Friday, June 19, 2015

What Can a Chimpanzee Learn From a Baboon

We live in an age of transition. It is a time when the stories we have told our children are no longer true. I believe that there is nothing to compare to what is happening in our country today since the transition from an agricultural feudal society to an industrial proto-capitalist society in Europe, especially in England, during the early years of the Nineteenth Century.

For about 150 years commencing sometime around 1830 the United States enjoyed an upward trajectory of increased national wealth and a higher standard of living based on an ever increasing supply of capital multiplied by the power of technology that was serviced by a constant supply of cheap immigrant laborers. The wealth created by this engine, particularly in 25 years following World War II, allowed the average worker with no particular skills to enjoy a standard of living unparalleled in human history. A man willing to work for 40 to 50 hours a week at some unpleasant mindless task could reasonably expect to support a wife and two children, while paying for a house, and a car.

Starting around 1965, German and Japanese industry recovered from the devastation of the war. Then the rest of the world followed their lead. Starting sometime in the waning years of the 1970s we have lost in the neighborhood of 20 million industrial jobs to countries like China. Low wages and global over capacity in key industries like primary steel have guaranteed that mills like the great Bethlehem steel works at Sparrows Point will never again produce thousands of high paying, wealth generating union jobs. It is growing harder and harder for a man of average or even above average ability to support his family by exchanging his time and sweat for a living wage. Mindless unpleasant work can be better accomplished by machines that require neither a weekly paycheck nor health insurance. Traditional back office jobs performed by above average college graduates, such as accountants, have disappeared into sophisticated computer programs located in the cloud that are tended by data entry clerks that barely require a high school diploma.

Time is not a reversible process. The cat is out of the bag. As a nation and as individuals we can not close our eyes, cover our ears, and pretend it will all disappear like a bad dream. We are going to have to find a way to embrace change, finding new techniques to adapt to this evolving environment in which robots create the robots that create the computers that manipulate the knowledge that defines power in this brave new world.

I can’t claim to be a zoologist, but I have read that when humans move into chimpanzee habitats, the chimps just die out. However, when humans move into territory inhabited by troops of baboons, the baboons thrive in their new environment. If their usual food supply is disrupted, they discover what humans are growing in their gardens and steal it. If there aren’t any gardens these ingenious creatures learn about garbage dumps. Some of the bolder baboons have even taken to breaking into houses in search of what might be found in a human’s pantry.

I have read that troops of baboons are sort of semi-organized affairs. There are a number of dominate males of differing ranks who have followings and harems. At the start of the day these males will jump around and make a lot of noise in attempt to attract followers and further establish their position in the pack hierarchy. Evidently this is some kind of planning meeting in which the leader confidently tells prospective followers that he will lead them to the best places in the best garbage dump in town. Then these ad hoc teams head out on the daily commute to look for opportunities.

Again, I don’t claim to be a zoologist but these creatures must be doing something right if the can they can continue to exist in the presentence of hostile humans. Baboons are evidently more innovative, flexible, and resilient than their bigger brained more peaceful cousins, the chimpanzees. They seem to be doing a pretty good job adapting and evolving in a hostile ever changing environment. Only last year the worst threat to the troop was a few hungry lions. Now all these humans have moved into our neighborhoods. What next?

Starting in the late 1980s, I started noticing articles reporting on eighteen year old high school dropouts earning $200,000 a year programming in SUG II or some similarly obscure language. Whatever the hot new coding method of this year might be, there was certain to be an oversupply of programmers the next year. Then something else would be hot. Credentials didn’t matter. Degrees didn’t matter. Companies were looking for someone who could do the job and they were willing to pay outrageous amounts of money to get the work done.

Entrepreneurs are out there discovering new possibilities that couldn’t have existed even ten years ago. They are building their teams and making their plans. If their timing is good and they have a reasonable supply of capital they will become the Alpha Male (or Female) in their troops.

I have seen men and women who have been punched hard in the face by this sometimes seemingly sadistic economy, get up off the ground and courageously move from plan A to plan B or whatever it takes, sometimes two part time jobs or even two full time jobs. They simply don’t give up. Even without any special skills, they remain resilient, moving flexibly from opportunity to opportunity, no matter how marginal.

They will survive.

No matter what happens in our nation over the next twenty years, the baboons among us will survive. The chimps are likely to disappear. I don’t like this state of affairs. I am afraid that I am closer to a chimp than a baboon in temperament. I believe that people with advanced degrees in technology and high level security clearances are going to be OK. I believe that some professions, like physicians, will continue to demand credentials guaranteeing an artificially limited number of practitioners a high standard of living.

However, I am very worried about the average worker with a high school diploma and no special skills in this brave new world.

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