Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Our Jobless Future

Yesterday we talked about the fact that one article in the mainstream media by an unconventional thinker put forward the point that we can produce everything we really need with a fraction of the workforce, and that we don’t really need “jobs” at all – we need incomes. There is simply not enough work to go around, especially with massive differences in education made by the artificial scarcity of educational opportunities in this country, along with the rampant overwork of those who still have jobs. That lack of work is why so many jobs are “part-time” – 20 hours a week or less. That wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that (most) part-time jobs do not pay enough to live on with the cost of living in America, and provide no benefits such as health care, forcing people to go without.

I took a rather skeptical view of Rushkoff’s solution. However, seeing this article on the BBC today, I’m thinking maybe I owe Rushkoff an apology. This seems to be exactly what he meant about a new economy where everyone creates online content for a living:

Videobloggers make millions through online content

Of course, the “fortunes” being raked in by these YouTube stars are dependent upon people earning money doing real things in the actual economy. It wouldn’t work if we all did it; that would be essentially the proverbial economy where we all take in each other’s laundry. As I said, Rushkoff is an interesting thinker, but his economic understanding is terrible. That’s too bad – I myself have no formal training in economics either, yet I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out. Despite this, I think his Life Inc. book is still worth a read.

On more solid economic footing is Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The End of Work, which made a great impression on me when I first read it in the Nineties. I realized then how our whole economy was all smoke-and mirrors, with the ridiculous overconsumption of the “consumer economy” buoyed by advertising designed to keep us consuming all the output that our businesses could produce, avoiding another oversupply crisis like the Great Depression. Many of the jobs that emerged since the war are in “marketing” and “advertising,” two completely needless occupations designed simply to keep us spending on things we don’t need (if we needed it we would seek it out of our own accord), and encouraging wasteful competition. As John Kenneth Galbraith so aptly put it, “businesses create the wants they seek to satisfy.”

So now, via Mark Thoma’s blog, comes this post from Daniel Little about another book on the exact same topic that came out around the same time, called “Our Jobless Future,” by Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio. His blog post is worth reading in full:  Here are some main points from the blog entry (emphasis mine):

Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio wrote a pretty gloomy book in 1994 with the striking title, The Jobless Future. What is most discomforting in reading the book today is the degree to which the factors they identify seem to be today's headlines. What does jobless mean here? In a word, it means that the US and other OECD countries will never recover the number and quality of jobs they need in order to regain the middle class affluence they had in the 1950s and 1960s. The future will involve work -- but not enough jobs to ensure a low unemployment rate.

The central structural factors they identified in 1994 are still key parts of our economic environment today: technology innovation replacing labor, rising productivity producing persistently flat labor demand, shifts in the structure of the economy towards finance and service sectors, and internationalization of production.

"Technological progress and capital accumulation seem to disrupt the social fabric in the United States. A weakened position in the international economy demands that American industry increase its productivity and cut its unit labor cost. As Carl G. Thor, president of the American Productivity Center in Houston, says, "The trick is to get more output without a surge in employment." Technological change and competition in the world market guarantee that increasing numbers of workers will be displaced and that these workers will tend to be rehired in jobs that do not pay comparable wages and salaries. Women and minorities will suffer the most as the result of these changes; the increased participation in an occupational sector by women and minorities is often an indicator of falling wages in that occupation." (3)

"The second explanation, more sobering, emphasized the role of huge federal and consumer debt accumulated beween the late 1970s and the early 1990s that has drained public and private investment, inhibiting recovery and growth." (5)

"This, in brief, is the context within which a severely reduced job "market" began to take shape, not only for U.S. workers, but potentially for all workers. In this book we argue that the progressive destruction of high-quality, well-paid, permanent jobs is produced by three closely related developments." (8)

The implication they draw is stark: new jobs will never be created at a rate to satisfy rising demand for jobs.

"Our first argument—that the Western dream of upward mobility has died and it is time to give it a respectful funeral—may have at long last seeped into the bones of most Americans, even the most optimistic economist. The dream has died because the scientific-technological revolution of our time, which is not confined to new electronic processes but also affects organizational changes in the structure of corporations, has fundamentally altered the forms of work, skill, and occupation. The whole notion of tradition and identity of persons with their work has been radically changed." (15)

The blogger concludes:

So far the strategies on the table about employment are either about job creation (Democrats) or providing even more tax relief for business and the wealthy (Republican). None of these voices consider the more radical implication: we may need to consider a dramatically new way of thinking about income, work, social distribution, and lifestyle in the future. And that's what Aronowitz and DiFazio proposed almost 20 years ago.

The post concludes with a great discussion of how our jobless future is looking more like the dystopian world cyberpunk authors envisioned twenty years ago, than the one predicted by futurists at the turn of the century, such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. There is a link to an article about Universal Basic Income at the end of the post, a topic we covered in the final entry in What Are people Good For?

The other book was featured in an op-ed in the New York times entitled For Jobs, It’s War. The article highlights a book positing a view that decent jobs will be such scarce commodities that countries will go to war for them! As insane as that is, it seems to be the direction we’re heading. All the arguments that Capitalism is not a zero-sum game seem to be disproven by this thesis. The fact is, capitalism as it is practiced today is a zero sum game – for every winner there is a loser. Here is the relevant portion (emphasis mine):

And it’s not that most of these people don’t have jobs. It’s that they don’t have good jobs that pay enough to push them out of poverty. Three out of four of those below the poverty line work: half have full-time jobs, a quarter work part time. Only a quarter do not work at all.

This raises an important distinction — not only do we need to create more jobs, we need to increase the number of good jobs. And we can’t see that quest for good jobs as an internal skirmish between warring political ideologies. It’s an international war. At least that is the way Jim Clifton, chairman of Gallup, frames it in his fascinating — and frightening — new book, “The Coming Jobs War.”

According to Clifton, “the coming world war is an all-out global war for good jobs.”

(He defines a good job, also known as a formal job, as one with a “paycheck from an employer and steady work that averages 30-plus hours per week.”)

In the book he makes this striking statement, drawing from all of Gallup’s data: “The primary will of the world is no longer about peace or freedom or even democracy; it is not about having a family, and it is neither about God nor about owning a home or land. The will of the world is first and foremost to have a good job. Everything else comes after that.” The only problem is that there are not enough good jobs to go around.

Clifton explains that of the world’s five 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. Therefore his conclusion “from reviewing Gallup’s polling on what the world is thinking on pretty much everything is that the next 30 years won’t be led by U.S. political or military force.”

“Instead,” he says, “the world will be led with economic force — a force that is primarily driven by job creation and quality G.D.P. growth.” And guess who is vying for the lead? That’s right: China.

The article goes on with the usual pointless liberal hand-wringing that China is going to eat our lunch, and we have to get “competitive” by sending kids to more college, building infrastructure, etc., etc.. Of course, China’s rise is entirely contingent on U.S. overconsumption and investment from Western plutocrats, both of which will be in short supply if the buying power of the West continues to decline. As usual, the article posits no ideas or solutions aside from some sort of competitive struggle to the death for what’s left of industrial civilization. The article concludes with words from the book’s author:

“The war for global jobs is like World War II: a war for all the marbles. The global war for jobs determines the leader of the free world. If the United States allows China or any country or region to out-enterprise, out-job-create, out-grow its G.D.P., everything changes. This is America’s next war for everything.”

“America’s next war for everything.” I think we see how the debate is being shaped by the elites. Perhaps we can add jobs to the Wars on Drugs and Terror. I invite you to read the comments to this article, which are more insightful than the article itself. It seems the elites will do anything to prevent the logical solution – local economies, less work, shared ownership, higher wages. In my original article, I posited the war solution – elites in the US and China decide that all-out war is the only way to kill enough people and destroy enough capacity to keep growth going to enrich elites on both side of the Pacific. We can already see the nationalism and militarism ramping up in both countries. Corporate capitalism, which would make hefty profits from such a venture, would then have plenty of room to continue on the dead corpses of countless millions of people. After all, it’s what happened last time.

Finally, for an alternative view, see this Charles Eisenstein piece on the oil drum. Charles is another alternative thinker in the mode of Rushkoff; he too has written a book on economics that is being promoted on a lot of the “alternative” media that I pay attention to. Ran Prieur has a good summary of the article.

"Eisenstein is the best writer going on alternative money systems, and he argues that the present economy, based on exponential growth and highly concentrated political power, is related to the high concentration of energy in oil. As oil declines, energy sources will be more diverse and distributed, and political power might also be more diverse and distributed, if we can change the money system with ideas like negative interest, "commons-backed currency, local and bioregional currency, mutual credit and P2P banking, gift economics, shifting taxation away from income and onto resource and pollution, and a social dividend."

Good luck with that. I fear Charles’ advice may be in vain. I tend to be a bit cynical about our prospects. the corporate controlled media will make sure that we continue to imagine some sort of "growth" will fix everything, even as society crumbles around us. As the line from the poem goes, “the best are full of doubt, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” If the human race does manage to die off, I think these words will be our epitaph.

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