What if I told you insane was working fifty hours a week in some office for fifty years, at the end of which they tell you to piss off; ending up in some retirement village hoping to die before suffering the indignity of trying to make it to the toilet on time? Wouldn't you consider that to be insane? -- Steve Buscemi, Con Air
As we head into the middle of the second decade of this blessed new century/millennium, there are some clear issues that societies will have to deal or cope with, if they are even to continue, much less progress. Almost all of the major ones -- water, climate change, health care, extended longevity, resource consumption, habitat depletion -- revolve around population (or more accurately, over
Add into that mix the notion of work, as defined as the performance of productive duties and tasks, in order to secure an income by which one may survive, and even participate in the greater economy. This is an issue I've been dancing around here and there in recent months, but I reckon I'll spend most of this year teasing out ideas more and more as they occur, as events necessitate.
One such event that just took place was the rejection of UAW unionization
among workers at the Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. What's peculiar about this, as Ed points out in the link, is that not only is VW pro-union, but the Chattanooga plant is their only one without
a union workforce. In other words, this was not the usual instance one sees in American sweatshops, where the threat of moving jobs overseas, in response to unionization, is more explicit than implicit.
No, what happened was an equally usual combination of cheap politics and ingrained cultural assumptions regarding the uselessness and corruption of unions. (As opposed to the mighty corporate bootstrappers of the world, who have never goldbricked or bullshitted their way through anything, no sirree Bob.)
This is what fascinates about this issue more than anything. Although I obviously have written a lot about economic issues over the years here, and I believe that the observations and occasional predictions have been proven correct far more often than not, I have no real specialized knowledge of economics. So I don't know or necessarily believe that Chattanooga is some sort of bellwether for American labor unions, in general or in particular. Obviously unions have massively declined since the '70s, in conjunction with globalizing labor and capital, and all those things are important factors in the concurrent median wage stagnation and the accrual of income and wealth to the very highest economic strata.
So the fascinating part is how willingly -- indeed, eagerly -- the worker bees have embraced the insect overlords who have systematically destroyed their lives and communities for four decades running. Anecdotally, one of my oldest friends, whose parents had union jobs, "shared" some bullshit anti-union graphic the day after the Chattanooga vote, with the smug surety that could only be possessed by someone who didn't think about their own childhood. Given the lack of self-awareness or intellectual consistency we see from the average 'murkin on virtually any issue of note, it's probably safe to say that this idiotic sentiment is the norm, rather than a statistical anomaly. An entire generation of right-wing radio loons has desensitized the proles to even basic reflection and common sense.
It's very difficult to feel any sympathy or pity for people who so consistently vote and rant against their own rational self-interest, time and again, and then are surprised to reap the exact consequences which they sowed. But the thing is, not only do those consequences affect everyone, as the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, but they will continue to hit harder.
Overpopulation in globalized "emerging" markets obviously exerts downward wage pressure across the board (except, of course, for our wondrous job creators -- o bold transnational merchant princes!). This is what we have been seeing the past two generations, and the pace has increased the entire time. At the same time, technology and innovation have served to automate and commodify routine jobs, workflow processes, and entire jobs and production lines. In other words, whether you are building Volkswagens or flipping burgers at Mickey D's, you are only doing so until a robot can be developed
to do your job.
So your best options become either to be the person who maintains and repairs the mechanical lines of production, or to spend 4-6 years and $100K or so to get into the manager class and "optimize" those operations. You don't have to be a whiz with numbers to intuitively grok that you only need so many folks to perform either of those functions.
Imagine what things will look like in 10, 20, 30 years, even without increases in, say, extreme climate events and patterns, or water scarcity. More humans to contend with, and by definition, the increased efficiencies in producing and distributing commodities will be disruptive, to say the least, to the normal mechanisms of commerce. You don't have something for x
number of people to do, but you need them engaged in the economy at some point, purchasing things that are produced and move through supply chains. Proposals for guaranteed minimum incomes
are being discussed, and will out of necessity be implemented on some level at some point, probably sooner rather than later.
How much do you pay this x
number of folks to essentially do nothing (or at least nothing that adds direct value to the aggregate economy), and how will that square with (again) consistent downward wage pressure on people who do
perform necessary tasks? There is a point of equilibrium for any set of multiply competing dynamics, so there is certainly one here.
In short, what price-point will Joe Average have in this future workscape, where his options are circumscribed by participating in the "higher education" racket, meaning (in the best case scenario) years of indentured servitude paying down his overpriced tuition, versus being someone who can just kick back and collect a stipend that, once the externalities of the "traditional" career path are accounted for, may end up being comparable?
Another recent event that highlighted this coming paradigm shift was the announcement from the Congressional Budget Office that a labor effect of the Affordable Care Act will be a large number of people leaving the conventional workforce, to trade in jobs they hate or are just tired of, but were hanging on to for the necessary health-care benefits, to pursue their entrepreneurial or creative dreams. Of course this is tragic news to the class that has a vested interest in keeping their work staff cowed and compliant, but again, it also begs the question of what those folks will do.
There will always be something to do, don't get me wrong. You can't automate every single thing, can't commodify every single experience. This is something the optimizers didn't really think through, as all these technological blessings and productivity gains began accruing mostly to the top of the food chain. Sure, it's been neat to be able to get those nifty electronic devices from Chinese sweatshops at bargain prices, but there's only so many teevees and iPhones you can buy, and there's only so many line-waiting dunces to buy the same thing with new bezels every year.
We can't all make each other $5 cups of coffee, or self-publish e-books (though FSM knows I've given the latter my best shot). The more entrepreneurial among us will come up with more and better scams and rackets
by which to grift the poor and gullible
; exploiting the vulnerability of others is, aside from fouling our own nests, probably the most charming of all innately human characteristics.
Of course, once enough people realize that their Tinkerbell economic system
is largely smoke and mirrors and imaginary wealth in the first place, subsistence will be the job, and just about everyone will be employed at it.