Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 9, 2012

Is Widespread Unemployment a Blessing in Disguise?

By N.S. Palmer

An article in this morning’s New York Times observes that as technology has advanced, machines have replaced human workers in more and more fields.

Originally, automation meant mechanization of physical movements. In 19th century England, mechanized looms replaced skilled workers. The newly-unemployed workers formed the Luddite movement and smashed the mechanized looms.

Today, “Luddite” has a negative connotation, suggesting a person who mindlessly opposes technology. But the Luddites had a point. They had spent their lives developing high levels of skill in their fields. To be thrown out of their jobs and replaced by machines was a bitter blow. It was even more bitter because, having devoted themselves to a suddenly-obsolete craft, they had few prospects for any other employment.

We have modern-day Luddites but no Luddite movement. Since the 1970s, robotic technology has increasingly replaced human employees in manufacturing. Retail stores now have “automated self-checkout” lanes that invite shoppers to ring up their own purchases, eliminating the need for human cashiers.

White-collar workers aren’t safe, either. Computerized databases eliminate the need for most file clerks. Automated speech recognition eliminates the need for human telephone representatives. Legal software eliminates the need for lawyers in routine issues. Even X-ray and electrocardiogram interpretation, previously done by medical school graduates with additional specialized training, is now done by computers.

The one job that computers haven’t yet replaced is the job of collecting the profits from eliminating all those other jobs. David Koch, Mitt Romney, and Jamie Dimon are probably safe for the moment. Oh, joy.

Decades ago, science fiction writers envisioned a future in which automation eliminated the need for most human work. Most people were freed from the need to spend most of their time earning a living. Instead, they could engage in study, leisure, civic activities, or self-improvement. But those stories presumed that people would have the means to do so. They didn’t need to worry about “making the rent.”

I don’t know if it’s time to think about decoupling a basic level of income from having a job, but maybe it is. Of course, that would require raising taxes on the super-rich, who would scream about socialism. And it would offend the sensibilities of many people who equate work with virtue.

But all work is not the same. In his book The Time of Our Lives (sadly, out of print), philosopher Mortimer J. Adler wrote about two kinds of work: subsistence work and leisure work.

Subsistence work is what you do merely to earn a living. Let’s be honest: no matter how much most of us like our jobs, we might not do them if we didn’t need the money. That’s subsistence work.

But there’s also leisure work, which you do for recreation or self-improvement: taking classes, reading books, and so on. That’s real work, but it’s work that we choose, for the purpose of improving ourselves or enhancing our lives. It has little in common with, as Peter Gibbons remarked, sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen or obsessing about cover sheets on TPS reports.

Perhaps automation has forced our hand on the issue. Maybe it’s time to consider economic and social changes that would make it possible for more people to devote themselves to leisure work. One idea, floated in the 1970s by conservative Republican President Richard M. Nixon, was a guaranteed annual income for all citizens.

Another option would be a return to the attitude that prevailed in the United States until the 1980s: That businesses had a responsibility not only to their owners, but to their employees and to society at large.

The purpose of an economic system is not to maximize the wealth and power of people at the top, but to provide at least a decent living standard for as many people as possible. That includes decent jobs for people who need them, even if those jobs could be done more cheaply by automation or by nine-year-old children in Asian sweatshops.

When I was in college, I worked one summer as a busboy in a restaurant at the local Hilton hotel. During winter break from school, I needed some extra money, so I called up the hotel’s personnel office to ask if they had anything for me to do. They put me and another student to work picketing the hotel for a publicity stunt. They didn’t have to do it, but I was “part of the family.” They gave me a job for a few days so that I’d have some cash.

Likewise, until the late 1960s, elevator operators were common in large office buildings. The operators pushed buttons that people taking the elevators could easily have pushed for themselves: a very young Shirley Maclaine played an elevator operator in her movie “The Apartment.” Also until the 1960s, gas stations commonly employed attendants who pumped your gas and checked your oil and tire pressure.

It’s cheaper to do without those jobs. If the only responsibility of business is to make the most money for its owners, then it makes sense to eliminate them — and the people who depend on them. But if business has a wider responsibility to contribute to society, or if it has obligations to its employees as well as to its owners, then it makes sense to have jobs like that.

I don’t have the answers. But I know that we can’t continue on the same path we’ve been following. Society will explode beyond the ability of even the most oppressive totalitarian regime to contain it. I suspect that anticipation of such an explosion is one reason the U.S. government incessantly trumpets its “terrorist” bogeyman to justify eliminating Americans’ privacy and Constitutional rights.

We have to make some changes, or change will force itself upon us. If the latter happens, it will be much more unpleasant for everyone, including Wall Street’s self-styled “masters of the universe.”

Postscript: It’s worth adding that most current unemployment in Western economies is not caused by technology, but by inadequate demand. That is a short-term problem that is much easier to remedy if the political will is there to do it.

Copyright 2012 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. I worry that if we freed ourselves from subsistence work, that many wouldn’t move to leisure work — they’d just watch Judge Judy all afternoon. I worry that we overestimate the desire of people to better themselves. My family is from West Virginia, and an entire subsection of the family is very happy there permanently unemployed and doing nothing all day.

    I want to see us go back to corporations having civic duty. I want to see people go back there as well.

    At the same time, I’m not in favor of keeping or creating jobs just so there’s a job to be had. I was in communist East Germany one day. I needed to use the restroom. Some poor man was standing in there doling out toilet paper. It was his job. Those lousy capitalists and their evil metal toilet paper roll hangers.

    • Jim, I agree completely. Some people will just sit around all day.

      On the other hand, there are no perfect solutions to social problems. I think the best we can get is a solution that does the most good for the most people and the least harm to the fewest people.

      In the TV show “The I.T. Crowd,” there was a funny scene in which a men’s room attendant scowled at two of the characters while they tried in vain to relieve themselves. Kind of like East Germany. 🙂

  2. “The purpose of an economic system is not to maximize the wealth and power of people at the top, but to provide at least a decent living standard for as many people as possible. That includes decent jobs for people who need them, even if those jobs could be done more cheaply by automation or by nine-year-old children in Asian sweatshops.”

    That’s a good argument. The resentment of any taxes or regulation from laissez faire conservatives ignores the huge investments in infrastructure that enables economic activity on national scales. Its only agreements on standards, i.e. regulations, that makes mass manufacturing, just one example, even possible.

    I would argue further that a national currency only fulfills its purpose as a medium of exchange if its in circulation. The hoarding of various forms of wealth does nothing for an economy, other than as a means to borrow against.

    • Pete, as a former laissez-faire conservative, I can verify the truth of your comment about taxes and regulation. Conservatives’ and libertarians’ blanket opposition to taxes and regulation is based on abstract moral ideas and crude, non-empirical economic theories that are mostly wrong.

      Hoarding money, of course, is one of the characteristics of a liquidity trap — as Dr. Krugman so ably and patiently explains, week after week after week. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

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