Friday, June 16, 2017

"Tractored Out". A mechanized tragedy (that perhaps is ongoing)

Original caption:  Native Texas tenant farmer. Near Goodliet, Texas. Aged seventy; seventeen years on the same farm. Is to be "tractored out" at the end of 1938. One son has been tractored out and has been on WPA (Work Projects Administration) for two years. Another son was tractored out in 1937. Has moved to town and remains temporarily off relief by selling his livestock. "What are my boys going to do? It's not a question of what they're going to do. It's a question of what they're going to have to do. They're not any up there in Congress but what are big landowners and they're going to see that the program is in their interest. As long as the government is paying the landowner more to let the land out than they make by renting it, they won't rent it."

I've written about it here before, but one of the really huge changes of the 20th Century was pretty much complete by mid 20th Century, although the ripples of it are going on and on.  That tragedy, and it isn't usually put that way, was the mechanization of agriculture.

I started on this post with a different theme, or perhaps a different idea for the post entirely, but then I ran across the photograph above which summarized, in visual and caption form, so perfectly what occurred.   Today tractors are almost one of the romantic things about farming, or at least our idea of tractors, but the adoption of the tractor and other combustion engine driven farm equipment not only revolutionized farming, but it allowed one farmer to farm much more ground. That soon translated into a requirement that a single farmer do just that, and that impulse has never stopped.

The revolution right as it was occuring, farmers using a tractor to plow on the left, while on the right a farmer plows with a mule.

It didn't happen all at one, contrary to what some people like to imagine. Economics and habit meant that as late as the 1950s there were still some who were using horses, in full or in part, for farming.  Indeed, I know one such man.  When he was drafted at the start of the Korean War he had time to help his brother put the farm in one lat time, using mules.  When he came back from the Korean War that era was over and the mules were gone.

And of course some still do.  Oddly enough, up to a certain acreage size horses and mules are actually more cost effective than fossil fuel burning machines. According, additionally, those who know, the soil benefits as well, as its less compacted. . . no heavy equipment rolling over the ground.

But most don't farm that way anymore and most can't.  American economics, which is perpetually driven towards large scale, favors large scale farming. That drives the cost of everything else. The price of food goes down and the farmer must farm more. The cost of land and taxation on land goes up, which means exactly the same.  Even if most farmers today wanted to use the old methods, they couldn't.

But that has meant a real loss.

 Original caption: 
Native Texan farmer on relief. Goodliet, Hardeman County, Texas. "Tractored out" in late 1937. Now living in town, and on the verge of relief. Wife and two children. "Well, I know I've got to make a move but I don't know where to. I can stay off relief until the first of the year. After that I don't know. I've eat up two cows and a pair of horses this past year. Neither drink nor gamble, so I must have eat'n 'em up. I've got left two horses and two cows and some farm tools. Owe a grocery bill. If had gradutated land tax on big farms, that would put the little man back again. One man had six renters last year. Kept one. Of the five, one went to Oklahoma, one got a farm south of town and three got no place. They're on WPA (Works Progress Administration). Another man put fifteen families off this year. Another had twenty-eight renters and now has two. In the Progressive Farmer it said that relief had spoiled the renters so they had to get tractors. But them men that's doing the talking for the community is the big landowners. They got money to go to Washington. That's what keeps us from writing. A letter I would write would sound silly up there."

And that loss is that fewer people live on the land on fewer and fewer real farms.  And by real farms, I mean that farms that afford their owners a living.

Some would say, of course, that this is the American way.  Tim Worstall of Forbes magazine, for example, isn't bothered by such things.
We have some muttering from Maine from the blueberry farmers, that crops are up, prices are down and people are losing money doing the farming--at which point we have to make the simple observation that some of those blueberry farmers should indeed go bust and go and do something else instead. For this is the way that economic development, economic advance, works. People stop doing things which make a loss and instead go and do something else which at least potentially might make a profit.
That's right, doggone it. . . the point of everything is that it should make a profit, right?

Hmmm. . . maybe not so much.  At least Wendell Berry would question that line with the title of a book and essay; What Are People For?

Well, if that's what their for, nothing else matters much really.  As long as we're making a profit, robot like, well we're serving our purpose, apparently.

Which would probably make  Tim okay with computerization, the latest aspect of the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution to hit us.  In the gist of a single picture is worth a thousand words way of doing things, this Phoenix University advertisement captures it quite poignantly:

And that's sort of how we imagine things working.  The (apparently single), middle class, Mom looses her job in the factory, but it's okay as she reeducated and gets a better job in IT.

But that assumes a lot. For one thing, it assumes jobs in IT really are better.  Truth be known, there's plenty of people who'd rather operate a drill, or a lathe, or swing a hammer every day than to stay inside in a sickly air conditioned room operating the HAL 9000.  But that doesn't matter, after all, as "What Are People For?".

HAL, of course, famously and fictitiously decided that the people were for him, and a tragic Frakensteinian ending to a film whose only good moments are associated with Bicycle Built For Two and the rise of man, but its a real question to what extent we're looking at that long term.  I don't want to sound too apocalyptic but we should rest too comfortably thinking that that IT will always be "it". At some point, IT takes over a lot of lower level IT, perhaps, after displacing droves or workers first, and then only the higher level jobs are left.  At this point, not even retail jobs are safe from the advancement of technology, as any trip through a store will show, and you have to ask yourselves what happens to the droves of people.  Real optimists imagine the universal adoption of a Universal Basic Income, basically saying retire everyone, but there's no good reason to believe that has a good end in any single imaginable sense.

Indeed, the Washington Post had sort of what I suspect is an interesting example of how this turns out in a recent article on disability.  The article, entitled  Generations, disabled:  A family on the fringes prays for the “right diagnoses” applies the current concepts of disability to its tragic subjects but it might have missed the larger picture fairly widely.    I frankly wonder if what the story reflects is a societal evolution that's causing us just to cast aside, warehouse and medicate a bunch of people as technological evolution has made it easy for us to do so and by doing it in this fashion we somewhat ease our consciences about it.

This first occurred to me following some of the recent, non political/terrorist, mass killings. No, I'm not saying that these folks in the newspaper are like folks who commit mass killings. But in several of those instances we leaned that the killers were suffering from some sort of psychological condition which basically mean that they were highly withdrawn. Their intelligence varied from highly intelligent to very low, but their united characteristic is that they were socially very awkward and as a result had basically ended up as young men living in their parents basements, with no friends, playing video games.

Now, that doesn't describe the people in the article at all, but there is something that maybe makes them similar.

And what that is, is this. We've gone from a society which had useful jobs for people, almost everywhere (except in bad economic times) for people who otherwise had personalities and abilities that would hinder them greatly now.

If you are about 50 years old or older, you'll know what I mean as you worked with them if you ever had any sort of manual job.

There were guys who worked on the shop room floor with everyone else and never said a word to anyone, but on Fridays they were taken along with everyone else to the local bar after payday. They sat their in the group of their coworkers and had a beer and felt like they were part of the group.  If you were in the big Cold War era Army, there were guys you served with who were really withdrawn and not always very sharp, but they had a job they could do and they were relied upon to do it, and when everyone else got leave to go into town, or had time off and went to the 1-2-3 Club, they did too and were included.

Now these exact same people have nowhere to go. The automated shop room floor isn't a place they can always work. The cubicle at Innertrobe isn't the place for them. So they don't go anywhere and instead they sit at home. At some point, a lot of them are medicated for some "disorder" that wouldn't have even been regarded as a disorder until recently.

In some ways, the people in the article sort of fit that, at least to the extent that we can really tell anything about them. They aren't going to get a job at Amalgamated Amalgamated, and they aren't going to work in IT either. Probably 30 years ago, they would have been working somewhere nearby doing something. Now, it's just easier to put them on disability and mediate them.

The article notes how this has expanded over the past 20 or so years. This coincides with the destruction of a lot of simpler jobs through technology. This certainly wouldn't apply to every example, but I have to wonder if, as we become more and more urban, and more and more technical, and more and more people work in cubicles in big cities, the societal solution to displacement, unintentionally, is to decide that more and more of the people who we're tossing out of the workplace have something medically wrong with them and need to be medicated, and that they are disabled.

Maybe, anyhow.

If so, part of the solution to this is economic, but economic at the systemic level. If modern work is becoming the enemy of people, the work needs to be adjusted.

But we don't seem to do that.

Of course, maybe this is just all too darned pessimistic.  More optimistic people would point out that my pessimism here has a certain Luddite quality to it and that the Luddites have never been right before.  Work conditions have improved, people have become wealthier, and some would say that the average condition of human beings on all things has improved.  So, as technology keeps advancing, we just keep boosting the bliss.

Maybe, but I'm not entirely certain that they're actually correct as to right now.  That is, I'd concede that this has been the case in the past up to a point, but it seems to me that it hasn't been one straight line by any means, and that at present we may have past the technological bliss curve.  Indeed, I suspect we did that back in the mechanization age and before the electronic technology age.

A person, I'd note, has to be really careful about this as it gets to the concept that everything was much better in (fill in favorite date or era here).  Some would pick the 1950s, some would pick any date in the 19th Century. I've seen people pick as far back as the Middle Ages.  And very often, indeed almost always, those sorts of ideas are based on heavily rosy views of the past.

Indeed, not all that long ago I saw a post like that on the 100 Years Ago Today Subreddit, which is fairly amazing if you read that Subreddit as its deep into World War One right now.  It's pretty difficult to see World War One as a happy time.  Added to that, if you catch the numerous headlines that are featured on old newspapers there and you'll see lots of stories about disease, accidents, racism and violence. That person longing for 1917 on the Subreddit had an excuse for all of them, as if they weren't really so, but they were really so.  It's much easier to see the good in the past rather than the bad, and there was plenty of bad for sure.

Still, it's a mistake to assume that all things get better for all people at all times.  Progress, assuming that its generally real, is cyclical.  And things can and do decline. And some things in the past were better than the present.  It's not unreasonable to worry that you are in such a cycle of decline, or even in one of the disruptive eras when things cycle over to a new era, leaving some behind.  It's also not unreasonable, if certainly not provable or disprovable, that a curve has been reached in which the overall impacts of technological advancement are generally negative for most people.

No comments: