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L. Curtis Muldrew
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A Disciple Trying to Become A Teacher | lcurtis.muldrew.name
A Disciple Trying to Become A Teacher | lcurtis.muldrew.name

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I'm going to start this collection with an article that doesn't have any easy answers. It's about how a factory in Wisconsin is starting to bring robots in. And while it's nominally to fill the jobs that they can't get humans for, it's pretty clear that in a few years, this factory will be almost all robots, or it will no longer exist.

The factory owner at first portrays this shortage as part of a feedback loop: that with industry collapsed in the area, there are far fewer workers capable of doing the job, far more people strung out on opioids, a new generation not interested in factory work. But it's hard to miss that the low wages (starting at $10.50 for day shifts, $13 for night shifts) and lack of any real opportunity for that to improve play a role in this. And as the robots are installed, it becomes clear that they are more than effective competitors: leased for $15 an hour (considerably cheaper than any worker, when you add in the cost of benefits and so on), within a day they are nearly three times as productive as a human who always hit the often-missed quota would be.

The fact is stark: robots do this job just plain better than people do. And given that the job is nothing but performing a fixed set of actions over and over, it's hardly surprising that this is the case.

But now we're left with a hard question. If we want humans to have these jobs, rather than robots, then we have to acknowledge that these are literally make-work jobs: people being put into positions where everyone, including them, knows that the job could be done better if they weren't there. Such a job might provide money, but it seems more like a slightly ghastly form of charity, a charity that's giving people the pretense of meaningful work without any actual meaning.

So we need to turn to a deeper question: Why do we want humans to have these jobs in the first place, and what's the best way to achieve that deeper goal?

This is where I turn to those two basic things that jobs provide people: resources (wages, and so on) and dignity. A make-work job provides the former, but somewhere between zero and negative of the latter. A system like a universal basic income provides the former, but none of the latter.

All of which makes this scene in Wisconsin look to me like the classic example of a situation where there are simply more people than jobs, and we need to ask the key question: How can we, as a society, meaningfully provide dignity that is not associated with a wage-based job?

There shouldn't just be one answer to this; I doubt that any one answer would work for all people. We need an arsenal of these.

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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose new website ...
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