A fuss seems underway in Ethiopia. The media have not picked it up, but it is leading out onto the Internet.And it recalls a bit of history. Seems that the government there is undertaking a large dam, a water project in an often dry place. Similar to what California did in the 1920’s and ’30’s in another dry place. We’ve seen the result in California.
In Ethiopia, the first result today, is the dispossession of some 100,000 people from their ancestral land, that had supported them and their children. It will be a large dam. The intention is to replace small family, subsistence farming with large scale, commercial agriculture. A lot of money is being invested. And a lot of folk are being hurt.
The politicians are lining up as you might have predicted: one side sees the arrival in Ethiopia, (finally) of the industrial revolution, bringing cheap, plentiful food to the masses. The other side sees the rape of helpless, impoverished people by rich investors. It all sounds rather familiar … But now, it’s Africans, not native Americans.
Europe and North America had their industrial revolutions a while back; few have paid attention to the price paid for them. Everyone involved is too dead to care, now. We take the result for granted. But it wasn’t free; the price was paid, by our ancestors. In the mechanization of sewing and weaving, mobs used to wreck and burn the Spinning Jennies, the early multiple spindle wool/cotton spinning machines. They were desperate, seeing their livelihoods vanishing during hard times. They lost.
A little more recently, Henry Ford put paid to the buggy business. Henry’s workmen, receiving an unheard-of $5 a day, were happy and could afford to buy his cars. From the ranks of craftsmen who had been building buggies, we have only silence. And again, we contemplate why economics is called: “the dismal science.” But we use our cars without thinking of that.
But that is all history and Ethiopia is now. The country, embedded in its ancient history, will after its politicians have stolen their share of the investment, eventually produce modern, large-scale, mechanized farming, destroying a Biblical remnant in doing so. The buggy-makers have lost because no one needs buggies any more.
It’s called ‘progress’ by most; life in Europe and America that got there first, is better by far for more people than our predecessors could have imagined. But we have made it all upon those predecessors and many of them paid dearly for it. The Bible tells us though not in these words, that there is no free lunch. That was known even before the Bible came along and has never changed, never mind the promises of politicians.
The folk displaced from American farms into the cities, augmented by the detritus of the Civil War, gave us today’s Progressive political folk, riding upon a promise to mitigate the suffering by taking money from ‘the rich.’ using the power of government. But today, it is not the rich seeing reduced incomes; it is the American median households. “Reality sucks” is another modern statement of economic reality.
Seems to us, our species has two unpalatable choices, at least most of the time. We can stay small and primitive, living short lives on dirt floors. Or we can fight into a sophisticated, technological future, running over the helpless bodies of untoward pedestrians in the process. Nothing is free. But in such a future there is hope for better lives for more people; in eschewing it, is only hopelessness. That seems to us, a higher price than the prrice of progress, though both are steep enough.
So, we hope that Ethiopia succeeds in its push into agricultural modernity; it will be a huge forward step for most of its people; at least for the young and their descendants. The high price will in time, seem justified; none will wish to revert to the past after encountering the future. Those who suffered for it, will be silent, gone.
With less fanfare, Europe and North America face their own version of this scene: not water projects, but thinking machines than can replace human workers in those jobs that have not gone overseas for lower labor costs. Minimum wage fry cooks at McDonald’s may now be replaced by burger making machines needing no human attendant. That follows overpriced labor, a result of organizing behind politicians to interfere with free market economics.
Economics is visible in the operation of reality: the West drove its labor price above what the market would have done sans politicians; the result was sucking in cheaper workers from poor places to compete by accepting less. In the long run, we can’t fool the market, even if we are politicians. We only fool ourselves. Thinking machines are being forced by overpriced labor; they would be unaffordable otherwise. Worker displacement by the ongoing digital revolution will be our version of the industrial revolution, or of Ethiopia’s modernizing agriculture. The price will be high as we are beginning to see, if we look.
No doubt the result will be as productive as were historical parallels; those of us caught up in the gears will not be the beneficiaries. Our descendants, will. And we will see a wild ride …