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The Knowledge Economy: A Critique of the Dominant View (americanaffairsjournal.org)
60 points by arthropodSeven 3 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 25 comments





So I've been studying Unger for about four years now through my political activism. He is verbose in his language but once you get used to it you can see his brilliance.

His core arguments on the KE are as follows:

- It is creating a schism in the American workforce, and those on the outside lack access to the necessary educational institutions to ever catch up.

- Our IP laws are stagnating our economic development by keeping it isolated to a handful of companies in each industry vertical. Compared to our past this prevents transitioning to an entirely new mode of production. Compare that to history - if you wanted to open a loom factory during the industrial rev. you had access to the loom tech. Not the case today. There's also no shortcut like there was in the past. E.g. Put a farmer in a factory assembly line is NBD. Put a plant worker behind a laptop and ask him to write a script? Not happening.

--- Platform companies only have their dominion because an IP loophole states the individual's data is not their property. We make our data our property and companies like FB/Google struggle to retain their power.

- It's a form of work that utilizes the greatest human power, imagination.

- Under the right political structures this form of work ushers in a new human era. Under the current it stagnates our potential.

Happy to answer specifics if anyone has any questions about his work/perspective.


> It is creating a schism in the American workforce, and those on the outside lack access to the necessary educational institutions to ever catch up.

The implicit idea of offering a transition to knowledge work as a means for people who have been economically shut out to catch up is a misreading of the situation.

An economy must consist of more than just knowledge workers. If a guy who's stuck stocking shelves in a supermarket gets an education and moves up to a career working at a keyboard, those supermarket shelves still need to be stocked. The supermarket will need to hire someone else to fill that dead end job, and will need to do that again (and again) when/if the next guy with the dead end job gets training and moves up. Repeat.

Repeat for every hands on economic sector that treats its workforce poorly.

As long as low-status need to be done to keep civilization running by keeping food on the shelves, there will be people who cannot be knowledge workers. If there is a solution to help people who do hands-on work catch up, it involves paying them more for the jobs that must be done rather than training them to do other work.

(This does not apply to transitioning workers out of dying industries -- retraining people in this situation is the only reasonable option.)


I don't agree that it's a misreading.

Your point that there are hierarchies within the skill set of various tasks is true, however the argument isn't that everyone needs to be a KE worker - it's that everyone needs the opportunity to be one. Presently that is not the case, many are completely shutout simply because of birth lottery.

A core part of Unger's argument is the expansion of a vital suite of protections for all people. E.g. if everyone has access to universal healthcare, greatly expanding public housing verticals, ample opportunities to retrain and direct their lives it fundamentally changes the nature of our relationship to work.

The grocery store job is only dead-end now because our well being is entirely dependent on our ability to generate capital. In this reimagined future it might be the perfect job for a new mom (or dad) who wants to focus on spending as much time as possible with their child while still having some human interaction outside the house.

If everyone is capable of being a KE worker, it doesn't mean they will be. When and if they want to they can.


> the argument isn't that everyone needs to be a KE worker - it's that everyone needs the opportunity to be one.

But the key point against the argument is that not everyone is able to be a knowledge worker, so a universal opportunity for becoming one still ignores important segments of humanity as well as important needs of KEs themselves (e.g. grocery shelf stocking.)


Why do you think not every is able to be a KE worker?

Do you mean in the immediate present, or are you saying that even in a scenario of reimagined social organization there would still be people unable to do this type of work?

The former I understand and agree with, the latter I would strongly disagree with. IMHO every human being is a blank slate of infinite potential at birth, at the circumstances they are born into in combination with the time of their arrival are the two most determining factors. Ungers argument is to radically redirect ourselves in order to make the second option possible.


> IMHO every human being is a blank slate of infinite potential at birth

I respect that and principally agree on the ideals. And I don't think that's a complete picture. I ask you to consider the disabled and the aged as examples of what I'll call 'shaped' potential to distinguish from 'infinite' potential. I hope you would make the distinction between the availability of education and the requirement for its use. To demand 'infinite' growth from 'shaped' potential is cruelty, not generosity.


not to mention that if we could magically poof 30% of the working age population into KE jobs overnight and still have a significant amount of workers for sticking shelves, because the labor force participation rate is abysmal.

> The implicit idea of offering a transition to knowledge work as a means for people who have been economically shut out to catch up is a misreading of the situation.

I agree with this premise. In essence, to argue that education is a sufficient (necessary and widespread as it should be) support is to argue that the only people who matter are those with the ability to be trained (and retrained, and retrained as the economy shifts.) And that the only thing that matters about people is their ability to learn, not their need for food, shelter, plumbing, health care, etc. It splits the brain from the body, traditionally a bleak end.


> An economy must consist of more than just knowledge workers. If a guy who's stuck stocking shelves in a supermarket gets an education and moves up to a career working at a keyboard, those supermarket shelves still need to be stocked.

Sure, but if the reason he stopped working as a supermarket shelf-stocker and got an education to move up is that shelf-stockers were in decreasing demand because of shelf-stocking robots or because of workers displaced from other non-intellectual labor because of robots, the shelves are going to be stocked, and he isn't needed to do that.


I find your summary to be concise and reasonable, to the degree I follow the article. I'd not heard of Unger before, but think he's brilliant. I found the reading to be a bit of a wade. For that, I'll fault my own lack of background in addition to recognizing that he is a lawyer :)

Where (books, etc) would you recommend starting with Unger? Where did you start? What prompted it?


I think his most approachable book is his newest "The Knowledge Economy". I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a macro perspective of our economic transition as it stands now and where it can go.

If you prefer more academic texts my favorite work of his is "The Religion of the Future" and I also enjoyed "The Singular Universe & the Reality of Time" that he co-wrote with the physicist Lee Smolin. His earlier works are good but less digestible and can be picked up from his lectures.

About 4 years I founded a 501c3 non-profit that built a free election campaign platform for local candidates - the idea was to solve the problem of $20k campaigns for town council. Our beta went well, citizens loved it - but it was a bad product market fit. I have a rudimentary technical knowledge but if anyone is interested the git is here: https://github.com/OurSociety/OurSociety---Free-Local-Campai...

During that time my wife introduce my to him haphazardly and he just sucked me in. I started by listening to his lectures and have since "taken" all of his courses at least twice.


> Compare that to history - if you wanted to open a loom factory during the industrial rev. you had access to the loom tech.

Actually the opposite is true — that’s the origin of guilds. In your specific case, Lowell famously visited England and memorized the important things, writing down what he learned at night, and then returned to set up industrial fabric production in New England.


Could you share what your political activism consists on, for context?

What are the "right political structures"? Genuine question. I tend to agree with a lot of the above statements but I'm just not sure where we go from here.

- Expanding a vital suite of protections to remove survival from employment.

- Reclassification of the laws of property and contract - break from a single market structure to allow multiple markets to operate in tandem. Socialized housing, healthcare, transport alongside privatized video games, widget manufacturing, etc.

- Decoupling of education from municipality taxes, make it federally funded and programmed. Education also becomes lifelong process, the best firms become the best schools.

- Expand access to credit both in the form of capital and technology. Tie finance to the real economy, speculation is good but not in its current form. Most of the money in the stock market stays there, which is antithetical to its purpose of funding the productive agenda of society.

- Open access of technology, revising IP laws to allow a much higher degree of proliferation among emerging verticals.


This is written in the same convoluted style as a New York Review of Books literature review; it's confusing and seems to be more about proving the author's intelligence than making a point. When the article (finally) comes to the point, the author overstates its significance. He says that Romer was wrong, but then admits Romer was mostly correct, with a few addenda which Romer may have thought too obvious to bother with.

I honestly think writing this way demonstrates a lack of intelligence. Clarity of writing demonstrates a clarity of thought. Muddy writing demonstrates a muddy mind.

having read the (yes, quite long) whole article, I don't see where the author asserts that Romer was "mostly correct". "Mostly cohesive but critically flawed" would be a more accurate description of the author's conclusion.

Expansionary monetary policy has been fueling a controlled economic decline by concentrating wealth and disguising it as growth.

This has led to extreme inconsistencies in the perceived value of money which has become completely detached from productivity or real value.

Media echo chambers are failing to hide these inconsistencies though they did a much better job at insulating the elite from the ideas of the masses than the other way round.

The masses perceive the modern economy and society as an incoherent fictions. In their struggle to make sense of this incoherence, the masses assume that the elites are intentionally conspiring against them. The masses don't understand that the elites are simply delusional.

Unlike the masses, the elites don't feel any disconnect between their experienced reality and mainstream social narratives. The problems in our society are so massive and so obvious that the masses cannot imagine that the elites could possibly not notice them; so they think that the elites must be pretending, they must be conspiring.

There is no conspiracy by the elite. It's just plain old delusion backed self-serving optimism bounced around within echo chambers.


I gave up wading through all that prose....

A few economic ideas that come to mind which I think are not reflected by how our economy works (and fails to work):

If you think of the raw unrecovered resources of Earth, our solar system, and beyond, as an inheritance that humans have received without any merit of our own, then in principle it would seem that an economic system could benefit all of us without any redistribution taking place.

For instance, paying everyone equally from auction proceeds of new resource rights.

Similarly with intellectual property, incentives to innovate are both useful and often earned. But hard intellectual property laws are also harmful in blocking (even if temporarily) directions that others may have been likely to also benefit from.

A fix might be to assign a small percentage of revenue or profits on ideas protected by IP to a similar equally dispersed fund.

That funding would reflect the cost of society to temporarily give up the rights of others to independently discover and monetize protected innovations, and the cost of providing that protection.

The idea that the human race inherits open ended physical and intellectual terrain, but that inheritance is unequally divided, seems tragic.

I am not in any way overlooking the efforts made to uncover ideas or utilize new resources, or the need for those that do that work to benefit directly from that work.


I'm not convinced intellectual property encourages innovation at all. People needing a solution to a problem encourages innovation, intellectual property law sometimes lets people create arbitrage on top of that but usually when the profit becomes significant and the original problem is solved the innovation stops.

Intellectual property should be taxed like normal property.

If course the big difficulty is in determining its value. Currently it is both priceless and worthless.


I would love to see a world where your monthly government ethereum check is balanced against some equation like the number of open source PRs merged * repo utilization

This seems quite out of touch with reality as far as I can tell. It is possible to see Facebook in his analysis, but what about the latest generation of ultrasound medical devices? Having done a lot of release engineering and now "devops" I have found that in reality the essential work of attending logs, understanding changes and configuration management, composing and executing basic scripts, is actually well within reach of ordinary people and employees with hardly any relevant training often end up handling daily tasks in technology development. One of the confounding factors is that tech companies tend to pick up ordinary people from the tech developer dominated local areas where they operate, but the trend toward remote work might have an effect on that.

US Economy in a nutshell:

1.) Pass NAFTA and a series of laws in the 90s to:

Ship out all jobs that can be shipped out, import cheaper workers that can under cut wages.

2.) Make the argument that the above makes it so that Americans can "retrain" for new jobs. This never happens and has never been proven to happen.

3.) Watch as the average American effective wage plummets, use financial engineering to pump up stocks and the housing markets.

Economic crashes keep occurring as the financial engineering to generate mass wealth destroys the financial health of our companies and families.

4.) Print money to save the country from entering economic depression while the capitalists and people benefitting from the outsourcing of labor become wealthy beyond all belief.

5.) Buy cheap TVs, because thats all we got.




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