Subscribe via RSS Feed

The “Conservative Leftist” responds

[ 52 ] October 1, 2011 |

Peter Frase takes a long look at this “DJW” character, and is deeply dismayed by what he sees.

On my claim about our inability to universally and definitely classify jobs:

DJW totally effaces the real nature of work in a capitalist society. To pretend that the existence of many people who work as supermarket checkers reflects their “ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms” is to ignore the reality that for the worker without independent wealth, the only “choice” is between obtaining the wage they need to get by, or starving in the streets. You don’t see a lot of trust-fund kids or lottery winners working as supermarket checkers.

Moreover, there’s no principled rationale here. If the menial jobs we have are good, then why wouldn’t more would be better? we could solve the jobs deficit through a campaign against technology throughout the economy. This would also have the effect of lowering our material standard of living, but to this way of thinking that’s presumably a good thing.

This badly misses the point I was making, which is quite modest: any time we have a discussion that involves putting jobs into broad categories of ‘menial/non-menial’ or something, and presuming one category to be beneath human dignity, we’re having what is essentially an impossible conversation. Any such judgments are inevitably ad hoc, and hopelessly bound up in our own class, taste, preferences, and experiences. If “people with so much money don’t seem to take these jobs” is the standard, then 95% or more of the jobs available are in that category. Now, I have some sympathy for that point of view, but that’s precisely the kind of utopian thinking I don’t find particularly helpful.

And in the present circumstance, with massive unemployment looking to be the new status quo, I’m going to go ahead and say, yes, some sort of technological rollback that lead to lots of new ‘menial’ jobs to replace that technology would be a good thing. This says nothing about my views about the essential value or disvalue of technology, or the jobs themselves or whatever. It’s a response to actual circumstances, namely: (a) massive widespread unemployment, particularly high for those without college degrees, (b) an staggeringly unfortunate combination of political and economic circumstances that make it extremely unlikely that (a) will change for the better to any significant degree in the short and medium term. My views here aren’t based, as Frase seems to think, on the intrinsic value of jobs such as these, but rather as a response to a particular set of circumstances. In rejecting our ability to universally classify these jobs in a certain way, as the commenters I was responding to and Frase wish to do, I am not actually suggesting we go the other way, and protect them because they have some intrinsic value. I’m suggesting that under the present circumstances, the value they have do have is greater than the value to society that whatever value is likely to be produced via ‘productivity gains’ their elimination might produce.

The general principle being expressed here isn’t unreasonable or irrational: sometimes it’s better to help a few workers here and now than to run off after utopian pie in the sky, and we should be wary of the slippery logic that it’s OK to impose hardship on a few workers for the sake of the greater good. This is the same thinking that’s at work in defenses of licensing cartels that protect some workers at the expense of consumers and excluded laborers, and in attacks on investments in urban infrastructure that may have the effect of pricing some people out of their neighborhoods. These aren’t silly things to be worried about–if you can’t achieve anything positive, you should at least do no harm. And as the left has gotten weaker and weaker, such arguments have gotten more and more plausible. But we’ve reached a point where some people seem to be opposed to any policy at all that imposes a burden on any group of workers.

I was nodding along here, thinking perhaps we’re not so far apart in our thinking, until that last sentence, which strikes me as a complete non-sequitur. Perhaps such people, indeed, exist; I’m certainly not one of them. I support many policies that might result in people losing jobs they badly need to keep, even in this environment, because politics is about assessing tradeoffs. (In fact, this was never about policy at all—I’d probably oppose a law that banned self-service checkouts.) But even insofar as those people exist, even if I were one of them, they’re clearly badly outnumbered by people who don’t give a shit about people who lose their jobs. The ‘point we seem to reaching’ as a society is one in which a political party that openly advocates cutting off unemployment benefits during a massive and sustained run of high unemployment can win a nationwide election. Perhaps someday I’ll be concerned that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

That isn’t to say that I’m always opposed to defensive struggles–sometimes that’s the best you can do, and sometimes winning a small human-scale victory is worth compromising our broader vision a bit. But the LGM authors go a good deal farther than this: Erik Loomis’s original post didn’t say that de-automation was a good second best outcome, he said that he was “very glad” to see the self-checkout machines disappear, because they are “a calculated plan by grocery stores to employ less people.” DJW, meanwhile, straightforwardly embraces Luddism. I’m taken aback by a worldview that would make such defensiveness and conservatism central to its ideology. That’s not what the left has been about at its best–and as Corey Robin explains, it’s not even what right-wing “conservatism” was ever about.

Readers will recall that my straightforward embracing of Luddism came with a creative and controversial expansion of what counts as Luddism. I included any and all bottom up ‘managing’ of new workplace technologies that often reduce productivity, in the service of protecting jobs, or merely managing the experience of working. Some sensible commenters noted that this stretches the meaning of the term considerably, perhaps too far, and I’m inclined to think they may have a pretty good point. My attempted reconceptualization of Luddism aside, what I didn’t endorse was a widespread battle against automation on all fronts. While Frase may not be able to imagine such a thing, it remains possible to fail to cheer the failure of particularly pointless exercise in automation in one case without an ideological commitment to do so in all cases.

Left out of consideration in these anti-technology arguments is any conception that increased productivity could be used to benefit the masses rather than the elite. The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only a phenomenon of the past 30 years. In the period prior to that, rising productivity went with rising wages: this was the heart of the postwar Keynesian social compact. And in the period prior to that, rising productivity went along with a shortening of the working day, through a long series of bitter struggles.

Indeed. 30 years is a long time, though, and the sorts of changes that might once again tie productivity growth to the fate of workers don’t exactly appear to be on the horizon.  My position is driven as a reaction to a particular set of circumstances, rather than what I think those circumstance should or could be.

It’s odd, and a bit sad, to see the LGM bloggers ahistorically naturalizing the left’s weakness, especially given that at least one of the authors I’m discussing is a college professor. I thought it was the professors who were supposed remind us of history, and to cling to impractical utopianism.

Jeebus. Insofar as I’m cynical and pessimistic, it’s because my considered judgment about the nature of our times is that pessimism and cynicism is warranted, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise in order to fit some naïve stereotype of my profession. (Not to mention that ‘reminding us of history’ and ‘clinging to impractical utopianism’ might just be at odds with each other in some fairly significant ways).  But Frase’s larger point is based on a odd proposition; namely that if I embrace a defensive position regarding jobs in certain sectors during particularly bad times, this is all my politics is or ever could contain.

Let’s recap: my position on automated supermarket checkout and the employment of checkers involves the following components: 1. Waiting in line to check out with a human checker when I go to the grocery store. 2. Having a positive reaction to the news that some grocery stores are moving away from the use of automated checkout. That’s it. There’s virtually no politics here at all, beyond a trivial act of solidarity. This in no way impedes my ability to ‘imagine alternatives to neoliberalism’ or otherwise engage in political activity that isn’t rooted in a ‘defensive crouch’, as he puts it. Frase’s argument here seems rooted in a conviction that the political equivalent of chewing gum and walking at the same time is, to borrow a phrase, “literally unthinkable”.

The rest of his post describes a deal struck by longshoremen years ago that involved automation; I don’t know the history there but as he describes it it sounds like it was a pretty good deal, and re-iterates his support for universal basic income and principle for decoupling income from employment, ala Marx’s renegade son-in-law. The former strikes me as a pragmatic compromise based on a particular set of circumstances. The latter is utopian theorizing of the sort I described in the previous post. It may have a place in politics, but it’s crucial to not let it crowd out existing politics, let alone interfere with the kind of solidarity that will be a necessary but not sufficient condition of any future significant transformation. Frase is not entirely wrong to say “the demand to compensate workers for technological change now has to be fought out politically and electorally, at the level of the state, rather than in the individual workplace.” But there’s no reason it has to be an either/or proposition; certainly to the extent that I’ve advocated measures that constitute the latter, they do nothing to crowd out the former. But that political fight is losing badly, and shows no signs of improving any time soon.  I can’t climb on board with abandoning less than ideal strategies regardless of whether the ideal strategy is currently viable.

Share with Sociable

Comments (52)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erik Loomis says:

    This is my favorite part:

    It’s an attitude that bespeaks an intensely conservative and defensive politics, and one which has internalized the great right-wing motif of the past several decades: there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. To Loomis and DJW, the possibility of a historically novel progressive alternative is literally unthinkable. For them, the only choices are a) an intensification of neoliberalism’s logic of inequality and joblessness; or b) a desperate struggle to hold on to the remnants of the 20th century Keynesian social compromise.

    Literally unthinkable!

    In all seriousness though, my own beliefs on this particular come down to the following–1) people need jobs, 2) the self-checkout usually devolves into a clusterfuck because the machines are harder to operate than you think, 3) their introduction in the first place was not about making shoppers’ experiences better, but about forcing us to do work that store owners didn’t want to pay for anymore, thus 4) getting rid of them is a good thing for all involved.

    • DocAmazing says:

      I think that the “historically novel progressive alternative” Frase is talking about is challenging your “1) people need jobs” assertion. Goods and services can be distributed in many ways; wage employment is not a requirement.

      The problem, as always, is getting from here to there.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Right–people can think through this theoretical future all they want to. Until then, I’m going to support people feeding their families in the world we have now.

      • dave says:

        If only the idea of utopian communism was historically novel, rather than just every modern generation’s reinvented pipedream since about 1820. Honestly, if people were actually both good enough and clever enough to make that work, don’t you think we’d have managed it by now?

        • DocAmazing says:

          There are communes in Mondragon, Spain, that utilize that model. It’s no pipedream; it requires that it not be busted up by the cops to be acheived.

          In that way, it’s like most non-capitalist pipe dreams.

          • dave says:

            Ah, yes, founded in 1956. I wonder who was running Spain then, hmm?

            I’m all for workers’ cooperatives, you understand, but if that one can survive for the first 20 years of its existence under an actual fascist dictatorship, I don’t think being ‘busted up by the cops’ is the real obstacle.

            • DocAmazing says:

              Not in Spain, obviously. Reading a little US history might be enlightening as to where and when being busted up by the cops is a real obstacle.

              • dave says:

                The USA is, of course, the historical home of many of the earliest attempts at utopian communism – New Harmony, Indiana, for example, or Cabet’s Icarians. These were not ‘busted up by the cops’.

                I would also point out that the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives is a real, live organisation that, to my knowledge, has not been ‘busted up by the cops’. Nor, however, have members flooded to it.

                You are perhaps confused by the history of the Wobblies, who make good romantic heroes [and loud noises about autogestion], but aren’t actually in this arena of activity at all.

    • jon says:

      #3 works for me. I object to becoming an unpaid employee of the establishment I’m attempting conduct commerce within. Do I get a wage or discount for doing this? If not, why should I?

      I remember reading science/futurist books from the early 1960′s that posited that humanity’s greatest problem right about now would be what to do with all of our copious leisure time, given that advanced society had automated so many things. The concept was that everyone would be well compensated for working just a few hours a week at rewarding or non-demeaning occupations – never anticipating that many people would be trapped in miserable, low paying and hazardous jobs, or effectively permanently unemployed and in poverty. I guess that social compact wasn’t as durable as they imagined.

      I must have missed that election where we decided that Lord of the Flies was the blueprint to follow.

      • Scott P. says:

        I must have missed that election where we decided that Lord of the Flies was the blueprint to follow.

        1968.

      • David Nieporent says:

        #3 works for me. I object to becoming an unpaid employee of the establishment I’m attempting conduct commerce within. Do I get a wage or discount for doing this? If not, why should I?

        Self-service checkout no more makes you an “employee” than self-service shopping does. You do realize that there was an older model of retailing in which you told the store owner what you wanted and the store owner retrieved the items for you, right? And then that was replaced with a system in which you actually had to go down aisles and pick stuff off the shelves yourself. You didn’t get a “wage” for that. You did get a discount, in that it was cheaper for the store to operate that way which meant lower prices.

        Do you also object to self-service at gas stations as making you an “unpaid employee”?

        • DrDick says:

          As usual, Libertarian Lawyer proves incapable of reading comprehension. What part of the statement, “Do I get a wage or discount for doing this?” do you not comprehend? The shift you mention was accompanied by a reduction in prices, which has not been the case in this case.

  2. Lindsay Beyerstein says:

    Yglesias and Frase are discussing grocery cashier jobs like it’s the worst work in the world. They’re not considering that grocery checkers are more likely to be unionized that just about any other retail workers.

  3. Malaclypse says:

    I used to be a liberal, until I got stuck behind djw in an express line when that bastard clearly had 18 items, and now I am outraged about teachers’ unions.

  4. Hogan says:

    The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only a phenomenon of the past 30 years.

    You mean it’s only been going on for nearly all of my working life? Thank heaven for that. I might have gotten discouraged.

  5. Moreover, there’s no principled rationale here. If the menial jobs we have are good, then why wouldn’t more would be better? we could solve the jobs deficit through a campaign against technology throughout the economy. This would also have the effect of lowering our material standard of living, but to this way of thinking that’s presumably a good thing.

    What a bonehead.

    • DrDick says:

      His sequitur, it is non. His logic, it is fractured. His head, it is up his ass.

      • David Nieporent says:

        Ah, the intelligent debate that LGM commenters are known for across the entire Internet. Either you don’t know what the phrase “non sequitur” means or you don’t understand the argument. Either way, you probably should keep quiet so as not to let people know.

        Now, insofar as DJW’s rebuttal is that it’s arrogant to judge some jobs as beneath human dignity, I would agree — and go much further, arguing that no honest job that someone is willing to do is beneath human dignity. But he went further than that originally, and reiterates it here, arguing that it’s good to detechnologize in order to preserve otherwise automatible jobs, and that’s just nonsensical for the reason that this Frase guy states: there’s no reasonable principle there.

  6. cpinva says:

    actually, JK Galbraith addressed this issue some 40 years ago, even before self-checkout became all the rage in retail.

    his position (agree or don’t) was that any job that didn’t pay a living wage was a job not worth existing. unionized jobs generally do pay a living wage, and old JKG was all about unions, thought they were a mighty good thing for the working class.

    the real question then is what level of wage are you willing to sink to, and still believe that any job, no matter how little it pays, is good, solely because it’s a paying job?

    forget the whole “menial vs non-menial” bit, that’s simply a red herring, if someone will pay me $100k a year to sweep floors, i’ll happily sweep floors.

    • Jon says:

      How about 3x the median gross rent in a given metro area? This would equate to about $2,472/mo for the whole United States, or about $16-17/hr for a 40 hour week (or $20/hr in DC, where I live). 2.5x median gross rent would give a rough approximation of what minimum wage would be if it had kept pace with inflation since 1968. Not terrifically unreasonable especially if the cost of benefits is included.

      The fact that most assistance programs in the US (which are not regarded by sane people as particularly generous) are indexed to 200 or even 300% of the “poverty level” shows just how ridiculous that number is — and the fact that working a minimum wage job will often land you below even that ridiculous level is simply unconscionable.

  7. Davis says:

    From 9/28/11 wsj.com:

    Since the recession ended, businesses had increased their real spending on equipment and software by a strong 26%, while they have added almost nothing to their payrolls.

  8. Hovde says:

    To highlight an instance of unambiguously inefficient preservation of employment, New Jersey has a jobs program which consists of forbidding motorists to pump their own gas. Now, my “utopian” preference would be that repeal of this law would be coupled with an extra tax supporting a real jobs program, but of course that is not going to happen; repeal would just mean a bunch of people out of work

    • djw says:

      Oregon as well.

      The other reason I’d not support repealing that law is that we refuse to tax gasoline at anywhere near the proper level, so a weird ‘indirect tax to fund a less than ideal employment program’ is better than nothing.

    • John says:

      Here’s the thing, even you, who apparently don’t want to repeal the ridiculous New Jersey full service gas law, seem to admit that it’s ridiculous.

      Why is it that pumping your own gas is fine, but that going through a checkout line yourself is “forcing us to do work that store owners didn’t want to pay for anymore”? Isn’t pumping your own gas “forcing us to do work that gas station owners didn’t want to pay for anymore?” I’d say pumping my own gas is considerably more work than scanning a couple of items in a self-check-out lane at a supermarket.

      • Hovde says:

        Not sure who’s supposed to have said what here, since I have not yet expressed an opinion on auto-checkout, but I will say this-self service pumping may be more work, but it indubitably makes getting gas faster, which has not been my experience of auto-checkout.

        • actor212 says:

          Listen, I’d rather check out my own groceries any day of the week and twice on Sundays if that’s my choice, especially in the dead of winter. There are few things more boring than standing there holding a hose (in any weather) where the owner has deliberated disabled the auto-shut off function.

  9. Jon says:

    The ONLY way to increase the living standard of average people in the long run is to increase productivity. We could not have a fair, dignified, egalitarian society with Stone Age technologies of production. I seriously doubt we could have one with the technologies available at the time of the Luddite movement, either. Widespread postwar prosperity in the West was driven by two essential factors: rapidly increasing productivity thanks to technological advances, and a political/economic system that distributed economic gains fairly.

    Of course, over the past few decades, we have reached a point where most of the benefit of productivity increases accrues to the very wealthy. But THAT is what we need to be fighting against, not productivity increases themselves.

    Your argument that in specific, limited cases opposing productivity increases might be strategically useful is interesting, but I don’t see any evidence that it’s relevant here. Employment of cashiers by grocery stores has grown slowly but steadily since the early 2000s, rising from about 800,000 in 2002 to nearly 840,000 in 2010. Generally speaking, low-wage, “low skill” jobs continue to be one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. I don’t see any evidence that labor-saving technologies are reducing employment in these kinds of industries, except certain very specific categories (such as toll booth operators).

    Also, did you consider the fact that the self-checkout scanners themselves are likely to CREATE desirable jobs for less-educated workers, such as repair technicians/installers? As well as middle-class jobs for programmers, designers, and sales people? Or that many of these systems, and their parts, are manufactured in the United States? One maker of automated checkout systems, Atlanta-based NCR, has laid off several thousand workers since 2007 due to declining sales. I would conjecture that the jobs lost at NCR are, on average, “better” than the ones you speculate are being retained at grocery stores due to slow consumer adoption of this technology.

    Of course, data on the true impact of self-checkout systems is still limited. But we do have quite a lot of data on the last major labor-saving innovation in grocery stores, the barcode scanner. Check out this [ungated] paper for an interesting and detailed discussion (which I don’t think directly supports either your argument or mine, actually).

    • DocAmazing says:

      The ONLY way to increase the living standard of average people in the long run is to increase productivity.

      That’s great, except that productivity had been going up steadily for the past four decades while standard of living has stagnated.

      Also, did you consider the fact that the self-checkout scanners themselves are likely to CREATE desirable jobs for less-educated workers, such as repair technicians/installers?
      Labor-saving devices have a tendency to decrease the amount of labor needed. The number of man-hours spent in installation, repair and sales of automated point-of-sale devices is a small fraction of those spent in checking out grocery-store customers. You may well find some gains in employment somewhere, but that’s not where they’re going to be.

      • Jon says:

        On the first point: I totally agree that there is a major problem, but the problem is not DUE TO rising productivity, it is due to a failure in our political / economic system. I’m not exactly sure what will help, but fighting against productivity gains is probably not it. If we do indeed have a rapacious oligarch class consuming all of our economy’s productivity gains, *opposing productivity gains* seems like a rather bloody-minded solution.

        Something like the French 35 hour work week? Maybe: it failed to increase employment, but did result in both sky-high productivity and the very real benefit of millions of additional leisure days for French workers. The policy is popular, which suggests the French like the idea of working “harder” for fewer hours (e.g. the same result as productivity gains from technology).

        Something like NJ’s ban on self-service pumps, on the other hand, creates thousands of dirty, unpleasant, unproductive, low-wage jobs, also at very little social cost; does that mean we should mandate the return of elevator operators and ban automatic toll paying systems too? Maybe instead of ATMs we could have tiny 24-hour manned bank kiosks? Or we could do as the Chinese used to and use gangs of low-paid ditch-diggers rather than job-destroying machinery on government infrastructure projects! I mean really, how is this argument functionally different from the conservative argument that we should eliminate the minimum wage to create more low-paying labor-intensive jobs, letting each worker “decide” how much pay they’re willing to accept?

        I guess I just can’t see how advocating for MORE low-wage, labor-intensive jobs is compatible with any sort of leftist/progressive agenda I could possibly subscribe to…

        • djw says:

          I’m not exactly sure what will help, but fighting against productivity gains is probably not it.

          As I tried to articulate in this post, my position is not to wage an all out war on productivity. Rather, I think we should stop viewing productivity increases as good by definition, and treat them more as something that’s usually positive, but has the potential to be neutral to negative based on the circumstances. The empirical circumstances that might have supported an ‘always positive’ attitude toward productivity gains are gone.

          Something like the French 35 hour work week? Maybe: it failed to increase employment, but did result in both sky-high productivity and the very real benefit of millions of additional leisure days for French workers. The policy is popular, which suggests the French like the idea of working “harder” for fewer hours (e.g. the same result as productivity gains from technology).

          I think it’s a fantastic idea. But my interest in this issue is how to think about this stuff in the current political and economic climate, not in ideal terms. Obviously, whatever the merits of something like this, it’s not on the table in the short or medium term, and I’m betting it’s not on the table in the long term either.

          Something like NJ’s ban on self-service pumps, on the other hand, creates thousands of dirty, unpleasant, unproductive, low-wage jobs, also at very little social cost; does that mean we should mandate the return of elevator operators and ban automatic toll paying systems too? Maybe instead of ATMs we could have tiny 24-hour manned bank kiosks?

          If we’re going advocate politically nonviable jobs programs, we might as well imagine more productive and sensible ones than that. (Perhaps even ones that might enhance productivity! Like infrastructure investment!). But I’m talking about the world as it is, and the world as it is has a very strong status quo bias. That’s why I have a “eh, flawed but probably better than nothing, given the utter lack of jobs now and on the horizon (not to mention the political refusal to tax gas properly)” attitude toward stuff like the OR/NJ gas pumping laws. If we’re talking about politically difficult and unlikely changes to the status quo, we should put our energy into something more sensible.

          There’s a basic politics/policy divide here; I get the sense you’re much more comfortable focusing almost exclusively on the latter. I’m not interest in doing that, because figuring out the policy without a politics to get it is merely an academic exercise–a fine one in many ways, but not the one I’m interested in, and not one that has much meaning for crafting political strategies in the sort of circumstances in which we find ourselves.

          • Jon says:

            Well, you are probably right there, though I do think it is important to have engagement between the policy and politics side so that we have some agreement on what “ideal” policy would look like before negotiating that down to what is politically practical.

            I personally still think that saying “Hey, look, American workers are extremely productive and growing more so, not less, so they deserve to be better compensated for their hard work” has a lot of resonance as a political argument. I just haven’t really heard anyone prominent making it.

            • djw says:

              I personally still think that saying “Hey, look, American workers are extremely productive and growing more so, not less, so they deserve to be better compensated for their hard work” has a lot of resonance as a political argument. I just haven’t really heard anyone prominent making it.

              I don’t disagree, but I expect it has to be made along with a solidaristic stance, rather than instead of one, to be taken seriously.

              • Jon says:

                Looks like we’re posting past each other in several places here, so let me just summarize that yes I see your point, I do realize that you were intentionally making a limited and strategic argument, and I absolutely and unequivocally agree on the need for solidarity. My main worry is simply that these arguments tap into some very old leftist tropes about labor-saving technology that can be dangerous when taken too far (i.e. “in the long term”), and, in “practical” terms, are also quite susceptible to being ripped apart by policy pedants less sympathetic than I am to your overall agenda.

        • djw says:

          I guess I just can’t see how advocating for MORE low-wage, labor-intensive jobs is compatible with any sort of leftist/progressive agenda I could possibly subscribe to…

          Let me be absolutely clear about this: nothing in either of these posts has anything to do with my ‘vision’ for a comprehensive left agenda. I’m articulating a strategy, not a vision, and it’s a strategy for a world in which a) unemployment is semi-permanently high, particularly amongst workers without college degrees or specialized skills, and b) whatever excuse for a social welfare state we have isn’t getting any better, and is probably getting worse. Perhaps you’re less pessimistic than I, but I fully expect (a) and (b) to be in place for quite a while–many years, possibly decades.

          Insofar as I see a way out of our current world of ballooning inequality, high unemployment, productivity divorced from the fate of the bottom 90%, and so on, I do not see the primary obstacles in policy terms, but rather as a fundamentally political problem. There are plenty of policy strategies that would help here, and some would be better than others, but virtually any of them would be better than what we’re going to get. So figuring out the ideal policy doesn’t really concern me.

          I don’t know what a political path out of this situation is, but I’m pretty sure that a necessary but not sufficient condition is going to be a much greater sense of political and economic solidarity amongst a significant portion of the economic classes left behind by the current winner take all economy. I don’t know how to generate that solidarity, but I’m pretty damn sure the following message:

          “Hey, so I know you really needed that shitty job to pay the rent and feed your kids and stuff, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t contributing much to society anyway, and didn’t you find it degrading? By the way, if it were up to me, you’d actually get better unemployment benefits and support now, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Sorry! In the long run, don’t you think it’s better people don’t have to do that kind of shitty work anymore?”

          Is not a message that will be conducive to producing the solidarity necessary to get out of this mess.

        • actor212 says:

          I guess I just can’t see how advocating for MORE low-wage, labor-intensive jobs is compatible with any sort of leftist/progressive agenda I could possibly subscribe to…

          Because unions are just such icky people, right?

          Because people who can’t cut the mustard academically should….what, precisely? Skip trade schools? Go straight to welfare?

          Because, you know, the poor make up the biggest single demographic in this country, perhaps PRECISELY what we need is more low-wage, labor intensive jobs, AND fringe benefits to ease the pressure off these folks when it comes to health insurance, education, food, shelter.

          You know, progressive policies?

    • djw says:

      Docamazing notes the important context you elide with your abuse of “in the long run” argumentation so I’ll reject the urge to quote John Maynard Keynes and leave well enough alone.

      As to the lack of decline in employment for checkers, recall that this whole conversation began with an article noting that the robo-checkers have limited appeal and are being rolled back, so it’s hardly surprising that declines in employment haven’t materialized.

      And on the subject of NCR–as a resident of Dayton, Ohio, I’m indeed familiar with that particular firm. NCR is a growing and profitable firm; insofar as they’ve had layoffs in recent years I expect it has more to do with outsourcing (their India operations are booming) and preparing to ditch their operations in non-right to work states. At any rate, it seems obvious that the only reason to pursue this technology is to reduce labor costs; if it were to work as the grocery stores hoped, the total impact on the labor force would surely be negative.

      My question for you (and Yglesias, and Peter Frase) would be this: how many more decades of productivity gains being completely divorced from the economic fate of the bottom ~95% (coupled with a weakening and inadequate welfare state) before we can start to take this trend seriously, and question our the extent to which the “in the long run” logic about productivity applies to our present circumstances?

      • Jon says:

        Yes it seems that they relocated from Dayton to Atlanta (I figured someone would bring that up, but it seemed a less loaded choice of example than Diebold =). I get the frustration with “in the long run” arguments, but the point I (and I think Yglesias et al) are making isn’t that “in the long run things will work themselves out,” it’s that “in the long run we DO need productivity improvements, so let’s focus on other more immediately beneficial things we can do to correct our problems with wealth and income distribution in the short run.”

        To put it very abstractly, don’t you think it would be easier for workers to agitate for an increased share of NEW productivity gains than to claw back some of the decades of gains they’ve already missed? So isn’t THAT what we should be doing, rather than trying to stop future gains, essentially, out of spite (because too large a proportion will probably go to the rich)?

        I do think productivity needs to become a more important part of the economic discourse. Here is one argument I don’t see enough in the mainstream media: if an American worker in 2010 is 315% more productive (per hour) than an American worker from 1950, and 143% more productive than an American worker from 1990, why do we say we can “no longer afford” the sorts of wages and benefits that were commonplace in previous decades?

        Doesn’t that sound like a more appealing popular message than the neo-Luddite argument?

        • djw says:

          rather than trying to stop future gains, essentially, out of spite (because too large a proportion will probably go to the rich)?

          Once again, you misunderstand my motivation. It’s not spite that might motivate my all things considered conclusion that this or that job is worth fighting for, it’s that for the foreseeable future, the people holding these jobs has no other real options, and while that shouldn’t be the case, political and economic circumstances beyond my control make it so. I can’t really see how I could have been any clearer about this. Can you not see the difference between solidarity and spite?

  10. actor212 says:

    You don’t see a lot of trust-fund kids or lottery winners working as supermarket checkers.

    I wouldn’t bet on that.

  11. JR in WV says:

    I disagree that America needs more menial jobs. Our water systems are a disgrace, unable to provide safe water, causing floods in downtown urban areas as large mains rupture, phoning customers to advise them of “boil water advisories.”

    In Washington DC there are actually still waterlines made with LEAD PIPE!

    Sewer systems overflow every time it rains hard, because the were built with dual sanitary and stormwater control purposes, causing raw sewage to enter waterways used as drinking water supplies downstream.

    Interstate bridges are falling down, dropping rush hour traffic into the rivers.

    40 year old power plants pollute the air and ground with heavy metals.

    And we’re plagued with crazed politicians unwilling to implement tax and spending plans to deal with the foundations of the nation crumbling! There’s plenty of work to be done, we just aren’t willing to see to it that these jobs are funded and the new infrastructure is built.

    In my mind, if people are killed when a bridge collapses, the management that failed to maintain that bridge, mayors, governors and legislators should all be fired, every one of them, because they collectively failed to do their job.

    The health care system is barely adequate for routine loads, patients sit in halls waiting for a room to open up. What do we do if a real infectious epidemic occurs? One where patient loads triple or more? Will sick people lay on the ground? Will we use high schools as plague hospitals?

    The country is composed of the people and the infrastructure necessary for the people to live and work day-to-day. With the infrastructure crumbling, education unable to teach everyone to read, health care unable to vaccinate, road commissions unable to keep bridges safe to drive across, water systems unable to deliver safe drinking water, we are in the position of Rome in the 300-400 AD era, falling but unaware because we haven’t landed yet.

    I don’t have any idea of how to fix all these problems (which is why I’m not a candidate for high office!), but I do know that cutting taxes and shrinking government isn’t the best plan. It’s the worst plan.

    • djw says:

      I agree with all of this. Protecting a few not particularly productive jobs here and there for the short and medium term is obviously not going to do anything for our crumbling infrastructure. Furthermore, it does nothing to prevent global warming or cure male pattern baldness. The only possible good I’m claiming for the scheme is to protect the interests of the people who currently hold those jobs by preventing them for entering what would quite likely be long-term unemployment.

  12. mclaren says:

    The techno-utopians essentially reiterate endlessly the claim “you’re making the lump-of-labor fallacy.”

    But the “lump-of-labor fallacy” is itself a fallacy. And I can prove it.

    The smoking gun?

    BLS statistics.

    With the help of a small army of researchers and associates (most importantly, Chris Matgouranis, Jonathan Robe, and Chris Denhart) and starting with help from Douglas Himes of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) has unearthed what I think is the single most scandalous statistic in higher education. It reveals many current problems and ones that will grow enormously as policymakers mindlessly push enrollment expansion amidst what must become greater public-sector resource limits.

    Here it is: approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less.

    Source: “The Great College-Degree Scam,” Richard Veddder, The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 9, 2010.

    If the “lump-of-labor fallacy” is so clearly correct, then riddle me this, mastermind economists: why did a supermajority of college educated workers have to take low-skill low-wage jobs like `barista’ and `xerox clerk’ over the past 20 years?

    There’s no coming back from this one. This debate is over. Based on the evidence on the ground, the “lump-of-labor fallacy” has been debunked once and for all.

  13. mclaren says:

    I must have missed that election where we decided that Lord of the Flies was the blueprint to follow.

    It was the 1980 election. People voted for the “destroy all the jobs for everyone but the top 1% candidate,” Ronald Reagan, and he made good on his promise, starting with PATCO.

  14. [...] sites. Yglesias weighed in, inspiring Peter Frase’s piece of technological utopianism that djw responded to in length the other day. Frase, and I think to a lesser extent Yglesias, envisions an ideal world [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.