The End of Jobs

6 Oct

Imagine there were no jobs.

         Virtually none. There would still be someone running General Motors, but not a soul would be building cars.Nearly everything in America would be done with robotics, programming or overseas labor. This includes the service sector, law, medicine, education and government. Algorithms, for example, would take the places of judges, lawyers and the town council.

Cops, of course, would be cyborgs.

You get the idea.

Now the question.

If no one worked, could everyone still get paid?

Part of our economic problem today is unemployment. People who don’t work have no money and don’t consume, which leads to higher unemployment, recession and general nastiness. In some cases, businesses increase productivity and profits from layoffs. But with fewer and fewer employees overall, demand ultimately is bound to fall for all products and services.

There’s a story from the 1950s about Walter Reuther, then head of the United Auto Workers. He was taking a tour of a modern, highly mechanized Ford plant that used robots to build cars. Ford execs were on the tour and one said to Reuther, “How are you going to collect union dues from those guys?”

Reuther answered, “How are you going to get them to buy cars?”

You can’t, but you can still sell cars if you pay the people the robots replaced. Pay them for doing nothing. Give them the ultimate is a short workweek.

There was a time when the workweek was long. Not 40 hours or five days. It was at least six days, maybe seven. People put in 70 hours or more. This was necessary to produce the things we needed. With the advent of industrialization, people were able to work less – and still pretty much get the same pay.

Remarkable!

When the U.S. was a bold nation in the 50s, living well through science and experiencing the atomic age and the space age, there was this idea that greater efficiency in the work place would allow people to work less and have more leisure time. They were using the paradigm that reduced work from 70 hours to 40 hours.

Now, in a more realistic age, we know that doesn’t happen.

When you don’t need workers, you don’t reduce their hours. You fire them.

It seems ridiculous that people believed businesses and corporations would actually pass profit from productivity back to workers and let them go home early.

So what happens when there are no workers?

Maybe the paradigm shifts again.

If no workers means no consumption, and no consumption means no profit, then people might actually have to be paid for doing no work. It would be a cost of doing business. It would keep business running.

What I’ve described here is mainly a mental exercise that is much more exercise than mental. Can an economist out there, someone who studies such things, tell me whether this would work?

One final note:

In 1780, John Adams wrote something complex that later was boiled down to: “I’m a soldier so my son can be a farmer and his son can be a poet.”

He was expressing the utopian progression of civilization from barbarism to domesticity to enlightenment.

The no-job economy will either take us back to the first stage or ahead to the last. I’m not sure who will decide which.

Maybe an algorithm.

All right, now let’s hear from those economists.

—  By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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4 Responses to “The End of Jobs”

  1. leslie scism October 7, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Provocative and really well written.

    Like

    • NotebookM by Lanny Morgnanesi October 7, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

      Leslie, It’s always nice to have a Wall Street Journal editor speak favorably of one’s work. Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope your work is going well. Try to make our Thanksgiving reunion meeting this year.

      Like

  2. DYNAMOpolitics October 13, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    I’d argue that without workers to pay, those cars would become a lot cheaper. Mass production and automation both drove costs way down, which is great for employees looking to buy something. Also, robots are built in a factory, they just required more skilled labor to produce. They also require maintenance, programming, and integration. These jobs are created by automation, not destroyed. The net job loss is likely to be low, and those employed will earn more (since they’re at a higher skill level), so I’d say they’re a net plus.

    Like

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