I find it difficult to warm up to Charles Murray’s concepts about social norms. His views, in his new book “Coming Apart,” seem to be locked into the idea that the economy holds more jobs than it does, and that many who have been out of work for a lengthy period are just bums who are not really serious about looking for work. Many he assumes are just looking for government hand outs and an easy life.That’s likely an oversimplification somewhat unfair to Murray, but it seems to be the gist of it, as he tried to explain in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece last week.
Murray doesn’t seem to have heard about advances in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. These are all contributing factors in the reducing need for human labor, extensively discussed by many but particularly by Jeremy Rifkin and Martin Ford. These factors continue to accelerate. Their effect is measured partly by the continuing increases in productivity seen in not just manufacturing, but in every aspect of the economy. We do more and more with fewer and fewer people doing the labor while more and more is done by robots, scanners and increasingly by all sorts of intelligent autonomous devices. The logical conclusion is that most jobs will be done eventually by “machines” and that there will be little or no “work” as we now understand it. In that event, we will have to rethink how the society is to be organized.
This pattern did not emerge all at once but in stages. First, we lost most of the farm jobs, and now we are losing manufacturing jobs at an accelerated rate and service jobs still slowly in some cases and rapidly in others. But, because computer power, robots and artificial intelligence is collectively picking up speed, so too is the loss of jobs. Off shoring of some jobs is only a temporary step affecting the main high-wage industrial nations. Paying lower wages in China and India or in other countries is only a temporary step. Those jobs will be automated also, and this is already beginning to happen in China and India and other locations.
We’ve known about the job losses associated with automation for some time. Economists have always believed that new jobs would appear to replace job losses associated with automation. However, past a certain point the economy will not invent new jobs. We may need to do that for ourselves. In the American experience, as many jobs have eroded due to automation, computers, scanners and artificially intelligent devices making large inroads into domestic businesses, and also due to large scale off-shoring, eliminating many domestic businesses and their jobs. Many workers who have lost jobs to automation and off-shoring have not been able to find comparable jobs. When they do find jobs, these are often part time jobs with few if any fringe benefits and with far lower salaries, partly due to supply v. demand. Also, with more and more people looking for fewer and fewer jobs, lower wages can be offered. Someone will always accept less when the competition is keen.
With no benefits, the new worker has no insurance and no contribution from the new employer to his/her 401K or equivalent. Of course, they pay into Social Security in most instances, but since that is generally a long way off, workers don’t give much thought to the fact that they will have a hard time living off Social Security benefits alone. But since most new workers accepting these jobs are happy to have money coming in and are mostly younger workers without significant skills or job training, they tend not to give the matter of savings for retirement much thought. In the matter of insurance they are likely just crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
Those working at these low paying jobs on a part time basis are likely to be continuing efforts to find an alternative full time job, or a second part time job, hopeful that the hours required for the two jobs will not overlap. Some households may have two adults in part time jobs and perhaps one or more older children working part time and helping out as well. Everyone in the household will make contributions to household chores to reduce expenses. These can include energy (heating/cooling) savings, modest to major fix-it jobs (everything from simple clean up to painting to carpentry to roof repair). If a job needs doing and no one knows how to do it, someone has to learn or perhaps a friend in the neighborhood knows how to do it and will help while someone in the family learns the task. The family then owes the friend either needs pay out of pocket or the friend will perhaps accept alternative work from members of the family on an up-coming project.
The family can also create a garden if there is space or participate in a community garden. This saves on food bills, and maybe creates an extra bounty for out-of-season storage in a freezer or food cellar. What is clear is that the members of the family have more free time (at least in the case of the adults who only work part time , or not at all). In addition to individual efforts, the family can participate in organized efforts by the community to cut living costs of all participants–everything from child care to car pools to volunteers for small construction and repair projects. Alternatively, if the head of the household has a specific skill (electrical, carpentry, or plumbing or welding are common valued skills) the labor can be sold to those who need it and can afford to pay in addition to using it in the community efforts.
Under these community efforts people will collaborate, learn from one another and begin to rebuild much of the social capital they may have lost while working excessively at jobs which may not have netted very much more than they have now when all the collaborating cost saving efforts they now have are taken into consideration. Of course, they make do with less and spend fewer dollars in the community at large, and also contribute less to the net GNP, their greater self-sufficiency not withstanding. There is hidden value-added here, and, one can argue, an elevated quality of life contribution to the economic system.