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April 2014 • Online Edition
 

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From The Folks Who Gave Us Outsourcing, The Next Brilliant Idea – Driverless Trucks | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

I remember the first time I heard someone talking about “outsourcing,” in which American executives fire American workers and give their jobs to people in other countries who are willing to work for less.

My first thought was that the word itself sounded like soulless corporate-speak – or “donkey dust” as my late father would have said. My second thought was, “This cannot be a good thing.”

The explanation came from the suits on high that in order for their companies to remain competitive in the world marketplace, they couldn’t afford to pay the salaries that the American workforce demands. The impression being put forth was, this was corporate CPR, breathing life into businesses hovering on death’s doorstep. I doubted it then, I doubt it now.

I found it fascinating that accompanying this critical slashing of the workforce, there was no accompanying clear-cutting that took similar dead aim at the positions and salaries of top-end executives.

I think it is clear that the near-total destruction of the American manufacturing sector, and the recent cratering of our economy, indicates outsourcing might have been a bullet in the head of the working class, and not the silver bullet we were assured would cure our economic woes.

In the America of 2013 you have an equal chance of finding a “Made in the U.S.A.” label at your local shopping mall as you do of finding Jimmy Hoffa, the Lindbergh baby, or an open-minded congressman.

So, when I read a recent headline in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Daddy, Could You Tell Me What A Truck Driver Was?” I sensed deja vu all over again. Nothing about that headline made me want to dance and sing out, “Happy days are here again!”

The author, Dennis K. Berman, came out of the gate with guns blazing, explaining that 5.7 million American truck drivers best hold onto their steering wheels tightly, because their jobs (and the accompanying salary, benefits and self esteem that go along with employment) are in serious jeopardy.

Apparently, there is a movement afoot to replace these benefit-sucking humanoids – and God knows how many other truckers worldwide – with (corporate speak alert!!) “autonomous” driverless robot vehicles that can work longer hours, make fewer mistakes and require no benefits or performance review, and when their work life is over, no bon voyage party or gold watch.

One of the darlings of the commercial vehicle market, Caterpillar Inc., will soon outfit an Australian mining company with 45 driverless, 240-ton mining vehicles to haul rock and other material without the need to haul a driver along as well. While “autonomous” passenger vehicles have been in development for years, the Australian project is among the first major forays into the commercial realm. Does this make your chest swell with pride as you marvel at this latest landmark in technological achievement, or are you feeling that same dull ache in the pit of your stomach that has me reaching for the Pepto-Bismol?

I am not a fan of change for the sake of change, and I’m not a fan of profit being the driving factor in each and every decision related to the latest conflict between man and machine. Economists will say that increased production results in a stronger economy, and a stronger economy benefits us all in the long run. Can you say, “trickle-down?”

My view is forget the long run. What’s happening today is that as the economy gets stronger, the resultant profits are ending up in fewer and fewer hands.

A recent study by the non-profit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that “the top 1 percent of Americans control 43 percent of the financial wealth, while the bottom 80 percent control only 7 percent of the wealth. Further, the wealthiest 400 Americans have the same combined wealth as the poorest half of Americans -- over 150 million people.”

Somebody better call a plumber, because the trickle-down ain’t trickling very well. We either have a clogged pipe, or someone is hijacking the flow. Either way, something needs to change.

American ingenuity has done some marvelous things through the years. There have been times when we, as a nation, have acted with a compassionate heart, and done wonderful things here at home and around the world. It’s time we break free of the urban myth that technology is the key to our future, and that we should divert all educational and occupational energy and resources in that direction.

Isn’t it curious that the recent decades in which the wealth has begun to rise to the very top of the pyramid coincides with the rise of the information age?

The key to our future is in reinvigorating and rebuilding our middle class. We need to figure out how to make technology serve our best interests. For too long now, it has been the other way around. The free market system needs to serve the many, not just the few.

It doesn’t have to be black or white. If you want any worker in any job to be more efficient and less mistake-prone, then give them some tools that will assist in that effort. You don’t need to ignore technological assets, just stop making them the only value in the equation. That equation should have greater job opportunity on the far end of the equal sign, not less.

This quote, attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller, referring to German intellectuals who turned their back while Hitler ran amok through Europe, certainly seems appropriate:

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

“Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

“Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Don’t care that they’re coming for the truckers? Maybe you should.

 
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