That Left Side of the Bell Curve

A topic that will become increasingly important is what to do with low-IQ workers in a modern, technological society. For most of human history, there was a demand for most if not all of the low IQ population. Farming required a lot of labor. Maintaining buildings, roads and so forth required loads of guys willing to take direction. Then there was the demand for men willing to dress up and kill men loyal to a different ruler. It’s not that there has been a demand for dumb guys, it’s that there was always some way to put them to use.

Once we moved into the industrial age, manufacturing soaked up most of the low IQ workers, along with middling IQ workers. When the usual suspects decided to sell off the manufacturing base to Asia, retail and services were seen as the cure for excess unskilled labor. We would have an economy based on selling one another insurance and doing each others laundry! Of course that could never work, but it worked for a while as easy credit allowed us to pull forward GDP. Now, it is not working.

The evidence at this point suggests two things. One is that the technological revolution along with an extended recession has changed the approach of business. The old pattern was that businesses hired up in good times and cut staff in lean times. The new pattern is that business invests in technology in good times to get more from the same staff. In lean times they may do the same, but looking for ways to cut staff. In other words, technology is cutting jobs at the peak and the trough of the economic cycle.

The other thing that I think we see is the lagging effect of technology. For 25 years technology raced ahead of what users could use. By the time of the Great Recession, we had an enormous amount of excess technology. The old joke in the 1990’s was that 90% of Microsoft Word users utilized 10% of the product. Few companies utilized 25% of their IT investments. Companies have been sitting on all the tools to automate big parts of the business, but they never deployed the technology. That’s changing now.

Of course, there is something else that never gets discussed. That is the high cost of cheap labor. Government policy has made it expensive for employers to recruits and train the working class of America. On the other hand, government has made it easy to import indentured servants who work cheap. This has become so common, the servants and their masters are now important constituencies. The unemployed white working class is not an important constituency, so no one bothers to speak for them.

This brings me back to the point of the post. We have a lot of people on some form of government assistance. In fact, the government claims that nearly half of all homes have at least one person on the dole. I think we can assume that a big chunk of that number is for retired people. Another big chunk is the poor and stupid. Simply putting them on welfare does not solve the problem. Unless we are willing to have large scale reservations for the low skilled, this economic problem will soon be a very serious social problem.

In a democracy, lots of people with no purpose and not sense of connection to the greater society is going to become attractive to an ambitious politician. That’s always the argument against democracy. Someone always comes along as the champion of the little people, promising to help them as long as he becomes ruler. Most tyrants in human history rose to power on the back of the lower classes. America now has a growing disgruntled class, sitting around waiting for their champion, who will surely arrive one day.

Putting aside the political risks of large numbers of unemployed dumb people, how does a high tech society put these people to use? In a different age, the way to use up extra people was to start a war. These days, the modern military needs smart guys, not dumb guys. Then there is the fact that wars are now vastly more conservative with human capital. Even if we wanted to invade Canada, the war will be fought with robots and drones, rather than infantry battalion. It turns out that war is not the answer either.


1 thought on “That Left Side of the Bell Curve

  1. Putting aside from the odd subservience to IQ as a rational measure of intelligence and ability (not to mention the implicit assumption that IQ is static), its odd that you don’t mention investment in education at all. Seems like the obvious solution is to restructure our education system to acknowledge that consistent and rapid changes in technology, automation, and cybernation–that is, rapid increases in productivity–will require rapid increases in people’s access to efficient methods of learning.

    I feel like this is all rather simple: people whose skillsets are made obsolete require access to resources and assets that enable them to acquire new, needed skillsets.

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