Thursday, February 11, 2010

Peak Employment?

Man throws his new wife
off a cliff to her death,
she wanted an annulment.

Peak employment, I wonder if there is such a thing and, if so, are we perhaps there? I began to wonder about this a couple of days ago when I saw a headline on the web, “Can Obama create enough jobs?” I think it might be entirely possible that the answer is “no.” Prior to the Industrial Revolution there was no such thing as unemployment, and there certainly was no such thing in the small-scale cultures that existed, and in rare cases still exist. I mean, everyone had something to do, some work, hunting, gathering, baby sitting, cutting firewood, finding water, fighting enemies, and so on and on. It took everyone to insure survival for everyone. The early factories were primitive and it took a large number of workers to weave and manufacture whatever products were being made. But as time went by more and more machines were invented, making it possible to make things with fewer and fewer workers. Even during the earlier Agrarian Revolution there was still pretty much work for everyone. It took many people to plant and harvest crops, construct the larger settlements that began, look after the domesticated animals, and so on. The first vestiges of specialization were beginning, what with metal workers, jewelry makers, even priests and leaders of various kinds. Even when I was a child it still took a lot of labor to farm, most everything was still done by hand, looking after the livestock, pitching hay into the wagons, milking, churning, picking stones out of the fields, spreading manure, baking, etc. But then, of course, technology began to take over. Tractors were invented, making it possible for fewer and fewer people necessary to work on the farms. Anyway, as you know, the result of all this “progress” was “civilization” as we now know it. One person with the proper machinery can do the work of the great many more required previously. This can be seen easily in the timber industry, for example. The invention of the chain saw made an enormous difference, as did skidders and bulldozers, and the other machines that are now commonplace. In the United States in particular, where in recent years more and more jobs have been sent overseas where labor is cheaper, the overall result has been the creation of a large surplus population. There are not enough jobs for everyone who needs one. Thus, if there is to be full employment, or anything close to that, jobs will have to be created artificially. Attempts to do this, however, run into a lot of opposition, partly because of the irrational fear of socialism, partly because such jobs are not rewarding, and partly because it costs a lot of money that we may or may not have or borrow.

Surplus populations are hardly a problem only in the U.S. Just look around the world at the gigantic slums, filled with people who have no jobs and no hope of ever having a decent job. Our technological successes have meant that enough food and shelter can be provided by a relative few. And those few live fairly well-off or even in luxury while the majority goes hungry. This is not because there is not enough food to go around, but because it is not shared by everyone. In some countries, like our own, attempts are made to overcome this problem by giving out food stamps, unemployment insurance, and charity. The basic fact is simple, there are too many people that have become unnecessary. I think it is entirely possible that Obama will not be able to create enough jobs for everyone, or most everyone. As long as the primary motive for production is profit, and human labor is part of the system to be treated as just another commodity, unemployment will continue to exist and probably become worse and worse. This is not an easy problem to solve, largely because more and more labor is not required and, in fact, threatens profits. Our entire culture is geared to generating profits, the fewer workers that are needed, the greater the profits. It seems to me the only way to solve this dilemma is to create jobs that are little more than “busy work.” It is true that jobs can be created by building roads and bridges, and shoring up infrastructure, and having more teachers and policemen and so on, but even this cannot solve the problem over time. How many more bridges can be built, how many more highways are needed, and how many more service workers are needed. One of the ways we have kept up employment has been to create more service positions, waitresses, barbers, cooks, hairdressers, and such. But without other productive jobs who will be able to support this growing service industry?

I think perhaps we have actually reached peak employment and it may be an impossible task for Obama to create enough jobs to go around. Changing the administration is not going to solve this problem. There probably is no realistic solution short of some kind of great “cultural revolution,” where the goal is to replace the profit motive with the attempt to create positions for everyone, but these would have to be real positions that contribute to the general well-being of the nation and its citizens. This might be possible in the short run, as Obama will try to do with energy and superstructure positions, but I fear a long term solution will be quite another matter. People were not evolved to live in huge cities and spend their time in automobiles driving to and from jobs that produce not much more than paperwork and create nothing tangible. We evolved to dig in the earth, hunt and gather, fish and help each other, and that world is gone forever. The greatest question facing us now is what is going to replace it? Oh well, perhaps we’ll blow ourselves up or drown in our own filth before we figure it out.

Why are we surprised when politicians play politics? It's not like they are supposed to be real adults... they are, after all, politicians and don't have real jobs and aren't playing around with their money.

The flying fish is the official fish of Barbados.

1 comment:

Henryk M. said...

It is interesting that, what you write about, was addressed by futurologists and sci-fi writers at least 30-40 years ago. Well, as far as my memory goes. :) What you call a 'peak employment' was considered as some kind of ratio of 'producing' to 'consuming' parts of society. This ratio seems to slowly decrease, and we are definitely not trying to get ready for it. It is easy to blame laziness for not working, but that is not a real problem that we are facing.