Had you seen the movie, you would know that there is no “normal” people working in Willy Wonka’s wonderful chocolate factory. He uses exclusively the funny looking little people. Good for him. It doesn't seem like those little people ever need anything. And if he could find a way, I am sure he would try to get rid of those little people too. Too fantastic? Well, the future may not be that far off.
A lot of us like chocolate. But not a lot of us work in a chocolate factory. Machines are doing most of the work inside factories these days. What makes us being able to afford chocolate without getting involved into making it? Well, because we do other things. Now the question is: are there that many other things for us to do? In the old days of agriculture, the basic premise was you grow or make your own stuff, or you trade them so that you can get the stuff from other people. If you don’t do nothing, you don’t get nothing.
Manufacturing is a kind of new form of agriculture, except that it allows the same number of people to make more and more stuff with the same amount of effort. And in return, the workers get more pay and are able to afford more and more stuff. That's how modern societies got to develop. As the technology of making things became more and more advanced, more and more of us get to live an affluent lifestyle enviable by kings and queens of yesteryears.
The side effect is less and less of us are needed in manufacturing, or to that extend, agriculture. Where else are we supposed to find employment? One obvious place is where the machines are made. But those places need mostly just a few smart engineers. It’s the category of “brute labor” that is increasingly being left behind. A college education is supposed to be the miracle cure. Yet few people seem to be willing to face the sad truth that not everyone is capable of college. Mind you, this is a rather large population we are talking about. Are they supposed to drop off the face of the earth?
Consider the days of Industrial Revolution back in Victorian England. Instead of tens of thousands of workers slaving away in the factories, if steam engines could do most of the work, would the workers fare better? Where would they have worked? Or would they have jobs at all? And in turn, would the factory owners make more money? And would England be as powerful?
There has always been the talk of a manufacturing-based society transitioning to a service-based society. That has never seemed to work out that well. Even though a relatively small country like the UK seems be doing OK without a large manufacturing sector, I wonder if that applies to bigger countries like the US with a much larger population.
Has capitalism gone ahead of itself? By its nature, capital wants to make more capital. Then what if capital has been concentrated into very few hands? What if capital looks out there, all it sees is a barren landscape? It might just want to hide in a dark corner trembling with fear. Check out what’s happening on Wall Street these days and you will know what I mean.
Isn't that what we are actually facing these days? Money is concentrated more and more in the top 1%. The rest of us are facing a tougher and tougher job market. It looks more and more like a Willy Wonka’s world. If you don't think it's a big problem yet in the United States, it has been quite evident in some developing countries for years. Pick any poor country in the world, you're likely to find that people there don't make the stuff that they use every day, or they don't even grow their own food. Instead, cheaper stuff made elsewhere flood the market. The result is high unemployment rate, low living standard, and low tax revenue for the government.
Full disclosure - I actually like capitalism. For capitalism's own sake, we seem to ought to do something about it before it gets out of hand. Who is going to buy Willy Wonka's chocolate if nobody has any money anymore? Unemployed people can't afford stuff. And in turn businesses stop investing, or they simply go out of business. It's a vicious cycle.
Let’s occupy Wall Street to tell the 1% that people are struggling hard. That didn't work. No surprise. Are businesses supposed to hire people for the sake of hiring? Probably not. That's not their job. The focus of businesses is to minimize cost, including labor cost, so as to maximize profit. There is nothing wrong with that. People should be able to enrich themselves by working hard and providing good things to the society. That, in an essence, is the true engine of human progress. But this profit driven mindset has its limitations. When it works too well, it may wind up in a scenario that on the one hand, there is excess capital when businesses hesitate to invest. And on the other hand, there is excess labor force.
Obviously the government can play a role here. The question is how. Should the government play Robin Hood and take money from people like Willy Wonka and give it to everybody else? That actually was the intention of communism. It sounded promising in theory. But in practice it didn't work. Doing away with capitalism is just against human nature. Not to mention free money encourages laziness.
The key is employment. Not only business people want to work hard and make profit, most people want to work to provide for their families. Nothing is more satisfying than enjoying the fruit of one's own labor. One notable government program was President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, which hired 250,000 unemployed young men to work on rural local projects. I'm not saying this is the best solution for today. But we ought to find a counterbalance to capitalism so that money doesn’t end up in a few hands and get trapped there.
As American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder once said: “Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow.”
Another similar quote by Clint Murchison, Jr., founder of the Dallas Cowboys football team: "Money is like manure. If you spread it around, it does a lot of good. But if you pile it up in one place, it stinks like hell."