In San Francisco a tent city lines the sidewalks under a central highway overpass. There are well over a hundred tents.
Who are the people populating these edges of society? Why don’t they just get a job?
An interview with one of them appeared in the SF Chronicle recently. Turns out he’s a middle-aged energy engineer who was in college with Mayor Ed Lee, and is well remembered and liked by Ed and by people at his former employers’ places. He lives in a tent now. And he says he knows several others with such talents now living in similar situations, accomplished, educated people whom society no longer needs.
Some tent dwellers are our best citizens.
I personally know young adults who graduated from college a few years ago, with high grades and marketable skills. You probably do too. They and many others like them are living with their parents, often in the same room they had in high school. They probably have been looking for work for several years. They may have found a bit of temporary work, sometimes in their own field, more often not. If it weren’t for their parents, they would be homeless, because they have no income.
After the crash at the end of the Bush years, large numbers of productive people in their fifties were suddenly without work, and before long without the homes they had expected to retire in. Soon they found their savings gone, their health insurance gone, their careers gone, “retirement” approaching, and they were living in a relative’s basement. All of them had been valued, productive workers.
These are not people from the margins, druggies who made bad choices. These are some of our best citizens. They are victims of the robot revolution. They don’t attract much attention now, but will soon become too numerous and obvious to ignore.
We are not prepared.
Martin Ford documents this trend in The Rise of the Robots. By “robots” he means the machines and computers whose inexorable growth and continual improvement has allowed them to replace increasing numbers of human workers of all sorts, leaving the workers with no place to go. This will change everything we know about the working world, and we are not prepared.
These “robots” have already reached the corner office of corporate headquarters. At least half of the work of top corporate management can already be done cheaper by computers and midlevel analysts in India, particularly since our corporate officers are grossly overpaid. Neither the CEO nor anyone else in a big company is protected. Anyone could be out of work and become unemployable. You have probably read computer-generated sports articles, and never suspected that the sports writer no longer has a job.
How will we accommodate as many as 100 million people for whom there is no work? We have no choice. We must re-define the working world, and soon.
John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s that within a century technology would make possible a world of much less work and far more leisure. That time has arrived, but we have done nothing to prepare for it. All of the benefits of new technology now go to the rich. Mere bragging rights for them, but catastrophe for the victims. Our failure to recognize that Keynes’ prediction has arrived is creating intractable unemployment and poverty for millions of good people.
Forty hours is over and we don’t know what to do.
To change the working world, we will have to battle these billionaires of the far right. They don’t care that their computers put people on the street. They live in a bubble, and think everyone is lazy. Their entire motivation is profit. Their greed will only be overcome by insisting that everyone deserves a decent life.
When we as a nation finally wake up to this new reality, we will realize that the era of the 40-hour work week is long gone, and we don’t know what to do about it. Major social adjustments will be necessary to preserve the dignity of the millions of people who are unable to find work, while providing them with a way to live decently. To do that, we will have to find a better way to distribute the blessings of the modern age.
The Republican mindset claims that all of the unemployed are addicted black people who are too lazy to get a job, and would rather luxuriate on overgenerous government assistance. This ludicrous and blatantly racist claim has been around a long time, and has repeatedly been proven false. But reality means nothing to Republicans these days.
They are unable to explain the productive fifty-somethings who live in the basement, or a tent. Or the former executive who took early retirement when he was forced out, and now lives in a modest condo. Or the sons and daughters who graduated, yet find themselves living in their old bedroom, sleeping in their single bed beneath the old pennants and posters.