Revisiting “Revolution in America”

… Job statistics offer a measure of the recent recession’s depth, but tell only part of the story.

A recent report, by MIT economist David Autor, makes the case that the middle is dropping out of the job market; specifically, the economy is rapidly shedding certain kinds of occupations that used to be solid tickets to the middle class.

The kinds of jobs that are disappearing: “Middle-skill, white collar clerical, administrative, and sales occupations and in middle-skill, blue-collar production, craft, and operative occupations.”

What’s driving the change? Primarily automation and offshoring, Autor finds.

If a routine task (one that involves repetition) can be performed successfully by a machine or by a lower-paid worker in a developing country, it will be. And as computer and communications technologies continue to improve, more machines, or non-U.S. workers, will be performing those kinds of tasks.

The thing is, though, the pace of automation is escalating – and whole categories of work are now being rendered redundant. … Interestingly, a prescient analysis of this trend came in the pages of this magazine, in a special edition published in 1967.

Titled “Revolution in America,” the special edition included winning critiques of a document known as the “Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on The Triple Revolution.” In March 1964, the ad hoc committee – a group of 30 scholars and activists that included Michael Harrington, Robert L. Heilbroner, Irving Howe, A.J. Muste, Gunnar Myrdal, Linus Pauling, Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin – said the U.S. was plunging into “a new era” that was altering the nature of production, promising almost unlimited capacity and less human labor, while breaking the traditional links between jobs and income.

The “cybernation revolution,” as they called it, offered a two-edged sword, one that could free humans from drudgery but also might impoverish millions and deepen social polarization and inequality. … At the time the report was written, about 38 million Americans lived in poverty, about a fifth of the population then. Though the rate of poverty has since decreased, in 2008, there were still more than 39 million Americans in poverty – and the number was rising.

The authors said the government had a responsibility to manage a transition that would “enhance the wealth and the quality of our society.”

Their policy prescriptions – heavy investment in education and public infrastructure, among others – would have gone far to obviate some of the economic turmoil that followed. … For the entire article, go to