The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation retraces the introduction of various technological changes from the Industrial Revolution to today, looking that the effect on workers, corporations, and governments. We know that technology has an overall beneficial effect on our lives, but it also brings spectacular changes in the kinds of work people do, along with economic ruin to those individuals whose jobs simply vanish.
It’s interesting to see how earlier technological revolutions were resisted, sometimes forbidden, by law (temporarily), and eventually legislated to impose some controls and safeguard, but always after the fact. It is also striking to see how benefits accrue sometimes to workers, and sometimes to capital. The author tries to apply the lessons of the past to the current AI revolution, and as we know predicting the future is a really tough job. One area he highlights that I had not thought about is housing and zoning. For all the talk about workers learning new skills, they do need to live in areas where the new jobs are, and today zoning laws make housing in “hot” areas very expensive indeed. Sometimes for the political class to think about.
Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream is an awkwardly constructed story of the economic history of the US from the New Deal to the Great Recession. Awkward because the author tries to tie it to a particular neighborhood in Chicago but it never quite fits and I, for one, thought it would illustrate only the strange relationship between car manufacturers and their dealers, when in fact the author had much grander ambitions. Still , there is merit int he description of how power moved from government institutions to large manufacturers and now (the author says) financial institutions.
Also, Foothill College is not in Sunnyvale, CA. Proofreaders, please proofread.
It is said that demography is destiny, and The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World is packed with examples, from Irish emigration to everywhere, especially the US, to the astonishing fall of fertility rates that follows drops in infant mortality, to how dictators have killed and encouraged new generations to grow. The author occasionally forgets he is speaking about human beings and describes mothers as vessels (with a brain, but not much more). Still, I found the book to be a useful reminder of how population growth, decrease, and aging influences politics and economics.
Written by an economics professor, The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviors shows how connections between people determine power, contagion (of viruses, ideas, even bankruptcies), and who gets access to jobs and other opportunities.
The author includes helpful and legible pictorial examples and seems equally at ease discussing the polarization of the US senate and high school cliques. The book emphasizes the need to create special access for people who, from birth, do not participate in the networks of power.
The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being wants to prove that unequal societies are bad for everyone in them, not just the people at the bottom of the income scale, but everyone. It is very successful at proving the obvious: that in an unequal society, the folks at the bottom fare very badly indeed, whether it’s their health, their happiness, or their ability to move up in society. It does a fairly good job of showing that inequality matters more than gross income, again for the people at the bottom. I did not find that it manages to show that the richest people in unequal countries suffer–which means that change might be a little difficult, as the very people who have lots of power must like it that way! There is a valiant effort to show that those richest people are really, profoundly unhappy and stressed, but since it relies on self-reported studies that show that a full 25% of the population is depressed, they are a little hard to believe!
It would also be very useful to explore outliers. In almost every measurement, there are countries that just do not fit the trend at all. One would think that serious researchers would want to at least explore why they behave so differently…
Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is not an exciting book and some parts are downright tedious, but it is interesting, retracing the history of how manufacturing moved away from craft and got organized in larger and larger compounds starting with the Industrial Revolution. The book covers much more than the evolution of the buildings themselves, discussing how to feed and house the workers, labor laws, the stealing of manufacturing secrets (Lowell is not just a textile town, but the namesake of an accomplished industrial spy, Frances Cabot Lowell), and the development of Taylorism and other systematic approaches to productivity — as well as art and literature describing, extolling, or exposing industrialization.
The illustrations of various work environment are particularly interesting and occasionally terrifying. The last chapters, covering Chinese factories in contemporary times, seem weaker (read Factory Girls and Country Driving instead).
What happens when a big plant closes in a small city (the Janesville, WI in Janesville: An American Story)? When all the good jobs vanish, the workers get to either commute each week to a distant city for their jobs, or, little by little, downgrade to jobs paying half of what they make. Or they try re-training, but there are few miracle reconversions. (Interesting, they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.) And little by little, other jobs vanish since the now much poorer workers don’t go out or buy much of anything. The high school starts running a food pantry. The local community college scrambles. The town boosters try to attract new businesses, without much success.
When politicians talk about retraining, they should be instructed to read this book.