1935 version of a flying car
You remember The Jetsons. If you're old enough, just mentioning the name is probably enough to start that theme song running through your head. George, with his middle management job at manufacturing firm Spacely Sprockets, Jane, his shopping-crazed wife, pony-tailed teen daughter Judy, super-smart boy Elroy, and that rascal Astro. All of them living in a cloud-level apartment with a flying car and lovable Rosie the robot maid to attend their every need.
And hey they predicted all this back in 1962. They sure nailed it. Or not.
The funny thing is, if you ask someone what the Jetsons got wrong, they always bring up that car, or maybe Rosie. Like everyone else, I'm still craving my chance to soar into the office and lord knows the place could do with a little robotly love, but that's not where the 60s vision of the future really skewed away from 21st century reality. It's the human beings that are ridiculous today, not their gadgets. I'm not just talking about how the attitudes toward women were lifted straight out of the the TV 50s. It's George's work life, where automation has reduced his job to a couple of hours tending a button (and indulging the whims of his boss) and his single income is enough to not just keep Jane on a perennial buying spree but their home and children outfitted with the latest of everything. That's far more fanciful today than an auto that folds into a briefcase. We are not these people.
As it turns out the new century wasn't like The Jetsons at all. Instead it's just like Star Trek. Not Trek the Movie, or Trek the series. Star Trek the set.
Remember the doors on Star Trek? Every time Kirk charged off the bridge, they opened with a snappy sideways slide and a high-tech swoosh. The thing is, behind the scenes, those doors were pulled back by hidden stagehands. That's the world we've inherited: a coat of shiny gloss made possible by a lot of unseen, unappreciated human effort. It's a world in which everything we wear, everything we carry, and most of the things in our home have the vitreous sheen of quality—a polish put there by tens of thousands of people working in crippling sweat shop conditions, for pitiful pay, in nations where raising a complaint means being discarded. The appearance of progress pasted over Dickensian tragedy.
It didn't have to be that way. As long as we're looking at visions of future-past, let's peek back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. That's when America's economic future seemed threatened by an implacable, powerful foe: Japan. In less than three decades Japan had gone from a producer of second-rate goods that were often the butt of jokes, to a high tech powerhouse whose cars, video, and audio gear routinely provided high quality and reliability. The threat from Japan seemed so great that it inspired xenophobic polemics like Michael Chricton's Rising Sun in which Japanese investment in the United States is a prelude to takeover by a deeply alien force.
The truth is that American manufacturers were threatened. Japanese factories were newer and their business processes were better integrated with advanced technology. It wasn't just their hardware that had an edge. Japanese managerial practices had been modernized, removing layers of button-managing Georges, and streamlining critical paths. Their ability to execute, to optimize, to improve both product and process generated as many books praising Japanese methods as it did fearful predictions of the threat to America.
American companies saddled with out of date facilities and managerial formulas more centered on ensuring executive's country club privileges than handling competition, were faced with dwindling sales and declining reputations. Fixing these problems would take massive investments in facilities and equally extensive revisions in management.
But manufacturers found another option to that investment and with it a scapegoat for their decisions.
Rather than investing in state of the art facilities, corporations found that the opening of China offered them something that exceeded the cost performance of the best automation: an infinite supply of human hands available so cheaply that for the first time in a century the price of labor was a negligible fraction of the cost of goods. Why build complex and expensive factories, when you can rent sheds full of people? And hey, you can even get someone else to pay for the shed.
You could—you can—rent people to use without regard for safety laws, pollution laws, health care costs, or any danger of legal recourse. People you can use without concern over discrimination and without compensation for workplace injuries. People who have never heard of a pension. People who will perform the most tedious, repetitious, injurious processes right up until the day they can't.
In fact, you can rent people wholesale and use them as an excuse against ever paying retail. You can rent disposable, untrained kids, work them to destruction for peanuts, and use their very availability as proof that other workers should be willing to accept the same terms. You know, American workers, the most capable, most productive workers on the planet. The people whose efforts and partnership made the corporations possible. Former workers. You can use desperation as proof that the workers who took the wages you paid them and lived under the agreements you offered, were overpaid bums. It's a win-win.
It doesn't stop with the workers. You can produce your goods in a place where environment is not even an afterthought, and justice barely a rumor, then argue the same should be true everywhere. You can drink from the firehouse of statist dictatorship, and use it to declare that the burdens of democracy are too great to be tolerated. You can eat your cake... and a billion other people's too.
China was the weapon that corporations wielded against not just Japan, but American government and American workers. And why not? The business of corporations is to make money. They are obligated by law to maximize profit for shareholders. They're not there to help workers. They're not there to hurt workers. They are agnostic to the concerns of workers. Ditto America. Protecting the nation and workers is the business of government not corporations.
But that can only happen when the government is focused on the welfare of it's citizens rather than the panacea of being "business friendly." Under the motto of being business friendly deregulation in the United States accelerated the outsourcing of jobs, driving up income inequality and destroying our manufacturing base in a way that didn't happen in places that didn't buy into the farce of corporate rights. Because a business friendly government rather than a worker friendly government is a pointless government, an anti-government, a poor quality cartoon of a government only without the helpful robots and the automatic shaving machine.
Like the doors in Star Trek, there is one way that The Jetsons did predict the future. Hanna-Barbera, the producers of the series, were already notorious for creating their their animation on the cheap (voice artist Mel Blanc refered to the work as "illustrated radio"), but just producing their shows with 1/20th the drawings of the completion wasn't saving them enough. So they pioneered the real technology of the future—firing their own workers and outsourcing the job to the cheapest bidder overseas. But hey, you have to love those gadgets!