Thank God for the Jobs Crisis!
A week ago, Mike Tower wrote an article in these pages about the devastating effect of technology on the job market. We're in deep sh*t, he wrote, since the large scale introduction of what used to be called "cybernetics." Technology has eliminated jobs across the board on an alarming scale -- from secretarial positions to auto workers. The resulting crisis is compounded by our culture's deep denial of the basic problem. Even worse, our civic "leaders" at every level refuse even to name technology as playing anything but a positive role in the corporate global economy. What should we be urging them to do? Mike asked.
My first response is simply an expression of gratitude to the author. It's about time that someone resurrects this problem which clearly is central to the current "jobs crisis" everyone professes to be so concerned about. I say "resurrects" because I'm old enough to remember the "60s and "70s when so many pundits described the coming glories of the "cybernetic age." Then computers would at last liberate us, they promised, from the drudgery of 9-5 jobs. Back then the worry was, "What would we do with all that leisure time?
However, as Mike Tower correctly implies, "all that leisure time" has proven frustratingly elusive. In its stead, most of us are working harder than ever as our employing firms "downsize." Alternatively, we're pounding the pavement looking for non-existent jobs to replace those that have been "outsourced" to Asia somewhere.
My second response to the Tower article is that the situation described there is both worse than the author portrays -- and more hopeful. It's worse because as Jeremy Rifkin pointed out years ago in The End of Work, the destruction of jobs by technology long preceded the advent of computers. Think of the mechanization and industrialization of farming which, infinitely exacerbated by free trade agreements, have displaced small farmers worldwide.
Additionally, so many of the "jobs" available to the more recently surplused labor force are not simply low-paying to a humiliating degree. In the end, they are nothing more than busy work -- not only completely unnecessary, but positively destructive. Readers will know what I mean: weapons manufacture, the military itself, the advertising industry, "call centers," insurance companies, fast food, and (above all!) Wall Street jobs connected with financial speculation. None of these occupations are truly productive. And naming them as I have represents only the tip of the iceberg.
Still other jobs can easily be eliminated by technology. Think of what happened to Encyclopedia Britannica that didn't see Wikipedia coming. Think of the music industry recently involuntarily "downsized" by file sharing. And what about newspapers, currently in crisis because of the advent websites like Op-ed News and Information Clearing House? Similarly "distance learning" is having its own impact on higher education as bricks and mortar campuses find themselves sun-setting whether or not their trustees can yet see that train wreck on its way.
Even the oil industry is sun setting. Imagine what that means for an entire economy and lifestyle absolutely dependent on oil. Here I'm not just referring to "Peak Oil Consumption" or to "Peak Oil" itself. Again according to Rifkin (this time in The Empathic Civilization) the new technology will soon turn every building into a energy power plant. Surplus energy will be stored in hydrogen cells. And the energy produced will be shared person-to-person across a "smart grid". The model here is file-sharing and the way it transfers information today. Think of the jobs that will be eliminated as a result -- including those required by the energy wars that will be rendered superfluous.
This is not a pipe dream. The European Union has already committed to the model Rifkin describes. We are kept from discussing it only because our "drill, baby, drill" politicians have their heads so firmly stuck in the tar sands. Consequently, the U.S. economy is being left in the dust.
Of course, this doesn't mean that there isn't productive work crying out to be done. The U.S. infrastructure is crumbling at an alarming rate. And then there's that field of alternative energies I just mentioned. Green technologies in general and public transportation are obvious needs. The number of potential jobs connected with them is substantial. But there are not nearly enough green jobs to replace the ones that have been eliminated by technology and those that should be discarded because they are environmentally destructive and morally unsustainable.
So what should be done about all of this? Here is the hopeful part. Rifkin showed the way years ago. So did Juliette Shor (The Overworked American). J.W. Smith (Economic Democracy: the Political Struggle of the Twenty-First Century) was even more articulate about the path ahead: SHARE THE WORK. None of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to the new technology, we could work four-hour days or three-day weeks, or for only six months a year, or every other year and still make a living wage. We could retire at 40. And this is possible world-wide.
And how to pay for all of this? For starters, cut back the military budget 60%. That alone would make available more than a billion dollars every day just in the U.S. Tax the rich and the corporations -- those who make up the "1%" that has ripped off the U.S. working class on an unprecedented scale over the last 30 years and more. (Remember the 91% top-level tax bracket that was in place here following World War II. We could reinstate that!) Share the wealth. Boldly restructure the economy. Embrace the new technology's promise along with the life of leisure that it offers.
Recently, I've been working in Costa Rica. Over the holidays, I spent time at Manuel Antonio beach and watched ordinary people lying in the sun, wind surfing, swimming , picnicking with their families, flying kites, reading, playing futbol and beach volleyball. Life in general could be like that I thought -- more time for rest and relaxation, for eating, playing, spending time with family and friends, for making love, for meditation and prayer.
It is all now within our grasp. We just have to recognize that and get the subject on the political agenda.