The End of Work
In the July/August issue, Derek Thompson imagined a world without work, as technology makes scores of jobs obsolete. Although many future unemployed people will suffer the negative mental and physical effects of joblessness, he predicted, others will embrace the opportunity to express their creativity. Readers raised concerns about how this would change our capitalist society and economy.
Derek Thompson’s essay was illuminating, but I am surprised that he did not more explicitly address the connection between a post-work America and a post-capitalist economy.
Mr. Thompson confuses work with jobs, but there is a difference. The employment rate doesn’t measure work; it measures how many people are directly providing their physical and mental horsepower to the formal, measurable, and fundamentally capitalist economy.
In rural America and most of the rest of the world, many people do not fully participate in that economy, and occasional jobs coupled with barter and trade have never entirely disappeared.
I have no illusions about how perilous this way of working can be, and the relative and absolute disadvantages that living on the margins currently confers. But what happens when the margins become the norm?
The question this essay touches on but does not substantively address is: What do we do when more and more people are working but not feeding the machine, either with their work inputs or consumption uptake? If nothing else, where will the taxes that would support a universal basic income or WPA redux come from?
It seems to me that in the post-work world Mr. Thompson describes, work is less about having a job and more about controlling my means of production; less about making someone else rich and more about directly benefiting me or my immediate community.
Personally, I’m all for it, but maybe it’s time we all dusted off our copies of Marx?
Mr. Thompson spends little time on the most crucial piece of the puzzle: If industrial technology (robotics) puts millions of people out of work, it will also eliminate the customer base for the products it produces, as people will no longer have adequate income and purchasing power.
In fact, we are already seeing this, as American consumers are encouraged to buy products manufactured overseas while being deprived of decent employment opportunities at home. As a result, credit-card debt is skyrocketing, emergency savings are at an all-time low, and more and more families are living in poverty. This in turn erodes the tax base, so governments depend on borrowed money and are limited in their ability to support the needy.
Therefore, if the author’s predictions are correct, one of two things will happen. Either the world economy and social structures will collapse in a manner that will make the 2008 financial crisis look like a picnic, or vast political and economic changes will redistribute wealth from corporations to citizens so that people can continue to consume and keep the house of cards standing.
One of the issues not discussed in detail by Derek Thompson is how tax policy contributes to the problem. Current tax policy gives businesses incentives, in the form of write-offs and deductions, for acquiring the machines or robots that replace employees.
Unless machines are taxed, they will bankrupt this country. For each worker, a company contributes payroll taxes into our social system; the worker spends money, which is taxed; he or she also pays income taxes. The money the worker spends is multiplied as it supports other businesses, which also pay taxes. If an employee is replaced by a machine, the company no longer pays taxes on that labor. There is also no longer an employee who pays taxes and purchases goods.
If you don’t tax machines, more money will remain in the big corporations that already run America. They need to pay a tax for every job displaced and continue to pay that tax until they find a replacement job for the dismissed employee—a job the employee desires and is at parity pay or better.
Hanno Kirk, L.I.C.S.W., Ph.D.
Derek Thompson’s article is just more of the Panglossian econo-babble we have been hearing for decades. It strains to get away from the fact that, in an age dominated by devices, real economic power lies with those countries that manufacture said devices. As manufacturing shifts overseas, aided by corporate-written trade laws, we pretend to wonder about the loss of middle-class jobs in the United States, the rise of China, etc. These are not at all mysterious to average citizens.
The willed obtuseness of this viewpoint is best shown in the sentence “Economists cannot say for certain why men are turning away from work.” This is written as though men have a choice. It’s hard to take anything seriously after that. Men are being turned away from work. Everyone is. Whether or not economists want to face it, we are still living in a world composed of nation-states, which presumably protect the interests of their citizens. Increasingly, those nation-states are being manipulated for profit by multinational entities, without regard for national interests. This unelected shadow force very much wants laborers around the world to compete in a race to the bottom. In the long run, this would be disastrous, as those same laborers are consumers, and demand dies with their jobs.
Attempting to make a virtue of “contingency,” of the mad scramble to try to make ends meet, is a losing bet. We need to examine our old laws on labor, imports, and taxation to rediscover what made the American economy the engine it was 50 years ago.
Work began disappearing in the 1970s because of the pressure on American corporate profits brought on by more and better global competition. Jobs are always a drag on profit, and companies will pursue anything that can lessen their cost: outsourcing, moving manufacturing, and so on. This has all been done by policy and is not, as implied by the article, a kind of natural occurrence. A little Marxist rigor in this analysis would have clarified why jobs have disappeared and how the “solutions” explored by the author would only further impoverish most people for the benefit of the few.
I do not share Thompson’s optimism. I believe that with the replacement of many manual laborers by robots, there will arise a large, intractable, and rapidly expanding underclass. Escape from this class will be the result only of obsessive effort or unusual good luck.
It’s possible that American politicians will be competent and dedicated enough to design programs that will pull large numbers of people out of this underclass—but I doubt it.
How do people pay their bills if no employers want to hire them? Thompson discusses a solution that’s sometimes proposed in Canada … a guaranteed minimum income. The idea is to extend to all people essentially the program we already have in place for senior citizens through old-age security: payments from the government that ensure they have enough to cover the necessities of life. This would provide some stability for people hopping from gig to gig, ensuring that the absence of a full-time job wouldn’t mean the absence of food and shelter …
Thompson sees another problem, in that he fears income on its own won’t provide the dignity and psychological fulfillment that jobs do.
I’m less worried about that. A post-jobs world seems unlikely to be a post-work world. Most people want to be productive, but are forced by economic circumstance to do things they hate doing. If we all had the equivalent of a trust fund, I think most of us would do as many trust-fund kids do: we’d throw ourselves into creative and artistic projects, charitable enterprises, politics and community work, entrepreneurship—the fulfilling (and useful) labour that is difficult or risky to depend on financially, and so is now overwhelmingly the province of the privileged.
It is a long-promised science-fiction premise: a world in which people are freed from the drudgery of mindless work they hate and able to pursue the things they love. The future’s looming crisis isn’t a lack of jobs; it’s a lack of the income those jobs have traditionally distributed. Solve the latter problem, and the post-jobs world looks like nothing to fear.
Excerpt from a Toronto Star article
Derek Thompson replies:
The letters collectively ask three big questions about the “post-jobs” future: What about globalization? What about taxation? And what about income?
The first question, on globalization, is the easiest to answer, because it’s not a hypothetical. Globalization has already played a starring role, alongside technological changes, in remaking the U.S. economy and moving the country toward service jobs, which are less protected than the once-unionized workforce. Although I didn’t spend much time talking about this, it’s a crucial part of the puzzle, and I’m glad readers said so.
The second and third questions reflect a general worry—whether one believes in the post-jobs future or not—that the fruits of progress are not adequately shared between the top and the bottom. In the scenario I outlined, a handful of workers and capitalists amass more and more income in the U.S., while companies replace many of their jobs with technology in future recessions. It seems inevitable to me that, in this scenario, policies that currently seem leftist, such as a universal basic income, will come to be seen as conservative and necessary to preserve the consumer economy, civic peace, and people’s pride. At the moment, however, for all its benefits, a universal income is politically challenging, as it’s hard to imagine that this federal government is up to the task of passing the most ambitious social-welfare plan in American history. And work is more than income. It is community, time management, and purpose. (Marx, a favorite touchstone of the letters, understood this when he wrote of capitalism’s “alienation.”)
As for the people saying that certain aspects of my prediction are wrong: Those people are probably right! The future is chaos, and it’s hard to confidently apply specific predictions to a chaotic system. But that’s almost beside the point. The essay ultimately isn’t about technology, but about people—what makes them happy? how do they find meaning?—and whether one can imagine that our future economy will be able to answer those questions better than the one we have today. I imagine it will.
Fact v.s. Fiction
In June, Ruth Franklin reviewed Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker (“Joe Mitchell’s Secret”), about the legendary writer who mixed fact and fiction.
It has been my experience that reading Joseph Mitchell, and reading about him, guaranteed a fine time. But no more. In her review of Thomas Kunkel’s new book on Mitchell, Ruth Franklin serves up an oddball defense of Mitchell’s use of composites and fabrications that makes this former newspaper reporter and editor see red. Apparently enabled and encouraged by none other than Harold Ross in his unusual approach to finding stories, Mitchell came up with some beauties, certainly. But integrity of material is a bedrock of journalism for good reason, and fiction writing has no place in the profession.
For Ms. Franklin to bemoan today’s literary journalism for not having “room for a category-defying writer like Mitchell” is disturbing. So many category-defying writers come to mind: Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke, for instance. From Ms. Franklin’s story, one can’t avoid the impression that had these two reached icon status before their forays into fiction-presented-as-journalism were discovered, well, Ms. Cooke would still have a Pulitzer, and Mr. Blair a job at The New York Times.
Anne Cocroft Adams
South Strafford, Vt.
The Big Question: What fictional city (or other locale) would you most like to inhabit?
(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered September’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)
10. Elysium, reserved for the righteous to indulge in the activities that brought them the most pleasure in life. For those of us passionate about our work, Elysium allows us to pursue our passions indefinitely.
— Yioryos Nardis
9. Mayberry. Who couldn’t use a good dose of Opie, Barney, and Aunt Bee these days?
— Dan Fredricks
8. The Garden of Eden. Not being a big fan of apples and having a deep aversion to snakes, I suspect I could be fairly happy there.
— Kevin Scher
7. Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
— Scott Daniel Boras
6. The alpine pastures of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi—clear air, soaring birds, meadows full of flowers, wind sighing in the fir trees—but only in the summertime!
— Loann Scarpato
5. The Cheers bar. A place where everybody knows my name. A place where my friends (Sam, Norm, Cliff, Woody, Diane, and Carla) always welcome me as family. A place of peace that seems to keep the world in abeyance.
— Jim Kelley
4. Brigadoon, where only one day passes for every 100 years in our world. I’d emerge once a century from the mists of the Scottish Highlands and find out what human beings have done to themselves and the planet, what they have discovered and believe, how many they are, and whether they are any closer to living in harmony with one another.
— Joan Finer
3. The starship Enterprise: a holodeck with unlimited historical and fictional characters and situations, on a vessel capable of reaching infinite real places and new, unexplored possibilities.
— Steve Heise
2. Tolkien’s Shire or Lothlórien, the Elvish city of Galadriel. Both are ideal places as Tolkien describes them. Ultimately, I choose the Shire—if all else fails, I’ll at least be bigger than everyone else and there will be a plentiful supply of ale.
— Bill Welch
1. Hogwarts, of course. Barring that, Hagrid’s hut, or the Leaky Cauldron.
— Maja Ramirez
A caption in “Havana on the Brink,” by Henry Grabar (September), misidentified the residents and apartment building shown in a photograph of Old Havana. Alberto Castillo and Osniel Gonzalez, whose building partially collapsed earlier this year, are not pictured in the photo.
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