Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Opinion

Future shock: A world in which most people don't work

RECOMMENDED READING


A San Francisco company is selling a machine that can do every task to serve 360 burgers per hour, unless you count dripping sweat from its nose onto the bun. It can — to your order — grind and sear the meat, cut the tomato and onion, apply the condiments and put it all together.

It's going to destroy a lot of jobs. And it makes me wonder, as more low-skill jobs are displaced by technology: What would the United States be like if there were a huge group of citizens for whom there was no work, yet plenty of everything that people need? Would we all share? Should we?

For most of history we defined "participants in the workforce" as practically everyone healthy enough to stand up. School for the masses is a modern invention. So is the idea of healthy retirees.

We hunted and gathered, sowed and reaped. We made shelters and clothes and shoes. And, lately, we engaged in industrial tasks that increased productivity but didn't take much brains, using shuttles and looms and drills and lathes. Work was what humans did, practically all of them, practically every waking minute, to provide for their needs.

Now the workforce, measured as people older than 16 who toil for money, or hope to, is shrinking. In the United States, it topped out at 66 percent in 2000 and has been dipping since. It is now 63 percent. It could keep shrinking.

Yet with fewer working, there are no shortages here: not of food or clothes or medicine or cars or entertainment devices or baffling arrays of implements (what exactly is a Swiffer?) to clean floors.

Part of the decline is due to an aging society, and a sour economy that has made retirement a more attractive option, or the only option. But there's a potentially permanent issue.

When this nation was founded, 98 percent of workers toiled in agriculture. Then came industrialization, with millions of workers producing automobiles in Detroit and textiles in South Carolina. They mined coal in Scranton and made steel in Pittsburgh and built airplanes in Bethpage.

But look into a factory or farm or mine today and you'll see a lot fewer people and a lot more machines than 50 years ago. Building those machines creates jobs, but not the kind regular Joes and Janes can do, and not as many of them as hands-on farming and factory work once demanded.

We can barely imagine the advances in productivity and technology to come — a world so automated that hardly any menial labor can still be done most productively by humans, and much of the work done by humans can only be done by very smart, educated ones. Imagine that in the year 2114, workforce participation has shrunk to 33 percent, because the services of the other two-thirds are not needed, yet the nation is more awash in plenty than ever.

Do we give unemployed workers food, clothing, shelter, holographic phones and the harmless recreational drugs I keep waiting for scientists to invent? If so, why? They've done nothing to earn these things. If not, why not? There is no shortage.

If we provide for these non-producers, do we let them have kids, and provide for the kids? Can humans be happy without work to do?

And can the ideas of liberalism and conservatism, developed when goods were scarce and work plentiful, be morally or reasonably applied in a world where work is scarce and goods plentiful?

These are things I wonder about, although not as much as I wonder how to get ahold of one of those burger machines. — Newsday

Comments

Another voice: Time for Republicans to denounce this tax nonsense

Mick Mulvaney, the phony deficit hawk President Donald Trump tapped to oversee the nationís budget, all but admitted on Sunday that the GOP tax plan currently before the Senate is built on fiction. Senators from whom the public should expect more ó s...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Editorial: Florida should restore online access to nursing home inspections

Editorial: Florida should restore online access to nursing home inspections

In a state with the nationís highest portion of residents over 65 years old and more than 80,000 nursing home beds, public records about those facilities should be as accessible as possible. Yet once again, Florida is turning back the clock to the da...
Published: 11/20/17

Another voice: A time of reckoning on sexual misconduct

Stories about powerful men engaging in sexual misconduct are becoming so common that, as with mass shootings, the country is in danger of growing inured to them. But unlike the tragic news about that latest deranged, murderous gunman, the massive out...
Published: 11/20/17
Editorial: Fighting the opioid crisis on many fronts

Editorial: Fighting the opioid crisis on many fronts

From birth to death, opioid addiction is ravaging the lives of thousands of Floridians. Drugmakers, doctors, state lawmakers and insurance companies all have a role to play in slowing the epidemic. Lately some more responsible answers, including mill...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Editorial: Good for Tampa council member Frank Reddick to appeal for community help to solve Seminole Heights killings

As the sole black member of the Tampa City Council, Frank Reddick was moved Thursday to make a special appeal for help in solving four recent murders in the racially mixed neighborhood of Southeast Seminole Heights. "Iím pleading to my brothers. You ...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Itís time to renew communityís commitment to Tampa Theatre

Editorial: Itís time to renew communityís commitment to Tampa Theatre

New attention to downtown Tampa as a place to live, work and play is transforming the area at a dizzying pace. Credit goes to recent projects, both public and private, such as the Tampa River Walk, new residential towers, a University of South Florid...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

The Rays definitely like Ybor City, and Ybor City seems to like the Rays. So what could possibly come between this match made in baseball stadium heaven? Hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of millions of dollars. Rays owner Stu Sternberg told Times...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Wage hike for contractorsí labor misguided

Editorial: Wage hike for contractorsí labor misguided

St. Petersburg City Council members are poised to raise the minimum wage for contractors who do business with the city, a well-intended but misguided ordinance that should be reconsidered. The hourly minimum wage undoubtedly needs to rise ó for every...
Published: 11/16/17

Editorial: Make workplaces welcoming, not just free of harassment

A federal trial began last week in the sex discrimination case that a former firefighter lodged against the city of Tampa. Tanja Vidovic describes a locker-room culture at Tampa Fire Rescue that created a two-tier system ó one for men, another for wo...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Krisemanís new term

Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Krisemanís new term

Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him. It seems Krisemanís own mantra of "moving St. Pete forwar...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17