The Ludites Warned Us: Good things don’t trickle down.

Water trickles down. That’s where the economic metaphor comes from. The problem is, that if you want to compare money to water, you have to compare the whole cycle:

Water purity reaches its peak in the sky, where it is as clean as water can naturally be above ground. From there, it mixes with dust or pollutants and gets heavy, falling from the sky as rain. Only when it has passed through filtering layers of rock, once again becoming difficult to see or reach, can it be said to be clean again. Then, it is pumped to the surface, and sold to people on whom it previously fell for free. The clean water can’t be used in the sky, and just gets dirtier as it goes along, until it ends up in the ocean or the ground, and either way, it is then hard to drink.

That is the fallacy of trickle-down economics: when something is good, it doesn’t trickle. People who have good things try to hold on to them. The people who have money don’t give it to people for fun. They don’t even hire people for fun. They need the same food and drink that you and I do, but then they have so much more. They don’t spend that to spur jobs or to finance would-be competitors. They see economics as a zero-sum game (which is almost true in a lifetime), and they protect their share.

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been told that, with investments in technology, lives will only get easier. The Ludites were a labor-terrorist group in early 19th century England, primarily made up skilled textile workers. They saw the rise of industrialization both taking their jobs, and producing inferior goods. They fought against industrialization with literal fighting and the smashing of equipment. They saw that the future did not value the worker, and believed that it would eventually cease to value men in general.

The world may look very different from the 1800s, but people haven’t changed much at all. In 1970, New York Magazine ran this quote from engineer, author, futurist, and fellow Unitarian, R Buckminster Fuller:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Now, I disagree with Mr. Fuller in the prospect that we are creating jobs to keep people busy. Even in his day, job creation wasn’t about charity or keeping people busy. No employer of mine has ever been overly concerned about whether or not my job was making me feel like I was justifying my existence, or even my pay check. Jobs are created solely based on the needs of the employer to have more work done than they can get out of their present workforce.

The thing is, people generally do want to earn their living. Few people would rather take charity than give it in the long run. We pretend that there are only a few hundred people born in a generation who could make a real difference, but honestly, hundreds of people could have been Mark Zuckerburg; his idea wasn’t actually original. As with Thomas Edison, who had dozens of people inventing for him, Zuckerberg hired people who did the work, or bought up ideas from others. The real trick to success, it seems, is a bit of luck and the willingness to step over, if not on, others to be successful.

In the 1950s, America heard a lot of talk about flying cars, robots, and how mechanization was going to make everything better. We would even be able to work fewer days, because the machines would do so much for us. The fact is that we do work fewer days, now. The people who own the machines realized that, rather than hiring 3 people to work 20 days a week, though, they could out one person on salary, and make her work 60 hours. The fact is, we’ve been lied to, and it is still happening.

MIT economists David Autor and David Dorn, working from the United States Department of Labor statistics, found that automation caused sharp losses of middle class jobs, forcing a polarization of wages and greater income inequality. The jobs that are created in the wake of automation are fewer skilled jobs that decrease their high pay due to competition and the ease with which they can be moved. Meanwhile, the unskilled workers are competing for a smaller number of service and manual labor positions, reducing wages for them as well.

As we’ve seen in the US over the last 15 years, things are not getting better for workers, skilled or unskilled. The pizza delivery person is now very likely to have a college degree. The culture won’t accept that there aren’t enough clogged drains to support ten million plumbers, or enough cars being sold to warrant 10 million new factory jobs. People who want to work, can’t. People who want to volunteer, to educate themselves, to create art, or even stay home and raise their children themselves are starving.

The world has more people than it can support, but there really isn’t that much more work to be done.

We need a Humanist revolution. We need people to be valued for being people, and for what they are capable of doing, even when it doesn’t make them rich. People have said for generations that you don’t go in to teaching for the money. Teachers can make a pretty good living, these days, but they don’t get rich. What they give to their communities, though, is equal to any other service anyone provides. The same applies to firefighters or police officers. Even the enlisted men and women of the US Armed Forces don’t make enough money to support their families. I dare anyone to prove that they don’t deserve it.

People are suffering, not because of any more fault of their own than the starving children in Africa. It is the time in human civilization  in which we are all born. We cannot solve the real root of this problem without a major shift in culture. We have to stop valuing people so heavily by the money they make. We have to admit that either being alive makes you worthy of a certain quality of life, or we need fewer people being born, at whatever cost, so that each person has some chance to succeed.


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