Rise of the Machine Minders.

Back in August 2014, Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, got the idea that students returning to college for Fall Term needed to hear his advice on the keys to success.[1] He wrote a column for the New York Times. Here, in a nut-shell, is what he said.[2]

He took as his point of departure the proliferation of “thinking” machines in the economy. Industrial robots threaten factory workers; self-driving vehicles threaten truck drivers, if not other motorists; drones threaten airline pilots, did they but know it; e-discovery research software threatens lawyers and college professors. What are we non-mechanicals supposed to do for jobs in this dawning era? What are the keys to success?

Being conscientious is one key. The opportunity to do something and actually doing it are two different things.[3] If students or workers need something more corporeal than a gnawing anxiety to keep them relentlessly on task, they’re in for a bad time.

Listening to the machines is a second key. GPS-based driving instructions delivered by an Oxbridge-educated woman of a certain age are just the beginning.[4] Pretty soon our smart phones will be tuning-up our decision-making in many areas. Deciding, like Doc Boone in ”Stagecoach,” to wave off the warning and have another drink will have a cost.

Remembering that Price reflects the ratio between Supply and Demand is a third key. Stuff that is rare will command a higher price than stuff that is common. In human terms, people need to work on how they present themselves and how they interact with other people.

The Return of Calvinism is a fourth key. Either people are internally motivated or they are externally motivated. If an employer wants to keep down labor costs, then an effective “Atta boy” or “You slime” can replace a bonus as a motivator. People who know which to choose incentive will thrive in the new economy.

Developing a Thick Hide is a fifth key. Computer programs will be able to measure productivity and some other aspects of employee performance.[5] (Not all aspects, just some other aspects.) Workers at every level will get turned into a mathematical formula.[6] You need to be able to learn from a harsh performance review, get up, and move on.

Remembering Harold Lamb is a sixth key. One of his characters was a 17th Century Cossack who bought a pair of expensive leather boots to demonstrate that he had money and then spilled tar on them to demonstrate that at he didn’t care about money. Lots of young workers are libertarian-subversive in this way.

Recognizing that machines under-cut the price advantage of cheap (Asian) human labor is a seventh key. A higher class of Nineteenth Century “machine minders” is on the horizon. That will be good for the right American workers.

Your quick conceiving discontent will have noticed that none of this has anything to do with which major a student chooses. It is all about what kind of person chooses that major.

[1] My guess would be that he was fed up with the stuff that his teaching assistants had been telling him and with the results of the Generals Examinations of the graduate students.

[2] Tyler Cowen, “Who Will Prosper in the New World,” NYT, 1 September 2014.

[3] See: Dorothy Parker.

[4] You ever wonder if people into BDSM choose some German dominatrix’s voice? Just asking.

[5] The SEC wants to track executive compensation against company performance. The first rule for plumbers is that shit runs downhill. The second is to not bite your fingernails.

[6] This will lead to its own disasters. Both life experience and literature indicate that there are non-performers who are vital to the functioning of an organization. So, judgment and experience will be vital.

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