Maine Policy Perspectives — Disruptive Technologies, Shifting Economies, and an Evolving Social Safety Net: A Historical Perspective for UBI
by Daniel S. Soucier
Imagine being born in 1900. With great genes, avoidance of major diseases as well as industrial accidents, and a little bit of luck, you lived to see the year 2000. What technological changes did you experience over the course of your lifetime? You would have witnessed overwhelming developments in transportation, construction, manufacturing, and communication. Further, after the First World War, you would have watched as chemical, electrical, petroleum, and steel technologies revolutionized workplaces and marketplaces. How did the workforce change? What careers were no longer viable? What jobs no longer existed? How many hundreds of millions of people were displaced due to technological change and increased automation?
As an instructor of history and Maine studies, I often hear students exclaim that the world is more “modern” than ever before, that the technological changes occurring since the dawning of the twenty-first century supersede all that have come throughout the history of humankind. That despite vast cultural, social, political, economic, and environmental revolutions, the changes most significant to human history are the ones that have occurred during their lifetimes. However, eminent historians of technology Howard Segal and Alan Marcus argue that “the century after the 1830s [that] marked America’s technological heyday.” The technological changes that occurred from 1830 to 1930 created vast social and cultural change in America. That change still permeates the United States today as “Americans…continue to live with and employ variants of technologies first developed more than a hundred years ago” (Marcus and Segal 1999: vii).
This perceived unprecedented rapidity of change occurring in one’s own lifetime is akin to the principal of shifting-baseline syndrome that occurred in fisheries management: instead of thinking about levels of oceanic biota before human exploitation as natural, individuals think about how fish stocks have changed during their lifetimes. Thus, each generation of fishermen and fishery scientists redefined what is normal, natural, or sustainable. In the past, policymakers relied on the anecdotes of those working the seas and the reports of biologists compiled from misinterpreted data resulting in disastrous consequences. Oftentimes, the supporters of universal basic income fall victim to shifting-baseline syndrome as well. As Michael Howard points out “supporters of basic income…worry that artificial intelligence and automation will displace more jobs than they will create necessitating new forms of income security for those who are displaced” (Howard 2018: 38). Indeed, the argument is that the changes wrought by artificial intelligence will be so great that Maine, the United States, and the world need to revolutionize their social safety-net systems.
Maine: A History of Displaced Professions
The rise of artificial intelligence and increased automation creates incredible workforce challenges. However, to think that this change is unique is ahistorical. In fact, since the revolution from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial-based economy, the recurrent fear has been that technological change will produce mass unemployment followed by social upheaval. Maine is an excellent case study for how disruptive technologies displace workers, but, in some cases, can create unforeseen economic opportunities.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Maine’s lumbering, shipbuilding, and fishing industries were among the top in the nation. The agricultural sector of the economy was the largest in New England. Ice-cutting employed tens of thousands of workers and created more wealth in its peak years than the annual gold production in California. Maine also supplied the most granite in the country for curbing and paving and was second only to Massachusetts in granite supplied for the nation’s booming urban regions in the aftermath of the Civil War. However, these multimillion-dollar industries were on the verge of collapse during the early twentieth century as the nation shifted from an economy based on wood, water, and muscle to one fueled by iron, coal, and rail.
Railroads opened up the state of Maine and the rest of New England for the importation of agricultural products, manufactured goods, and natural resources from the western United States. This forced many of Maine farmers out of business or caused them to specialize in a single product such as potatoes, dairy, or hay. As overland shipping became more efficient and the predominant construction materials for ships evolved from wood to iron or steel, Maine’s shipbuilding industry also was forced to specialize or risk becoming extinct. Steel and rail also caused great decline in Maine’s granite industry. Buildings became constructed from steel and concrete and roads from macadam. Further, granite quarried from western states flooded the eastern market on rail cars reducing demand for Maine’s coastal granite. Finally, with the rise of electrification and the ability to produce ice and cool foodstuffs artificially, Maine’s ice industry collapsed. Thus, the rise of rail and steel transformed Maine’s economic landscape.
However, the spread of interior railways and travel aboard steamships had unexpected consequences for the region. In the aftermath of the Civil War, industrial elites and middle-class professionals gained increased leisure time, and they looked to an extended pleasure periphery to escape the hassles of urban life. Hotels, cottages, restaurants, and other service industry establishments dotted the coast of Maine as well as inland lakes and resort communities. Mount Desert Island, Rangeley Lakes, and Moosehead Lake became destinations for hunting, fishing, camping, and cottaging. Early in the twentieth century, Maine began billing itself as the nation’s vacationland. Summer hotels, country inns, strip malls, factory outlets, summer camps, campgrounds, ski resorts, and expanded tourism communities were fueled by the variegated recreational opportunities available to visitors of the state. By the 1990s, visitors were spending over $2 billion, and tourism became one of Maine’s most important economic and cultural sectors. Today, tourism is Maine’s most vibrant industry generating $3.42 billion in revenue annually. In fact, visitors contribute one in five dollars to Maine’s economy, support one in six Maine jobs, and generate 20 percent of Maine’s gross state product. The same disruptive technologies that bankrupted much of Maine’s extractive resource industries directly laid the foundation for its new service economy.
I certainly agree with Howard that “poverty is still with us [and] inequality is rising.” Indeed, I am no stranger to displaced workers in the face of a globalized economy, increased automation, and a changing workforce dynamic. I often joke with friends and colleagues that I earned my PhD in history because I am a fourth-generation papermaker who crafts papers intellectually instead of materially because my familial vocation no longer exists. Nearly the entirety of my immediate and extended family has experienced job displacement and the benefits of our social welfare safety net. Despite a massive economic shift from an industrial-based economy to a service-based economy during the twentieth century, Maine’s unemployment rate as of August 2019 was 2.9 percent. Thus, I also agree with Howard that “we face new threats from technological change;” however, overhauling social programs that have been crafted through decades of experience with workforce displacement—where failure is the burden of those in society with the least amount of political, social, and economic resources—based upon the fact that technology is changing would be misguided policy (Howard 2018: 40). It is clear that the transition will be painful; however, through innovation and persistence, Mainers will make it through this next economic and technological revolution.
Howard, Michael W. 2018. “Universal Basic Income; Policy Options at National, State, and Local Levels.” Maine Policy Review 27(2): 38–42.
Marcus, Alan I., and Howard P. Segal. 1999. Technology in America: A Brief History. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Maine Policy Perspectives—Universal Basic Income
Next: Harvey, Philip. “A Basic Income Guarantee Cannot Secure Either the Right to Work or Income Security Recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—But There Is a Strategy That Can at Far Lower Cost.”
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