Sunday, January 16, 2011

Any Voluteers To Be Surplus Population? [Anthony McCarthy]

Reading Tom Keane's odd encomium for automation driven unemployment in yesterday's Boston Globe, the rub was held for the very end instead of the lead of the op ed. Here's what I'd have led with.

Still, for the 30-year employee of a CVS now finding she is out of work, “creative destruction’’ is just jargon for unemployed

The last clause is emphasized by me.

The piece begins with a breezy account of the CVS pharmacy chain replacing human check out clerks with self-check out machines. It goes through the various retail operations and even libraries which are using machines for jobs that have been held by people. Keane acknowledges that people lose low-skill jobs in this, alleged, march forward. There is mild regret for the disruption in the modest, low-income lives of those thrown on the scrap heap but the assertion is that "progress" will not be resisted, history is invoked to prove the point.

It is a problem that has bedeviled us since the dawn of the industrial age. Just as sewing machines once replaced seamstresses, so too today’s check-in machines replace hotel receptionists. Both circumstances prompt many to wish the machines would simply go away, a hope that brings to mind an old story of a man visiting the former Soviet Union and watching workers dig a trench with shovels.

“Why not use a steam shovel?’’ he asks the foreman.

“If we did, all of these people would be without jobs,’’ comes the answer.

“If it’s jobs you care about,’’ replies the visitor, “then why not give them all spoons?’’

Today’s high-tech machines are, in a sense, no different in kind from steam shovels. They’re all job killers. But just as we would no more expect to see people going back to digging trenches by hand, so too will we someday soon regard check-out machines as an unremarkable fact of everyday life.

Heavens knows no right thinking person wants to be accused of being a Luddite. Resistance to progress is one of the modern deadly sins, as is denial of the atavistic nature of economics, which, we are not to notice, is the creation of intentional actions showing a very deliberate and sophisticated analysis and manipulation of law. Indeed, nothing in economics is separable from the myriad of contracts and other laws that govern it and without which economics would be left with studying a truly atavistic model in which physical might ruled in just the way that Keane's example considers absurdly unrealistic.

But amid all of this modern thinking about such things the inconvenient problem of an unemployed underclass is a constant problem for both the winning class, those who make employment decisions and who set the rules of the game, and the employed. Setting aside the relationship between the mass of the unemployed and the drive to decrease wages for workers, the unemployed don't just go away. Unlike a machine that isn't in use, temporarily or permanently, people without incomes have to eat and sustain themselves. Here is how Keane puts it immediately before that sentence to which I gave thematic emphisis.

The good news is that, over the long run, jobs don’t go away. The worker with the shovel was replaced by a steam shovel operator. The clerks displaced by machines will give rise to jobs repairing those very machines. In theory these are better jobs, requiring less in the way of manual labor, more in the way of brains, and ultimately offering improved working conditions and higher pay.

But the people getting these new jobs are, in all likelihood, not the same as those who are losing the old. The genius of a dynamic and open market such as America’s is “creative destruction’’ — the constant upending of the status quo by new ideas and new technologies. In its absence we’d be far the poorer, an economic laggard like Russia itself. [Still, for the30-year employee of a CVS now finding she is out of work, “creative destruction’’ is just jargon for unemployed.]

In that is the idea that if only the people on the bottom would use their brains instead of their brawn, everything would work out and the economic-political orthodoxy could bubble along happily as could be. But exactly what happens to the people who don't get the new jobs in this scenario isn't addressed. Those people don't disappear, short of starving to death or dying of illness unaddressed by employer provided insurance. Their children don't disappear. That education for job training is extremely spotty and no guarantee of getting these new jobs is a fact, it entails costs to people who will be trying to stretch their meager resources in order to feed and house their families and themselves.

The fact is that there are always going to be many, many people who do not obtain the kind of education or the training to be employed in this fantasy information economy. There will always be people whose hard gotten training and education will become outmoded and unwanted. They don't disappear, their needs don't disappear, their children and families don't just happen to evaporate. Short of a universally available, free system of retraining for specific jobs, even the more savvy of them will never be retooled, they won't be recycled from the scrap heap.

The conventional liberal answer that education will address the needs of all workers is a fantasy, it's one that places burdens on the people of the underclass instead of on employers. In our system, in which the cost of all social problems are increasingly placed on working class taxpayers instead of on the wealthy, poor people are far more a burden to them, a threat held up to them in order to accept decreases in wages and compensation. But, as any product of a conventional, university education might be expected to tell you, BY DEFINITION, the situation is right and good because.... well, it's good by definition

From an economist’s point of view, the new machines represent an economic boon. They are the classic substitution of capital for labor. Productivity — how many people it takes to generate a certain amount of wealth — is a key measure of an economy’s success; with the new machines, for instance, CVS can now run the same store with fewer employees. That creates greater wealth which, in general, should be a good thing.

"Productivity" , then, as defined and taught increases as employment decreases, the "good" of increased productivity is defined away from the interest of low income and unemployed people, and it is the real, right, official and academically authorized "good" of productivity that, by right, controls the manipulation of the economy.

The reason cited by Keane for replacing clerks, that employing them increases the cost of the things they check out, is certainly true.

But for every Nordstrom, there are many more discount stores with minimal service, and the reason is simple: most of us prefer to save money. Service doesn’t come free. Minimum wage requirements, unemployment insurance, FICA contributions, health care mandates, and the inevitable lawsuits when someone is terminated or disciplined all add up. The machines may be expensive upfront, but over time they are far cheaper — and more accurate and less prone to the human foibles of theft and deceit.

But it's true that, for example, the derivatives market drives up the cost of gasoline on behalf of far fewer people than mandating full service gasoline stations would. Yet if you advocate outlawing derivatives you're considered to be an economic Luddite, at least, if not a mad man.

I'd recommend reading this and similar pieces by centrists like Keane critically. You can find a lot out about why things can officially work but leave the country and the world in an awful state.

Note: I don't think it's possible to read much written by educated liberals and, even, leftists, without perceiving that there is a disdain for people who by ability or by circumstance are permanent members of the lowest classes. The idea that "if only they'd learn" often masks the real message "if only they'd stop being trash". Though few liberals would be vulgar enough ever put it in those terms. The temptation is to concentrate on those who could rise with education and ignore those who will not be able to. Not everyone is going to be able to do more than low-skilled labor. Millions of people can't be educated for skilled work. An economic and political system which allows them to be thrown to the devil by the owners of the economy is intolerable in a democracy, it is by any realistic definition, a moral atrocity. Those in the lower paid part of the work force have to understand that their security is far more tied to doing justice to those beneath them than servicing the interests of those who control the economy.

Liberals who ignore or disdain both the working and unemployed poor are the stooges of oligarchy. Liberals who stick up their noses at the destitute aren't especially liberal. Those who are only holding on by their fingernails tend to have dirty fingernails and be down in the heal. If liberals can't respect them, they should figure out why not.