A Matter that Should Give Us PAWS: The End Times of the Modern Economy

Today we will reflect that the economy will shortly wither, no one will have to work, and we will all die of starvation sitting on street corners and trying to sell each other pencils.

Work is going the way of the dodo, the Constitution, and common sense. Won’t be any.

Doom moves in ripples. Suppose that the New York Times goes all digital. The factory that makes the newsprint will have fewer orders and thus need fewer workers. The same applies to the tree farms that make the pulp for the newsprint factory. Less transportation, train or truck, will be needed to bring the newsprint to New York. The pressmen who run the presses will go, and the company that would have made replacement presses will have fewer orders. The truckers who drive the printed papers to Newark will lose their jobs, as will the people who deliver the paper to your doorstep.

Just now, unemployment seems set to increase sharply. The oncoming wave of automation looks formidable. I read of an automated bricklayer in Australia, fast, accurate, and cheap. Amazon, the Great Bookstore in the Sky, can give you almost any book electronically in five minutes at half the hardback price: Fare thee well, bookstores and publishing industry.

Everybody and his grandmother has heard of self-driving vehicles, a technology that matures rapidly and will replace first (I think) long haul truckers and then urban delivery trucks and taxis. Computers don’t drive drunk, talk on cell phones, or suffer road rage and, potentially, inter-vehicle communications would let every car know what all the others around it were going to do. Humans need not apply.

There is worse, much worse. Computers already write simple news stories, do formerly very time-consuming legal research, and engage in financial analysis. They move into medical diagnosis. Note that a computer can store the symptoms of every disease known to man, which a human doctor cannot.

Unemployment or just barely employment already is high and apparently endemic. The rate is higher than it looks because the government counts only those looking for work, not the substantial population living on welfare. College graduates increasingly cannot find work, or have to work as baristas in Starbucks and live at home with their parents.

Which raises a very real problem: What do we do when most people have no work, though they are both willing and able?

To date, the only way we know to distribute goods and services (houses, food, that sort of thing) is to have people work and pay them for it. It is an imperfect system, having been devised by humans, and pays a quarterback millions for throwing a pointy object to a downfield felon while a shock-trauma nurse can barely eat. Still, it has been reasonably serviceable.

But this works only when there are jobs to be had. When there are not, when the bright, eager, and conscientious young cannot find jobs, then what?

We seem already to have maxed out our means of letting people appear to be working when they are not — bureaucracies, the military — or simply keeping them off the job market — child labor laws, required attendance at school, universities teaching nothing to those who want to learn nothing. Now what?

As long as the country does not fall into chaos, we are not going to allow large numbers of people to starve (despite the title of this column). A way today used to avoid this is simply to give the necessities of life to those who cannot work to earn them — for example, welfare illiterates for whom there is no economic need.

But we have no widely accepted way of providing the necessities to a new college graduate whose degree, whatever it may be, doesn’t get him a job. And since the only way we have of paying those who do not work is to tax those who do, we face the prospect of ever rising taxes on an ever shrinking base of employed. That isn’t going to fly.

It is utterly conceivable that within the life spans of today’s cradle occupants, only twenty percent, or ten, of those of working age will be employed. (Eighty years is a long time, technologically speaking, much longer than from the Wright brothers to a space station.) In this case, the wage-and-salary model is not going to work. What will?

Is there a choice other than paying everyone a living — “wage” isn’t just the right word — with higher amounts for those actually doing needed work?

So how do we get smoothly from where we are now to wherever it is that we are going? Sally Sue graduates from Swarthmore with a 4.0 in art history or chemistry, and just flat can’t find a job that pays her enough to live. Entry-level lab work has been automated, and Starbucks has moved to computer-driven spigots. She is eager to work, even desperate. No job. Do we just put her on genteel welfare? What then will her future be? Will those still working resent her? She, them?

If an automated economy employing a small fraction of the population were spewing out goods, perhaps the rest could be given EFT cards with some amount of “money” on them. Call it PAWS, Pathologically Advanced Welfare System. We do this now with welfare folk. Which is to say that the problem I am talking about already exists, though we haven’t quite noticed it.

A great question would then be: Can people handle leisure? The intelligent and educated, probably. They read books, write them, enjoy the internet. The distributed cognitive stratification embodied in the net would let them talk with each other around the world. For them, so good. But for others?

We have a sort of laboratory in the retired population, which lives without working and usually happily. The young and the not-so-bright are another matter. If the urban ghettoes are any guide, and they may not be, people and particularly the young do not do well with unlimited time on their hands. Life may be meaningless at IRS, but it requires people to show up in order to get paid. Endless leisure would not.

These are uncharted waters, think I. But, methinks, in coming decades we will begin to think about them perforce.

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