LOS ANGELES -- "It might be called the age of the genius machines, and it will be the people who work with them that will rise. One day soon we will look back and see that we have produced two nations -- a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else. Average is over."
That is the last paragraph of a new book by Tyler Cowen, a well-regarded economist at George Mason University in Virginia. The title is, in fact, "Average Is Over," describing what he believes is the inevitable gap between the wealthy and everybody else in the United States and the world.
It might be called "Brave New World 3.0." -- a new projection of a world of machine-driven alphas and lesser beings, from betas to epsilons. The book is a smart and cruel projection of the world Cowen sees coming. In fact, he thinks it is already here.
Scary stuff, I think. But it is consistent with my own thinking about the American way of work and where it might lead us all. I think "work" will become the next great American political issue: Who gets to work and who doesn't? We talk and debate "unemployment" now, but the issue will go far beyond that, pushing down the life and comforts, even the reason for being of people without the skills or ambition to find a useful job capable of supporting a family.
What will that work be like? What obligations and rights will employers and have employees have? Or what do the wealthy and accomplished alphas owe to everybody else and vice versa?
"Workers," he writes, "more and more will come to be classified in two categories. The key questions will be, Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are the computers helping people in China and India compete against you?"
Cowen dutifully recounts the statistics that describe work and compensation in our society: high school and college graduates, including those with master's degrees, are earning from 5 to 20 percent less in constant dollars than they did only 10 years ago. That is, if they can find work. Then he goes on to guess how much worse it will get.
He writes of a "hyper-meritocracy," in which those who can interface with the magical machines of our time -- today's iPhone is more powerful than the world's largest computers were in 1985 -- will be quickly and fabulously rich and useful. That would be, he estimates, 10 to 15 percent of the population. The other 85 percent will find some servant-like work making the high-earners feel better about themselves -- masseurs, chefs, drivers, gardeners, whatever.
Some will opt out of the system, living in Bohemian clusters -- using cheap apartments in Berlin, as an example. Some will try to live the way their parents and grandparents did, by working menially and living in warm places, particularly Texas and Mexico, in small, cheap houses not unlike shanty towns in Brazil or South Africa.
What will the digitally downtrodden get for their work? Some good things will be there: cheap online education, giving them a Horatio Alger's chance to rocket into the wealthy class, and cheap entertainment. But they will also get third-rate health care. Cowen's new world is something like the rubble Earth and its rich, ruling satellite in the new science fiction potboiler "Elysium."
As for politics, Cowen quotes Richard Florida of the University of Toronto: "Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind."
Then Cowen adds: "The values of the wealthy class will become more influential. It is their values that will shape public discourse. We'll pay for as much of a welfare state as we can afford to, and then no more."
Chilling stuff and not fiction. What should we do about this? I heard Cowen on NPR the other day. Asked that question, he answered, "Get used to it!"