If you had
been born 150 years ago, your birth would have been a job
creating event. I
don’t mean just for your mother, although she surely would
have had her work cut out for her.
What I mean is that to clothe and feed you, it was
going to take the skill and hard work of at least one and
maybe more new factory workers.
To make a pair of shoes a hundred and fifty years
ago was quite labor intensive. It
probably took two man days of work to make one pair of shoes. Today
almost all of the work of making shoes is done by machines
with probably less than one hour of human
labor required to make a far superior pair. The incremental time
and effort it takes workers to clothe and feed one more human
being is very small today even though there are a lot more people to
clothe and feed than there used to be.
What does this mean?
It means that with every advance in technology and
productivity, there is, relative to the size of the overall population, less need for people doing jobs in manufacturing.
Computers and advanced technology can handle difficult
tasks much, much faster than humans can.
people can and are willing to do a job cheaper than you can do
it, they will be given the opportunity to do it.
Under the current structure of modern economic systems,
those jobs will pay less and less as productivity improves and
population grows. As
technology improves, most of today’s factory workers, no
matter where they live, will eventually lose their jobs too.
What does all this mean?
It means lamenting the off-shoring of jobs is useless. It
also means that if we don’t change how we think about
economics, as the population grows, poverty will grow too…
with it, the discontent, instability and war that more poverty
businesses hire employees to do work that needs to be done.
To be successful, a smart owner will take advantage of
technological improvements as they become available.
As owners install new technology, each worker’s
productivity increases, reducing the number of employees
needed to produce the same level of output.
That also means a larger percentage of the profits
generated by the business filters up to the owner as labor
costs decline more than does the cost of new equipment.
After awhile, most of the workers who allow owners to move through
this process and eventually become rich and successful, will no
longer work there. They
will never share, be acknowledged for, or be fully compensated
for the contribution they made to the owner’s success.
As jobs shrink, the number of people who can do the
jobs that remain, increases, and that means there is less and
less pressure for wages to increase.
You can do
your own mind experiment. Look into the distant future and
imagine the owner of a business one day logging onto his
computer in the morning, and after reading yesterday’s stock
market results, he clicks a button which in turn begins the
manufacture of widgets in a factory in some distant country where
almost no humans work because all tasks are done by robots,
machines, and computers. The
owner and his skeleton crew of remotely located programmers,
designers, and material handlers are the only humans involved
in the business. This
imaginary business should inspire us to think about what
society is going to look like a few years from now as we
move closer to the end point of the trajectory we’re on.
What kind of
society do we want to live in and how will things work as we
move closer to this evolving reality.
The old models begin to break down as populations grow,
technology advances, and resources become increasingly scarce.
Part of the confusion we face today is that some of the
dislocations we anticipate are already in play while most of
us are still
mentally tied to a set of unexamined assumptions that perhaps
worked fine just a few years ago but not any longer.
recently reported that the richest four hundred Americans are
all billionaires. A
billion dollars is a thousand million dollars.
Does anyone need to be that wealthy?
Does any one person really EARN that much money?
Many of these billionaires are simply inheritors of
other people’s wealth, having contributed nothing at all to
society in the process of acquiring it.
Does it make sense for human beings living on planet
earth to arrange their political economy in a way that divvies
up resources this way… where a few people are able to
accumulate vast riches while billions of others live in abject
poverty, lacking the power, resources, or knowledge of how to
improve their condition? This
system was designed by and is maintained by human beings who
are not programmed by nature to behave this way.
When you have
a billion dollars, I’m sure the system doesn’t seem like
such a problem. What
is the incentive for the wealthiest citizens on planet Earth
to want to change things?
Probably not much.
My own mind
experiments have convinced me that if we don’t come to view
a certain minimum lifestyle as a basic human right — one
that allows all people to live lives of dignity even though they
may not have a good paying job— then what we think of as democracy cannot be sustained.
Nor can peace or civility. The junk mail we receive
every day already gives us a sense of how desperate some
people are to make a living… even in the United States.
To move to something that is sustainable will require
that we come to value all people as brothers and sisters,
without regard to how much money they make or how successful
they are at giving some of us everything we think we need or
One thing we
do know is that we don’t have to do a mind experiment to
know how tax breaks offered to the wealthiest among us
will turn out. We
remember that this concept was sold to us with the idea that
it helps new businesses get started which in turn
increases employment. We
now know that this so-called trickle down approach, which
sounds good in political speeches, simply does not work.
It can improve GDP.
It can even grow the economy.
But these statistics do not describe the result: a
nation of great economic disparity between the owners of
capital and underemployed workers who get used and discarded
as if they were nothing more than obsolete equipment.