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Commentary: FDR’s words ring true even now

I found a new book, Thomas Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late,” and finished it over the holidays. Thomas Friedman is a Minnesotan, from St. Louis Park to be exact, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and social critic for the New York Times. He is the author of seven books on globalization and technology. I’ve read all of them and encourage others to read his columns in the Times and this latest book – even though it was a disappointment that left me bored and troubled.

The book bored me in that it spends too many words explaining what most of us know all too well — that the pace of technology is fast outstripping our ability to cope. It left me troubled in that, rather than assessing the risks and the unintended consequences of technology, the text consumes 496 pages evangelizing for artificial intelligence, robotics, driver-less cars and all the rest. It is a Silicon Valley mission statement with too little reverence for the effects of technological change on human beings and a screed on the wonders of creative destruction, entrepreneurship, competition and how these changes are inevitable and that we must prepare for, and accept, all of them.

I don’t believe they are, and would argue we should question and perhaps resist many of them – but that’s for another column.

Are we managing technology, or is technology managing us? Is there a need for the shiny objects and glittering gadgetry that displace people from their jobs and their identities? “Brexit” and the outcome of the presidential election are symptomatic of a great churning. Friedman calls it “dancing in a hurricane.”

Few of the economic benefits of technology have gone to the vast majority of people. We can make more stuff and make it cheaper, and companies can make more money, and the GNP will grow, but through all of this we’ve lost the continuity and stability of lifelong employment, health care, pensions and the satisfaction that comes from perfecting a lifetime skill and loyalty to an employer.

These were “givens” when I grew up and in my parents’ generation. Now, we are offered competition, and the constant need to reinvent ourselves in response to the tyranny of the market, competition and the priorities of the corporation. Is this how we want to live, or want our children and their children to live? Or is it a new form of indentured servitude?

We have a choice.

On Jan. 11, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress to advance this Economic Bill of Rights. Seventy-three years later, technology can make all of it possible, if will we let it:

“We have come to a clear realization that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this War is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being. America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)