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My friend Jake graduated from ASU two semesters ago, and after a short while got a steady-paying job at APS, the local power-supply company.

“There are these people I work with,” Jake said. “I have no idea what they do. I mean, they don’t do anything.”

“Surely you don’t mean they do nothing all day,” I said.

“No,” said Jake, “it’s just that any trained monkey could do their jobs.”

“Like they could automate it?”

“Yeah. Actually, that’s what I’m working on right now … ”

What Jake was talking about is something that happens every time the economy goes south. Suddenly, it becomes more worthwhile for businesses to invest in equipment that will one day replace the workforce. Production of goods will slow down, but hey, it’s an investment. And hey, it’s a recession.

Jonathan Wolff, a political philosophy professor at University College London, notes in “Why Read Marx Today?” that, “as wage costs rise, what was uneconomic may become economic,” and that institutions “can increase their profits by cutting their labour [sic] force, provided that they buy labour-saving machinery.”

When consumers are no longer buying goods because the economy is in the trough, industry’s best investment lies with making sure that the workforce will be smaller and more affordable once brighter days return.

The financial crisis — call it a recession, call it something else — is above all a crisis of capitalism. Profits are going down, and businesses must find ways to bring revenue back around to what it was before. First, the nature of the workforce has to be modified, and then innovation of goods and services can take place.

But that’s just if the system is in a vacuum – and because there’s no real-world example of a free market, it’s theory. In the real world there are tariffs, subsidies and “free-trade agreements” to consider — and bailouts, too.

The bailout offers an opportunity to make American capitalism just a little bit better, a little more fair. Rather than put us through another cycle of bubble and burst, businesses and other recipients of government dollars should invest in tasks that will make the state and national economies more diverse, more robust and more purpose-driven.

This means that spending time and money on automation is a waste. While a handful of workers are devoted to the job of finding a way to render the people on the floor below obsolete, more important problems are left unattended.

If by the time the economy picks back up, APS has a streamlined workforce but still operates coal-fired plants, has anything really been achieved?

It is important to note that some of our state legislators, such as Russell Pearce and John Huppenthal, doubt whether accepting government bailout dollars would be prudent — including money that could go to the universities.

Businesses, citizens and students must demonstrate two things to our Legislature: that Arizona wants and needs the federal money, and that it will be spent on keeping jobs and innovating the bare structure of the economy, not on replacing jobs and trimming down the workforce.

Kevin is awaiting the coming war with the machines. Reach him at

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