Jobless Futures

The US economy’s long stall has confounded establishment economists. Many jobs aren’t coming back. Median wealth has declined by 39% over four years, even as GDP continues to grow (and that growth primarily benefits those at the top.) The “quantitative easers” seem content to print money for the same lords of finance and industry that got us into the current crisis. Some Keynesians have good ideas about infrastructure spending, but are blocked by political gridlock. Meanwhile, a golden remnant discerns salvation in a hard money-driven debt deflation.

On a personal level, the advice gets even more confusing. First, economists told workers to get more skills and education. A “skills gap” left much of America’s workforce unable to compete globally in information age economies. But then it turned out that college graduates were suffering in the current downturn, too. The solution: more education. But what about unemployed grad students? Finally, the economists had an answer: more of the right type of education. Science was the golden ticket. As Thomas Friedman never tires of opining, the geeks will inherit the earth.

Except, it seems, for the chemists and biologists. It turns out they might not be doing as well as even the despised lawyers. Here are some impressions from the Washington Post story “U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there:”

“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . .robust job growth,” said Jim Austin, editor of the online magazine ScienceCareers. “And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job. Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.” . . . Since 2000, U.S. drug firms have slashed 300,000 jobs. . . . [According to one laid-off drug developer,] “Very good chemists with PhDs from Stanford can’t find jobs.”

Perhaps labor economists like Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz will reassure us that Stanford chemists simply need to learn another skill, like end-to-end supply chain management or ventriloquism. Who knows what the magical market will need tomorrow?

From Economism to Futurism

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford has another take on the jobs front. His book The Lights in the Tunnel predicts a relentless replacement of what are now “highly-skilled” jobs with robots.* As I’ve noted in a prior post on automation, that technological process does not need to be disastrous for the average citizen. Its consequences depend on the larger political and economic environment we live in.

What are the most salient features of that environment? What social equality was to Tocqueville’s age, economic inequality is to ours: a “storm of progress” driving events with more force and ferocity than any rival. I’ve written tens of thousands of words on this inequality, but I’m beginning to think that the verbal itself is powerless in the face of the numbers and force behind inequality. As artist Alex Rivera puts it, in an interview with The New Inquiry:**

I don’t think we even have the vocabulary to talk about what we lose as contemporary virtualized capitalism produces these new disembodied labor relations. . . . The broad, hegemonic clarity is the knowledge that a capitalist enterprise has the right to seek out the cheapest wage and the right to configure itself globally to find it. I believe that there has been for the past maybe 40 years a continual march in which capital, confronting a labor movement that, with all its flaws, was somewhat successful in lifting wages and creating space for a middle class in this country, has been relocating the nodes of production outside of the legal space — the nation — in which the labor movement has been operating, organizing, and imagining itself.

The next stage in this process, and I’ve been told by roboticists at M.I.T. that this prediction (which started as satire) is true and in progress, is for capital to configure itself to enable every single job to be put on the global market through the network and its increasingly sophisticated physical outputs.

Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” has begun that process, supplying “turkers” to perform tasks at a penny a pop. Micro-labor is on the rise, leaving micro-wages in its wake. The median worker is shifting from paid vacation to stay-cation to “nano-cation” to “paid time off” to hoarding hours to cover the dry spells when work disappears. These developments are all predictable consequences of a globalization premised on maximizing finance rents, top manager compensation, and returns to the shareholder class.

As long as a capital-driven globalization picks off a few classes of workers at a time, there is little chance for an effective political response to develop. Migrant labor will increase, as the desperate seek out whatever jobs are available. Consider the steady stream of South Asian migrants to the petro-states of the Gulf:

For most privileged professional people, the experience of being forcibly confined for long periods of time is unthinkable. So it is very difficult to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped in the desert, prohibited from bathing, washing after defecating, or drinking water more than thrice a day. Or what it is to live in perpetual fear of a captor who can mete out lashes, further confinement, and even death, at will.

Things won’t get that bad in the US any time soon, but employees without union protection should expect shrinking wages and ever-greater infringements on their freedom. Consider this list of what’s already allowed:

On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to peeor forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they wantsay what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). . . .

They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss(fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searchedcalling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. . . .

They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.

Not content merely to squeeze workers, elites now demand “soft skills” to make the process as non-conflictual as possible. Sometimes these include real protocols for making service work a better experience for both workers and customers.  But they also include meek submission to all the indignities above, a cowed deference to virtually any legal demand a boss may make, and internalizing mantras like “if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.”

Workers with virtually any level of education are vulnerable to unemployment, putting in hours off the clock, and enduring a high-stress, precarious workplace.  The answer to these problems is not to tell them to get more skills.  Given advances in automation, it is hard to imagine a future where more than 10% of workers are in a position to simply walk away from declining wages or working conditions without serious consequences.  If there is an answer to the “jobless futures” so many are facing, or the feudal workplaces so many already endure, it will need to come from a collective vision of common future.  The “skills solution” is simply another way for “a structural problem of capitalism [to be] dumped into the lives of young people as their personal problem.”

* I put the skill term in quotes both to reflect our ever-changing perception of “skill” and to underline the bizarre normative heft of the term. As Ha Joon Chang argues, an impoverished rickshaw driver probably demonstrates far more “skills” in a day than a Swedish taxi driver–but the latter is paid far more. Is the driver more skilled or productive? Or simply blessed by his location and place of birth?

**This is the fourth year in a row I’ve mentioned Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer on this blog. I think it encapsulates a future all-too-near for the struggling American lower middle class, and the “NEETs” (not in education, employment, or training) of Europe.

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