I wonder if the puritan work ethic will survive the robots

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“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” — H.L. Mencken

For most of my life, I’ve been led to believe that money is a measure of value — but it’s not, it’s a medium of exchange. Value is subjective. I’ve also been led to believe that I must suffer in order to earn money. I’ve seen people suffer for money. I’ve seen them go day in and day out to a job that is literally killing them. I’ve seen them talk about hating their job, hating their boss, and then do nothing about it.

“I can’t change jobs now. I have a mortgage to pay, a family to feed, a car loan to pay off and $20,000 in credit card debt and another $50k in student loans.”

That was the trap I always wanted to avoid.

For most of my life, I kind of floated along with jobs that I didn’t hate, but didn’t love either. I tried starting my own business, but expenses always caught up to me because I had no idea how to do marketing. I know, I could have asked for help. I knew how to keep the business when I got it, but didn’t know how to grow it. Often, the jobs I got didn’t utilize my talents, one of them being writing.

For someone like me, it’s actually kind of scary being self-employed. There has always been something about being employed that I liked, namely, steady income. I find a job, use my transferable skills to do the job and do what I always do: I show up like clockwork and do the work without complaint. I do more than what they ask me to do if I can in the hopes that employers will see the value I offer — for a raise. That worked for awhile.

The employer’s game

Lately, though, most employers are acting like it’s still 2008. They took advantage of a slack job market for lower pay. Even with low unemployment, wages have been stagnating relative the huge increases in income seen by the top 1%. We’re still recovering even if we have closed the jobs gap from The Great Recession. Most of those jobs are gig and contract jobs, not the full time steady employment jobs we used to enjoy. Employers seem to think that somehow automation is going to save them. It never really does. They still have to sell the product for a price that covers their costs plus a tidy profit — to customers who actually have money.

Here’s the kicker: As automation increases, employers will continue to think that the skills required to do the job will be reduced by robots, and will warrant lower pay. But if they pay their employees less, well, there will be fewer customers for their product. Even if a business does not sell directly to consumers, say they sell to other businesses, so their customers have customers. And if those customers don’t have money to spend, everyone is out of business.

So here we are, after a long series of policy decisions have been made solely on the basis of “merit”. The consequences of those decisions, which inexorably led to stagnating wages to feed astronomical salaries for CEOs and the rentier class, have come home to roost and they are still here.

Yes, “unemployment” is at 4% or so now. But that’s the U-3 rate calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to MSNBC, the real unemployment rate U-6, is still 7.6% as of December, 2018, and has not moved that far from where it was (8.4%) before the Great Recession — even with Donald “The Dealmaker” Trump, in the White House. Is this what big employers are counting on to keep wages low?

Who needs infrastructure? I’m already making money!

While our leaders tell us to get new skills to find a job, they’re not creating the jobs we need. They’re not rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. They’re not making college free because hey, you need to suffer kid. You need to pay your dues. If you have health problems, suck it up and go into debt.

If your solution is a hammer (debt), every problem begins to look like a nail. In this case, if you want your large company to continue to grow, you must keep people working and buying what they want, or even better yet, what they need — on time. Get them to put it on the card. VISA, AMEX, who cares? As long as they have debts to service, they will keep working and they will work for less.

Instead of spending money on things that will make the economy grow, those who are in power now are using their political power to redirect income upward, just as they have been doing for the last 40 years. It’s all about shifting burdens, externalizing costs. Shift the burdens of employment more and more onto the employee. Shift the costs of health care, day care, retirement and anything else they can think of, just shove it onto the employee. They’ll manage.

I’ve seen employers get all happy about what “a great place to work” their company is, doing everything they can to avoid raising wages and it’s not pretty. They will engage in enormous mergers just to avoid giving off any scent of a raise for their employees.

The unspoken game of shifting burdens

The entire struggle between employers and employees is one of shifting burdens. We fight over things like health care, retirement, overtime, working hours, vacation time and input over the direction of the company. For much of the time between 1932 and 1978, labor had been winning the struggle and the economy was relatively stable. Since the Reagan Administration, many of the union gains have either been marginalized, destroyed or shifted back onto the employee, and a few major recessions ensued.

Now we’re supposed to be worried about the robots. Robots are going to take our jobs they say. If you insist on paying a burger flipper $15 an hour, he’s going to be replaced by a robot. That’s going to happen whether or not you pay that burger flipper $15 an hour. Eventually, robots will become commodities.

With robots doing the work…wait. Which work? Are robots doing the menial labor? Cleaning the bathrooms and scrubbing the floors? Not yet. They’re making cars and phones and TVs. Isn’t that interesting that they’re not universally mowing our lawns, scrubbing our toilets, or making our beds at the hotel? I think it is.

All of this really deep thinking was prompted by an article posted on Steemit by Scott Santens (@scottsantens), his transcription of a lecture by philosopher and writer, Alan Watts. Watts posed and answered a question that few of us are asking:

Who will pay for basic income guaranteed?

And the answer is…

The Robots

Whoosh! There goes the game of shifting burdens. Well, it won’t go away completely. While the people who own the robots (and the patents on the robots) will tell everyone else that they have to grub around for a job that robots aren’t doing yet, the people who own the robots will still need someone to buy the products they want to sell for a profit. Basic income guaranteed would largely do away with that struggle between employer and employee, and give customers money they can use to buy stuff other than pitchforks and torches.

Imagine a world with basic income guaranteed

If employees have a basic income to work with, they might start their own businesses, go to school to learn more skills, or just save the money. In small scale experiments, they’ve done all that and more. As far as I know, none of them sat around the house watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island all day. That is the basic argument behind basic income guaranteed: with basic income, people move from survival mode to seeking self-actualization, doing what they love to do, and finding ways to earn money with that desire.

Oh, sure. The robot owners of the rentier class will go after the Third World for customers, but even the Third World can smell their predators a mile away. They’re the people who will be building the robots. They will lay claim to their slice of the revenue from all this production.

But all that money still has to go somewhere. Money only has power when it moves. So if you park your billions in the Bahamas, or Panama, your customers won’t have money to buy your products. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

If the robots can absorb the burdens that your employees won’t, there’s a still a problem. Robots aren’t customers and I doubt they will be in our lifetimes. All they need is maintenance and electricity. Plus a steady supply of spare parts.

As I write this, I’m thinking of Piers Anthony’s, The Blue Adept Trilogy. I’m reminded of the world of Proton where robots make everything and playing games is what people do for work. That is a world where demand can never catch up with supply. That’s probably where we’re headed.

Now if we can just shake this puritanical work ethic that says that people must suffer for their keep, even if the robots are doing most of the work.

Write on.

Originally published at steemit.com on August 9, 2017. Updated with more timely information, for clarity and anything else that comes with another review.

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