Monday, September 19, 2011

Douglas Rushkoff Wonders What People Are Good For

So lately I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with topics. My backlog is filling up. I’ve been posting comments to sites, rather than writing here. Initially, I was going to cross-post comments I wrote elsewhere here as well, but I’ve been lax in that department. I’ll try to correct that in the next few postings.

We’ll begin with this article which received a good deal of attention. In a special piece to CNN online, author Douglas Rushkoff violates the taboo and asks essentially the same question I posed months ago in “What Are People Good For, specifically, “Are Jobs Obsolete?”

He begins by describing how the postal service is losing money not because of bad management, but because of new technology – specifically email. He then extrapolates this to the overall economy, and asks whether “job creation” is really a goal we should be pursuing in an age of automation (emphasis mine):

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs -- as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there's something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that's even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings to get the empty houses off their books.

Our problem is not that we don't have enough stuff -- it's that we don't have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

This is an essential point. The reason we need to create jobs under this economic system is to get people working, not to fulfill any specific need that is going unfulfilled. Corporations are eliminating jobs left and right because they find them unnecessary. Shouldn’t that be a good thing?

As many have pointed out over the years – we require an environment of scarcity in order for our economic system to function. Rushkoff addresses this:

The Industrial Age was largely about making those jobs as menial and unskilled as possible. Technologies such as the assembly line were less important for making production faster than for making it cheaper, and laborers more replaceable. Now that we're in the digital age, we're using technology the same way: to increase efficiency, lay off more people, and increase corporate profits.

While this is certainly bad for workers and unions, I have to wonder just how truly bad is it for people. Isn't this what all this technology was for in the first place? The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

Where he looks to solutions is where he falls apart in my opinion. First, he aptly describes the current level of debate:

The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised. The opposite, libertarian answer (and the way we seem to be going right now) would be to let those who can't capitalize on the bounty simply suffer. Cut social services along with their jobs, and hope they fade into the distance.

But he ends with some sort of bizarre proposal that we all write computer games for one another:

But there might still be another possibility -- something we couldn't really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.

This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations. We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another -- all through bits instead of stuff. And we can pay one another using the same money we use to buy real stuff.

Clearly Rushkoff’s piece was prominent enough to hit a nerve – so much so that the corporate right assigned their chief propagandist to do a smear job on Rushkoff, which is where I initially heard about the article:

Which is bizarre, since their usual tactic is to just ignore any idea outside of the corporate-defined mainstream. They must be getting afraid that such ideas may catch on to assign one of their minions to even risk calling attention to the idea. I consider that a hopeful sign.

Anyway, here’s my comment to the BoingBoing article (with typos and misspellings corrected):

I've been arguing the same thing for a long time. Simply put, most of our jobs are unnecessary makework, and have been for some time. Much of what we do is useless paper shuffling, or is actually deleterious (advertising, personal injury lawyers, etc.). The fact is, we invent work just to give people something to do, rather fulfilling any sort of pressing needs.

I like Rushkoff's work and think he adds valuable viewpoint on a lot of topics, but reading Life Inc., I realized he's a bit shaky on economics (e.g. corporations were actually started to unify disparate trading companies so as to maximize national advantage in the age of mercantilism, not out of some fear of industrious common folk.) My problem with Rushkoff is his techno-optimism. He seems to think the internet is a magical solution for everything. Who is going to buy all this content we create without any money? Are we going to eat digital food? As one commenter pointed out 2/3rds of the world is not even online. What about the millions of uprooted Chinese peasants? Will they create online content when factories close because the incomes to buy their output have dried up? What about the millions of unemployed and unoccupied youth who fomented revolution in the Middle East? What will they do now? Write apps? Marx's surplus labor pool is now a tidal wave. There is simply not enough work in the world today to employ everybody, and the sooner we realize this, the better off we will be. Workers around the world must compete with each other in a global labor pool that numbers in the billions in an age of industrialism and automation. The Technocrats realized as far back as the 1930's that our extraordinary productivity meant that fewer workers would be needed. They also realized that as our industrial output increases, the purchasing power to buy that output is destroyed. This is chronicled very well in Jeremy Rifkin's seminal The End of Work. Since the world rebuilt after the war, we've fooled ourselves with consumerism, cheap trinkets, bubbles, inflated valuations and cheap credit. None of these are sustainable solutions. This problem has been festering for eighty years. No wonder people are starting to ask if Marx was right, and capitalism is doomed?

There are solutions. The logical solution is to take advantage of our extraordinary productivity and work less. I've seen statistics that if we traded in all the productivity gains since the 1950s for time instead of money (all of which went to the richest 10 percent for the last 20 years anyway), we would be working an average of FIFTEEN HOURS A WEEK!. I mean it's an obvious solution - if everyone worked less, we could share the work more evenly. Even lousy jobs are bearable with plenty of time off. This will never happen in America because of our outdated Calvinist notions of work as sacred and our elevating Libertarian corporate capitalism to the status of a religion.

Without government intervention, corporations will strive towards maximum efficiency (i.e. squeezing blood from a stone), and extracting the maximum amount of surplus value from each worker, without bounds. Unemployment and overwork will continue side-by-side. Meanwhile, the system will fall apart as jobs fail to materialize and provide the purchasing power required to consume goods, real OR virtual. If you read descriptions of the future from the late 1800's through the 1960's, they all assumed we would be working only a few hours a week (including John Maynard Keynes). Ideas like this are what terrify Limbaugh and other corporate shills.

BTW, The idea that we need wages to coerce us to work is absurd. People spend countless hours volunteering, that is, working FOR FREE on things that they love and find meaningful. People do everything from plant gardens to rebuild houses to tutoring children to writing software FOR FREE without any compensation whatsoever. The "lazy worker" is just a myth that capitalists use so that they can preserve artificial scarcity, which preserves their power and forces us into the meaningless, alienating, mind-numbing drudgery that no one wants to do today so they can get ever richer, which we waste away the precious gift of life.

Someone responded that they were with me up until the “there are solutions” part, and that they think we’re in for a long, slow slide. Anyone who’s read enough of my work knows that I basically agree with that, but I wanted to distinguish between problems that have no solutions versus solutions that we cannot implement because of our dysfunctional social and political systems. I responded:

There are solutions - but notice I said they had no chance of getting implemented. The current thinking is that more education will magically cause jobs to appear. We already have very highly educated unemployed people. The other is to reduce taxes even though the government is supposedly broke, to "stimulate" demand. Actually, what is needed is for workers to keep more of the value they produce, but, once again, that will not happen either, as long as corporations effectively control the elections process and "globalism" continues unabated.

I think such ideas may have a chance outside of the United States, where politicians have some level of accountability and cannot simply ignore the plight of the unemployed by mollifying them with promises of "a long slow recovery" that never arrives, celebrity gossip and spectator sports. As far as the US goes - I think we're in for long slow deterioration to a standard of living leaving America looking like a cross between Mexico and post-collapse Russia.

I ended my initial post with a link to my original article from March, which led to my very first comment (thank-you poster!) which I will respond to shortly.

Another commenter to this article made what I thought was a good point – that our stores are still full of goods, and our groceries are still full of food, and the planes are still flying, the gas is still pumping, the TV is full of shows – all with a much smaller fraction of the workforce actually working. Our higher productivity is translating into joblessness rather than leisure. There are fewer payroll jobs in the United States today than there were back in 2000 even though we have added 30 million people to the population since then. Back in 1969, 95 percent of all men between the ages of 25 and 54 had a job. In July, only 81.2 percent of men in that age group had a job. Workforce participation overall has slid from above sixty percent to fifty-eight percent, meaning less than six in ten individuals who can work are working. Globally, there are 5 billion people over 15 years old; three billion said they worked or wanted to work, but there are only 1.2 billion full-time, formal jobs. Yet despite all these people sitting idle, food is plentiful, goods are piling up on the shelves unsold, and houses are sitting empty and abandoned. Yet the conventional solution is that “government can’t create jobs”, and that some magic pent-up demand will surge forth and employ all these people if only businesses are freed from paying taxes and from any sort of governmental oversight. Good luck with that.

Which is why I don’t even pay the slightest bit of attention to the jobs pseudo-debate. As I said earlier: there is no solution under the current economic paradigm. We will all end up working a lot less no matter what. The questions will be – will it be by choice, or due to an economic collapse?

As a final aside, there’s this : the 10 most hated jobs in America. I couldn’t help but notice that all of these awful jobs are exactly the type of jobs were supposed to want!!! These are the “good” jobs were’re supposed to covet, and go heavily into debt to be “qualified” for, according to corporate America. Yet it looks like even those with the successful, high-paying jobs are miserable. It reinforces Rushkoff’s point above – what we want is not so much a “job” as meaningful work and a decent standard of living. The thing that stood out for me on this list is that none of these jobs except one actually make anything – and a good number are merely shifting bits around in a computer or forcing people to buy stuff they don’t need. Most of them, I would opine, are totally unnecessary. Notice the subtext at the end: be grateful for your shitty job!

1. Director of Information Technology

For all the press that teachers and nurses get for their long hours, low pay and thankless tasks, it may be surprising to see the most hated job was that of information technology director, according to CareerBliss. After all, the salary's pretty good and with information technology such a prevalent part of everyday business, an IT director can hold almost as much sway over the fate of some companies as a chief executive.

Still, IT directors reported the highest level of dissatisfaction with their jobs, far surpassing that of any waitress, janitor, or bellhop. Of those who responded to the survey, one simple, five-word response summed up the antipathy very well: "Nepotism, cronyism, disrespect for workers."

2. Director of Sales and Marketing

Sales and marketing directors reported the second-highest level of job dissatisfaction of all survey respondents. The majority who responded negatively cited a lack of direction from upper management and an absence of room for growth as the main sources of their ire.

3. Product Manager

The level of job dissatisfaction was very high for this position. One respondent complained that it restricted growth, saying that it was "very hard to grow up the ranks." Another was less polite and said "the work is boring and there's a lot of clerical work still at my level."

4. Senior Web Developer

Senior developers reported a high degree of unhappiness in their jobs, attributable to a perception their employers are unable to communicate coherently, and lack an understanding of the technology.

5. Technical Specialist

The job is a lead position that requires intimate knowledge of engineering; familiarity with Linux helps, too. However, technical specialists reported that for all their expertise, they were treated with a palpable level of disrespect. They cited a "lack of communication from upper management" and felt their "input was not taken seriously."

6. Electronics Technician

Employee dissatisfaction in this job is attributable to several factors. One respondent complained of having "too little control," while another had a litany of complaints: "Work schedule, lack of accomplishment, no real opportunity for growth, peers have no motivation to work hard, no say in how things are done, hostility from peers towards other employees."

7. Law Clerk

The job clearly beefs up a resume. Yet law clerks still report high levels of dissatisfaction. The hours are long and grueling, and the clerk is subject to the whims of sometimes mercurial personalities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported the job brings in a median salary of $39,780 a year—not exactly striking it rich—and those looking for advancement within the position simply will not find it.

8. Technical Support Analyst

In the words of one of the respondents, "You can do better, really."

9. CNC Machinist

Now that the CNC operator has had most of the physical hazards of manufacturing replaced by a machine, there's not a lot to do but push buttons and perform equipment inspections to make sure the coolant is at a safe level. Since it's a specialized skill, the job offers no room for advancement, which caused respondents to report a high degree of dissatisfaction.

10. Marketing Manager

According to CareerBliss, respondents in this position most often cited a lack of direction as the primary reason for job dissatisfaction. The most optimistic respondent described it as "tolerable," and gave it the faintest praise possible by saying, "It's a job." (In this labor market, that's not such a bad thing.)

Tomorrow: more on the coming jobs war.

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