Is government making humans obsolete? It just might be.

The Fix is a big fan of Joel Achenbach and his blog Achenblog.  Joel writes about space, the environment, politics and whatever else he wants to write about because he’s that good. We asked him to write a political week in review piece for The Fix every Friday. This is that piece.  Make sure to follow all of his work here and follow him on Twitter too.

When Chris asked me to type up some week-in-review thoughts for the Friday Fix, I immediately asked, “Can it be drivel?”

“Absolutely!” he said.

On it!


This is a robot.

It’s been a crazy-busy week in Washington. First, we had a meteorological spasm in which winter transitioned to summer without pausing for spring. Tulips shot from the ground as if fantasizing about being ICBMs. Flowers bloomed explosively. Simultaneously we saw an efflorescence of political deal-making. Compromise is in the air, thick as pollen. Let’s not declare a new Era of Good Feeling quite yet, because we live in a country where political passion is strongest at the ends of the ideological spectrum. Some people view a compromise solution as worse than an outright defeat (defeat strengthens resolve, rallies the troops, etc., while compromise is a buzzkill that makes you wonder who your friends really are).

And then, lurking over all of this, there’s the question of scale: Do the measures that come out of Washington (say, on gun violence) come anywhere close to meeting the scale of the problems they purport to address?

Discuss.

While some observers prefer the view from 30,000 feet, I position myself in lunar orbit, and here’s what I see in Obama’s 2014 budget: Declining discretionary spending. I realize the Left is energized about cuts to Social Security, via chained CPI. But there seems to be less dyspepsia on the Left about cuts to non-defense  discretionary spending – all the stuff the government actually does, outside of the Pentagon budget. (We’ve gnawed on this issue in recent months over at the Achenblog.)

Let’s put on our mask, snorkel and flippers and dive into the historical tables.

Go to page 31, Table 1.2 if you don’t mind.

We see that federal government spending, after spiking to 25.2 percent of GDP in 2009 during the Great Recession, has been steadily coming back down, and by 2018 is projected under Obama’s plan at 21.2 percent of GDP, which is pretty average by historical levels, and is a little less, for example, than what the government spent during the Reagan years. One could make the case that, somewhere along the line, we decided as a society that the federal government would be roughly a fifth of the economy, spending-wise. And that anyone wishing to make a dramatic change in that formula has to explain why it’s been such a disaster over time.

Now go to page 155, Table 8.4.

Spending on non-defense discretionary programs peaked at 4.6 percent of GDP in 2010, and has dropped every year since. It will keep dropping to an estimated 3.0 percent of GDP in 2018 under Obama’s plan. That’s still a significant pile of money, but it’s the lowest amount for non-defense discretionary spending as a percentage of the economy since…well, now we’re off the table. The table goes back only to 1962.

I think that’s probably enough about the budget, Chris, but I got more where that came from.

--

I saw, via Mike Allen’s morning cheat sheet, that TIME has a new cover story on how U.S. manufacturing is booming, but without any real increase in jobs for flesh-and-blood human beings. I called my brother, who is a manager in a business operation, and asked him if we’re coming to the point where human beings are no longer desirable in the workforce.

“People are totally obsolete,” he said. “They’ve gone the way of pay phones.”

Extreme, maybe, but we are entering a strange new world in which corporations would prefer not to deal with the messy entities known as humans. Humans break down and call in sick and demand expensive medical treatment. Humans file lawsuits. Humans harass one another, create a hostile workplace, complain, wheedle, connive, steal from the till, and, worst of all, clutter the office refrigerator with their bizarre lunch preferences. The office microwave, never cleaned, becomes a longitudinal scientific experiment in the effects of radiation on organic matter.

Being human is now a black mark on one’s resume. Many elements of today’s economy are doing fairly well, including manufacturing, housing, and the stock market. The corporations have loads of cash. It’s just the people who are struggling.

This brought to mind a line in Obama’s budget document this week, which I mentioned in our online budget coverage: The National Science Foundation is getting hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on research that will boost “smart” technology. The budget says this money will go to “transforming static systems, processes, and infrastructure into adaptive, pervasive ‘smart’ systems with embedded computational intelligence that can sense, adapt and react.” No doubt this is a very worthy scientific endeavor, but I’m worried that one of these days the switchboard operators are going to be out of work at Ma Bell.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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