Rust on the Iron Law of Wages
November 27, 2013
Note: WHile I try to read all email and answer what I can, and find almost all of it interesting and thoughtful, I get swamped. Nobody likes being ignored, and I don't like doing it, but sometimes it isn't avoidable. Apologies.
So the other day I was thinking, which I know better than to do, and started pondering the American economy, which ain´t got the chance of a frog in a French restaurant. Nobody else´s does either. It´s just that we got there first.
Start with work. Just about nobody likes it. I hear folk like Pat Buchanan talking about the work ethic and how work gives meaning to life and how contemptible Spaniards and such are because they´d rather drink wine at sidewalk cafes and bullshit with their friends.
Well, I guess you can call me Pedro.
The problem with people who talk about the sanctity of the work ethic usually that they´ve never really worked a day in their life. For Pat, work means running for president, writing books, showing up on television and being a large-bore columnist. I guess that really might be better than sitting at a bistro in Seville and drinking wine with Violeta (though I doubt it.) Few of us have trophy jobs. For most people, work means some godawful daily drudge like spending thirty years in a federal-wall green cubicle doing something stupid, pointless, and dull enough to bore the varnish off a hat stand. Some jobs are rewarding. But not many.
Trouble is, there isn´t enough work to go around—not real work that does something that actually needs doing. Over the years we´ve had to invent more and more ways to keep people from working. Child-labor laws and school-completion laws kept kids from competing with adults. Colleges, or places that look like colleges anyway, keep the older young off the market. And still there aren’t enough jobs.
Since just keeping people from working wasn´t enough, we started inventing jobs of less and less usefulness. Think nail salons, grief therapists, dog groomers, and the federal bureaucracy. It is God´s holy truth that half of the feddle gummint could be fired tomorrow, and the only effect would be to unclog things. The armed forces are another pool of the disguised unemployed, along with most of the weapons industry.
When you can´t produce even semi-jobs, pretend jobs, or forthrightly silly jobs, you get open unemployment. Since the United States thinks it unbecoming to let droves of people starve to death, the country has turned to massive charity. The motingatorest, hunongousest , and most intractable example is the urban underclass. Here we have millions of people for whom there is no work, who couldn´t do it if there were, and who will remain as they are until the planets grow weary and stop in space.
It gonna get worse, chilluln. It says so right here in Fred on Everything, so it must be true. For one thing, the average level of intelligence needed to do jobs, even the pointless ones, rises. That´s why an illiterate underclass of wan IQ will never have jobs. They are not a problem, but a condition.
But technology threatens even the smart. For example, anyone who has used Siri, Apple´s talking digital assistant, can see that she is well on the way to carrying on secretarial-level conversations with people. Step by creeping step, she or her sisters will automate greater portions of clerical work.
And there is worse. Consider the very real threat to universities. One professor of Ancient Sumerian Grammar, or anything else, at MIT could put his lectures online, and the entire earth could attend MIT. The internet in its various forms—Amazon, Gutenberg.org, etc—constitutes a magnificent library. Testing stations in cities could administer proctored exams for credit. It wouldn´t cost fifty big ones a year. The resulting unemployment among professors and administrators would be horrendous.
Will be horrendous. It is beginning.
The other half of the looming catastrophe is who is going to buy all the junk. Used to be, “production” meant making stuff that people needed. You know: food, clothes, hovels, corn whiskey. There was more demand than supply. Then production in these things, agriculture for example, caught up and everybody had enough to eat. Consequently production went into things people didn´t so much need as want: refrigerators, telephones, Model Ts. Of course pretty soon they came to think that they needed the things they wanted, but never mind. Still, there was more demand than supply. For
Then production again caught up with demand, chiefly through automation. Since people now had everything they needed or wanted, the economy needed to sell them things they didn´t want. There was now more supply than demand, so industry demanded more demand, and advertising stepped in to supply the demand for more demand, the demand for advertising supplying…(this sentence may be getting out of control, but you see what I mean).
The main product of the economy soon became advertising. Twenty minutes of every television hour hosannahed the virtues of indistinguishable shampoos and miraculous toilet paper. Ads turned radio insufferable. Billboards made the big roads hideous. Computers groaned under the weight of spam and pop-ups and buses carried ads on three sides. Buy, buy, buy.
Meanwhile companies frantically sought anything, anything at all, that a sated public might be persuaded that it needed. Some of these things, perhaps inadvertently, were useful or marginally entertaining. Others were neither: People magazine, designer anything, curious garden instruments. Much of the advertising was piratical in nature, not trying to sell anything new but only to steal a competitor´s market. Laundry soap, for example. New! Improved! Tide! With! Three! Enzymes! Wowee! Zowee! It began to sound like a Batman fist fight.
We see that the market for merchandise and the labor market move in parallel: pretend jobs and phony demand. We have what looks like high endemic unemployment among people who were in the work force. Among these are highly intelligent folk who now can´t get work managing a McDonald´s. They are overqualified, they are told.
Where is it heading, is what I want to know. In principle the manufacture of anything can probably be automated. So, I claim—watch—can a lot of routing administration. Do we accept a growing level of idleness, putting more and more people on welfare, unemployment comp, disability, and so on? Or keep them working in makework jobs? While many actually useful jobs cannot be automated— Toyota mechanic, dentist, reporter—enough can be to change the shape of society.
Do we gradually become an almost total welfare state, not for reasons of ideology but because people have to eat and there in nothing for many of them to do? Do we end up just issuing people goods that spew from phenomenally fertile factories?
Beats hell out of me.