I have a number of well-intentioned friends who make regular posts railing against the use of self-checkout lanes in grocery and department stores. This, they say, is putting employees out of work. They argue that we should instead do our civic duty by paying for our items the old fashioned way: making some poor devil stand on a rubber mat and slide items across a scanner for hours.
But well-intentioned is not the same as well-reasoned.
The problem isn’t the labor-saving technology, it’s the existence of a system that punishes us for using it. We should be rushing towards anything that takes drudgery out of our lives. Indeed, this is precisely what we do within the home. We happily use washers, dryers, vacuums, running water, water heaters, irrigation systems, etc., as these give us more time for other activities.
So why doesn’t this attitude translate into our lives outside the home? Why isn’t it a good thing when we don’t need as many workers to create the same level of output?
The reason is that inside the home, your right to a place at the dinner table is established by your membership in the family. The fact that you didn’t spend 70% of your day hauling water back and forth from a distant well and instead had a chance to read a book, plant some flowers, and play with your children does not negate that. You get to eat because you are one of us, not because you punched a time card. A family member doesn’t go hungry because you got a dishwasher.
Outside the home, it is clearly very different–but it doesn’t have to be. However, the solution is not to smash the machines, but to change the system. We need a structure that makes us every bit as excited to need fewer employees at a restaurant as it does to have less family time spent on yard maintenance or food preparation. Higher productivity should translate into greater choice for humanity, not less.
We need to reject the deeply but unconsciously held assumption that jobs only come from the private sector, from undertakings that earn a profit for someone. We need a Job Program.
Consider a world wherein those unable to secure employment in the private sector were able to go to their local unemployment office and find that it had become an employment office. The individual—laid off perhaps because a self-checkout lane had been installed—submits a form outlining their skills and they are either assigned to a job that matches them or are offered additional training. These would be jobs that did not depend on the profit motive, indeed, that would be unfair to the private sector as it would create new competition. Instead, the government should specifically target activities that are socially beneficial but not profitable.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, the list of candidates is not short. Some things we do already: police officer, park ranger, public school teacher, social worker, Marine, airman, sailor, soldier, librarian, and so on. However, there is so much more left undone, some of it criminally so (which is why a Job Program is a superior solution to a universal basic income).
Quoting from an outstanding article on the subject by Dr. Pavlina Tcherneva (see also her 2020 book referenced below), Job Program participants could assist with:
…soil erosion, flood control, environmental surveys, species monitoring, park maintenance and renewal, removal of invasive species, sustainable agriculture practices to address the “food desert” problems in the United States, support for local fisheries, community supported agriculture (CSA) farms, community and rooftop gardens, tree planting, fire and other disaster prevention measures, weatherization of homes, and composting…cleanup of vacant properties, reclamation of materials, restoration of public spaces, and other small infrastructure investments; establishment of school gardens, urban farms, co-working spaces, solar arrays, tool lending libraries, classes and programs, and community theaters; construction of playgrounds; restoration of historical sites; organization of carpooling programs, as well as recycling, reuse, and water-collection initiatives, food waste programs, and oral histories projects… organizing afterschool activities or adult skill classes in schools or local libraries; facilitating extended-day programs for school children; shadowing teachers, coaches, hospice workers and librarians to learn new skills and assist them in their duties; organizing nutrition surveys in schools; and coordinating health awareness programs for young mothers…organizing urban campuses, co-ops, classes and training, and apprenticeships in sustainable agriculture, and all of the above-mentioned community care jobs, which could produce a new generation of urban teachers, artists and artisans, makers, and inventors (Tchnerva 2018: 18-9).
Nor does this touch two of our most pressing problems: elder care and, especially, the existential challenge that is climate change.
Workers unnecessary in the private sector—those no longer needed to help with the production of food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, etc.—would shift toward solving problems that the market does not. Such a program would pay a living wage and create a pool of experienced workers from which the private sector could draw were it to need more employees. Workers would take the income they earned in the Job Program and create demand for private sector goods and services. It is a win-win.
World War Two created something akin to a Job Program as a by-product of the military struggle we faced. As a result, incomes skyrocketed, unemployment fell below 2%, and memories of the recent Depression rapidly faded. Luckily for us, Pearl Harbor was sudden and dramatic, so that there was very little resistance to the idea. Unfortunately for us, climate change is (thus far) quiet and slow…but much worse, more formidable, and accelerating.
So don’t feel guilty for using the self-checkout lane or any of the other innumerable labor-saving technologies that underlie nearly every productive process in our economy. Feel guilty instead for blindly accepting the dominant paradigm and refusing to fight for the reforms that could make increased productivity a boon and not a curse. The problem is rooted in what you’re taking for granted.
Tcherneva, Pavlina. 2018. “The job guarantee: design, jobs, and implementation.” Levy Economics Institute, Working Papers Series. 2018 Apr 3(902).
Tcherneva, P.R., 2020. The case for a job guarantee. John Wiley & Sons.
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