Friday, January 27, 2012

The Employment "Problem"

(Sorry for posting so rarely lately. I've been distracted by some other projects, so post here only when I can't restrain myself.)

Just suppose that there has been a huge breakthrough in the art of robotics and suddenly robots are capable of just about any task. And let's suppose also that methods of producing robots very cheaply have been devised. So suddenly robots are cleaning houses, repairing automobiles, fixing the plumbing, designing bridges, designing buildings, building bridges, building buildings, etc., etc. Also let's suppose that education has also been automated, so classrooms are no longer necessary, classes are taught online via pre-packaged software, exams are graded automatically, etc.

Sounds great, right? But wait a minute! As this technology catches on there are gradually fewer and fewer jobs for housekeepers, mechanics, plumbers, engineers, architects, construction workers, even teachers (including professors). Ultimately, with so few working, there is no money to purchase any of these robots or online classes, no one in a position to buy a house or even rent an apartment, etc. The 99% are homeless and on the verge of starvation.

Thanks to modern technology, humanity has taken a great leap forward. But instead of this being a boon to humanity it turns out to be a disaster. Why?

The moral of the story is that we are already very close to being in more less this same position at the present time. And the answer to this dilemma lies in a well worn phrase that we very rarely hear anymore: "means of production." Capitalism is based on the notion that the means of production are controlled by a few "entrepreneurs," "innovators," "investors," etc. -- an arrangement that is supposed to benefit everyone. But when we take this arrangement to its absurd extreme, as in the situation I've just described, we see very clearly that it is not only unworkable, but self-defeating.

Why are enhancements in "productivity" taking away so many jobs? Because productivity is defined by the owners of the means of production (the 1%) as something that ultimately enhances their profits and, consequently, their power -- at the expense of workers.  As now seems clear, however, enhancements in productivity are socially desirable only when they benefit everyone, not just the very few at the top of the social pyramid. And capitalism can work only when government intervenes to make sure that the benefits of technology are shared by all.

Thus, instead of taking jobs from workers, the technology should exist to make their lives better. In the form of: shorter working hours, higher pay, more pleasant and challenging types of work, more leisure time to be with family, pursue the arts, hobbies, do research, express oneself, etc. Is this a Utopian dream? Is it (God forbid!) socialism? At one time it might have seemed that way. But at this particular time in history it looks more and more like our only hope.

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