Every year, more and more automation eats into more and more of our traditional workspace – not just blue collar jobs, but all jobs, and the effect is world-wide. While we can placate ourselves with reassurances that the workforce will adjust, at what point do we give up on the fixed idea that we must work at all?
Technological unemployment is a bitter factor for Silicon Valley to face, the elephant in the room at every TED conference. The recent primary election jerked the United States back to a hard realization, discovering that the Rust Belt has more immediate concerns that apparently weren’t being addressed. It needs jobs. Technology keeps putting the blue collar laborers out of work. Every election, politicians promise to bring the jobs back. But what if they’re never coming back? What do we do then?
The first thing to understand is that this isn’t anywhere near a United States problem. This is a world problem. Technology is eating blue collar jobs not just in the United States, but in the UK, in Australia, in Canada, and yes, even in China.
So let us put to death the myth that unemployment is caused by something the United States is doing wrong. It has nothing to do with immigrants, H1-B Visas, education shortfall, NAFTA, the TTP trade deal, tax loopholes, greedy corporations, or any of the other scapegoats. This also means that US politicians cannot legislate their way out of this mess. Do not believe politicians who say they will create jobs, keep jobs, bring back jobs, plant job trees, or pray to the job faerie.
In the long term, the luddites are right
We used to put down the idea of technological unemployment to the “Luddite fallacy,” and for decades, we were right. In the past, we have comforted ourselves with the notion that technology creates more jobs than it destroys. The classic argument is that when automobiles replace horses, technology puts the buggy whip makers out of business, but those guys can just get jobs as gas station attendants. This time we’re saying, sure, the blue collar jobs are dying left and right, but those workers just need to pick up a few STEM career diplomas and they’ll be right back to work in white collar jobs. You lose a widget inspector but you gain a field service engineer that services the widget-inspection robots.
Except: Haven’t we been kidding ourselves? Joe Sixpack in Flint, Michigan, does not want to be a copier technician. Joe sold into the small town blue collar life, and he’s 42 now. He thought it was just going to be him and his truck and his dog and his Pabst Blue Ribbon, counting on his job at the muffler plant. And can you blame him? Joe Sixpack didn’t ask for much in life. He wasn’t out to conquer the world. He wasn’t greedy. He just wanted to be comfortable. And now that’s gone.
Joe’s not going back to school to get a STEM degree. Even if he did, who is going to hire him to code PHP now? What employer will pick Joe over a fresh millennial graduate? The competition is fierce for STEM jobs even now, and let’s face it – there is not a one-to-one ratio of a white collar job opening up for every blue collar job that ends. Beside that point, if we send every unemployed person back to university for a degree, we both create a historic wave of student loan debt and still don’t fix the problem, because even tech skills become obsolete after a while.
At the very least, technology has a way of cutting out middle men and making many jobs redundant. There will always still be jobs, but they will either be things a robot isn’t capable of doing, or one job will accomplish the same amount of work that five jobs used to do.
But maybe we’re looking at this all the wrong way. We do want that utopia sold to us on countless Popular Mechanics magazine covers in the 1960s. We do want a future where machines fulfill our every need while we laze about on our hammocks posting blank verse to Tumblr. We want an end of scarcity and a world where everybody has plenty. The real problem is that humans don’t have a model for Star Trek society. Our whole civilization is based on the idea that every human must toil to earn his or her keep.
Here we go harping on basic income again
You probably guessed where this is going. In the United States, no less than president Obama has pointed out basic income as a potential new model for society. No less than the Wall Street Journal has tossed the idea around in its conservative, money-grubbing pages. Socialists and Libertarians come together over the idea. A number of countries and provinces are trying out experiments in a Basic Income scheme.
In the United States, we have another myth to debunk: Many of its citizens suffer from the delusion that America is a free market economy. It isn’t, and hasn’t been for a long time. The US already has a Basic Income of sorts; the trouble is that it’s a lousy, mismanaged nightmare of bureaucracy. A Universal Basic Income would ideally replace:
- Welfare – Along with it, we kick the “welfare trap” where getting a job leads to a dock in welfare payments and you end up as poor as if you weren’t working.
- Food stamps – It’s called “ETB” these days, but the idea is still to control spending by forcing people to buy food with their money.
- Earned Income Credit – For workers in a certain wage bracket, this is a negative income tax applied to those with dependents.
- WIC – The Women, Infants, and Children nutritional program.
- HUD – Housing program.
- Minimum Wage Laws – This problem fixes itself. Currently, we’re trying to force employers to pay a Basic Income, but that’s not working out. Basic Income will make it so that employers have to compete anyway, but will also take the pressure off them to overpay for minimal skill jobs.
- Social Security – Obviously those who paid into the system still have it coming back to them. But the whole government-mandated retirement income scheme becomes redundant with a Basic Income.
- Student Loans – We actually have to do nothing about this; the need for Student Loans will decrease with a Basic Income program anyway. At least nobody is going to have to apply for a Stafford Loan or Pell Grant just to pick up a tech cert at a community college.
- Grants – While we don’t need to get rid of all grants, things like small business, art, culture, and science grants will partly solve themselves.
Note that we can’t justify replacing Medicaid, Medicare, or the disability side of Social Security. That’s because people in grave medical condition have expenses well beyond and above what a Basic Income could be expected to cover.
Now, many technocrat tribal bards have been cooing about how Basic Income will produce a generation of avid volunteers, intellectuals, innovators, artists, and folk music festivals. That’s nice, but let’s not ask the public to swallow that. Even if Basic Income persuades a portion of the population to loaf at home playing XBox all day, what do we lose? Those people were slacking anyway. We, as a society, benefit already if we just pay them to be consumers. That’s the whole point of a Universal Basic Income, is that you have a right to the necessities of life even if you’re as useless as a bump on a log.
We’re going to have to do something
What future are we headed for? Given our current rate of change, we can’t possibly guess long-term. Basic Income arguably does not solve every problem, and implementing it isn’t going to be an overnight process even if the whole wide world agrees to the idea in a single day. But the inevitable fact remains, that the world population will continue to increase while the jobs, at least as we know them, will continue to dwindle. We can patch the system now, or wait for it to get critical mass later and then implement something worse.
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