Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hosts : Parasites = Taxpayers : The Business Sector

I'm sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, stalled on my way home from San Francisco.  There's some mechanical problem with the plane, so we are waiting on the arrival of a part and a mechanic.  If all goes well, I'll get home tonight.  (What I'll do if I get to Indianapolis too late for the last shuttle to Bloomington tonight, I don't know.  Start walking, maybe?)  But it leaves me with time to post something here.

I'm reading David F. Noble's Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (Knopf, 1984), an account of management's eternal quest to enhance their control of the world by replacing human workers with machines.  (If only consumers could be replaced with machines too, the cycle would be complete!)  Noble focuses on the automation of machine tools, a process which was accelerated by World War II, faltered briefly when the war ended, and took on new life with the Cold War.  Peace is Hell.  Not only heavy industry but academic science flourishes in modern wartime, when the government will spend almost unlimited amounts of money developing new technology. 

The machine tool industry is an appropriate focus for Noble's study:
Although they are credited with hard-headed business conservatism, the machine tool makers in reality have always been more attuned to performance than to costs, an attitude that can be traced back to the Army-sponsored origins of the industry in the nineteenth century ... [In 1963, the economist Seymour Melman complained about the industry] in an article aptly entitled "Profits Without Productivity," this time noting specifically that "since the Department of Defense has become the single largest customer for the machine tool industry, the industry [has been] made less sensitive to pressures from other customers for reducing the prices of its products" [9].
As the taxpayers became increasingly (if unwittingly) generous supporters of scientific research, scientists themselves forged a cozy relationship with the military and with industry.  I was going to say they were "corrupted," but the ease with which they slipped into this cronyism indicates that they had little virtue to protect.
Universities had become accustomed to the ways of industrial contracting, and to their affluent liaison with the armed forces.  Scientists had become the "backroom boys" and "science had become powerful, had become a useful and gainful profession."  During the war, "cost itself was no object, the imperative consideration was to get on with the job, at whatever the price in dollars; fiscal and administrative policies were subordinated to the technical needs of those who were getting the job done."  Historian Daniel Kevles noted that "the war effort had given professors the heady taste of doing research with few financial restraints.  Typically the young physicists at the MIT Radiation Laboratory had grown accustomed to signing an order for a new instrument whose cost would have deadlocked a faculty before the war."  For the people who would come to dominated postwar science, professors and students alike, a "novel blend of the sheltered academic instructional program and the playing-for-keeps research and development program," a military orientation, and an indulgent policy of performance at any cost had become an attractive way of life [11].
By the mid-1950s, MIT and its industrial partners had become used to being supported by the taxpayers:
In early 1954, the Air Force solicited proposals from the aircraft industry for the government-funded application of numerical control to production machinery.  The Air Force had hoped that the industry would underwrite the commercial development of the new technology on its own initiative and with its own capital but this never happened, owing largely to the great complexity and expense of the system.  Even those who had been impressed by the demonstration at MIT had their doubts that the electronic gadgetry would actually function in production, under shop conditions.  Thus the Air Force assumed responsibility as well for the “transfer” of this technology from the laboratory to the factory, offering pay for those commercial application projects which “because of the undue financial risk involved, the aircraft industry is not in a position to underwrite … with private capital” [134].
The military even found it difficult -- impossible, in the event -- to escape MIT's embrace:
The Air Force had already begun to criticize the laboratory’s extensive liaison activities.  More important, the Air Force desired very much to pull back from MIT and shift the burden of further development of this now technically proven technology to industry.  As project historian Donald P. Hunt explained, “The Air Force at this stage considered that the development status of numerical control was such that industry could and would accept and exploit it to an extent commensurate with its potentialities without further government sponsorship.”  This turned out to be an overly optimistic assessment of the situation: the government had still to expend millions of dollars and actually create and guarantee a market for numerical control before wary industrialists would take the gamble [138].
History like this should make everyone skeptical when pro-business conservatives try to pretend that there's a wall of separation between government and business, especially when big corporations are involved.  It's not news to anyone who's half-informed that the postwar economic boom was funded by huge amounts of taxpayer dollars.  Anyone who talks about "economic freedom" (the Right's propaganda slogan equivalent of the marriage movement's "marriage equality") should be questioned closely about how much "freedom" they really want; it probably will consist of the freedom to receive vast amounts of tax money with no strings attached: no accountability, no responsibility.  Profits without productivity, as Seymour Melman put it.