Why the Triple Revolution memorandum was ahead of its time

The Triple Revolution memorandum was a document sent to President Johnson in 1964. It focused on how wars was now too horrible to fight, civil rights were leading to broad social equity, and “cybernation” was leading to a need for less work.

These trends only seem to be coming to fruition now.

One may ask why the Triple Revolution memorandum was off in its predictions by several decades. There are a several possible interacting explanations:
* Amara’s law, suggest by Roy Amara and elaborated on by Ray Kurzweil in his Law of Accelerating Returns, suggests “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. So, while the people writing the memorandum saw the trends in automation, they did not realize that they were exponential, slow at the start, and the faster at the end.
* Increasing demand (up to a point). Demand for goods and services has increased in the USA. As Professor Juliet Schor points out in her 1993 book, “The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure”, even then, Americans could have been formally working two hour days to achieve a 1940s lifestyle, but instead they were working ten hour days to have more stuff (bigger houses, more cars, more electronics, and so on), both because they wanted it and, unlike in Europe, there were not taxes and regulations to shift wealth from individual pursuits to community pursuits (like support for arts or mass transit or a social safety net) to prevent a social trap related to conspicuous consumption. As suggested above, this trend may have finally run its course for many healthy people in the USA, perhaps even beyond diminishing returns, to the point of negative returns (like big houses with big laws create social distance that diminishes community). Suniya S. Luthar has written about this in “The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth“.
* While the USA had a lot of material abundance in the 1960s and later, the rest of the world did not. Increased global growth has provided many export opportunities in the USA, although that growth trend for the USA has reached its end, given the USA is now importing a lot of stuff and otherwise offshoring jobs now that the global economy has reached parity in many areas. However, continued global growth up to current US levels of consumption will still increase demand for jobs for a time in other countries, until those countries as well hit a law of diminishing returns. Hans Rosling has “Gap Minder” projections for the rest of the world reaching current US levels of consumption in a few decades, and shows how many have already surpassed 1960s levels of US consumption.
* The USA has engaged in numerous wars abroad since the 1960s (the general Cold War with the USSR, and also wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and also numerous smaller interventions), each of which have served to burn up US abundance (as well as abundance in the other countries). While the Triple Revolution memorandum suggested wars were getting too horrible to fight given nuclear weapons, it seems that countries have, so far, found ways to fight non-nuclear wars at a continuing low level of intensity enough to remove a lot of prosperity and create military jobs. How long that trend to contained wars continues is hard to predict; the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still keeps up their Doomsday Clock, currently at five minutes to midnight, compared to 12 minutes to midnight when the memorandum was written.
* Incarceration in the United States has increased enormously, to rates far higher that any other industrialized nation, thus creating a lot of jobs and taxing many people off the unemployment roles (at a great social cost); some of this has been driven by the drug war; some is linked to increasing social dysfunction from economic inequality.
* Increasing mental health issues like depression and autism, and increasing physical health issues like obesity and diabetes and cancer, all possibly linked to poor nutrition, stress, lack of exercise, lack of sunlight and other factors in an industrialized USA (including industrial pollution), have meant many new jobs have been created in the health care field. So, for example, coal plants don’t just create jobs for coal miners, construction workers, and plant operators, they also create jobs for doctors treating the results of low-level mercury pollution poisoning people and from smog cutting down sunlight. Television not only creates jobs for media producers, but also for health care workers to treat obesity resulting from sedentary watching behavior (including not enough sunlight and vitamin D) or purchasing unhealthy products that are advertised.
* An aging Baby Boomer population in the USA has increased the need for other services.
* Unions and other groups (including some radical environmentalists) have fought against all forms of automation and other forms of advanced technology, rather than focusing on directing where the fruits of automation go or guiding what sorts of innovations are worked towards.
* The much slower pace of the civil rights movement to spread to other areas of society that expected.
* The movement of women into the work force increasing formal economic needs greatly as the volunteer sector of the economy diminished and other social dysfunctions (like teen pregnancies) increased given less time by individuals for community participation (essentially, women abandoned their unrecognized but essential social roles, but men did not take up the slack).
* Increased schooling expectations (for example jobs that once done by people without even a high school diploma like child care now may require a graduate degree as a qualification) have lead to an increased number of jobs in teaching as well as kept young people out of the labor market. Professor David Goodstein in his “The Big Crunch” essay suggests an exponential growth trend in academia also continued into the 1970s, but has ended now, leading to an oversupply of people with PhDs and other advanced degrees relative to the needs of academia. This has lead to some of the inflation of academic requirements for various jobs given the oversupply of people with degrees, which in turn has lead to even more schooling to get a degree, as a form of academic certification arms race.

Aspects of how all these negative activities can create jobs were parodied in a scene with the character Zorg breaking a glass in the movie The Fifth Element. However, to build an alternative to the world of Zorg built around the Parable of the Broken Window requires thinking differently about economics than mainstream Keynesian economics given all these other trends toward abundance (especially automation).

Taken together, these and other factors help explain why the Triple Revolution memorandum was ahead of its time in predicting the falling employment trend we only now in the table above, decades later than predicted. It has taken decades because many of the trends in the predictions have only recently accelerated in the past decade or two in an exponential way (like improved robotics and improved internet-mediated communications). And it is taking decades for the trends holding back the predictions (like increasing incarceration or increasing health problems) to play out (and many of these negative trends, from increased incarceration, increased pollution, lack of vitamin D, obesity, and so on, are now being actively addressed by society, and so presumably will not continue to grow much, although new issues may arise). So, the reasoning behind the Triple Revolution memorandum about structural unemployment such as reflected in a jobless recovery may now be more relevant that ever, even if some of its specific suggestions for social reform and infrastructure reform may now be out of date.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.