Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Post-Work Society

Naturally, the seers among us like to ponder our future. Yesterday, Joel Kotkin, an interesting thinker on such matters, offered some reflections about the arrival of the post-work society. (via Maggie’s Farm) He opens ominously with a quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.

If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

From there Kotkin advances the notion that we may be entering an epoch where only a select few work, but where most people become wards of the state, receiving a universal basic income and the means of subsistence.

As for what they would do with their time, he seems not to have pondered the question. We might suggest that the workless masses might very well form organized criminal gangs, the better to steal the higher priced items that their universal basic income does not allow them to afford. 

If you think that these huddled masses are going to sit idly by while their betters indulge all manner of decadent overpriced luxuries, you are living in a dream. 

Of course, Kotkin is keying off of the fact that large numbers of Americans, laid off or resigning during the pandemic lockdowns, seem not to want to go back to work. The worker shortage has been dubbed the Great Resignation, and surely it is concerning.

And yet, among the reasons, Kotkin points out, is the fact that today’s young Americans, and even today’s not-so-young Americans cannot do many of the tech jobs now on offer. 

Consider this point:

Many of these problems are of our own making. Pundits have long been predicting the demise of factory jobs, and by now, according to Rifkin, factories should be “near workerless.” Yet as automation kicks in, American factory managers increasingly complain of a distressing lack of skilled workers. Due to an aging workforce, as many as 600,000 new manufacturing jobs are expected to be generated this decade which cannot be filled. The current shortage of welders could grow to 400,000 by 2024. Amid a mild recovery in the US, by May, an estimated 500,000 manufacturing jobs were left unfilled.

We have been keeping you abreast about these developments on this blog. We all like to complain about the jobs that have been flying out of the country, but we rarely note the fact that our educational system and our family structure is not producing enough skilled workers. You know well that a school system that wants to produce more social justice warriors is not going to be producing welders or even people who can manage automated factories.

By contrast, China is. Note well the observation by Apple CEO Tim Cook about America’s ability to produce tooling engineers:

In contrast, our non-Western competitors, notably China, are building a skilled workforce that can operate sophisticated automated facilities. As a report from American Compass noted, “Only five percent of American college students major in engineering, compared with 33 percent in China; as of 2016, China graduated 4.7 million STEM students versus 568,000 in the United States, as well as six times as many students with engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees.” Meanwhile, in the US, Apple CEO Tim Cook has observed, “you could have a meeting of tooling engineers and I’m not sure we could fill the room. In China, you could fill multiple football fields.” This helps explain why the company maintains virtually all its production in the Middle Kingdom.

You can blame this on politics, but there is more to life than politics.

Anyway, while Asian countries are producing the workers of the future, Western societies are eliminating manufacturing and industrial jobs. You might consider this to be a good thing, good for the environment, that is, but surely it does not bode well for America’s future.

While Asian countries are focusing on future work, Western societies seem determined to eliminate gainful employment for blue-collar and middle-management workers. Many jobs that could support families have disappeared, and most new opportunities tend to be low-wage service work. One widely cited reason for the recent labor shortages relates to a post-pandemic reluctance to accept low wages, including those in the “gig” economy, where pay and hours are often uncertain.

In short, we are creating jobs in service areas, from restaurant servers to household help. But these are low paying. It is not easy to support a family on dishwasher wages.

Some low-paid workers have also found state support during the pandemic to be, in some cases, more profitable than work, and a way to remove the risks associated with crowded offices and public transport.

Yet, although the pandemic was the trigger for this withdrawal, high levels of public welfare delinked from work have also been associated with the persistently high unemployment that has plagued countries such as Italy and Spain.

Not everyone sees mass idleness as an unalloyed negative. “Post-work” fits neatly with the de-growth philosophy pushed by climate activists today. This notion seeks to ratchet down consumption among the masses by reducing the size of homes, cars, air travel, and air conditioning.

Particularly hard-hit would be millions of working-class people, particularly those in well-paying manufacturing, construction, and energy jobs. UBI would provide the basics for a properly austere ecological lifestyle.

Again, the post-work society would resemble something like a return to the state of nature. Less production means less pollution. Less pollution means a greener planet-- or so people believe.

De-industrialization means depending on foreign countries for our basic needs. Have you noticed that we are now facing a shortage of pharmaceuticals? I trust you understand that we import something like 90% of our pharmaceuticals from the Middle Kingdom-- point that tells us that no matter how much we enjoy the sport of China bashing, it is not necessarily a great idea to trash your major pharmaceutical supplier.

As for environmentally friendly lower emissions standards, they are de-industrializing the West while allowing Asia, especially India and China to corner the market and to force us into dependency:

By the time China, India, and other developing countries have to embrace lower emissions, likely with nuclear power, the largely self-driven de-industrialization of the West will likely be all but complete.

So, Kotkin asks whether we should institute a universal basic income, a UBI, even if it required everyone, including the middle class to pay higher taxes. One might note, as Kotkin did not, that UBI will be especially attractive to the hordes that are currently invading the nation over our Southern border:

In our era, a broad-based UBI would necessitate high taxes, particularly on the already beleaguered middle class. The question will then be who gets what and who pays? Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign was built around UBI, and his plan was estimated to cost around $2.8 trillion annually, paid for by a national value added tax, and higher capital and social security taxes. But some on the Left see even UBI as inadequate, and seek to seize tech wealth and commandeer their technology to create “fully automated luxury communism”—a leisure society paid for by Apple and its counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, much kneejerk opposition to UBI comes from the Right. But Damon Linker, a liberal writing for the Week, describes UBI as the road to “spiritual ruin,” particularly for those most dependent on it. Some on the Left even see it as the construct of a neoliberal “income scam” to hasten the end of productive work and upward mobility. Most voters, according to an October Morning Consult poll, also oppose permanent income supports. Yet Democratic strategists realize that such largesse, once offered, will be likely accepted by recipients and so want to continue it ad infinitum.

UBI, dare we say, infantilizes people. It deprives them of the dignity that they gain from a job well done. People thus infantilized will either need to be controlled by a police state or else they will rebel against their condition.

In many ways, the post-work society will be decadent and demoralizing.

The alternative system, particularly under the de-growth regime, offers a different prospective future. This society may be secure in the basics, but it will be parasitic and stagnant, much like the last centuries of the Roman Empire or the Ch’ing Dynasty. It is a society in which young people can look forward to subsidized schooling, housing, and perhaps part-time work, but may never buy a house, raise a family, or start a significant business.

In short, for reasons that differ slightly from mine, Kotkin explains why the post-work society is a formula for civilizational decline.

In a post-work world, the whole diverse character of our lives—the last remaining vestiges of autonomy—would disappear. It may be true that artificial intelligence will deliver goods and services efficiently, but would they be able to provide personalized service, or allow for human creativity? We may exist in a digital age, but the analog is where we live, and without it our lives will be very bleak indeed—our democracy will be functionally dead as we go from contributors to permanent dependents. In our understandable desire to eliminate poverty and raise basic living standards, we need not embrace a system that turns most people into quiescent drones. The price of security must not be a new and cushy kind of slavery.


Sam L. said...

Sorry, Stuart, I got nuthin'.

David Foster said...

People often talk about automation as if it were something new. It is not. See my series of three posts Attack of the Job-Killing Robots for some historical perspectives.

Part 1 https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/54252.html

Part 2 https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/54256.html

Part 3 https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/55293.html

What is going on today with robotics & AI is a continuation of long-running trends rather than a sharp break, as can be seen by taking a look at the labor productivity statistics. People are indeed needed to do work, and the failure of the education establishment has done serious harm to both skills and to the attitudes required for productive and satisfying work.

David Foster said...

Regarding today's situation in which so many open jobs are unable to attract workers, see the post & discussion thread here:


370H55V said...

During the 2020 presidential campaign, I thought Andrew Yang was on to something--at least in terms of identifying the problem, even if advocating a disastrous policy recommendation for its solution.

We don't need UBI, but we do need to recognize that the demand for labor (of all sorts, including large numbers of yuppie jobs) is shrinking, and that's a good thing. This will require a corresponding reduction in the supply of labor, which can be accomplished via tax policy.

Rather than increase capital gains taxes to "tax the rich", or especially on unrealized gains, as idiot Sen. Ron Wyden proposes, we should be taxing labor income at high rates and income from capital (interest, dividends, rents, etc.) not at all, with the provision that labor income saved/invested will not be taxed either. This will encourage people to earn more of their income from capital and less from labor. At the top, this will result in shorter tenures for managers and executives, making room for those immediately below to move up, and so on. Thus the Ph.D. economist driving a cab gets to be an economist, and someone unemployed gets to be a cab driver.

Don't expect this to be taken seriously any time soon.

Bizzy Brain said...

Ah, yes, bless us with UBI. The left can finally claim victory and realization of their vision for humanity: Nothing to admire nor aspire to, all envies pacified, all ambitions mollified, all behaviors sanctified, all filth normalized.

Sam L. said...

Ahhhh, Ron Wyden! I haven't thought of him since I left Oregon.