robotification. The automation of many processes in the factories led to fewer workers being needed, and produced unemployment. (It was a trick industrial capitalism played on the African-Americans who flocked to Detroit in the 1940s to escape being sharecroppers in Georgia and elsewhere in the deep South, that by the time they got settled the jobs were beginning to disappear). Then, the auto industry began locating elsewhere, along with its support industries, to save money on labor or production costs or to escape regulation.

The refusal of the white population to allow African-American immigrants to integrate produced a strong racial divide and guaranteed inadequate housing and schools to the latter. Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, you had substantial white flight, of which the emigration from the city after the 1967 riots was a continuation. The white middle and business classes took their wealth with them to the suburbs, and so hurt the city’s tax base. That decrease in income came on top of the migration of factories. The fewer taxes the city brought in, the worse its services became, and the more people fled. The black middle class began departing in the 1980s and now is mostly gone.

Other observers have suggested other concomitants of the decline, like poor city planning or the inability to attract foreign immigrants in sufficient numbers. I suspect that the decline of Detroit as a port is important somehow to the story (only one of the four old locks at Sault St. Marie lets big ships come down to the lower Great Lakes and therefore to Detroit any more. A new, big [pdf] modern lock is being built to accommodate larger vessels, but it will be a decade before it opens. Some observers point out that Detroit would make sense as a Midwest hub port for international shipping containers if its harbor was expanded and linked by rail to the cities of the region, but I suspect the new lock at the Soo is a prerequisite.

After all these decades of dashed hopes, it is hard for me to take too seriously any assertions that the city is about to turn the corner or that some renewal project is about to succeed. At this point it seems to me a question of whether you retain some of the population that will otherwise leave. I find particularly unlikely the idea that urban farming is part of the solution. It sounds cute, but farmers don’t make nearly as much money as urban industrial workers, which is why they mostly went to the cities. You can’t put money into a city that way.

While other cities have avoided Detroit’s extreme fate, I think the nation as a whole faces some of the intractable problems that the city does, and I don’t think we have a solution for them.

Take robots (and I really just mean highly mechanized and computerized production of commodities). More and more factory work is automated, and advances in computer technology could well make it possible to substantially increase productivity. This rise of the robots violates the deal that the capitalists made with American consumers after the great Depression, which is that they would provide people with well-paying jobs and the workers in turn would buy the commodities the factories produced, in a cycle of consumerism. If the goods can be produced without many workers, and if the workers then end up suffering long-term unemployment (as Detroit does), then who will buy the consumer goods? Capitalism can survive one Detroit, but what if we are heading toward having quite a few of them?

It seems to me that we need to abandon capitalism as production becomes detached from human labor. I think all robot labor should be nationalized and put in the public sector, and all citizens should receive a basic stipend from it. Then, if robots make an automobile, the profits will not go solely to a corporation that owns the robots, but rather to all the citizens. It wouldn’t be practical anyway for the robots to be making things for unemployed, penniless humans. Perhaps we need a 21st century version of ‘from all according to their abilities, to all according to their needs.’

Communally-owned mechanized/ computerized forms of production would also help resolve the problem of increasing income inequality in the United States. The top 1% is now taking home 20% of the national income each month, up from 10% a few decades ago. The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

The crisis of capitalism is being delayed in part because of the rise of Asia and the emergence of new consumer markets in places with rapidly growing populations. American corporations have relocated to those places with increasing numbers of people and cheap labor, leaving working communities like Detroiters abandoned and idle. US companies are making goods in Vietnam to sell to middle class Chinese and Indians. But the world population will level off in 2050 and probably will decline thereafter. At that point, consumerism will have reached its limits, since there will be fewer consumers every year thereafter. (There is also the problem that classical 1940s and 1950s consumerism is environmentally unsustainable).

With robot labor, cheap wind and solar power, and a shrinking global population, post-2050 human beings could have universally high standards of living. They could put their energies into software creation, biotech, and artistic creativity, which are all sustainable. The stipend generated by robot labor would be a basic income for everyone, but they’d all be free to see if they could generate further income from entrepreneurship or creativity. And that everyone had a basic level of income would ensure that there were buyers for the extra goods or services. This future will depend on something like robot communalism, and an abandonment of racism, so that all members of the commune are equal and integrated into new, sustainable urban spaces.

Insisting on a 19th century political economy like barracuda capitalism in the face of the rise of mechanized smart labor and the decline of human-based industry produces Detroit. Racial segregation and prejudice produces Detroit. Shrinking and starving government and cutting services while forcing workers to work for ever shrinking wages (or even forcing them out of the labor market altogether) produces Detroit. In essence, Detroit is the natural outgrowth of the main principles of today’s Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. It doesn’t work, and isn’t the future.

The future is not Detroit or today’s GOP-dominated state legislature in Lansing. It is Something Else. Michigan’s slow, painful decline is trying to tell us something, that robots, race and unhealthy forms of globalization are death to cities under robber baron rules. We need new rules.

Posted in US politics | 120 Responses | Print |

120 Responses

  1. “It seems to me that we need to abandon capitalism as production becomes detached from human labor.”

    Interesting speculation, Juan. I need to get to bed with many family obligations coming early, however so many basic thoughts beg to be placed on the table.

    – This is essentially a “should” statement. These type of statements are the lifeblood, the meat and marrow of our typical modern political involvement — stating our ideal opinions on how and what actual situations “should” become, in our individual opinions. However, they are also very difficult to articulate into actual political actions, very difficult to organize around, and have a very poor record in terms of ever becoming reality or performing well if they are lucky enough to become reality.

    – In an ideal world, in an ideal sense, I agree with your “should” statement. The question for anyone in this situation of agreeing to anyone’s “should” statement is always: “how do we make it happen?” The responses to these questions determine whose “shoulds” are listened to and whose are ignored.

    – The people developing robots are going to be absolutely opposed to any hint of anything like a partial nationalization of robot labor/value/productivity, and may even “go Galt” in refusing to develop their robots if they see such a regime arising. I happen think that would be a great outcome, as I see no future for massive robot use that does not also include massive disruption of all existing social, political and economic environments.

    – The people who are ultra-happy about a possible robotic future are absolutely not talking to the people who are ultra-unhappy about a possible global climate change of significant warming and significant weather extremes. Indeed, they are not likely living in the same mental “universes.”

    – Do check my site for my views on how humans make history: with every decision, with every choice they make in every moment of every day.

  2. Some nice ideas and analysis. Unfortunately I don’t see Capitalism buying into some of them – actually most of them, not without a real fight anyway.

  3. Anybody remember the back story in “Robocop?”

    link to

    Is “Robocop” in the same tradition as “Animal Farm” and “Brave New World” and “1984?” Diagnostic, prognistic, despondent, showing little bits of decency being crushed by the likes of Dick Jones, greedhead CEO of Omni Consumer Products?

    “Oh, c’mon, it’s only a movie…”

  4. The Detroit tragedy is symptomatic of what the USA has become: Occupied territory with its own Philippe Pétain.

  5. “But the world population will level off in 2050”

    The above is a common refrain, but there is no reason to accept it in anything other than the light of the fake optimism that “the city is about to turn the corner.”

    Capitalism is hailed in textbooks everywhere as the driving force of civilization, and capitalism requires more and more consumers.

    Birth rate is not fixed and can change any time. To be told, the population will stop increasing means that nothing has to be done about population control. Actually, it’s a great excuse–for those that wish to do nothing to help future generations or the planet.

    • Urban middle class people don’t have big families. Germany and Japan are shrinking demographically. They will be joined by everyone else on the planet over the next 4 decades. It is only farming communities that have large families, and almost no one will be farming by then; the small numbers who do use combines and other robots. Robotification allows low-birth-rate urban life. The demographic trends internationally are not in dispute.

      • The catch-22 is that modern big ag REQUIRES massive supplies of fuel, which are going to become a problem (already are in some places) for economic & ecological reasons. That’s the only way a tiny minority can feed billions; without the fuel, we’ll need a lot more physical labor, and agriculture could also help the unemployment issue. The issue is whether we structure it so the workers have an ownership stake in the farms; if we don’t, it’ll probably look suspiciously like feudalism again.
        Although the pop growth RATE is in fact slowing in most places (a good thing), global pop (the only number that matters) is still GROWING, and we’re well into overshoot now. For that reason, I agree with Chet’s last line. Without good education & promotion of contraception, major redistribution of wealth so that the Global South can
        “leapfrog” the fossil fuel era (essentially repaying them for all the wealth our corps have stolen over the last century), and major reductions in our overconsumption in the West, that leveling-off will happen in away that leaves the vast majority of us far worse off. With climate change and other issues, it might even be a pop-decline, in ways we don’t want to experience.

        • World population growth will level off around 2050. Even Egypt has now had a demographic transition, but because it has so many young people, it will continue to grow till around then. China is already aging. South Asia is among the few remaining high-growth areas. It will all be over with mid-century.

          And that my friends will produce a crisis of capitalism, since cheap and abundant labor will abruptly go away. In countries like Japan, they will either face geriatric decline or turn to … robots.

      • The “farming communities” are essentially a taxpayer-propped up, fail safe business that will disappear as soon as there is no more Farm Bill that provides them with endless benefits, no Trade Commission that finds all the export markets for them, and no more land grant colleges and Departments of Agriculture on all levels of government doing all their research and providing free advice on how/when/what to plant.

        • To some degree, that’s true. That’s why we need to reintegrate localized farming into almost every community, to restore our ability to feed ourselves before the centralized system disintegrates and leaves us starving.

  6. I’m surprised. I didn’t think you’d advocate a failed Marxist strategy over something simpler, like tax regulations or sponsoring education for Detroit residents.

    • There isn’t anything complicated about state-owned robot factories, the profits of which are shared as dividends the way Alaska treats its oil revenues. Since we’ve never had robot factories in the past, it can’t be a failed policy to nationalize them.

      The rate of unemployment of educated Millennials in the US is 20%, and they have been put into $100,000 in debt for the privilege by our bankers and government, so “education” in and of itself doesn’t resolve the labor crisis of post-industrial society. link to

    • I think Prof. Cole is sensing that the attempt to stave off the unjust polarization of wealth by redistributive bandaids and education programs is doomed to get ever more complex and obtrusive as corporate-owned machines become ever more valuable than our own value as workers. We can’t push this rock back up this hill.

      Technically, this isn’t a Marxist strategy in that the workers are being removed from the actual productive process, thereby solving the nasty problem of incentivizing workers. However, we could be introducing other problems, like incentivizing the managers of all these robots to be efficient in their use of capital and resources.

      Another approach that is far less of a reach than what Prof. Cole was discussing is something that is actually happening: the ability of ordinary people to manufacture a wide variety of goods at home using rising technologies like CNC and 3-D printing. This is the first whiff of a revolution in the relationship between passive, addicted consumers and mind-controlling corporations. It’s an outgrowth of what Linux has already done on the software side, encouraging private, nonmonetary collaboration between persons who want certain things.

      Now if a lot of people were capable of generating their own electricity and putting it on the grid, or buying locally-grown food, there would be real income to sustain this alternative economy.

      • Indeed, Marxists believed in putting production in the hands of the workers.

        Juan Cole is suggesting a world with, well, no workers. That’s extremely different — the workers do not have the means of production, becuase *there are no workers*.

  7. The further development of your thought on nationalization of all robot/automated labor, Dr Cole, would be to regard the product that is created as a ‘marker’ in a relationship between the producer and the consumer. In the entire history of mankind, a basic problem has been that we cannot produce enough ‘stuff’ to satisfy the needs of everyone. Barring ecological disaster (a very, very big caveat!), we can today. So we are the first civilization to have to deal with a fairly equal relationship between producers and consumers. Frankly, if you mean that a government should ‘own’ all robot production, I’m probably not with you. But some reorganization to recognize that without consumers, no production/without producers, no consumption — well, we have to do that.

    • If the robots are the ones that have the jobs making things, and human beings are left unemployed (as happened in Detroit), then how will the human beings live?

    • No, the real problem is we can’t produce enough to satisfy the WANTS of everyone. We produce vastly more than needed to meet basic NEEDS; the problem is waste (sometimes caused by political manipulation or as a weapon) and diversion of resources into making things that increase profit but have no purpose other than vanity-enhancement.

      I agree with Juan; some things DO need to be “nationalized,” although I use that loosely to mean publicly-owned at various levels. There is definitely a need today to have a major society-wide discussion on what capitalism is doing to us & our planet, what things should rightfully NOT be based on profit or rooted in the global market system even if profit-based, and what things should be owned at a local level vs larger scales.

  8. “It seems to me that we need to abandon capitalism as production becomes detached from human labor. I think all robot labor should be nationalized and put in the public sector, and all citizens should receive a basic stipend from it.”

    Really? They tried that in Russia and Eastern Europe and it didn’t work; failed disasterously in fact.

    • Actually, they didn’t. They put the control in the STATE’S hands where the state used the rhetoric of being run by the people but was in practice oligarchic. Those nations never actually experienced what Marx termed “communism” because they never got out of his “dictatorship of the proletariat” stage.

    • Actually, for all the failures of the Oligarchic State Control system under the Soviet Union…
      …it worked better than the US system is working now.

      Homelessness rates were WAY down on what we have now, except where Stalin decided to make people homeless deliberately. Again, once Stalin was removed, people weren’t starving in the streets. Here? People are.

      I’m not saying the USSR had a good system; it didn’t. But we don’t either. We’d better try something else. Like nationalized robot labor — that would be different.

  9. As suggested, there are several important reasons for Detroit’s decline. Nevertheless, there are two very important, and often overlooked, reasons that led to the precipitous decline of Detroit relative to other cities that were in the “Rust Belt” and came back revitalized, such as Pittsburgh today.

    Detroit’s decline began long before robotics appeared in the auto industry. The 1967 race riots in Detroit were among the worst in the nation and destroyed whole areas, primarily where the Black community was living. Whatever the reasons that sparked the riots, it was not smart to destroy one’s own community and the supporting infrastructure that sustained it. In some sense, Detroit never recovered from that trauma.

    The auto industry itself–both the United Auto Workers union and the automobile companies–were in large part responsible for the decline of the industry in Detroit. In the 1970s and 1980s, they cut “sweetheart” contract deals that resulted in workers receiving a package of salary and benefits that totaled $71.00 per hour. They literally priced themselves out of the market, and the Japanese took advantage of it by outselling Detroit with their reliable and economically-priced Toyotas and Hondas. Later, Japanese companies further undercut Detroit by locating plants in places like Kentucky, creating jobs with a salary and benefits package in the neighborhood of $45.00 per hour, hardly chump change.

    I do not think Detroit represents in microcosm the “dystopia America is becoming.” Former Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh have shown that with planning and foresight, cities can turn themselves around and flourish. It takes both vision and planning, however, and both seem to be lacking in Detroit.

      • “Robotification began in the 1950s.”

        But not to the extent that it was creating unemployment in Detroit, as much of robotification does today (and not just in Detroit and the auto industry). After all, it was during the post-war 1950s and 1960s that Detroit and the auto industry were looked on (with good reason) as the engine for pulling workers into the middle class.

    • The immediate cause of the riots was a police raid on a blind pig. That is public knowledge.

      A college professor once told me that the 1967 riots were planned by left-wing fellow faculty members and he witnessed the planning. The rioting was commenced on Twelfth Street, only one block away from the Wayne State University football field.

      Today the high-paying UAW jobs are cutailed and incoming Ford Motor employees earn about $35,000 per annum for the first three years.

      • “A college professor once told me that the 1967 riots were planned by left-wing fellow faculty members and he witnessed the planning.”

        If true, I wonder if the faculty members involved in the planning are proud of the devastation the riots caused, both in the Black community and in Detroit as a whole. Those left-wing academics involved in the planning certainly gave no thought to the underprivileged minorities who suffered the consequences, while they (the academics) no doubt witnessed it all from the safety of their own elite communities.

        • Interesting that you immediately embraced this conspiracy rumor unbacked by documentary evidence. You didn’t use hypothetical language here: “Those left-wing academics involved in the planning certainly gave no thought…” You didn’t point out that there was no logical path to gain for them in destroying Detroit, and that they would be in risk simply by being at their offices with the trigger-happy US Army in the vicinity. Or that in the anti-War movement of that time, students often took actions that inconvenienced uncomprehending academics of every ideological stripe, locking them out of their facilities and disrupting their lectures.

          You clearly love the idea that there is no injustice worth rebelling against in America, just commie professors to blame for everything.

        • “Interesting that you immediately embraced this conspiracy rumor unbacked by documentary evidence.”

          Before running off and getting rhetorically lathered up and indignant, SUPER390, you might re-read my post. If you had actually read it the first time you would have noted that I prefaced my one-paragraph comment with what is known in grammar as the “conditional verb” form, i.e. “If true,….” I realize that the use and understanding of grammar, such as the conditional verb, is diminished today, but everything that followed was valid “if” Mark Koroi’s professor’s comment was “true.” That should not be too hard to understand.

  10. Industrial robots and computers are part of industrialization. Sure, industrialization comes with lots of social problems.

    But what we see in Detroit is deindustrialization, decline of all kinds of manufacturing including high tech. In fact, high tech does not make much sense when lots of dirt cheap labor is available in the 3rd world.

    Offshoring will certainly kill new green technologies, 3D printing, everything that needs highly qualified work force rather than quasislaves from Bangladesh.

    • I am saying that cheap 3rd world labor is a demographic artefact of high rates of natality and lower mortality because of modern medicine in the 20th century, and that within 40 years the boom will level off. Over the next century, resolving American corporate problems by going abroad will no longer be an option. Besides, if they don’t generate satisfactory employment in the US, who will buy the goods they make abroad?

      • A hundred years ago, a large house employed dozens of servants. Some scrubbed and cooked, otherswere for show – lackeys to stand around serving dinner or opening doors to show how rich and important their owners were. Maybe Downton Abbey is really our future.

        • I agree that this is intended to be our future. Jean Laherrere explained that fossil fuels came along just in time to replace slavery and debt serfdom in Western private economies. He called these fuels “energy slaves”. So if supplies get tight…

        • Steerpike: the problem is that our current elites don’t have any interest in having dozens of servants. Robots can do all the work better!


  11. “It seems to me that we need to abandon capitalism as production becomes detached from human labor. I think all robot labor should be nationalized and put in the public sector, and all citizens should receive a basic stipend from it.”

    Alaska had a dynamic like that associated with oil industries. It worked well, because after all, resources under the public land should belong to the public.

    Karl Marx predicted that American citizens would rise up when the greedy capitalists began to oppress them by plundering them. He expected too much of U.S. consumers who only went along to get along.

    The common good, the public good, has been left somewhere back in history along with the rusting artifacts of industrialization.

    • The problem is that Americans have no real experience with oppression. Today, we’re just starting to get glimpses of what oppression might look like, and the potential tools are in place, but true oppression isn’t here yet. The capitalists learned from the Nazis and Stalin not to be TOO overt about it, while undermining the sense of civic duty you mention.
      At this point, they still manipulate average people to keep us at odds but climate change & other factors could well change that. Even now, those of a leftist bent often find Tea Partiers have the same underlying issues if we’re willing to talk through the BS on the surface. That fact should be our unification; the capitalists know that and it scares them.

    • Marx lived under a capitalism which mostly sold necessities, not luxuries. So the normal craving of capitalists to drive down wages left workers with no choice but to go deeper into debt to keep buying things they had to have in order to exist. That looked like a recipe for escalating rebellion. However, when Ford introduced the $5 day, he was sensing a new dynamic based on discretionary purchases: if his own workers got the right amount of money, they would buy the Model Ts they produced and he’d make back what he lost in wages.

      The downside to this was that if the stock market collapsed, workers could defer these discretionary purchases and the economy might never recover. But the corporations by Ford’s time had already begun to learn to use media indoctrination to make these discretionary purchases into seductions, in effect becoming heroin pushers while their worker/consumers became junkies who would sacrifice all aspects of their humanity to restart consumption.

      When capitalists arrived with no experience with the Great Depression, the old patterns began to reassert themselves. Now we’re back to the plundering stage.

  12. Unfortunately for such a ‘socialist’ vision for America to become reality there will have to be revolution, open rebellion. A system which is so corrupt that it rewards those who are directly responsible for the economic collapse of that system and then monitors and or imprisons those who dare speak out is governed by an elite, an oligarchy, with no scruples. An elite who will use all means at their disposal to maintain their hegemony. That elite does’t give a rats ass what happens to Detroit and it’s people, or the many other sacrifice zones and they’re inhabitants, that they’ve created, that they’ve designated, for America. In the board rooms of America, America’s average citizens are looked on as mindless consumers, as mere surfs to create more profit. An economic model which has perpetual growth as it’s basis on a planet with finite resources is doomed to failure, to collapse, whether or not it is humans or robots in it’s factories.

    • Oh, I don’t know. A lot of difficult economic transitions in US history have been made without political revolutions. Democracy is flexible. Marx pointed out that if Dutch workers really wanted socialism even in the 19th century, they could just vote it in. Hmmm link to

      But, of course, if the people are pushed too far and the elites are too inflexible and grasping, there will be trouble. I don’t know how Detroiters put up with what was done to them (well, a lot of them voted with their feet), but I can guarantee you that the country as a whole would not.

      • Interestingly I came across this piece about the end of growth shortly after I posted here. It is hard to remain positive, optimistic, when things appear to be near careening, nearly out of control. A lot of what has to be changed will ironically be forced on us as a kind.

        link to

      • Difficult economic transitions are one thing, but the ushering in of a global stateless moneyless society is another.

        You’re right that there should be a robot communalism. But don’t you think that makes representative democracy redundant? What’s the point of getting a stipend when we can take it all and create what we need.

      • The ability to vote with their feet is probably a big reason US workers have always been more politically conservative than their European brothers. Note that the famous announcement of the closing of the frontier in the 1890s heralded a great era of labor struggle; while the 1950s creation of the fake frontier of sprawl via cars, highways, and suburbs ruined labor’s sense of community and swung America back to the right.

      • People I know from Michigan say that Snyder is getting away with everything he does because people are “voting with their feet” and moving to other states. Period.

        In the US as a whole, Mexicans are “voting with their feet” and moving back to Mexico.

        But this “voluntary migration” as a relief for the social pressures has its limits, and I think we are reaching them.

        • Nathanael, there is a greater danger awaiting in this and other recent stories. For the GOP, terrorizing Latinos into leaving Arizona, or blacks into leaving Florida for northern states, would be a great victory due to the distribution of votes in Congress and the Electoral College. The terrorists would have won – eternal white minority control over all America. But the corporations DON’T want non-whites to leave, they want them compelled to work in places where they can’t vote. There can be no good end to this deliberate cruelty.

  13. An excellent review of Detroit’s situation.

    Although we are not all suffering the changes in manufacturing to the same degree as Detroit, our auto-centric cities are all suffering from poor planning. By that I mean planning that isn’t financially viable. We have more roadway lanes and more water and sewer lines than we can afford. The sooner we realize that and start to deal with not just the initial construction expense but the ongoing maintenance costs, the better off we’ll be.

    I recommend checking out the following short video.
    link to

    • Right. I’ve thought we should seriously consider abandoning something like every other parallel street — rip the pavement up and start planting raised beds in them, with a bike lane down the middle. My town (in MA) has such a backlog of roadwork the former DPW director (he left this spring) told me it’d require a budget 6X what he actually gets for several years in a row to catch up. One thing that’s interesting is that some of the roads needing the most work are those leading out of town, and I suspect that, over time, many communities will find similar situations gradually cutting them off from their neighbors.

  14. Thanks for the link to the Tom Sugrue Q&A. foremost historian of the C20 American city, period, I’d say.

  15. As for reforming our economy, I’m not sure that there is an easy way to define what is automation that should be a national asset. And certainly no corporation will want to give up their automation assets.

    Higher corporate taxes would serve a similar function of transferring wealth.

    Perhaps in conjunction with reduced taxes that would benefit the co-op movement, such as the Zingerman’s businesses in Michigan, the Green co-ops in Cleveland, and the Mondragon businesses in Spain provide a model for a more humane capitalism.

    link to

    link to

    • I’m saying treat robot factories without human labor the way Alaska treats oil. Make it a state asset and pay everyone a dividend.

      I am aware that there will be resistance to this idea. However, a robot labor force making goods for an army of unemployed humans is not a plausible economic system, and my alternative is practical. How exactly we make this transition would depend on the wisdom of our elites. Also the survival of our elites over the next century depends on their wisdom. If they behave like the Koch brothers, they’ll go the way of the French aristocracy.

      • Probably true. But we’d better devise a clear idea of what we want our society to look like before or while we’re ousting them, or we could rapidly find the changes we’re making hijacked by brutal demagogues whose only interest is power.

  16. Well, sure, we could build something good out of this mess, something post-racial and humanistic and dignified and uplifting. But I think you know what the chances of that are.

    It’s many times more likely that the robber barons will let a billion people die in some war (or kill them outright) and then use the struggle out of the ashes as a growth opportunity for business. It will be horrible, but human history generally has been.

    Trying hard not to be pessimistic………..

    • What 1776, 1789, 1871, 1917, 1949, and 2011 suggest is that people don’t always put up with robber barons forever.

      • Instead of “1789” there, I think you meant 1800 when Jefferson was elected president, an event termed “the second American revolution” when much of the antidemocratic influences on the creation of the federal constitutional republic were decisively counteracted through the defeat of the overbearing and overstepping Federalist Party of the Adams administration. However, I would not call those Federalist 18th Century Enlightenment gentlemen, certainly not Adams, or Hamilton, “robber barons”. Elitist would-be aristocrats and class snobs, yes. With Andrew Jackson (1828) America begins to deal with the problem of bona fide robber barons as banking and industrial corporations begin to be a pressing concern of democratic aspirations in our history.

  17. With a $14 billion debt, the future is obviously not in Detroit. Cities come and go: e.g., why isn’t Petra Arabis still successful? It’s the economy.

    • The Petra city council circa 200 AD imposed an extra tax on any merchant who made less money in a year than they had the previous one. You would have thought it an incentive…

    • Tesla employs around 3,000 at this plant that you have the link for and please remember this plant was given to them by Toyota so all the robots you see were already there.

      Some great points Juan it would work but the elites aren’t about to sure anything.

      • Tesla moved extra robots into the factory.

        At the moment, most of Tesla’s rather large employment is in sales & service, which aren’t really automatable. Some in delivery, which is. Some in engineering, which isn’t, but people do enginering for fun, so it’s not really necessary to pay them.

        Within the factory, the majority of the employees are doing… sewing. Nobody has yet figured out how to fully automate sewing, and if they do, that eliminates the last major manual-labor job in the world. Pay attention to this; automating this will change the world.

        And some are doing bolting. Robots can bolt things together but humans are slightly better at it. This will probably change over time.

  18. Wow! Great piece.
    Of course, the first thing us free-enterprisers will do is a three hop metadata check on you.

    The Detroit story is a great example of capitalism’s flexibility. As the pie gets smaller just increase the capitalists’ slice size. So, in Detroit’s case, they get a 359 degree slice, and the rest get a one degree slice.

    You are proposing a homogenous “steady state” world as opposed to our current “growth for the rich and steady (or declining) state for everyone else”. The “forever poor” is a serious element in any wealth concentration strategy.

    • The forever poor is only a plausible strategy if a certain level of employment can be maintained in a post-industrial society. Detroit suggests that it cannot.

      • Not sure about that, Juan. The vast majority of Europe spent centuries “forever poor” while fully “employed” under feudalism, while a small merchant class and even smaller nobility flaunted their wealth. In the early years, that started with the poor seeking (and generally getting) protection from the more powerful, but in time it turned into serfdom and oppression.

        • The feudal system relied on the feudal lord owing duties to the serfs, and generally living up to those duties.

          Those duties weren’t much — food, clothing, and shelter — but when the elite failed to provide them, the feudal lord in the area was killed or expelled. Quite consistently. He was replaced with a *different* feudal lord, of course, but that doesn’t change the picture for him.

          The equivalent in the modern day would be an absolute obligation for the government, or the “feudal lord” factory owners, to feed, clothe, and house everyone. But just try and get the idiots like the Koch Brothers to realize that that’s their best move.

  19. The common refrain of linking technology and globalization with rising inequality may be largely wrong. It is not disputed that the impersonal forces of technological change and globalization have affected all advanced states. However, “If the rise in inequality has political roots, the United States should stand out; if it’s mainly due to impersonal market forces, trends in equality should have been similar across the advanced world. And the fact is that the increase in U.S. inequality has no counterpoint anywhere else in the advanced world. During the Thatcher years Britain experienced a sharp rise in income disparities, but not nearly as large as the rise [in the U.S.]…, and inequality has risen modestly if at all in continental Europe and Japan.” “In terms of institutions and norms, however, things are very different among advanced nations: In Europe, for example, unions remain strong, and old norms condemning very high pay and emphasizing the entitlements of workers haven’t faded away….There is…a…case for believing that institutions and norms, rather than technology or globalization, are the big sources of rising inequality in the United States.”
    link to

    • Actually, rising inequality is in fact a global phenomenon. And your point is vitiated because you can’t compare an industrializing economy like India with a post-industrial one like the United States; the two situations will produce a different relationship of labor to capital. One difference, though, is that capital in the US can concentrate more easily because a post-industrial service labor force is not unionized, lacking a shop floor, and so workers cannot easily organize to resist being robbed.

      • 1. My comment stated “advanced” (i.e. developed) states.

        2. How do you explain, as an example, that Denmark’s Gini Index was 24.7 in 1992 and 24.8 in 2011(est.) while the US’s respective numbers were 43 and 47?

        We should not ignore the important role of institutions and norms when we discuss income inequality.

        • Agreed. And the biggest institution in question is the government, specifically the degree to which it has been corrupted by those with wealth. In the West, a secondary one are the university business & economics departments who have all but eliminated any sense of ethics or ecological/social responsibility in their training of the capitalist “priesthood.”

  20. This is remarkable; Thanks for this post, and the comments as well.

    I think that all economic policies, no matter which side they come from will be in tatters after climate change impacts become full force.

    • “The rich will inherit the temperate zone.”

      When you solve capitalism’s quadratic, polynomial, seven dimensional equations for “climate change”, that’s the answer that pops up.

      • Globally, in a sense, this is sort of correct — the richer will be the ones more able to migrate.

        But with massive numbers of economic migrants, the current elite-of-the-temperate-zone don’t have a chance of survival. The new migrants can ally with the old residents to smash the old 1% without a second thought, and make it look easy.

        So the current global 0.1% elite, if they want to survive, had better have a better plan than just being a bunch of worthless greedheads. I believe most of the current 0.1% are incapable of making such a plan, because they are congenitally incapable of long-term thinking — it’s a mental defect, probably psychopathy. (There are exceptions, of course, like Al Gore and Gorbachev and Soros, who will do their best to find a long-term plan, but they’re an insignificant fraction of the global elite and unfortunately seem to have no influence over the majority of Koch-addled 0.1%ers.)

  21. Professor Cole:

    Even though I view the world from a completely different perspective than you, I enjoy and thank you for your thought provoking comments. I can’t help but think, however, that the tones of Marxism suggested in your comment about “abilities” and “needs” is dangerous, given the disastrous results of totolitarianism/Marxism in the 20th century. For good reason, the framers of our constitution feared concentration of power in the government. Your solution of somehow nationalizing robotic production will concentrate too much power with the government. Human nature being what it is, it would not end well, as I would expect those in control of the government would abuse that power. Anyways, thank you for the interesting ideas. If I figure out the solution to these problems, I will let you know. Dan L

    • The idea that massive corporations who own the robots should generate all the wealth for the 1% and leave the rest of us in a Detroit-like condition of unemployment or underemployment is a much bleaker vision than having us all own the robots collectively and all benefit from the profits generated by their productive labor.

    • The robot-owning corps (and others) have purposely concentrated that power by making the government THEIRS,and are already abusing their power. We have to take it back and make it OURS again.

  22. We need new rules. Yes. And a new way of measuring economic/ecologic health. GDP is killing us by undervaluing environmental services and totally ignoring the long term costs of ecological degradation. In a world increasingly short on jobs, there is no greater potential employment opportunity than ecological restoration. But this won’t happen unless we can collectively assign much greater value to environmental health by gaining a true measure of the natural wealth that is the foundation of our lives and future generations. Of course, this would require such a revolutionary shift in world view that I don’t think it would ever pass go any more than your ideas of communalizing robotic production. But this is exactly the kind of vision we need but which will get their believers relieved of their heads as being enemies of the elite global empire.

    • No more than does the continuing erosion of consumerism via growing inequality. Perhaps we need to ask: in a truly sustainable culture built on an enduring infrastructure and very high energy efficiencies and much lower consumption levels, just how central consumerism will be or should be to our lives, our economies, our politics, etc.?

    • No, it doesn’t.

      There are a couple of reasons people might create new robots.

      (1) For fun. This requires engineers with free time and money. In a world with lots of unemployment, that doesn’t happen. Therefore, we need to hand them money as in the Alaska Permanent Fund.
      (2) For profit. This requires lots of people buying lots of stuff, which people can’t do without money. With lots of unemployment, people won’ have money… unless we just hand them money as in the Alaska Permanent Fund.

      The conclusions are inescapable. In a world where almost everything is made by robots, the only way to have a functioning money economy is to continuously distribute money to everyone, pretty much evenly.

  23. I was residing in Detroit during the rioting of 1967.

    43 died and scores wounded. The “Algiers Motel Incident” by John Hersey chronicled the rioting and the conflicts between police and the black community of that era. This police brutality was the key reason of the riots.

    There were armored personnel carriers rolling down Eight Mile Road (the north border of Detroit – which inspired the Eminem movie name)which decamped at the State Fair grounds for deployment against the rioters. These were not National Guardsmen but active-duty U.S. Army personnel, many with Vietnam experience(what about the Posse Comitatus Act?). Although many National Guardsmen were deployed as well as volunteers from other police jurisdictions to haul away the large amount of arrestees. Many attorneys who had no experience in criminal law volunteered to represent arrestees in arraignments that clogged the court system in Detroit.

    At the time the city was mostly white and had a police force that was about 85% white. Today the city is close to 85% black, Hispanic and Asian minorities and the police force is mostly composed of minorities.

    The population of Detroit now is less than half than when I moved out in 1969. The City of Detroit is replete with burned out and abandoned structures, eyesores, defective and unmaintained roads. Police tell me they are afraid to pull over citizens for traffic violations for fear of being shot. Public schools often do not even have toilet paper. Homeless citizens were actually attempting to get arrested during winter in order to find a place to eat and sleep in a Wayne County jail cell.

    Detroit looks like a Third World country. Very sad.

    • Sugrue believes that white flight was already a big phenomenon before the riot and that the latter has been exaggerated as a cause of it.

      I personally think a lot of whites left because of the change in laws disallowing covenants. When they couldn’t legally exclude blacks from their neighborhoods, they left. This was not just racism, though it was racism. They feared that their equity in their houses would be lost if property values fell when the neighborhood was integrated.

      It just so happened that the riot occurred just before the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

      • “…white flight was already a big phenomenon before the riot…”

        Agreed. The best way to illustrate this point is the boom in population of Detroit suburbs. The City of Warren, due north of Detroit, had 42,000 residents in 1950, 89,000 in 1960 and 179,000 in 1970. As of the 1980 census it was over 99% white.

        “I personally think a lot of the whites left because of the change in laws disallowing covenants…”

        The Stanley vs. Kramer U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down racilly restrictive real estate covenants was handed down in 1948, however very little racial integration ever occurred in Detroit neighborhoods to that point up to the 1960s. While the 1967 riots certainly did not discourage “white flight” the most devastating phenomenon I saw was the “block-busting” real estate brokers who saw a financial windfall in introducing black families to all-white neighborhoods in Detroit and causing immediate panic selling by white households over fear the equity in their homes would be wiped out.

        The real estate brokers and suburban developers and residential builders are the ones who made vast fortunes capitalizing upon this “white flight”.

        While Detroit’s population fell from 1,600,000 in 1960 to about 700,000 today, the overall population of Metro Detroit has been steady due to the growth of its suburbs.

  24. “It seems to me that we need to abandon capitalism as production becomes detached from human labor.”

    Rarely, if ever, have I seen a more a more incredible statement. Detroit suffers from a dearth of capitalism, no too much.

    Here’s a thought experiment: look around the country to see where cities are doing well…in Texas, North Dakota, etc. Study what public policies they have put in place to attract business, people, create opportunities, and the like. And then do that in Detroit, only better. You don’t need theory on this one – the answers are already out there.

    Detroit is the canary in the coal mine for far left liberal public policies. The last thing the city needs is for it’s leaders to double down on that approach.

    Abandoning capitalism – which was responsible for making Detroit a great city to begin with – is ridiculous. Central planning – and communist/socialistic economic policies in general – have failed eventually everywhere they’ve been tried. It is capitalism which has allowed America to create more, discover more, and provide more to the rest of the world that perhaps any other country in the history of the planet.

    Why on earth would you jettison capitalism in favor of something you already know is a failure?

    Ah…but you’re smarter than me right? And you’re smarter than Adam Smith’s invisible hand. And you’re smarter than all of the failures who have gone before you. You can figure it out, I’m sure.

    • You haven’t addressed my problematic.

      Detroit is as it is because of the working of industrial capitalism. 1) Robotification made many of the workers who had flocked to Detroit redundant, from the 1950s and 2) moving the factories to Texas, Mexico, etc. left even more workers unemployed.

      What happened in Detroit has happened to the country. Only 20% of our economy is industrial now.

      So where will Detroiters, or the people of New Orleans, or people in Miami, get jobs? Doing what? Making what?

      If the jobs are taken by robots, and income remains tied to productive labor, then human beings won’t have an income, and will starve, while you have rich people served by thousands of robots that they own.

      It is more or less what happened to Detroit.

      How would you address this problem?

      • Your question – so where will the jobs come from – suggests that an answer can be known.

        There are millions of people today working in professions unfathomable to people living 100 years ago. A politician even 50 years ago could not have foreseen and planned for the dramatic changes in our economy caused by the internet. Capitalism creates new opportunities as old ones are made increasingly irrelevant.

        Detroit – the city not the auto industry – became increasingly irrelevant because it refused to change quickly enough. The city created perverse incentives for businesses and investors – including incredibly high tax rates – who left to find greener pastures.

        And we’re not yet in an Isaac Asimov novel, but consider your question about robots stealing all the labor from a different angle. Technology has rendered millions of jobs irrelevant in the last 50 years, from farming to banking to the airline and auto industries. But that same technology created different opportunities (whether those are more or less than what was destroyed is debatable).

        It wasn’t possible to see the outcome of those perturbations beforehand, just as it’s not possible to see the answer to your question right now. But that doesn’t mean we should actively takes steps, including draconian ones like seizing robots, to stop that creative destruction.

        Detroit did just that – the city and the industry. They wanted to maintain the status quo, maintain the union jobs and benefits, maintain the public sector jobs and pensions, and people and businesses voted with their feet. Those people now live in, and pay taxes to (!), the cities who adjusted and created a friendlier environment for them.

        • That would all be very nice if in fact the factory jobs in the US had been replaced by nice new ones. They haven’t. Some have been lost forever to unemployment (US unemployment figures only measure people who have looked for a job recently, so we just take structural unemployment off the statistics). Others have been replaced by McDonalds kinds of jobs. The Millennials face downward mobility, the first American generation to do so.

          Capitalism promised people jobs in Detroit, then abandoned it and either robotified or sent the jobs overseas, leaving them in the lurch. It is not very nice of you to blame Detroiters for that betrayal, which was not their fault.

          So your blind faith is so far misplaced.

    • Juan is correct. Jobs aren’t created by magic or by invisible hands. (And, by the way, TJ, it seems you have never actually read Adam Smith, since you don’t understand his theories at all. They’re much more… socialist… than most people think they are.)

      As for central planning — central planning is the *modus operandi* of every corporation in the United States. If central planning has failed, then the United States is on the express path to failure. In fact, central planning frequently works excellently, as the executives of Amazon will tell you.

  25. In focusing on the first outlandish statement, I forgot this second one: “In essence, Detroit is the natural outgrowth of the main principles of today’s Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. It doesn’t work, and isn’t the future.”

    Detroit has been dominated by liberal politicians and policies for 50 years. The city hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1961, and every current member of the City Council is a Democrat. Although two seats are vacant because the city can’t afford to pay them.

    How on earth does a city dominated by liberal politicians suddenly become the natural outgrowth of the Tea Party? Blaming it on Lansing is intellectually sloppy. Elect a Tea Party mayor and city council, wait fifty years, or even twenty five, I’ll be generous, and then we can talk.

    • Because the government of Detroit had no defense against capitalists outsourcing labor to those lands that treat their workers the most crappily, or the car companies themselves making bad cars. In 1957, during a spurt in auto sales, the Big 3 converted their quality-control workers into extra assembly line workers. When the spurt collapsed, those workers weren’t returned to quality control. The poor quality of US cars for the next 20 years was striking. See Brock Yates’ “The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry” for a more balanced view than yours.

      All the benefits you laud are those of short-term profit: move in, exploit everyone, make a ton of money and when the workers demand better wages, run to the next low-wage state, leaving a burnt-out shell. It is the industrial equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture. Detroit is being left as a wasteland for someone else to fix; when they’re willing to work for Chinese wages I’m sure capitalism will come back.

      • It’s actually the short-term thinking which is the fundamental problem in American society, and in world “crony capitalist” society.

        Short-term thinking was also the major problem in the USSR.

        The issue is not one of “capitalism” or “communism”, but one of short-term thinking versus long-term thinking. We need long-term thinkers in power, and I don’t know how to achieve this.

  26. As a kid many decades ago, I read a science fiction story in which the surprise ending was that robots were turned into consumers so as to keep people employed. The robots started wearing clothes, were programed to use furniture and so forth.

    On a more serious note, I can only imagine what it is like living in the heart of Detroit, based on the descriptions of inner Camden in Days Of Destruction Days Of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco.

  27. It seems that one of the more practical routes to change is for those who have a heart for social justice to change their career track. Some have done this already so that they can make significant contributions to charity. That is, instead of going and running a non-profit, they join the corporate world and use the money to fund non-profits. An over-looked benefit to this type of transformstion of careers for those with a heart, is the long-term power they have in shaping our society. The best and the brightest, who want to see change, should think about changing the impact of capitalism on society from the inside out.

  28. Lots of supposition. No facts. Thanks to the internet the whole world can dig deeper and get some. Criminals in political offices. Busted budgets. No literacy. Overpaid union employees. High crime.

    You talk racism. I have felt the black on white racism of Detroit. Ugh.

    Detroit… lots of lame excuses and brother can you spare a billion. I hope Detroit gets its act together, so here’s my advice. Those things on the top of your boots are called straps; you should try pulling on them.

  29. I’ve been saying exactly this since as least 2007. The problem you run into at the point of implementation is that, in hybridizing government and big business (this is basically what you’re doing), you give to a single group a preponderance of power. There’s nobody to check that power. If you assume competence and benevolence, the system is perfect. But how do you defeat the system when it becomes corrupt or oppressive? How do you even push for change when those in power no longer need you at all (in addition to their current monopoly on violence)?

    • Elections are supposed to be the method to keep governments under control. We have serious problems in our election system, but a functioning election system (proportional representation, approval voting, with hand-counted paper ballots) is a powerful tool to keep governments under control.

      Big businesses, of course, have NOTHING keeping them under control. They were also supposed to be kept under control by elections (but corporate elections are basically a fraud). They were supposed to be kept under control by regulation from governments — which they have bought off, so that the governments refuse to cancel their charters even when the businesses commit murder sprees.

  30. (At some of the comments above: the 20th century Marxists (starting with Russia, spreading their strain of socialism to the others via political pressure, largely aided by the isolation imposed on socialist countries by the US) adopted maybe the worst possible form of communism and they did so in largely pre-industrial societies that, frankly, would have struggled under capitalism. These are largely poor, post-colonial countries, their economies designed to drain their resource wealth to a central collection point for export to the colonizer. They were not well set up to diversify into functioning independent economies. As post-colonial countries, moreover, they had very real political difficulties as well. Thy were then integrated into a dependent system with the USSR, which was locked in a game of unsustainable military build-up with a country far more industrialized/developed in the US. The USSR itself, by the way, was historically poor as well. To summarize, They picked the worst Socialism and that still wasn’t the main thing that screwed them.

    For example, there’s no reason, in the economic model JC is proposing, that consumer choice would need to be restricted or this would have to be a ‘command economy.’ Production could still be responsive to consumer demand. Likewise, efficiency would still be the goal in this sort of system, rather than competitive self-sufficiency, which was a goal in the 20th century communist countries because they were in a competition with the US and her allies that threatened to become violent at any time. There are 1,000 more examples of how the different context 50 years from now renders the examples of 20th century communism all-but irrelevant.

  31. Makes sense but you will get all the idiots calling you stupid names like “marxist, communist etc”, you will never be able to reach those closed minded people. These are the people are of the same mentality as “you can have my gun when you pry it form my cold dead fingers” blather. It has always stuck me that a economic system based upon infinite growth (capitalism) within a finite system (the earth) was a paradox that will collapse no matter what the true believers in that flawed system believe. In the end, after much human suffering, the earth wins and man looses. Game over.

    • They’ll be easier to convince when they are unemployed and penniless and food stamps have been abolished by the GOP.

      • Indeed. This is why the 0.1% in our country are complete idiots, idiots like most of the aristocracy of France under Louis XVI were idiots.

        If you want to retain power, you keep everyone fed, housed, and clothed. This was understood by the Pharoahs of ancient Egypt — a Pharoah who failed to feed the people was overthrown in quick order. This was understood by Emperor Augustus of Rome, who put up monuments bragging about how many people received the wheat ration from him (bragging how many people were on welfare).

        This basic principle of how to stay in power is not understood by the idiots in the GOP and the idiot right-wingers running major corporations. They are dooming themselves.

  32. Confiscation and nationalization are not the only ways to put robots to work for all of us.

    In books like “Secrets of the Temple” and “The Soul of Capitalism”, William Greider praised Louis Kelso, a libertarian banker who realized that polarization of wealth under capitalism would destroy society, but did not want a state-owned alternative.

    Kelso’s argument, a half-century ago, was that automation indeed would ruin the workers, because the technology was too powerful to stop. The least obtrusive alternative was to turn ordinary citizens into capital owners. His mechanism was for the Federal Reserve to stop creating money by buying Treasury debt, and do it instead by purchasing the debt paper of employee-owned and community-owned trusts, which financed new capital formation. “When the new ventures paid off the debts on their new machines and factories, the loan paper would be retired and ordinary citizens would hold title to the new capital stock.”

    As we saw after the 2009 crash, the Fed did eventually have to buy private loan paper to restart capital formation, but it was that of those already rich – who got richer. You would have to read “The Soul of Capitalism” for analysis of how worker and community-owned institutions can be made more reliable than those of the robber barons like Goldman Sachs.

    • Co-operatives were the most functional part of the Soviet system in the USSR. The co-operatives actively resisted the dismantling and privatization which was imposed on the “collective” farms and “state” factories. They didn’t all succeed, but to the extent they succeeded, the co-operatives are still the most vibrant part of the Russian economy.

      Co-operatives are an excellent basis for economic organization. They so have a significant failure mode, which we could discuess at another time — the tendency for the owner/workers to get bored and stop paying attention — but this is also the major failure mode for democracy. We haven’t found anything better than co-ops/democracy as a method of organization.

  33. At the heart of it all is the human condition and a lust for power among the more aggressive among us followed by the inevitable corrupting influence of power. There needs to be a counterbalancing force exerted by the citizenry, but again the people have failed to rise above being consumers mesmerized by our national pied pipers to become responsible citizens. Detroit today, America tomorrow.

  34. Mr. Cole-

    With this article You have breezily touched on some major issues which I think need to be given stronger emphasis. I think that when a person of your stature says that it seems “that we need to abandon capitalism” it needs to be expressed with bold print at the very least. A growing number of people have been saying exactly what you are saying but nothing will change if this albeit radical idea is only whispered. The necessity of “growth” to catalyze the capitalist juggernaut and and the resulting consumer culture are only two of the attending destructive forces. Capitalism is what made Detroit but it couldn’t sustain it, nor does it sustain much else anymore, least of all the natural environment. I would quibble with your dream of robot communilism. Farming the empty spaces of Detroit sounds much more likely (not to say that the ideas are mutually exclusive). It might be offensive to suggest to Detroit’s black populace that they could help themselves by returning to the fields but taking control of the production of as much of what sustains us as possible is the wisest thing anyone can do. Of course Monsanto and Nestle will stand in the way of that too but maybe its more doable than expecting the makers and programmers of robots to share them with us. Your ideas are all good, too good to be presented so glibly. Yeah, we need new rules, but how is that going to happen? And by the way, “communilism” and its step-sib, communism are dirty words in America.

    Larry Simpson

  35. So after weeks of writing against our government’s surveillance programs, you are advocating for a transition to a 21st century Marxist state…

    • There is no such thing as a Marxist state, and Karl was just fine with democracy.

      All I am saying is that the likelihood is that robots, 3-S printers, etc. will take over actual production of secondary commodities from primary commodities, and that human beings will be left unemployed and penniless. My solution is to treat the robots the way we treat water, as a common resource. What is your solution?

      • “…and that human beings will be left unemployed and penniless.”

        This is the point I failed to address elsewhere, and this is where your thinking errs. The history of life on this planet is a story of constant and unstoppable progress, from the beginning of the evolution of life to the (quasi) capitalistic economy we have today. Perturbations of chaotic systems – essentially what you are describing in your robot hypothetical – happen on occasion but the end result in every case has made the system better and stronger.

        Name a technological advance which has worsened the human condition.

        Setting aside advances in weaponry, I can’t think of one.

        But you are saying this is the one. This is the time technology is going to screw us and leave us unemployed and penniless (with the GOP taking food stamps away, lol, gotta get your political dig in).

        The only problem with this insight is…well…the entire history of the planet. And you have a large burden to prove your case.

        I understand that you can’t see what’s around the robot/3-D printer bend. No one can. But if evolution had stopped in the Pleistocene because homo erectus was worried about homo sapien stealing all the jobs, we wouldn’t be here today.

        • There are neighborhoods in Detroit where I wish you would go door to door and inform people of this great good news.

        • TJ, you’re living in a fantasy world. I suggest you visit Easter Island and tell the corpses there about the “story of constant and unstoppable progress”.

        • You use the word “people”, when in fact you are talking about the murderous competition between peoples. Technological progress allowed white armies to destroy hundreds of peoples in the Americas. And there are many “technologies”; the primitive barbarians who overran Roman civilization had technologies that enabled this, but the net result was a collapse of technology that cost Europe 1000 years and most of its population.

          Question is, are you hoping that when your favored technologies are done, America will be cleansed of those peoples you’ve already decided are inferior, either by starvation or by their utter, Borg-like absorption into the infallible juggernaut of Anglo-American capitalism? Because that is what actually has happened in the past whose terms you define so sloppily.

  36. I was so energized and so elated reading the comments it was sheer joy. Everyone was so uninformed and sophomoric.

    Please get thee all to Bury or Nisbet on “The History of the Idea of Progress”.

    There’s nothing “wrong” with our industrialization, our capitalistic civilization, our social orders. In every way we are getting better all the time. I do not need to define the word “better”. If you think about it when from the fact of knowing something you will know what it is to know that thing.

    • Another idiot living in a fantasy world.

      “In every way we are getting better all the time.”

      What drugs are you on? They must be pretty strong!

      I suggest you ask the people evacuated from the exclusion zone around Chernobyl whether “in every way we are getting better all the time”. You could also ask the native Americans. Heck, ask anyone living in the real world.

      Here in reality, some things get better, other things get worse, there is no magical guarantee of progress.

  37. I question whether anything remotely resembling sustainability can be built on the shell of an infrastructure that built such a monstrous culture grown out on oil and automobiles. We need new designs and new visions instead of attempting the impossible task of resurrecting such a basket case. Detroit is indeed a stark forebear of our dystopian future. Robots … to what end? What exactly will those robots be building?

  38. “I’m saying treat robot factories without human labor the way Alaska treats oil. Make it a state asset and pay everyone a dividend.”

    That doesn’t make any more sense than saying that a horse is like a camel because both have four legs. Oil is a natural resource, owned by the state because it exists natiurally as part of the common property. A robot factory costs a great deal of money to build or purchase. Where does the state get the money to do that? Taxes the people or borrows. In the latter case it must repay the debt, for which purpose it must tax the people. In either case it is paying those dividends and taxing people at the same time, unlike Alaska, where the dividend comes at no cost to the state.

    There’s a big difference between “We’ll grant you a lease to extract oil from our land in return for a tax on what you extract,” which requires essentially no investment, risk or ongoing expense to the state, and building, maintaining and operating a factory which might or might not generate a profit which can be distributed to the people of the state, a process requires large investment, incurs lengthy and significant ongoing costs of operation, generates libilities incurred by the operation, and takes the risk that it might not pay off.

    • Well, you can’t have a productive economy without making things (factory labor) by employing people to do the work and paying them for it, and by thus making things that people want to buy (consumer economy).

      Robotification puts productive labor in the hands of the corporations alone, depriving people of jobs as productive laborers. It therefore also deprives them of an income. This is what we see in Detroit. Not having an income, they cannot buy consumer goods, hurting other industries (also visible in Detroit).

      The Walmart solution of having cheap Chinese and other labor produce commodities so that even workers on reduced incomes can afford them is not viable in coming decades.

      I’m open to other solutions to the problem; but I do insist that the problem is not in the future. It is in Detroit now.

      • New Orleans was going down the same rat hole; then Katrina happened and broke “the cycle.” (e.g., at the time, all the Projects were evacuated and boarded up, it’s generational denizens scattered in adjoining states. City government was determined to never re-institute these projects, but Project advocacy groups filed lawsuits to keep them open ad infinitum. I stopped following this issue, so I do not know “who won….”).

        As for Detroit, the people living there have to come to terms with their recent history and they have to determine what kind of future they want; all it takes is leadership, which has been wonting for too long. Good luck to them.

        • Detroit’s problem is not leadership. It is that the captains of industry substituted robots for workers and shipped whole factories overseas. And it is that the whites refused to live in the same city with African-Americans, taking their tax base to sterile suburbs. These things are structural, and the best leadership in the world is helpless before them. The question is whether Detroit and New Orleans are the future of lots of American cities, once the cheap Asian labor goes away.

  39. Robots of the World, Unite!
    Let those Company Thugs try to bust our heads!

    Conservatives (I, Me, My People + Bucks) and
    Liberals (We, Us, Our People + Work) will not
    get along in any Economic or Political System.
    It hasn’t happened during my eighty years hanging
    out here on the Planet called Earth, I doubt they
    ever will.

  40. You may like reading André Gorz books (alias Michel Bosquet). He wrote similar things already in the seventies.

    link to

    link to

    In particular ecology and politic and his views on the waged work and capitalism.

    He thought that with the progress of robotic people could work about four hours a week in noyous waged work to satisfy their basic needs and the rest of the time dedicate themselves to gratifying tasks like art or sciences or whatever they enjoy. People would exchange the product of that gratifying work/leisure outside of the monetary system.

    It is a great utopia.. But alas only an utopia. The world has evolved toward wild capitalism, like it was in the XIX. I think that the communist ideology was strong enough to keep western capitalism under check, but since the collapse of the USSR and of the communist ideology, we are living a return to wild capitalism. Big corporations interests pressure all parties to get tax cuts and the states and communities are starved and have to cut their services. Meanwhile the riches get more riches every year.

    Sooner or later societies will explodes. Detroit story is scary, but I agree that t is only the beginning.

  41. This entire discussion about robots supplanting human labor is moot Luddism. In the mid-to-distant future, 3-D printing/additive manufacturing will evolve to such a degree that we will fulfill our own needs: when we need a new widget, we will manufacture it ourselves. The robots cost workers jobs and in turn, democratized manufacturing will put the robots out of work.

    Furthermore, autonomy will reduce the number of say, automobiles that the public needs. For example, instead of the father driving to work in his car and the son/daughter driving to school in their car, the father will drive the family car to work, the car will return autonomously and the son/daughter will drive (or it drives them?) to school, and so on. The bottom line is we will require less “stuff” in the future which in turn will reduce the needs for centralized manufacturing.

    • Manufacturing requires raw materials and capital, which the unemployed don’t have. 3-D printers cannot make things out of thin air (and the good ones will be expensive).

      • So here’s an interesting scenario: the 3-D printers and the raw materials will simply be stolen. Few will successfully investigate the thefts, because *everyone* will steal this stuff, *all the time*. Money economy dies.

        Eventually, some smart rich guy will figure out that he’ll be better off offering his 3-D printers and materials for free (“no threat of arrest”) in exchange for the loyalty of the people using them.

        Result: feudalism, an economy based on personal loyalties.

      • I disagree with this, Prof. Cole, although the reasons are kind of scary. CNC lathes are now getting down to the cost of major appliances. The printers are already beginning to get on the road to Moore’s Law, and they will figure out how to use cheap biomass and plastic because people will want to recycle if they can personally get new toys out of it. I’ve even seen articles on home genetic engineering, God help us.

        The problem is what choices we make as a society about how this evolves. The capitalist jihadis who infest our land will want to make sure the corporations they worship keep getting paid when you or I make anything using downloaded plans. The libertarians will suddenly scream bloody murder about every single idea in your head being the intellectual property of a proper owner who has the right, nay, the duty to charge an arm and a leg. What they all fear is the rise of a largely non-cash economy, which you know was the norm before industrialization.

        There are good guys who are fighting them, like Lawrence Lessig, and Nina Paley, who put her animated feature on the Internet for free because the absurd “Sonny Bono” laws bought by Disney prevent her from using 90-year-old songs, radicalizing her into an advocate of dumping intellectual property completely:

        I would argue that the 3D printers ARE the robots, Aaron. They are capital that we can own, in the same way that a laser printer is capital, or an Internet connection that lets us sell stuff on Ebay. We can’t just let the “market” dictate what we do with the surplus capacity this represents when this technology brings all our corporate-indoctrinated ideas about markets into question. Instead of just hunkering down in a bunker to build guns to guard my gold, why should I not pulp some wastepaper to convert into a half-dozen tables and give five to my neighbors? Someone is actually building a bicycle right now using 3D-printed parts. Is it even worth locking up as property, or might he not leave it in the street for someone else to use? More examples:

        link to

        The remaining problem is, can our consumer addiction to status symbols and excess be broken so that we can rationally determine the laziest means to get what really makes us happy in the long term? That would be the stake through the heart of the growth-based capitalist system.

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