Valuing Humans Beings for Being Human

The number of unadjusted jobs reported for May was 144.592 million. The estimated adult population of the US is over 250 million. That is over 100 Million more people than jobs. There are not enough jobs for them all. That’s not my opinion or a political talking point. That is a fact. (
Only 59.2% of American adults have a job. The labor-force participation rate, the real number of employed people (including those can’t work, don’t want to, or want to but have given up trying) fell to 62.4% last quarter. The highest it has been in my lifetime was 64.7 in April of 2001. Just that one month. (
There are not enough jobs for everyone. The promise of the industrial revolution was that there would not be enough work for everyone to do 40, even 30 hours a week. We’ve blown past that. Just as the cotton gin put people out of work, computers and robots continue to make human labor obsolete.
We currently place to much importance on how economically productive a person is; how much do they make; how much do they make their employer; how easily replaced are they. The fact is that we are all replaceable, eventually, if profit continues to be the biggest motivation. We need it not to be, or humanity will devalue itself out of existence.
There are two things we could do to address this:
Continue to value people by productivity, but give up technology. We could all be Amish, and use only the minimum tech needed to get along, while reserving the largest portion of labor for humans and animals, so that they retain their value; so that they retain their “pride”.
The other solution is to abandon the idea that human beings need to earn their value. Give up the idea that some people are worth more than others because they are capable of more on some level. We can start valuing humans just because we are humans. We can set up a standard of living that no one is allowed to fall below, and we can focus our resources on maintaining that basic level of humanity above individual profit and prestige. We tax people and, especially, corporations with money to support individuals without.
The gains of the second option are many. The few tests on such programs show that people are healthier, better educated, and (because they can do work they love rather than taking work for food and shelter) they are actually more productive. They know that they can innovate, create, and enjoy life and that they will have a place to sleep and steady meals, making it possible to choose to invent, start a business, or create art.
So, put me down as a supporter of some kind of minimum income/reverse income tax. I will let economists and sociologists sort out the details before I pick a plan, but it seems to me that we have a need to change how we value human beings, and that we need to address it soon. This, to me, is the more reasonable and optimistic answer. I will admit that the Amish seem to have something that works for them, though.

12 Responses

  1. Several points I want to make here, speaking from a perspective both as an economist and a lifelong UU:

    1. Yes, there aren’t enough jobs to fully employ all those who want to work. But the statistics you cite don’t show that, in that we would NEVER expect in ANY society anywhere CLOSE to 100% of the adult population to be working in paid employment. People are retired, in school, taking care of children or parents, or searching for a new job. Any reasonable standard of what the employment to population ratio “should be” is going to be far less than 100%. If you want real statistics on the true “job gap”, go to the Hamilton Project at Brookings — they do a monthly job gap analysis.

    2. I would say most economists would be skeptical of the notion that technology alone will eliminate the need and demand for human labor. If technology improves productivity in some sectors and incomes go up, this increases demand for services, and at least some of the services will be quite labor intensive.There will always be services that are difficult or impossible to automate even as robots improve, although what those services will be might change over time.

    3. There is of course the issue of the quality of jobs, in terms of pay and working conditions. We would certainly hope that as the economy develops and progresses, that the quality of jobs would improve, and that the accompanying increases in pay would give people more opportunities to work fewer hours, and to do so in jobs they find more meaningful. Keynes, at any rate, clearly hoped that by now we would make more progress in that direction than we have. It is an interesting question as to why we have not.

    4. As for the ideal: I think one can argue philosophically whether it is better to have a society in which we have effectively a guaranteed annual income, or whether we have a society with effectively guaranteed full employment at decent wages and working conditions. Either ideal is a heavy lift, and requires intelligent public policies that cost money. Personally, I believe that a society in which all people have the right to a decent job is (1) a more achievable ideal, and (2) a better ultimate goal to keep in mind as it leads to proximate intermediate goals that are more politically plausible.

    It is worth keeping in mind that FDR, an American President who moved the U.S. in a strongly progressive direction, absolutely HATED welfare, and instead took very aggressive action to create jobs for people. Look at his 1935 State of the Union address , in which he said:

    “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.”

    Now, I suppose one could try to repudiate this progressive tradition that takes it as a given that one important source of self-pride and meaning is work. But I think it is better to instead try to make sure that all of those able to work can find good jobs at good wags.

    • Let me take your comment point by point, to the logical conclusion.

      1: There are also teens working in jobs, even at a full-time level, so all such numbers are a guess. The fact that there are not, have not been, and will never be enough full-time employment for every bale bodied person still stands.

      2: I don’t see how it is relevant what economists believe about technology. Technology is already trading stocks, writing music, and making hamburgers. Robots and computer programs are capable of doing every job that is not dependent on people buying direct contact with other people. Economics has always been a reactionary, rather than visionary, field, as all “social sciences” are.

      3: See above. Quality of jobs will only improve in that people who have money are willing to pay for experiences and “artisanal” products.

      4: See above. Creating more incentives for people to work is shortsighted. Have you seen the Jetsons? George is paid to sit in an office and push a button repeatedly, just so that he has a job that the audience can identify with. He could be at home, raising his kids or writing poetry, but instead, he is forced to justify his existence in ever more meaningless ways. That is the future of assured employment.

      • 1. It is incorrect to say that there has never been full employment. There was during World War II in the U.S., periods of times in 1960s in the U.S., and at various times in the post World War II period in different European countries. By “full employment”, I mean that unemployment was reduced to a frictional level due to some unemployment always occurring as people search for new jobs, and that a very small if any proportion of non-labor-force participation was due to “discouraged workers” who stopped looking for jobs because none were to be found.

        2 and 3. Your comment is unclear. Are you saying that RIGHT NOW robots and computer programs are capable of doing every job that is not dependent on people buying direct contact with other people? If so, that seems wrong. There aren’t any great novels, poems, and songs written by computers. There aren’t any great scientific experiments and research papers written by computers. Now, maybe there will be in the future, but there isn’t now . However, people have been predicting the singularity for a long time, but it hasn’t happened on schedule. And it might very well never happen. The notion that it is easy for us to replicate with computers the human intelligence that it took evolution over 4 billion years to create may not be at all correct.

        Even if computers DID succeed in doing everything that humans could do, except for human-to-human services, what makes you think the demand for labor that involves direct contact with other people is necessarily limited? I could imagine a huge demand for such person-to-person services in the future.

        4. Who says the ideal is the Jetsons? That’s a strawman. Obviously part of improving the quality of work is trying to design jobs that are more meaningful and creative. One would hope that if we can improve the general standard of living, and if technology can free us from some of the more mind-numbing drudgery of many jobs, that more jobs will emphasize creativity and be engaging and liberating.

        • I provided a link that further explains that computers will replace human labor. You can argue those points, but you are instead restating the arguments that link already debunked.

          The Jetsons is not ideal, which was my point. At best, we will look like Star Trek, where helmsmen are told by computers what the courseshould be, report that they have a course to the captain, who tells them to click “ok” to execute the course. Way more interesting, and basically the same situation. It is all but inevitable, barring some sort of Amish/Luddite revolution.

          Again, you are free to “feel” otherwise, but people who understand technology are the experts. They say, overwhelmingly, that you are wrong.

          • I’m afraid I totally disagree with you as to what the experts say, and, for that matter, who are the experts. The notion that you can predict the future of the labor market by just talking to technology people seems very strange. You might want to at least spend some time talking to people who study labor markets, which includes labor sociologists, labor economists, industrial relations specialists, etc. You might want to also talk to some historians. There is a long history of people predicting that machines would lower labor demand to zero. The historical record of these predictions panning out is conclusive: they haven’t panned out.

            I think Wikipedia provides a more balanced discussion of this issue than you provide. This highlights how this has been a perennial discussion at many times in the past, but might be more of a problem in the future.

            Quoting the Wikipedia article, they say the following: “In 2014, Pew Research canvassed 1,896 technology professionals and economists and found a split of opinion: 48 percent of respondents believed that new technologies would displace more jobs than they would create by the year 2025, while 52 percent maintained that they would not.”

            I don’t think 48% saying that there will be more job displacement than job creation (with presumably many thinking the difference will not be great) is exactly an “overwhelming” consensus by experts that we are in for a future of joblessness.

            I don’t find the link you provide particularly convincing, and I don’t think most readers who actually click on the link will find it convincing either. It mostly consists of assertions about the future that are by their nature unproveable. What credentials does the author have to be regarded as an expert?

          • You’re probably not interested in this debate anymore, but Vox had a very interesting interview on Universal Basic Income with Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who is clearly one of the people in DC with the most expertise in dealing with both the politics and substance of poverty. Greenstein has some concerns about UBI, as explained in the interview.

    • Mr. Earthman: I don’t think we’re communicating very well.

      Most economists, including me, have in fact consistently argued that technological change will eliminate SOME jobs in SOME sectors of the economy.

      Most economists would also argue that such elimination might result in large losses of earnings to displaced workers, both in the short-run and long-run. There is a huge history of research on this topic, including some prominent research sponsored by my employer, the Upjohn Institute.

      But your original argument is that technological change will result in an OVERALL shortage of jobs. And this is far from obvious, and depends on many factors, including some that can be altered by policy.

      Take the piece that you linked to in Vox, on self-driving trucks replacing truckers. It is certainly the case that it is possible that such a future technological change will reduce the labor demand for truckers, and cause large-scale displacement of workers in this sector, with consequent loss of earnings.

      But that is simply the DIRECT, IMMEDIATE impact in ONE labor market. The overall labor market impact is far more uncertain.

      Presumably the reason that businesses may substitute self-driving trucks for truckers is that this saves money. Probably a lot of the cost savings is because one needs fewer workers to design and build self-driving trucks compared to the number of truckers that would be needed to drive those trucks. So there is a labor cost savings.

      But that labor cost savings has to go SOMEWHERE in the economy. Here are some possibilities:

      (1) Some of the labor cost savings may go to increased profits of businesses, which will result in increased income of owners of capital. That increased income of owners of capital will in turn have some effect on increasing consumption of other goods and services, which will increase labor demand in whatever sectors of the economy are demanded by owners of capital. Some of this increased income may also be saved, which may result in increased investment, which will increase labor demand in other sectors of the economy.

      (2) Some of the labor cost savings may reduce prices of goods that use trucking inputs. This reduced price may increase demand for those goods, which will increase labor demand associated with increased production of those goods. If demand for those goods has an elasticity of between -1 and 0 (e.g., goes up by a lesser percentage in absolute value than the percentage decline in prices), which seems likely because this tends to be true for most goods, then total expenditure on those goods will go down, which will result in more income available to buy other goods and services, which will increase labor demand in these other sectors of the economy.

      (3) Some of the labor cost savings, and the increased incomes and overall GDP that it generates will result in some increase in tax revenue, which may allow an increase in government spending without increasing the budget deficit. This increase in government spending will also increase demand for labor in some sectors of the economy.

      (4) If the net effects of the direct effect, plus indirect effects 1,2, and 3, is to increase the unemployment rate, then the government can through monetary and fiscal policy increase overall labor demand to offset this increase in unemployment without an increased inflationary risk.

      Now, which of these effects occur depends upon public policy, to some extent. The labor demand increases due to increased profits are modest, but such profit increases will be more likely to instead be transferred into reduced prices of goods if the government makes sure that markets are competitive and are not monopolized. So antitrust policy can help transfer more of the benefits of the labor cost savings to average consumers, who are more likely to spend the money.

      Tax and expenditure policy can influence whether some of the labor cost savings are taxed and used to finance infrastructure projects.

      And overall federal policy towards unemployment and inflation can influence whether policymakers are more or less aggressive in using fiscal and monetary policy.

      In addition, policy can influence not only the aggregate number of jobs but their wages. It seems likely that many of the new jobs created in industries whose labor demand goes up due to either increased incomes of capital owners or reduced prices for adult consumers will tend to be lower wage than the original trucking job. But this would be less likely if public policy promoted a higher minimum wage and had greater protection for the right to unionize, both of which would push up wages in some of these alternative service sector jobs.

      In addition, the infrastructure jobs that might be created would tend to be relatively high wage, although exactly how high would depend on many details of the infrastructure program’s design.

      Now, what about the truckers? Do any of these alternative jobs help them, even if they help some other workers? In some cases, they might, for example perhaps some truckers could shift to some infrastructure jobs. And perhaps the transition to other jobs could be helped with generous spending on job training programs.

      However, such shifts of truckers to other sectors are less likely for older truckers who are displaced. So what should policy do for these older displaced workers? One can make a good case that some of these long-term displaced workers should receive some type of lump sum compensation to allow for early retirement. However, for this compensation to come anywhere close to making up for a sizable share of these older displaced workers’ lost wages, the compensation levels would have to higher than seems plausible for a universal basic income. To make such higher compensation more plausible, it probably will need to be more targeted than a universal basic income.

      • We know exactly what happens to money saved on labor costs: it goes into the accounts of the owners and investors and is hoarded. Investment in growing businesses has been anemic for over as decade, and and nothing “trickles down”. We know this.

        Equally, we know that prices on consumer goods rarely come down. That just doesn’t happen. Production is at an all-time high, and profits have been increasing every year of the Obama presidency, and the CPI has not dropped a single percentage point in any year in my lifetime, and almost certainly not in yours either.

        Since the money saved will not be going to spending, and there is no indication that it will after the initial outlay for the technology, there will be no increase in tax revenue without a change in tax policy.

        And if it did, what increase in government spending are you expecting? We can’t fund basic maintenance on infrastructure as it is. The GOP will block any attempt to make improvements to the quality of life in the USA while a Democrat is in the White House, the Speakership, or leading the Senate.

        And even if we did suddenly start spending on infrastructure, the bulk of those jobs would be short lived, and while that has traditionally been good at jump-starting the economy, it fails completely to address that there will still be more and more people every year vying for fewer and fewer jobs because the population of humans is increasing, but so is the population of robots.

        • You like EPI, which is a good thing, because they do a lot of good work. (Full disclosure: I have done some research in the past sponsored by EPI, or published by EPI, and I have known Larry Mishel, the President of EPI, since he was a fellow grad student of mine at Wisconsin.)

          You should be aware that EPI pretty much totally disagrees with this whole analysis that “robots destroying jobs” is really the key issue with income and wage inequality. They have consistently argued over the years that income and wage inequality trends are driven more by policy choices than by technological change.

          See, for example, the following EPI analyses:

          You might also look at another progressive think tank, one that frequently does complementary work to EPI’s, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and one of their key leaders, Dean Baker:

          To quote Dean Baker from the last piece:

          “In terms of the underlying issue, whether we face a problem of robots taking all the jobs or too few workers, I come down firmly in the middle. There is little reason to think that rapid productivity growth should pose a problem for workers. We had rapid productivity growth in the Golden Age and it was associated with low rates of unemployment and rapid wage increases, as workers shared in the benefits of productivity growth. Given the slow current pace of productivity growth it is difficult to believe that it will quickly accelerate to a point that is so much faster than in the Golden Age, so that it is actually difficult to combat the job displacement with new jobs in other sectors.”

          On one modest point in your comment: prices can decline due to technological change even if the CPI goes up if those relative prices go up by less than they otherwise would. No actual price declines are required for prices to be affected by shocks to productivity. In fact, it is EASIER for relative prices to adjust if the CPI is going up faster.

          • Economists don’t know what’s coming. That’s consistent with over 100 years of economics. I am citing analysis of the past, because that is what Economics can do effectively.

            It is like archeology. You look at what happened, and make guesses about why and what we might learn from it, but it isn’t really useful for building lasting policy. Which is why the field has failed to keep us out of bubbles and recessions, even when they are predictable.

  2. The people who know about computers and robotics know that human jobs are in danger. Economists will learn to late what engineers already know. Economics is a reactionary field. Important, but not predictive.

Speak your piece

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: