Like it or not, we live in a time of profound and irrepressible change. Moreover, the pace of that change is breathtaking; off the charts. The economics of this is very unsettling, to say the least. As we approach a new year, the world economy continues to sputter. An elite handful of people are doing well; very, very well. Those that serve the elite are also prospering. Most Americans are just getting by, and a very large portion of our people find themselves struggling with poverty.
There is evidence to suggest that we have reached the end of the line as far as full employment is concerned. Is this just a matter of bad economic policy? Certainly, that is part of the problem. Another big reason is the profound boost in efficiencies that have been introduced to the production and distribution of goods and services. About fifteen years ago, Jeremy Rifkin wrote about this in his book, The End of Work. The use of advanced robotics and other innovations translates into needing fewer and fewer people to make things. We are able to get a lot more done with fewer resources and less human labor. In his book, Rifkin claimed that the time was coming when all of the goods needed to make the world’s economy go could be produced by the labor of about two percent of the human population. If that’s true, and it does appear we are rapidly moving to that kind of reality, how do we deal with the 98% of the population whose labor is no longer needed? Keep in mind, the human population is still expanding…by about 75 million annually.
How do you create a thriving economy when their isn’t enough work for people? An economy functions when there is an active market of buyers and sellers. If almost nobody has a job, how do you keep that going? How do you make it work when the vast najority of people have no source of income? Jeremy Rifkin offered some interesting ideas. First you have to find a way to keep the money churning. You have to keep enough money in people’s pockets that they are willing to spend some of it on things beyond the basic requirements for survival. How do you do that, if there are no jobs? The most obvious place to start would be to cut the number of hours for working people. If people worked only 20 hours a week with no loss in income, more people would be needed to provide the labor needed. Same effect would come from adding vacation time, or giving time off to do volunteer community service. Sound crazy? Of course. According to the rules we operate by at the moment, these two ideas are non-starters. But early in the 20th century, as a society, we did transition to a 40 hour standard work week. When circumstances demand it, things can and do change.
The forces at work that are dampening our economic prospects are not going to go away. As time goes on, with the population continuing to grow, things will only get worse. Something will have to give for the U.S. to maintain even a minimally comfortable standard of living for its citizens.
The future can’t be left to market forces, that much is certain. The American people are not going to go into the tank quietly. Ultimately, it will be pressure from the grass roots that will force congress to reshape public policy to fit the undeniable new reality. The sooner it happens, the better off we all will be.
Sixty Minutes, the CBS news magazine show, has done a piece on robotics and the impact on labor and employment, fascinating and unsettling at the same time. Here is the link… http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57563698-10391709/the-robot-waltz-an-appreciation/
Originally published on www.ecstatictruthpdx.blogspot.com 1/2/2013