--Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Much of the American economy is dedicated to keeping the American economy running. Like the bird people in Adams's shoe event horizon, we have entered upon a recursively-slippery slope that sends us plunging who-knows-where, and the only means we think we have to escape are the means that compound our problems.
A couple hundred years ago, we created labor saving machines to allow us to do more with less effort, with fewer humans. We are still engaged in this process, in the process of reducing human effort and involvement in work. But we were excited back then, happy that we would be able to create a common life, a life of ease once we had created machines to do our work for us. And the vision wasn't just one of American dominance and ease; it was one of global benefit. And now we complain that the global job market is equalizing? Or is it that we prefer to send charity to other countries, but not real work, not the means for a real life?
Why are we complaining that we have succeeded? If we now have come to the point where our efficiency in meeting human needs has outstripped the need for humans to be involved, this is a great good for society! This means that we all have to work less, or can work at jobs we consider fun.
But we are complaining because our success is bitter. Sorry, utopias. You can change the entire environment, the living conditions, the quality of life, but you can't change who we are. And we're greedy. Now, maybe not really really really greedy, like the other guy, but we are moderately greedy enough within our own culture to be willing to bulldoze the other other guy, the one without a roof over his head. The one who would be glad to get half of what we have.
In the struggle to get ahead, we must always leave someone behind. This is our folly. Getting ahead is pointless. But people forget, and sacrifice their own contentment for unknown future pleasure, sacrificing everyone else's contentment with it.
We don't like to step back, to settle for a little bit less. Most expect to get at least as much stuff as their parents. Nobody thinks of living with less so someone else may have some joy, some comfort, a piece of a stable life. Equilibrium has no definition in the mind of the American individualist. The proposed means to a better life? Lift yourself out, get ahead.
If everyone worked hard to get ahead, then everybody would have enough...laziness causes economic hardship...
Really? Then why not be pleased with outsourcing, which gives people in other countries the opportunity to get ahead?
If grammar were a source of wisdom, as the logicians say, we could also say this: if everyone worked hard to get ahead, we would nullify each other's actions, all be behind, and nobody would be satisfied. But can we trust grammar?
Workman, do you like to grow things? Let the robot fill your place in the assembly line and go to the garden, cultivate the food supply. We have robots to turn the tomatoes into tomato sauce, machines to mix and cook and organize healthy diets. So go to the garden, and be content.
This will never happen. No, we have invented ourselves out of employment, but we have kept the old rules in place. Now we must invent ourselves into employment by asking our leaders to create jobs. And millions still starve.
All this I knew. In fact, all this I argued before.
Then I read Buddhist Economics by E.F. Schumacher, a well-organized, well-written analysis of Western economics. Although I may disagree with Buddhists on religious topics, I agree with the idea of one's religion pervading one's entire sphere of life, a not-so-popular belief these days. But first, a an overview of Schumacher...
Schumacher suggests the following ideas about Western economics:
- the modern materialist way of life has brought forth modern economics
- Economists... normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions
He then launches into an attempt to understand modern Western economics. It goes like this:
- the fundamental source of wealth is human labour
- labour is merely a necessary evil
- from the point of view of the employer, it is ... simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automaton.
- to employees, it is a "disutility"; to work is to make a sacrifice of one's leisure and comfort...wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.
- Thus, everyone wants production (for this is the only viable reason to work in a Western society) to be more efficient. Everyone wants assembly lines or robots.
- The result: employers hire fewer people and those people are less skilled
- The effect? Workers are unhappy, because they're losing jobs and becoming more bored at work, while the employer gets richer.
This is my father's experience in the factory.
In a way, my father is glad that he is a hispanic and receives fewer opportunities. One day, soon after he first began to work there, he was sweeping the floor around the workshop where he repairs the factory machinery.
A chief engineer rushed frantically into the workshop.
"Hey, give me that broom!"
My dad was surprised.
"What do you need me to sweep for you?"
"No! Stop sweeping! I want to sweep the shop." His face twisted in despair.
"But you're a chief engineer."
"Look, just give me the broom, Ok? I gotta do something useful today. If I don't sweep, or do something, anything, I don't know how I can live with myself. You don't understand! I just want to know that I did something useful today."
More thoughts will follow on Schumacher and his idea of living a whole religious life, not one of these segmented, postmodern ones that people seem to think is one's moral obligation. But that will come later. That issue is even more complex and important than economics, although economics is the perfect arena to examine it in.
I want to think about it some more first. Because this post just outlines a problem. The solution (if there is one, depending on who is to live the solution), of course, is much more complex.