“It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” - Benjamin FranklinFor most of our history, every human being was occupied with the work of keeping that human being - and his clan/family – alive. We grew food, hunted food, sewed clothing, made tools. Each group could be independent – by necessity, was independent, either providing for itself everything it needed, or trying to get by without.
Then came the skilled crafts – woodworking, smithing, glazing . . . Each of these took focus, so we started specializing. This one was a blacksmith, that one a baker, that one a farmer. We all did different things, but we each had something the others needed, so we all bartered. If we were lucky and smart, our clan had one of everything, or nearly so, and our group was still self-sufficient. We had full-employment, because there was only one way to be fired from the job of “staying alive”, and we stopped counting you after that.
And then everything changed, and it might be soon to bite us all in the ass.
Read on . . .
“Let's not kid ourselves here, robots already run most of our world. We'll be their butlers soon enough.” - Eric StoltzI read Retroactive Genius’ diary this morning, talking about the Burger Bot from Momentum Machines. The idea is, frankly, one I’ve expected to see for a while now. The fast food industry (and the larger retail industry, for that matter) has never missed a chance to cut corners – replacing actual chicken with that godawful chicken paste in chicken nuggets (if only temporarily), or buying “guess if it’s safe” meat from China, or resorting to so many cheap artificial ingredients that the food won’t spoil even if you dare it to or the ice cream won’t melt in the sun, or cutting staff down to guaranteed-crappy-service levels. Replacing workers with a robot – which needs no paycheck, never gets sick, never needs to leave early to pick up its kids, won’t slip and fall, won’t get the company sued for spitting in some jackhole’s soda – is, indeed, a dream for them. I’m sure the Walton family is beating down Momentum Machines’ door right now, research grant in hand.
McDonalds had flirted with vending machines back in 2003. They shuttered that experiment, but have come back to it repeatedly, particularly in non-US markets. Other chains have done the same thing. Momentum Machines has just introduced the latest and greatest realization of that dream.
“Know what every small business with five employees wants? To find a way to do the same job with four employees.” – me, in an earlier diary, “They Don’t Want to Hire You”This isn’t new in general, and it’s not restricted to food service. Automation has been with us since the start of the Industrial Revolution, ever since the old model of semi-independence was replaced with working for someone else in exchange for a paycheck. Every captain of industry has looked at a factory floor of a hundred employees and wondered how the job might still get done with ninety, or seventy, or fifty.
Even worker-intensive jobs like coal mining are employing fewer people than ever thanks to new (and often worse) methods of extracting coal. Real estate agents are finding themselves phased out by software and websites. Even jobs we don’t normally think of as endangered, like printing, semiconductor manufacturing or wired telecom are headed to extinction.
We were told that technology would open as many doors as it closed, that there would be new jobs to replace the old ones lost. Certainly, the Internet has created a passel of jobs, from IT technicians (a whole field that didn’t exist a half-century ago) to the vloggers making a living from their YouTube channel (yes, people do that). But the general trend is that technology has increased efficiency, and greater efficiency means greater productivity, and greater productivity means doing the same work with fewer people. There may be new jobs created along the way, but if they don’t come at a 1:1 ratio with the jobs lost, we still lose. Replacing 400 workers with robots and then creating 10 robot-technician jobs is a downward spiral.
“They used to tell me I was building a dream / With peace and glory ahead /Why should I be standing in line /Just waiting for bread?” - Edgar “Yip” Harburg, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”Some may say this is alarmist – that on balance, no matter how much automation, consolidation, or amelioration there is, there will always be jobs, and more or less enough of them for the population. They may well be right. I dearly hope they are. I would like nothing more than to be convinced that the scary math of increasing productivity wasn’t the boogeyman it looks like now.
Still, the fear –warranted or not – raises a philosophical question: what would we do if there weren’t enough jobs for everyone? How would our society handle five million, or ten million or thirty million people who would – because more and more jobs have become obsolete – simply have nothing to do?
That’s a hard pill to take. Ever since the first textile mills opened, it’s been a matter of faith that, if you wanted to work, work could be found. Someone, somewhere was always hiring, and being hired was how you made your way. Even during the bad times of the Great Depression, we never questioned the basic model of the system – we just saw factors like the Crash, bank runs, and the strangling of consumerism by widespread poverty as short-term, external forces afflicting the economy. The central notion that – once the economy got back on its feet - everybody could work, and everybody should work – that work was, in itself, the path to having a life – was never in doubt.
The children of the Modern Age, conditioned by the Way Things Are since the Industrial Revolution, cannot grok the notion that there may simply not be jobs to find – not as a short-term impact of a bad economy, not as a temporary self-correction of the labor market, but simply as the new and permanent status quo; mass unemployment as a feature, not a bug.
Neither our social consciousness nor our public infrastructure are prepared for that.
"There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work." - Mother TeresaWe have spent a long time identifying ourselves by our jobs. We don’t ask who you are, we ask “what do you do?” When we describe ourselves, we don’t lead with our hobbies or our passions – we lead with our jobs, and we fully integrate them with our sense of self – “I’m a systems analyst.”
Such a society quite naturally looks down on the unemployed. The compassionate among us check that impulse for people who struggle and fail to find work, or have situations that keep them unemployed. We’re less understanding, generally, for the able-bodied guy that would rather spend his life surfing.
There’s an argument to be made that we should never have been this way, regardless of how our economy was set up. We fell into an obvious trap of bias and conformity, Stockholm Syndrome Capitalism. Maybe that’s true. Maybe if we’d always introduced ourselves by who we are (“I’m a painter, but I work as a systems analyst”), we’d be better people. At least, it’s likely we’d be better prepared for the day we hear, by the millions, “Your Services Are No Longer Required”.
“The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings," said Paul, "not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”And what do we do on that day - or rather, on the daisy-chain of days, months and years that Great Shedding will likely fall across? There are a lot of bad options, but maybe at least a few good ones. I’m personally a fan of the UBI – Universal Basic Income – in which the government drops all unemployment and other social safety net programs, including Social Security, in favor of a baseline, lifetime income (say, just above poverty level) for every American citizen. You want to work anyway? Great. Your work income is icing on the cake. The UBI is yours whether your other income is seven figures or none.
― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
The UBI would be funded by a combination of taxation, public investment and royalties for publicly-owned resources such as timber, oil, etc – which we would finally start collecting, in full. Alaska actually has a baby version of this, through its Alaska Permanent Fund. The UBI just kicks that concept up a notch.
Employers wouldn’t be the sole source of income anymore, which means the salaries they’d have to pay could be a little more flexible ($20k a year isn’t much now, but when you’re getting it on top of your UBI, it’s a bit more enticing). And since no one has to work, finding candidates would get tougher, and there’d be an increased pressure to find new efficiencies and eliminate unnecessary jobs – which, finally, would be a good thing.
What would people do? Well, they’d be people. Some of them would lounge on the couch – of course they would. But some of them lounge on the couch now – they just take breaks from it to do a low wage job that a robot could probably already do. Underachievers are underachievers, UBI or no (note: yes, I know that lots of people in low wage jobs are the hardest working people in our society, and they usually juggle two or even three of those jobs. Not talking about them. Trust me, slackers exist).
A lot of others, though, would do what they wanted to do – the dreams and goals they couldn’t follow before because they couldn’t support themselves. If that argument sounds familiar, it’s because it’s largely the same argument in favor of people getting ACA subsidies and leaving dead-end jobs they’re holding only for benefits. They’d be who they are, not what they do.
The UBI is, admittedly, still a bit of a utopian concept. It’s gaining steam in some quarters in Europe – in Switzerland, enough signatures were collected by activists to trigger a referendum on a Basic Income of CHF 2500 a month (just under $2800 a month, or about $33k/year), though there’s no word on when that vote will happen, and no idea how it would go. When - or if - it would even be acceptable enough to debate openly in this country is another question entirely.
It is possible there will always be work to go around. It is possible that new jobs and industries will spring up, which - coupled with regulation on wages and benefits that make them worthwhile - will be all we ever need. And maybe, even if that does happen, we could still start decoupling our identities from our employment. That would all be nice. But I do think it's worth asking "what if?", and thinking about how we'd deal with the kind of future Momentum Machines is hinting at today.