Primer for the Great Society

Technology and the American Economy: Report of the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress

Government Printing Office, 115 pp., 75c

The Commission that has issued this Report was established in August 1964 by an Act of Congress. The United States economy was then already booming. The percentage of total labor force unemployed, while gradually declining, was however still a high 5 percent as against the 4 per cent declared by the Council of Economic Advisers to be normal. Automation was the topic of the day.

The Commission was appointed to exorcise the specter of technological unemployment. Among the fourteen members of the Automation Commission, as it was often called, only two—Howard R. Bowen, President of the University of Iowa, and Robert M. Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—were economists. Daniel Bell, a sociologist and a social philosopher, well-known to the readers of this Review, and Benjamin Aaron, a specialist on Labor Law at the University of California in Berkeley, completed the small professional braintrust of the group. The other ten places, as is fitting on such occasions, were evenly apportioned among representatives of Management, of Labor, and of the so-called Public Interest. With Walter P. Reuther, Thomas J. Watson, Edwin L. Land, and Anna Rosenberg—to mention just a few of the other prominent persons on it—it is indeed a most impressive panel. And as if this were not enough, in the background looms an Advisory Committee representing the sponsors of the Great Society itself: the Secretaries of Defense, Labor, Agriculture, of Health, Education and Welfare, the Chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers and of the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as the Director of the Arms Control Agency, and the Administrator of National Aeronautics and Space Administration. A staff of twenty-four researchers directed by Garth L. Mangum did the technical background work. In addition a number of special studies were prepared by outside experts “on most of the major parts of that report.” They make up the 1,787 pages of the six appendices.

In the words of its Chairman, the Commission attempted—in this thin, beautifully printed volume—to answer questions it received from Congress and to offer recommendations as charged by Public Law 88-444. The main question raised in the report concerns the current and prospective role of technological change and its effects on production and employment. The report’s most important recommendations are on the legislative steps designed to share the costs of technological change and to help eliminate or at least mitigate its adverse impact on displaced workers.

THE COMMISSION is much more explicit in prescribing cures than in its diagnosis of actual or potential ills. Were the list of proposed cures not so elaborate, the Report would leave the reader with the impression that all the economic ills that threaten our system can be warded off by a regime of well-managed “fiscal policies,” that is, by well-timed doses of deficits or surpluses, as the case may be, in the Federal Budget. Indeed, without stating it directly, the analytical, diagnostic part of the Report implies that unenlightened fiscal policies are in fact the only ill that could…

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