ROGER AGAINST THE MACHINE

Several weeks ago during the brief attention paid by the media to fast food workers on strike, one of my friends shared this grammatically inept meme on Facebook:

replacement

This is the sort of bizarro-populist right wing message that resonates with Regular Americans with no particular interest in or knowledge of politics, economics, or anything else relevant to the topic. It's a mildly amusing take on a remarkably dark undercurrent in the psyche of our business and financial elite: the yearning for some future techno-society in which robots will do everything and human beings with their pesky wages and benefits and refusal to work 24 hours per day will become totally unnecessary. Once our economic betters have figured out how to get you to work for minimum wage and without benefits, the logical next step – the only means of further Controlling Costs, in fact – is to find a way to avoid paying you at all.

Whenever I hear something that touches on this theme I cheer myself up with thoughts of the times "We'll replace you with robots!" has been tried and ended in miserable failure. Here's an example: did you know, despite this fact being absent both from Michael Moore's ultra-liberal documentary and ten thousand mainstream media accounts of GM's bankruptcy a few years ago, that the financial collapse of what was once the world's largest corporation was precipitated by Roger Smith's bright idea to replace all of the autoworkers with robots? True story. General Motors under Smith spent $90 billion on robotics and automation in nine years.

Think about that for a second. Ninety billion dollars. $90,000,000,000.00. Of course none of it worked, with factory robots breaking down constantly, painting one another, and welding car doors shut. It's easy to say that the company got what it deserved and forget about it. But think for a second about the mindset of a group of people so committed to the concept of eliminating the workforce (and the UAW) that it would piss away ninety billion dollars trying to do it. Even if the Worker Bots worked flawlessly, how could that possibly make financial sense? How many decades and centuries of "savings" from lower wages to earn back those sunk costs? And how much money would the Robo-Factories demand in the future for maintenance, upgrades, and eventual replacement with newer and better technology? For $90 billion, GM simply could have purchased Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and most of its other foreign rivals – several times over. Of course, in that scenario they'd still have to pay people to make cars.

The fact is that General Motors didn't go bankrupt, it committed financial suicide because its executive culture fostered a loathing for the UAW and the hourly workforce that was so extreme that it obliterated basic logic and business sense. The idea was not to replace the workers with Japanese robots (GM Robotics was acquired from Fujitsu) because it would save money; it was to replace the workers with robots because fuck the workers. Try to picture the mindset of people who would rather run their company into the ground than give their grunt employees a Cost of Living raise. It's like an airline that would rather blow all of its planes up on the runway than give passengers an entire can of soda.

But enough about Delta.

When GM finally circled the drain we were treated to hundreds of tales of largely symbolic and irrelevant white collar largesse – Executives used private planes to fly to Washington and beg for a bailout! – and uppity auto workers livin' large; the preferred strategy in most of the right-wing media was to bleat the phrase "JOBS BANK!" like a kid with Tourette's and a two-word vocabulary. No one seemed to remember that GM was doing just fine until Roger Smith, a man who had clearly watched too many episodes of The Jetsons at half-mast, ruined the corporate product line (Have worse cars ever been made in the United States than 1980s GM products?) and decided that getting rid of anyone who didn't have a white collar job was worth any cost.

Most people in charge of major corporations like fast food chains are just as greedy as Roger Smith but not nearly as stupid. McDonald's hasn't turned its restaurants into a giant automated vending machine because they know it won't work. But I bet their boardroom is full of people dreaming of a future in which it will.

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120 Responses to “ROGER AGAINST THE MACHINE”

  1. Nunya Says:

    Carrstone, I know you're desperate for attention and probably consider yourself the most intellectual person in your trailer park but you are out of your depth with this group of commenters.

    You haven't so much riled anyone up but you're like a housefly that continually buzzes around the room until someone decides to stand up at swat it with a newspaper.

    Don't flatter yourself into thinking that your pedantic musings swayed a single reader. All any of us saw were the mutterings of a brainwashed Ayne Rand follower who is convinced that one day he will be rich and looks forward to lording his success over the lesser people in society.

    You are trying to argue through the naiive mind of a child against the collective wisdom of people with much more real-life experience than you have and refusing to learn a thing from them.

    You should be very afraid about your future employability if you take such pleasure in riling up your coworkers and refusing to learn from the collective wisdom of those who have seen more than you.

  2. carrstone Says:

    I think I smell the blood of an educator. You certainly all pontificate like many of the teachers and docents I've met, arrogant in their tenured position, spouting book-learnt left-wing tat while hiding behind Nanny State's apron, living lives of not so quiet desperation 'cause all your efforts to make a mark don't add up to a row of beans.

    I'm right, aren't I?

  3. Bitter Scribe Says:

    GM's first steps may have been missteps, but automation has cut a lot of jobs out of the auto industry, along with many other industries. The reason is simple: A cost-effective , reliable robot offers quality control that's simply unattainable by human beings. And since industrial computing has improved and progressed right along with other forms of computing, today's robots are cheaper and more reliable.

    Is this a good thing or a bad thing, since it means fewer manufacturing jobs? It almost doesn't matter, because it's inevitable either way. When companies can make products better and cheaper through a manageable investment, they will.

  4. Davis X. Machina Says:

    I'm right, aren't I?

    I bow in the presence of the Übermensch. Forget Reardon metal, people, we have Carr stone.

  5. Nunya Says:

    You should be used to this by now but you are incorrect on all accounts. I am not an educator, much less a tenured one. I have never belonged to a union and have worked in the private sector for my entire life.

    I am in management, however, and my political opinions are based on actual experience in board rooms, with venture capitalists and with senior management almost all of whom are devoid of any concern for their employees or, ultimately, their customers.

    I am not against Capitalism but I understand that without serious regulation, it turns into Feudalism in short order. America's current version of winner-take-all capitalism is threatening the security of the nation and poisoning its future ability to compete on the global scale that seems to be the obsession of those in power.

    I was raised to think like you do. I used to view the world strictly in economic terms but, with experience, economics are only part of a much bigger world.

    Compassion for your fellow man and a willingness to incorporate new ideas will enrich your life more than you can imagine. You can focus exclusively on building your career and making as much money as you can but without considering your duties to your nation and your community, you're in for a sad, shallow life.

  6. Sarah Says:

    It's a shame we can't get Carrstone to give us the information on the industry and/or company where he makes his living. I am presuming, of course, that he owns the company. I would love to see him put his own theory to the test, regarding the viability of getting rid of his workforce while still continuing to maintain a revenue stream, by having all of his employees get up and walk out on him in the middle of their shifts.

  7. Davis X. Machina Says:

    I used to view the world strictly in economic terms but, with experience, economics are only part of a much bigger world.

    Heresy!

    All that is, can be bought and sold.
    All that cannot be bought or sold, is not.
    All that can be bought and sold, must be bought and sold, and at the best price. For this is the whole of the Law, and the Prophets. The rest is but commentary.

    Baruch atah ha Shuk, dayan ha emet.

  8. Arslan Says:

    Carr's actually readily identifiable. He's your basic 4chan /b/tard. Basically he identifies with the rich "movers and shakers" though he's not one of them and has never been close to their world. Everything is always the direct fault of the individual, unless said individual is rich, in which case their decisions are correct and it's the poor who are dragging them down. In reality, people like him are basically in the same shitty situation as everyone else, but they side with the people screwing them because they're convinced that they'll soon join their ranks.

    Go to 4chan /b/ and you'll see dozens of psuedo-intellectual, self-important losers "debating" each other over who is a "pleb" and who is superior. The truth is that real businesspeople, especially successful ones, do not spend time initiating flame wars on the internet. Of course Carr would shoot back with something like, "OH YEAH? WHY DO YOU HAVE THE FREE TIME TO BLA BLA BLA…" But the fact is that when you make more than $1000 in a week while only working 8 hours, it leaves you a LOT of free time.

  9. John Galt Says:

    Anonymouse: "I tried emailing the newspaper, calling during business hours…nothing worked. So, after two decades, I cancelled my paper subscription. The newspaper has since sent me plenty of 'come back, we miss your money' advertisements, but the bottom line is that there's no way of speaking to an English-speaking person to convey why I stopped the paper."

    I salute you, Anonymouse. You have gone Galt. Your newspaper failed to serve you, so they lost your business.

    Predictably, going Galt always brings the "conservatives" (in reality, communist/statist crybabies) out of the woodwork to complain about how inappropriate it is to simply demand goddamn satisfaction for your goddamn dollar.

    John fucking Galt doesn't listen to that shit. You think John F. Galt would even fucking READ a comment from some conservative whining that he should keep feeding money to a contemptible, shitty newspaper? That newspaper deserves to die, and its stockholders deserve to starve, if they don't have the sense to run their business right. IT'S CALLED CAPITALISM, and I'm sick of the commie-servatives telling me that I can't even drop a newspaper subscrption without thinking of how my actions will affect the company. Or, even better, they tell me that if I don't want their product, then I'm not mature enough to deserve it.

    The rules are simple, herr conservative comrades:

    You want to run a fucking newspaper? Then run it fucking right, or fucking starve. Big Daddy Government isn't here to provide you with shiny playthings to break, and NEITEHR AM I.

    What the fuck is this McDonald's meme? "$15 AN HOUR? MEET YOUR REPLACEMENT." Are you fucking kidding me? Guess what, commie-servatives. If a print publication wants to outsource their customer service to people who can't speak English, they need to put on their best suit, comb in some dippity-doo, and maybe even lay on the Aqua Fucken Velva because they are about to meet the computerized replacement we have all ready for them. IT'S CALLED THE INTERNET. What does it do? It slays the weak, and drinks their blood. THAT IS WHY PRINT JOURNALISM IS DYING.

    Don't want me as a customer? WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I FUCKING CARE? Guess what, comrades: that isn't your decision to make.

    You think newspaper rejects you, comrade? Eh? Newspaper rejects you, no? NO. YOU ARE NOT LIVING IN RUSSIA. In America, you reject the business. Big Mama Russia is not here to squirt me, JOHN F. GALT into your toothless, mewling crybaby maws as an unwilling customer. Big Mama Russia isn't here to make sure everyone stands in line for hours to buy a fucking potato from your business because you're the only game in town.

    TL;DRL Anonymouse's newspaper didn't reject her as a customer, any more than Scarlett Johanssen will ever reject you as a sex partner, STATIST EUNUCH.

  10. Anon Says:

    Arslan said: "Once again, everything needs to be broken down for you to the smallest detail. Yes, the END goal of a capitalist is profit. But there are other capitalists who have the SAME end goal. Ergo you have competition."

    Jesus fucken Christ. There's an old WB cartoon about a Russian mouse who comes to America and learns the basics of capitalism. You know, an educational cartoon for children.

    Arslan, the fact is that Limbaughskyites fundamentally don't share our worldview. They need cartoons before they can even begin to understand. The very idea of Capitalism is utterly foreign to them. They can't see beyond their sick, ignorant COMMIE vision of a country where:

    * Citizens serve industry, instead of vice versa. (Hence the inability to understand that bad service loses customers.)

    * The press is the mouthpiece of government

    * A secret police spies on the entire populace

    * Citizens are imprisoned, tortured, and killed by their own government, without even being charged with a crime.

    When I was a kid, the Soviet Union was the big bad guy. Everyone was proud to be an AMERICAN, because everybody knew that real Americans BY DEFINITION didn't put up with that Commie bullshit.

    Can you imagine someone in 1980 saying you OWE LOYALTY to a shitty newspaper, and are a bad person for going to a competitor?

    Hell, can you imagine a REAL AMERICAN putting up with some of this Commie bullshit we got when Alabama deported all the Mexican slaves? WTF- you tell me white people are lazy because they won't pick tomatoes in the hot sun for less than minimum wage? Jesus Christ- are you kidding me, comrade? It's not about white people. FREE people have better things to do than VOLUNTEER to take orders from a COMMIE slave driver. If you deport your slaves, no problem. I, JOHN F. GALT, will personally pick your tomatoes. For a price. It's the American way. Can't meet my price? Just remember that every day my price goes up, and sooner or later they'll rot on the vine. Enjoy picking the tomatoes yourself, comrade. If you're too dumbshit to successfully negotiate with a FREE MAN in a FREE MARKET, you will deservedly starve.

    TL;DR: Ass, grass, or gas, COMRADE.

  11. John F. Galt/ Anon Says:

    Well, this is embarrassing:

    "TL;DRL Anonymouse's newspaper didn't reject her as a customer, any more than Scarlett Johanssen will ever reject you as a sex partner, STATIST EUNUCH."

    Should read…

    "TL;DRL Anonymouse's newspaper didn't reject her as a customer, any more than you will ever reject Scarlett Johanssen as a sex partner, STATIST EUNUCH."

    Accuracy is indeed the soul of wit!

  12. Xynzee Says:

    @JFG/Anon:

    "Accuracy is indeed the soul of wit!"

    Or an edit button sure can help.

  13. John F. Galt/ Anon Says:

    I tried to edit it, but there seems to be no button.

  14. Arslan Says:

    @John Galt

    A delete button, rather than an edit button, would serve your post far better. Anyone who likens the United States today, with its passion for market-solutions and privatization, to the socialism of the Soviet Union has basically proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don't know anything about capitalism, socialism, or Soviet history. I don't care if American capitalism doesn't resemble the non-existent utopia dreamed up by Murray Rothbard. Capitalism is as capitalism does. Please leave your no-true-Scotsman fallacy at the door and refrain from expounding on history or countries you clearly know nothing about.

  15. Arslan Says:

    "Accuracy is indeed the soul of wit!"

    Not sounding like a dumbass Redditor who lives with his Mom and dreams of "going Galt" plays a role too.

  16. John F. Galt/ Anon Says:

    Jesus Christ, Arslan- I was expressing sympathy with your frustration, and this is how you treat me?

  17. ChrisBear Says:

    Funny, I heard the if-we-raise-wages-everyone-will-get-robots argument on MPR earlier this week. The punch line was that this would make the change occur 'faster'. Most of the reasons given to not raise minimum wage were veiled threats like that- business would hire fewer people, goods and services would cost more, you will be replaced by a robot sooner than you would have been replaced by a robot.

    Today, I hear that minimum wage was never a 'real' wage. It is for training, and if people are only making minimum, that is a failure of education (and their own slackerness!).

  18. Mike Says:

    My in-laws tell me that the UAW destroyed GM. It never gets old. I ask them why GM execs made so much money if the union was running things? Wouldn't it be silly to have executives if the union was in charge.

    In other news, the housing bubble was caused by the people who forced lenders to give them mortgages.

  19. Kaleberg Says:

    Actually, the robots did take over, and there is a lot less human labor in an automobile than ever. It took over 300 hours to make a car back in 1910, but less than 100 in 1930. By the late 1980s it was down below 24, but it dropped further to 20 (in US owned plants) and 18.2 (in foreign owned plants). My guess is the number of labor hours is even lower today.

    It wasn't just automobiles. In the early 1990s productivity of white goods (refrigerators, washers and so on) went up four fold in terms of labor hours. Some of this was robotics, some was replacing complicated controllers with small computers. There used to be dozens of white goods manufacturers. I think there are three or four today, though they use a lot of different names.

    There was an article (3/6/12 The Atlantic – Making It In America) about manufacturing employment, and basically the machines keep getting better. They are more dextrous, more efficient, easier to set up, easier to operate and so on. Human skill is less and less important. The joke is that cotton mills have two employees, a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machines.

    Let's face it, manufacturing has been using less and less labor since the start of the 20th century and the percentage of workers employed in manufacturing has been on a downward slope with a hiccup for Warld War II. Maybe all those companies have been strictly motivated by a shaft the workers policy, but they were going to automate anyway because it would let them lower prices or increase profits whether they cut salaries or not. That the decreasing number of jobs made it easier to cut wages was a bonus.

    If you looked at the figures for 1910 versus 1930, you can see how flat wages through the 1920s led to the Great Depression. We managed to get out of it, but it takes some serious rethinking of how and why we allow people to command goods and services.

  20. fcc Says:

    Nate,

    "It's just that we have no clue what to do with people who don't have to do that job the robot can."

    Sure we do, we incarcerate them. For profit.