I am not an economist, like Paul Krugman. I know enough economics to be a fan of his columns in the New York Times. This column was about how we are going to cope with the relentless loss of jobs. And on this issue, I am ahead of him. I am still behind Karl Marx—aren’t we all?—who scrambled to find a kind of society that would continue to function when “jobs” had become superfluous, but I am ahead of Krugman.
Today’s column ended like this
So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too…
I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?”
Yup. That’s where I’ve been for several months now. We use employment as the way we distribute income. We have to distribute a lot of income because our economy is based on consumer demand. Consumer demand requires the levels of income that good jobs used to provide.
On the other hand, we are also committed to reducing labor costs. Keeping costs low keeps prices low (lower than they would otherwise be) and profits high. We have reduced labor costs for many decades now, by using machines that do away with human workers. We also export jobs to places in the world where we can pay workers less money, of course, but even these workers can’t match the productivity of the new machines—which, among other things, don’t take coffee breaks.
The old solution was to keep the brainy jobs here and leave the manual jobs for foreigners abroad and the lower classes here at home. This two-part solution has two challenges to face. The first is that as the machines get brainier (have you seen any GE or IBM ads on television lately?) more and more of the brainy jobs can be done by workers powered by battery packs. There have been, for instance, some truly amazing experiments recently using robot counselers. And, of course, the other challenge is that you can’t pay low income workers enough to enable them to sustain a consumer economy.
Those two projected paths are so clear that I am willing to call them, for the purposes of this post, “facts.”
Is there a liberal response to these facts? Yes, there is. In the short run. It is that we follow the socialist democracies of Europe with substantially higher taxes and substantially higher services. That will work for a while. But unless we find some way to keep ourselves from turning most productive labor—including “creative labor”—over to smart machines, it won’t work for very long. I don’t see us passing laws requiring that some given percentage of all “labor” must be performed by human beings.
Conservatives don’t have a response even in the short run. The percent of national income now controlled by the top 1% is now about where it was on the eve of the Great Depression. We can argue for upward mobility until we are blue in the face, but upward mobility doesn’t create enough good jobs to sustain an economy based on consumer spending. It changes who gets to do the spending, but now how many people are able to spend.
So the liberals win this one. Let’s move on to the next one. What will people need to be like in a society where most people’s time is not structured by “doing jobs,” and where people are free to “be” whoever they want to be? I’ll tell you. They will need to be like the people the conservatives have been arguing for—not, I hasten to point out, supporting—lo these many years. They will need to be—WE will need to be—people of character. Neighbors, friends, communities. Dilettantes.
If you thought the U. S. government was up against a huge challenge in redefining “work” so that we can afford it, how do you like this challenge? Here, the U. S. government is going to have to make citizens who can be trusted with these levels of resources and freedom.
I said that the worst way I could think of. “The U. S. is going to have to make citizens…” Except in the very most technical sense, no government “makes” citizens. And no government makes citizens virtuous. The very best would could do as a government is to make family settings rich enough in resources that parents—who may not have had a fighting chance themselves—could give their children a fighting chance to become virtuous citizens. And ordinarily, that doesn’t work. We would need to find a way to enrich the communities that actually could, if they chose to and if they had the resources, provide nourishing contexts for the families that make up those communities.
We will need, in short, the kinds of communities conservatives have been kvetching about for decades now and liberals have been telling them to shut up. That brings us back to Krugman’s very good question, “What…would they propose, instead?”
Except that now it is a short term question only, given that “they” refers to conservatives. The long term question is the same, but it is asked by conservatives about liberals. Looking at our great need for the traditional virtues—given the “fact” of a machine-dominated economy and a human dominated world of leisure—conservatives will ask “What…would they propose, instead?”
I’m a liberal and I feel the bite of that second question. I know what kind of society I would like, but when conservatives ask about “proposing something,” they are not asking about preferred outcomes. They are asking about how to get there.
I have no idea. No way of getting there seems very likely to me.
 It’s a lot worse than it sounds. See Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together for a much larger dinner of bad news. And here is the entre to that dinner. We are redefining our needs so that they can be met better by computers than by humans. We are redefining our needs. Redefining. We are doing that.
 Robert Reich has a very readable account of this in his book, Aftershock, but no one disputes that it is true.