Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Technological Progress Is Not The Same As Social Progress (In One Simple Chart)

Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011 (Economic Policy Institute):

This chart plainly demonstrates that the gains in productivity celebrated by techno-utopians have not translated into real progress for any but the very richest of the already rich and hence do not deserve to be described as progress at all in the political sense. This chart should be read together with the charts I posted Sunday, tracking the drop of union membership and large scale strikes and the drop in the middle-class stake in the American economy.

As I have reiterated over and over again to futurologists and techno-utopians and assorted digirati over the years, technodevelopment is never automatically progressive, even though the narratives of technical and political progress are regularly conflated in futurological ideology. Only when the costs, risks, and benefits of technodevelopmental change are distributed equitably among the actual diversity of their stakeholders as a result of ongoing political struggles in which all of those stakeholders actively take part can that change ever manage actually to be progressive in fact.

These charts are registering the outcomes of ongoing stakeholder struggles, they testify to bloody battles in a class war that moneyed minorities are winning against the majority of people who work for a living. Obviously, union activism is not the only form such struggle takes (environmental and healthcare activism, for example, are all also indispensable here), but the flattening of the wages and living standards and political influence of people who work for a living concomitant with rising productivity and profit and plummeting union membership is highly indicative of the ineradicability of the political to any proper narrative of "technoscientific" progress. It is crucial to remember that social struggle is not a matter of the "trend spotting" or "wave riding" that predominates in so much futurological parlance.

UPDATE: Here are the two charts I mentioned from this weekend, posted here again for ready reference:


Anonymous said...

I generally agree with your point, but presenting correlation as causation in such a simplistic manner is not advancing your cause among people with basic understanding of statistics.

Dale Carrico said...

So, you think there is no connection between the decline in union membership and the flatlining of earning power and quality of life of people who work for a living? You think there is no connection between the decline in strikes and the decline of the power of everyday people in our political system? You think the fact that everyday people have not profited from rises in productivity has no connection with the decline of countervailing institutions like unions that hitherto gave everyday people bargaining power against investors and owners and management?

It is hard to see with what point you are claiming "general agreement" if you deny the relationships charted here are suggestive ones. In the post itself I made it clear that I do not think these charts indicate ALL the relevant stakeholders or map ALL the relevant forces in play, so I do not think you are right to declare the case broadly sketched out here a "simplistic" one.

I do indeed think that if union membership rose that the benefits of productivity gains would be more equitably distributed to workers and other stakeholders. The charts would reflect these changes in precisely the way suggested by the relationships I am highlighting here.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not that these are not the causative factors. Of course they are.

The point is that such simplistic arguments will never persuade anyone. Those who believe that the reason we are in this mess is the decline of the bargaining power of labour already know all this stuff. Libertarians who think diametrically opposite will never believe you. The honest middle who has above average IQ can no longer be persuaded by graphs alone. This isn't the 60s anymore; everybody has read (or at least heard of) "How to lie with statistics", everybody knows that correlation is not causation.

The only way for this argument to have any real impact is to have CREDIBLE models of said phenomenon. Sadly, they are absent.

jimf said...

Clearly this is the fault of Teh Gays. The divergence in the two growth rates dates exactly from the time of the first Gay Pride march, which itself happened a year after the death of Judy Garland (the master signal for the imposition of the Gay Agenda on this God-fearing nation). Psychiatrists who might have been able to stop this nefarious plot were muzzled after 1973.
> How many workers, straight or gay, have you repelled
> from Marxism for spewing your antiquated and reactionary
> beliefs?

None. To paraphrase Wohlforth, the workers don't like
homosexuals, and I don't either.

-- Stephen R. Diamond (once-prolific Usenet poster, psychoanalytic shrink, and old-fashioned leftist)

Dale Carrico said...


You admit the factors highlighted in the post are relevant. And yet you seem to want to dismiss them as marginal. Care to propose factors that matter more to the outcomes I'm talking about?

You can repeat over and over again that the suggestive links I emphasize here are "simplistic" or not "credible," but the fact remains that even in this brief little post I already qualified them. For example: "Obviously, union activism is not the only form such struggle takes (environmental activism, for example, is also indispensable here)."

You can pretend that this post consisted of three charts offered as if they speak for themselves, even though the charts were actually contextualized and framed in the post. And even though the argument I made was very brief and hardly claimed to represent a fully elaborated case, and merely proposed relations that were "indicative," that deserved further attention and scrutiny, even so it called on definitions, premises, experience as well.

Part of the reason one would put a chart showing declining union membership nearby a chart showing a flatlining of worker compensation is because I am assuming people already know that workers often have little recourse to bargain for better compensation than unions and so it stands to reason that as unions are circumscribed by reactionary anti-union laws and demonized by conservative rhetoric that union decline would be accompanied by a decline in the bargaining position of workers reflected in precisely a stagnation in wages and living standards and working conditions, all of which everybody already knows has indeed happened even if only one of those outcomes is represented on the chart.

Dale Carrico said...


In other words, though your comment conjures up the fantasy of a post in which a few decontextualized charts stand side by side as if to arbitrarily bulldoze people into accepting some absolutely determinative singular relationship between two data points, the reality available to anyone who actually looks at the post and at my good faith response to your initial comment is that this is a brief point offering up a suggestive visualization of relationships already intuitively plausible because people have actually experienced in their lives the loss of living standards and buying power and influence over the political system, already know what the role of unions are and what their historical achievements are.

In my logic classes I teach undergraduates the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc -- which names much the same flawed reasoning that your slogan "correlation is not causation" does -- but I certainly hope my students learn the other fallacies too. You seem to have fixated on a pet chestnut with the consequence of misconstruing the actual case at hand.

The question becomes whether you have made an over-enthusiastic error or you are actually distorting a case to undermine it. Your reference to "the honest middle" hardly inspires confidence.

Although you do not elaborate, one thinks of those who pretend any position is "moderate" if it compromises between what Republicans and Democrats happen to be saying at the moment, even though Republicans have been skewing radically to the right with each passing year since Reagan while corporate Democrats chase them with the consequence that compromises between the two grow ever more immoderate historically.

Or one wonders if you are attributing to so-called "Independent" voters this "honest middle" moniker, even though evidence suggests that "independents" are low information voters who vote on the bases of ill-digested intuitions about "decisiveness" and "trustworthiness" which amount to largely orchestrated media fantasies, otherwise they are just the usual Republican assholes but are a little embarrassed to admit this to their wives and friends at a time when Republicans are so conspicuously connected to ugly white racism, sexism, greed, anti-science know-nothingism, and climate change denialism.

Hardly "honest" as cohorts go, and hardly rendered honest because they have read "How to Lie With Statistics."

And, by the way, if you are implying that I am using these charts to "lie with statistics" I happen to take that charge amiss. It is one thing to think I might be focusing on the wrong factors leading to bad outcomes that concern us both, out of an error of perception that you want to correct (even though you provide no correction), but that is hardly the same thing as engaging in incredible deceptive bamboozlement as you seem to want to suggest. Do, of course, correct me if I'm wrong.

Dale Carrico said...


As for libertarians -- civil libertarians usually already support organized labor precisely because they know unions are vehicles through which working majorities organize and negotiate to defend and improve their rights and status.

If you refer to "market libertarians," well, I cannot say I hold much hope for convincing them of anything. I recommend you read my Dispatches from Libertopia for some of the reasons why. We live on the ruined slag heap resulting from the deregulation, looting, privatization inspired by market libertarian rhetoric. Anybody who is still singing that song is doing so because they are selfish sociopathic assholes, not because they are supremely honest or reasonable. Given that no where in history or on earth has a "pure" market order existed I scarcely think statistics are more on their side than they are on mine in this little post.

I welcome the impact on my views of your more "credible models of said phenomena." Rather than be "sad" at their absence, presumably, why not make them present instead?

By the way, the larger point of my post was to emphasize that technological accounts of "progress" were misleading to the extent that they dismissed or trivialized the political struggles through which the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change might be more equitably distributed among the actual diversity of stakeholders to that change. All the union decline and worker status decline stuff in the charts was treated as a fairly obvious bit of commonsense arising from widely shared lived experience illustrating the point about progress.

I'm sure you are a very bright person, but I'm not sure you actually read the post to which you are reacting with quite the care that would justify apparent your dismissiveness.

Dale Carrico said...

You may be onto something, Jim. As open and avowed homosexualists you and I both know that a key plank in our Agenda was to seduce buff working class males into shirking work and attending foam parties and then adjourning to back rooms behind bars for all-night orgies involving Twister, Wesson oil, and food coloring pellets, all of which directly lead to them missing their union meetings and subsequently got most of them fired. Race-to-the-bottom neoliberal globalization was the only reasonable recourse the good hearted hard working conscientious plutocrats had at their disposal. How could we have been so blind? Or was it just that we were drunk from all those champagne cocktails?

jollyspaniard said...

So much for computers freeing the labour force from dreary servitude.

Dale Carrico said...

So much for computers freeing the labour force from dreary servitude.


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