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When Labor Becomes Justified in Hating Environmentalists

[ 167 ] January 13, 2013 |

As someone dedicated to building bridges between the labor and environmental movements, this post from Good promoting the idea of online grocery stores makes me want to hold my head in my hands. The post never says a word about labor or workers. What it does say is this:

1. People like food variety
2. That variety leads to waste
3. Let’s use technology to just eliminate grocery stores and get groceries to consumers without the middle man!

For we technological festishist Americans, this probably sounds good. I don’t want to go to the store and I want what I want when I want it!! Problems solved and we can feel good about our impact on the planet since that food won’t be wasted.

The issue of food waste is way more complex than this and Voila! technological innovations are no solution. Something like 50% of food waste happens in the home. But I’ll leave that alone for now. Quick question though–what happens to grocery store workers? A lot of those are union jobs too. What happens to those people? Do they even deserve consideration? In our rush to replace all work with robots and technological efficiencies, what do ideas like this mean for long-term economic and community sustainability? These questions are not only unanswered (and no doubt unconsidered) in the Good article, but in our society generally. We talk about unemployment and underemployment but are extremely reticent to consider that our unstated goal that eliminating work in the name of efficiency is a positive good is a big part of the problem.

It’s at times like this that I am at a loss to defend environmentalism to organized labor.

…..I am reminded of Good Magazine’s own atrocious labor practices. Easy to believe they’d publish something like this.

Comments (167)

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  1. Jon says:

    A decent litmus test for any “liberal” interest group is: what does this mean for labor. If they seriously don’t give a shit, odds are it’s a crusading Totebagger “but their leader is a Republican!” group stroking Broder’s ghost’s schlang.

    It’s not that labor shouldn’t care about environmentalism: they shouldn’t let other countries get away with that externality. It’s that “environmentalists” who drive hybrid Lexuses should care about labor.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      “A decent litmus test for any “liberal” interest group is: what does this mean for labor.”

      Yes.

      It’s not the only consideration. There’s a very good reason to say that we shouldn’t build the Keystone XL Pipeline because the gains in jobs are mitigated by the longer-term effects the pipeline will have on poor people. But it needs to be a central consideration.

      • DrDick says:

        The likely gains in jobs are also quite minimal and only a small fraction of what the promoters claim.

        • Dilan Esper says:

          Sorry. Brick and mortar stores aren’t welfare programs any more than defense contractors are. The transition to an online economy is inevitable and a great boon to human welfare, and there are always workers who lose their jobs in every transition. It isn’t “liberalism” to try to stand athwart history yelling “stop”.

          • Linnaeus says:

            It isn’t “liberalism” to try to stand athwart history yelling “stop”.

            No, it isn’t, but history is the product of, among other things, human choices and it is not illiberal to critically examine those choices and their consequences. In fact, I think it is incumbent upon us to do so, although two people will often come up with different answers.

            and there are always workers who lose their jobs in every transition.

            True enough, though it seems that our society’s response to that tends to be something like, “it’s your misfortune and none of my own.”

          • DrDick says:

            Absolutely nothing inevitable about it and for many things, I see no evidence that it is even desirable. I have no problem with online becoming a major part of the retail universe, but I see nothing to indicate that it will or should completely replace brick and mortar stores.

    • RepubAnon says:

      Technology is on track to make almost all our jobs obsolete. There are computerized document review systems that replace lawyers for discovery projects, self-driving cars threatening bus drivers careers, etc. The answer isn’t rage against the machines, but rather looking for another niche in a changing work ecology.

      For example – the on-line grocery stores would still need people to pull, package, and deliver orders, which would probably employ as many people as stores do today. Same skills, too.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        “The answer isn’t rage against the machines, but rather looking for another niche in a changing work ecology.”

        Actually, I believe the real answer will be endemic poverty and the concentration of wealth in the upper classes.

        I also want to note how accepting this answer is of the current iteration of capitalism. It’s on the worker to find another niche!

        • As is usually the case with these various Luddite sentiments, I can merely wonder when exactly the ideal amount of technological innovation was reached.

          • L2P says:

            Let me break it down for you:

            1. Technological innovation: Good.

            2. Consequences of technological innovation: Almost always good, sometimes unintentionally bad. (Let’s look at, say, any toxic chemical with industrial uses, for example.)

            3. Profits from technological innovation: For some reason, always must go to capital.

            Everybody agrees on 1. I think virtually everyone except for Randian-All-Industry-Is-Good-Industry types agree on 2.

            Number 3 is where progressives have disagreements with conservatives. Why should changing trade and manufacturing processes mean that capitalists get richer and workers get poorer? Where is that written in stone?

            • RepubAnon says:

              The problem is supply and demand – if the new technology requires highly-trained personnel, and there aren’t very many people with the requisite knowledge, wages for those folks will be bid up. (Think programmers during the dot-com boom.)

              However, these days the new gizmos don’t require much maintenance, or a skilled operator. I am very much afraid that we’re headed for a world like that in Isaac Azimov’s “The Naked Sun”, where a few thousand incredibly wealthy people live on vast estates, with all the work done by machines. Great future for the owner class – the future for the rest of us isn’t looking so good.

            • Oh I’m not saying that I don’t get the sentiment, and Erik is right that our public policy isn’t exactly ideal at dealing with the consequences of displaced labor, but the general argument that having job types disappear over time and/or change from the perfect way they are now is obviously just status quo bias.

              (To frame my qualm a bit, I always wonder how the Amish got to deciding that automobiles are too much technology, but buggies are totally fine. Why not walk everywhere?!)

        • RepubAnon says:

          So, we should keep all the law schools staffed at their current levels, and force students to enroll and pay those bloated tuitions? After all, we wouldn’t want to put all those professors out of work – it would be anti-labor!

          In other words, if people don’t want the things that you’re selling, you’d better find some other way to earn a living. It doesn’t matter what economic system you’re in. Imagine a hunter-gatherer society where everyone brings in food, which all share. If your contribution regularly consists of things that the rest of the folks don’t want to eat, you’d be in trouble at some point.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            Is there evidence that people don’t want to go to the grocery store?

            • RepubAnon says:

              That’s my point: it isn’t a question over whether something will eliminate jobs, it’s a question of whether people want the goods and services offered. So long as people want to pick out their own produce, grocery stores will have an advantage over on-line ordering. On-line groceries aren’t much in demand at this point for that very reason (plus, it’s easier to go to the store than to wait for the delivery guy).

              I’d expect on-line ordering and scheduled delivery of prepared food or ready-to-cook food to become popular in large urban areas (supplemented with farmers’ markets) rather than delivery of groceries. On-line groceries sounds good to the tech-heads – but not to the person cooking the food.

              This is especially true as cheap energy disappears, as fueling and maintaining those delivery trucks will get more expensive. It might work in a heavily-urbanized area where the cost of renting a large store drives up grocery costs versus someone renting a large warehouse outside the city at a much lower cost per square foot.

              It’s still selling convenience to the middle class, though – and as other mechanization starts taking away more and more middle-class jobs, fewer and fewer middle class families will choose convenience over price.

            • Haystack Calhoun says:

              I’ve never had groceries delivered, but I’m pretty sure I would prefer going to the store. I like to pick my own produce; read labels; buy something on the spur of the moment; etc.

              • Pestilence says:

                Actually, online grocery ordering & delivery from the local supermarket is one of the things I miss about living in London – and one of the best things about it was avoiding impulse purchases, which (for me, anyway) so often turned out to be a bad idea, either for my palate or my waistline.

                Of course that was actually creating jobs as much as destroying them – the same store as I would visit physically was handling the order, and they employed a number of staff to pick out and complete the orders: idk if that was more or less than the number of cashiers not needed, but it must have been fairly close to parity, at worst.

                • Luke Silburn says:

                  Second this. The UK saw Ocado launched as a pure-play online grocery at around the same time as WebVan, but they managed to avoid flaming out during the dot.com crash and their success over the past decade has meant that the rest of the UK’s supermarket sector has moved into the online channel fairly aggressively. Based on the wiki article I’ve just skimmed, Peapod sound like a very similar outfit to Ocado in the US context.

                  The take-home from this is that customers will accept (even embrace) the online model for groceries if it’s done right. The corollary is if your local supermarkets can’t figure out how to do online right, then you can expect a competitor who knows their stuff to show up sooner or later.

                  Regards
                  Luke

      • guthrie says:

        Ah ha, it’s Who moved my cheese-ism. Where the only answer is to search for more, never mind asking why there isn’t any left, why you seem to have to search for longer and longer through a maze of conditions to find anything remotely like cheese, and when you do find it it’s been processed to inedibility.

  2. brettB says:

    Luckily writers at good have historical stayed employed! Oh wait.

  3. Gareth Wilson says:

    What’s the purpose of a grocery store? If it’s to provide employment, most grocery stores aren’t optimised for that.

    • Vance Maverick says:

      So what will replacing grocery stores do for employment? If you don’t care about the answer, then your comment is frivolous.

      • Gareth Wilson says:

        Lower it, for the grocery store workers anyway. Dunno about the economy as a whole. But do you believe current grocery stores employ the optimal number of people? If not, how would you change them to employ more?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Certainly wouldn’t incentivize policies that would have them employ even less people.

          • Gareth Wilson says:

            OK, but wouldn’t it be possible to make them employ more? For example, my supermarket doesn’t bag groceries. The checkout staff just push them to one side and the customers deal with them. Wouldn’t mandating that groceries are bagged by store workers increase employment? New Jersey has an equivalent rule against self-service gas stations.

        • DrDick says:

          Yes, it will lower overall employment if it lowers employment in grocery stores. The former grocery workers will be unemployed and not buying other stuff that keeps everyone else employed. Eliminating the grocery stores themselves will also kill jobs, as the store buy supplies, utilities, and services in the community.

          • Eric says:

            Granted, I’m working with pretty much an intro to econ-level education here, but theoretically wouldn’t the savings for society as a whole from a more efficient online grocery service lead to more money to spend on other goods and services, increasing employment overall?

            • Aaron B. says:

              Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh
              Erik is busy being angry that low-wage, low-productivity jobs are being replaced

              • Unionized grocery store workers are decently paid.

                Retail trade, which grocery stores fit under, is actually one of the better industries in terms of productivity growth, given the increased use of customer data, “just in time” production and delivery, etc.

              • Bill Murray says:

                I do not see where replaced come in here. The jobs would likely be ended without replacement

                • DrDick says:

                  Exactly and all the benefits from efficiency and productivity will go to capital, not to labor, just s they have over the past 35 years.

            • That’s the theory.

              The reality is more complicated: the employment effect depends on how the industries that produce those other goods and services respond to increased demand. If they respond by increasing payroll, then overall employment will rise somewhat (whether it equals the loss depends on the labor intensiveness of the industries in question). If they respond instead by demanding productivity increases from current employees, increasing mechanization, or offshoring, then it may not increase.

              You also have to take into account what happens to the grocery store employees – they become unemployed, which reduces their demand, which in turn has a depressive impact on industries they patronize (if we substitute auto workers for grocery workers, one also sees the impact that disruptions in the supply chain also has). Their period of unemployent represents permanently lost production that has to be made up by increased efficiency. Moreover, even when these workers find new jobs, their wages and lifetime earnings suffer lifetime losses, which depresses demand over the long-term.

  4. Dano says:

    I, personally, think these sorts of stands come from a lack of a big-picture focus.

    Remember what Wendell Berry asks: What Are People For?

    If you can remember that, the problem is 3/4 solved.

    Best,

    D

  5. StevenAttewell says:

    Agreed. Which is one of the primary reasons I’ve always had an issue with the zero growth faction of environmentalists – a severe lack of attention paid to class issues and the distribution of the effects of zero growth.

    What I don’t get is why environmentalists don’t put strengthened labor laws and the right to a job as part of their agenda – if people could be assured of a living wage job, there would be much less need to defend every existing job despite the impacts to environmental and worker health. It’s the macro version of the “golden handcuffs.”

    • LeeEsq says:

      My impression is that much environmentalists don’t like people that much and don’t really give thought about how their policies are going to impact humans of any class let alone working class individuals. The more radical environmentalists want a world with no humans.

      • LeeEsq says:

        In the first sentence please replace much with many. Thank you. I apologize for the grammatical error.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        There are very few environmentalists who feel this way.

        • Rhino says:

          The net result of the proposed policy shifts that many environmentalists support would be massive starvation, bloody food riots, warfare between both nation states and non-state groups, and a very gory and drastic reduction in the population of the earth.

          The fact that many environmentalists do not understand this is sort of immaterial.

          The fact that it will all happen anyway, since we have absolutely zero chance of getting our shit together to prevent it, is one of the main reasons I had a vasectomy before I had any children. And I frankly pity the children of today for what lies ahead of them.

        • Origami Isopod says:

          While I do not know the numbers of environmentalists who subscribe to it, “deep ecology” is pretty misanthropic. Other environmentalists who display no understanding of class and labor issues are probably just oblivious.

      • Marek says:

        I think some environmentalists expect a world with no humans, but this is not the same as wanting it.

        • Alan in SF says:

          I believe most everyone on the left is affected by a kind of fragmented incrementalism — if one segment of the movement is able to obtain something that advances their particular agenda, they have to accept it, even though they’d rather have gained it in a context where it didn’t create negative externalities for other segments. labor does this to environmentalists as much as vice versa. It’s not out of contempt. Labor says working class folk got to eat. Environmentalists say working class folk got to breathe.

          Basic problem: The right consists of traditionalist white people. The left consists of everyone who’s not traditionalist white people. That makes stuff lots harder.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t view myself as an environmentalist, particularly, but I do believe that a significant part of the world’s current problems arise from the fact that there are so many people in it. From the evolution of humanity until 1800, there were fewer than 1 billion people. Population doubled by 1920, and then things really went out of control – 7 billion now, and predictions of topping out – if we’re lucky – at 10 billion.

            I’m genuinely afraid that there’s no way to provide decent lives to 10 billion people while at the same time preserving what’s left of the natural world.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Um, in large parts of the world, the right consists of traditionalist non-white people. Most of Asia and Africa have lots non-white rightists. Your sentiment is only true in the Americas and Europe.

            More seriously, the advantage of the Right is that the different factions of the Right seem to be able to combine their policy wishes better than the Left. I’ve seen rants combining homophobia and low taxes, arguing that same-sex marriage will raise taxes. This doesn’t make sense but arguments like this. The Left has a harder time doing this and coming together for the issue of the day.

          • MPAVictoria says:

            “The right consists of traditionalist white people. The left consists of everyone who’s not traditionalist white people. That makes stuff lots harder.”
            You know I am not sure this is right. My Grandfather was a white working man/farmer/family man and he supported the CCF/NDP his whole life.

    • Dilan Esper says:

      At least admit the problem. For instance, why do you think environmentalists and coal miners’ unions disagree about coal? It isn’t because environmentalists hate people.

  6. Alan in SF says:

    My sense is that people have pretty much rejected online groceries — is there any reason this would change? As a marketing consultant I was working with Webvan in their infancy and was dazzled by their technology and promise — then wound up using the service one and a half times total.

    Also, don’t supermarkets contribute a very large proportion of their “waste” to local soup kitchens and food banks?

    • LeeEsq says:

      I never got the appeal of shopping for food or clothing online. Books, dvds, video games, and other goods where you can safely assume decent or good quality is one thing. Food is something that I kind of want to see before I buy it for my home even if its a container of milk or orange juice. Clothing has to be tried on first and thats easier to do in stores. If something is wrong, you don’t have to buy it.

      • stickler says:

        As to quality, didn’t the online grocery businesses used to emphasize how they’d scrupulously screen for quality produce? (Which service required labor, and no small amount of it, to make sure the customer got ripe canteloupes and not green or mushy ones.)

        Not that I ever used one of those services in any case. But it was clearly recognized by their marketing gnomes as critical to the business model, and it required people to be a remotely plausible selling point.

      • MAJeff says:

        I never got the appeal of shopping for food or clothing online

        For me, online clothing shopping is a matter of sizing. For some reason, many stores have simply stopped carrying 36 inseams in-store. I used to be able to walk into a Gap (or similar) and buy a pair of pants that would fit. Now they only sell those sizes online.

        • Dana Houle says:

          A comrade! As I’ve put on a little weight in recent years to go from emaciated to thin it’s gotten ever-so-slightly easier to find pants than it had been the previous ten years or so, but generally it’s been very, very difficult to find pants long enough in the inseam that don’t make me look like I should be wearing them with suspenders and a red bulb on my nose. Online is far, far easier.

          And when did stores stop selling all but a few pairs of unfinished pants? Who can I punch for starting that trend?

        • Karen says:

          Same for anything above a 12 in women’s. (I wear a size 14. I am unwilling to make the effort to stay thin enough to fit anything in stores anymore.) Since no stores want anyone of my age and size in their hallowed precincts, I shop online.

        • LeeEsq says:

          I’m rather short and small for a man and my feet are absolutely tiny. Most of the clothing I buy ends having to be altered to fit.

      • Origami Isopod says:

        Online shopping is a must for people with disabilities who do not have family, friends, or caretakers to shop for them. Disabilities might also include psychological or neurological conditions that make the supermarket stressful.

    • DrDick says:

      There are lots of things that you cannot effectively market online, like produce and meat. I want to look at it and feel it to check for quality. The biggest areas of food waste in store come from perishable goods, like produce, meat, and baked goods going off. This is a consequence of stores wrongly estimating demand for these products and i do not see this improving with online shopping. If anything, I think it would get worse, owing to more bulk buying.

      • Jeremy says:

        It’s not in the US, but I recommend looking at themeatguy.jp as an example of successfully selling meat online. It’s boutique stuff, and not cheap, but it’s also pretty much the only way to get turkey here.

        • DrDick says:

          You actually make my point for me. For this to work the way it is outlined in the post, it needs to be cheap and efficient. I can buy high end meat online here in the US, but it is never going to replace the grocery store given costs.

    • charlie says:

      If you are 85 years old and have a bad back then online food shopping saves your son several hours a week of doing the shopping.

      I am the son. Mom picked up the necessary skill to order her groceries online at age 80. Shopping time is replaced with visiting time that includes delivery of the occasional missing item from the delivery or food items just not available at Safeway.

      The convenience of delivery to her kitchen and time savings outweigh the cost of the computer and DSL service, slightly higher prices for the food, and narrower range of products compared to a visit to the store.

      • Bruce Baugh says:

        I have a situation like your mom, thanks to auto-immune troubles. Routine online ordering and delivery covers 90-95% of what I eat in a typical week, so an outing every couple-three weeks covers the rest, and my health can manage that. For me, online shopping means a better, healthier, more varied diet, in a big way.

      • sparks says:

        I have a similar situation, yet I happily do the shopping. Why? It’s helped me get better at assessing produce and meat for myself, and I find genuine bargains. I even take my aged parent to the stores when it can be managed. It makes her very happy to have at least a feeling of control in her food choices.

        Online wouldn’t do this very well.

  7. Ken Houghton says:

    40 percent of fresh food produced in the United States is wasted every year.

    Even if given–assumed en arguendo to be true–it doesn’t account for where the “waste” occurs. A basic analysis is that the stores selling fresh foods assume some of it will not sell–but almost no store I know of (none for most grocery items) has such profit margins that would allow 40% spoilage/non-sale to be maintained.

    So the sources are (1) people buy and don’t eat, which is not remedied by the Good “solution” and (2) stores overstock more than they should because people buy more than they should (second derivative effect). Which is also not addressed by the Good solution.

    (Note, btw, that the picture accompanying the article shows mostly a frozen food section.)

    Proposal for a Good article:

    More than 40% of the computing power of 99.44% of the “home computers” sold each year is wasted. Therefore Good needs to start a campaign requiring that people not buy home computers unless at least 75% of their use will be for number-crunching and analysis.

  8. Marek says:

    Likely true with the narrow issue of food waste. But I think the challenges we (humanity) face with regard to climate change are so serious that all other issues, including labor issues, really are irrelevant. Not irrelevant for political purposes, of course, and not irrelevant for people’s standard of living – far from it! But if the biosphere becomes mostly uninhabitable, whatever issues people have with their labor are going to be unrecognizable. To the extent that this means organized labor “hates” environmentalists, well, one might just as well hate physics.

    I say this as someone who has devoted his professional career to labor.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Fine, but I’m highly skeptical that eliminating grocery stores means much of meaning for climate change reduction.

    • Rhino says:

      If I don’t have a job, I don’t really care about the environment because my family and I are starving to death anyway.

      And frankly I could give two shits for the planet other than the fact that I live on it. Gaia is not important to me, anymore than I sentimentalize the house I am renting. In short, the economy and the availability of jobs will always be more important, and sensibly so, than the environment.

      Get to 95% employment, then save the planet okay? Even better, how about saving the planet by creating jobs in ecological and environmental stewardship and technology.

      • GeoX says:

        Yeah…I’ll be dead in a hundred years, but, crazily enough, I would still prefer for the planet to be inhabitable at that time. Because–and I know this is gonna sound crazy–I actually care about people other than myself, who, with any luck, won’t be. Call me a wild-eyed radical, but that’s how I feel.

        • Rhino says:

          Caring and realistic assessment are different actions. It’s nice to care, but if you let it interfere with your realistic assessment? We call that wishful thinking, and it does absolutely nobody any good at all.

          • GeoX says:

            So if I’m reading you correctly, your message here, such as it is, is “we’re all doomed anyway, so fuck the planet, let’s not even TRY to do anything, ’cause JEEERRBS,” which last part seems to be a non-sequitur, but what the hey. We may well be doomed; I certainly wouldn’t bet against it. Nonetheless, I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me; I’m not ready to sign on with the Smugly Cynical Fatalism Party just yet.

      • Bob Loblaw says:

        Sadly, by the time we get to that magic 95% employment, there won’t be much planet left to save. Oh well, we got ours, fuck all the rest o’ you.

        Gawd I hate false dichotomies.

        • Rhino says:

          Fine. The only other alternative is killing off a large fraction of humanity so our overall impact drops to acceptable levels. Are you volunteering for euthanasia?

          We have shown again and again that we will not be acting in time to solve this problem. No matter how you slice it, a hundred years from now there will be a lot fewer people, and those people will live substantially more primitive lives than we do now. It may well be that in 200 years, we will be pulling ourselves and a drastically edited ecology back towards real civilization, but in the short term? Forget it.

          And for the other people replying here: it isn’t ‘fuck you I’ve got mine’ to face the immediate problem in favour of the one facing the next generation, it’s just intelligent prioritization. Solve the problem of world poverty and you have TIME to adapt to what is coming.

          I also note that all of you ignore my suggestion that we could solve our employment and poverty issues by employing people in jobs and fields working to solve our environmental problems. Not that I believe for an instant it will happen, as fascist dictatorships with a permanent underclass and all resources spent on military efforts to secure shrinking resources is all we have to look forward to.

      • Marek says:

        Too late by the time you get to 95% employment. But my kids appreciate the thought.

        • Rhino says:

          Too late now, probably too late 20 years ago.

          Your kids, like everyone else’s but the one percent, are probably fucked.

          • Marek says:

            No argument there. I don’t see how getting to 95% employment is any more realistic than real action on climate change, though. And if 95% employment includes projects like Keystone XL then I don’t want it anyway.

      • DocAmazing says:

        Be sure to put up a notice on the front of your dwelling, so that rescue crews know to bypass your place in case of a climate-related disaster.

        • Rhino says:

          Be sure to not accept any job offer ever again and remain unemployed until you starve.

          C’mon man, you know better than to pull that crap. I know you do, I’ve been reading your comments for a long time.

    • MPAVictoria says:

      Comments like this are why I am a “People not Trees” leftist. Saving the environment is a great goal but it hardly matters to a person living ion poverty.

  9. shah8 says:

    /me shrugs.

    Food subsidies encourages waste. If that steak isn’t subsidized with low cost grains, the extra expense probably incentives higher consumption of high value added foods.

  10. de stijl says:

    Erik Loomis,

    I contend you’re flat – out wrong on this:

    what happens to grocery store workers?

    Distribution methods have changed and will continue to change. We should not preserve inefficient means of production and distribution because of the class of worker involved. I’m glad we don’t have 12 year-olds producing buggy whips in a steam powered factory down the street.

    No matter what we want, no economic model will ever be preserved in amber. If on-line grocery stores generate more profits than brick-and-mortar stores while still satisfying customer desires, we will see more of them. We need to figure out how to deal with that.

    Preserving every job is not just quixotic, it’s self – defeating.

    • Bill Murray says:

      How do you justify prioritizing your definition of efficiency, and also prioritizing profits over people?

      • Aaron B. says:

        The best way to ensure people will do alright in the gap between a disruptive innovation and new economic opportunities opening up is with robust social services and redistributive taxation.

        • L2P says:

          And a pony!

          Since none of those things are on the table, what should we do?

          • Dan Miller says:

            It’s not exactly likely that you’ll be able to stop companies from replacing workers with machines either.

          • Aaron B. says:

            What Dan said. And some of them ARE on the table, though maybe not to the degree we’d all prefer. HCR only passed a few years ago, for example. Repealing some of the Bush tax cuts made the tax code more progressive. And we still have a national minimum wage, albeit one that needs to be increased more quickly.

      • Bruce Baugh says:

        This is the big question.

        I’m old enough to remember when it was very unusual to see big swathes of exposed ceiling, ductwork, and such in stores. It wasn’t “progress” that led to the shift in reduced spending on what’s over customers’ heads and the various health risks that go with more exposure to junk that can accumulate there. It was a shift in the culture of store owners that that spending wasn’t worth their while. That’s a value judgment. So’s this other stuff.

      • Dilan Esper says:

        It doesn’t prioritize profits over people. At worst, it prioritizes consumers (who benefit from labor saving technologies) over workers.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      More technological futurism! Efficiency! Evolve! Why am I holding back the natural evolution of the human race!

      • tt says:

        From this and other posts from you on this issue, I get the sense that you don’t have any answers. You agree with de stijl that robots are the future and there’s nothing we can do about it, you only disagree that this is a good thing:

        The advance of robot labor hints that this is the future for the working-class around the world. The incredibly propulsive growth of robots in so many sectors of the economy suggests a world with less and less work. A utopian might argue this is good–if everyday people benefit from increased leisure time and the wealth the robots create. But that’s not going to happen. Rather, long-term unemployment around the world seems far more likely.

        Given this, why are you interested in fighting people who say we need to adapt to the future you agree is inevitable? Since further mechanization is going to happen in any case, labor needs a strategy for this new world which doesn’t depend on stopping it. Or perhaps you think no such strategy exists-that labor is doomed. In that case, what argument do you have for why environmentalists should concern themselves with unwinnable battles?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          1. I am supposed to have solid answers for one of the most intractable questions of our time? I would like to have answers but it’s hardly fair to expect a full set of answers.

          2. How is eliminating grocery stores an inevitable future? And even if somehow eliminating jobs is inevitable, which is it not, we are just supposed to grin and bear it? We are supposed to accept the system that creates it. We are even supposed to celebrate it?

          • DrDick says:

            In answer to #2, I do not think that will happen, for reasons I mention above. I do think that we will likely see greater retail consolidation, however. The Walmart Superstore (or its equivalent) is the likely future of the grocery business.

            • Eric says:

              Or by contrast, in cities grocery stores might become much smaller and focused on perishables – kind of a gourmet corner store. Meanwhile, most of what we currently buy in grocery stores can be automated through online grocers.

              • DrDick says:

                I really do not see this happening, except in high end neighborhoods. There is simply too much overhead for the food to be affordable. Consolidation, which reduces necessary profit margins and unit costs, is much more likely on a large scale.

          • tt says:

            I just don’t think it’s a convincing argument to environmentalists: labor is fighting an impossible battle, go join them.

            I find this argument convincing: labor and environmentalists are naturally aligned in interests (by common enemies if nothing else), and there is a viable future in which both the environment and the working class are protected, and we should work towards this goal together. But I would, since I’m a techno-optimist.

            I know neither you nor anyone else has solid answers. But do you at least have an opinion on what should we do? If job losses aren’t “inevitable” but just “far more likely”, is the goal right now just to delay as long as possible on the chance that we do eventually come up with solid answers?

            • Dana Houle says:

              How about not thinking of it as “labor is fighting an impossible battle, go join them” but instead making it a basic concern with justice that includes trying to ensure people make a fair wage and are treated with dignity? [Also, it would be nice if our produce could come to market without having been picked by migrants exposed to a bunch of chemicals every day.]

              • tt says:

                That’s good if you believe “a future where people make a fair wage and are treated with dignity” is obtainable. I do, but I’m still not sure if Loomis does.

                Here’s the issue, since I’m not sure my previous posts got it across. Further mechanization is happening and will continue to happen, and with it, job losses. As far as I can tell no one in this conversation disagrees with this. But some people say (the techno-optimists): this isn’t the end of the story; in fact, while technology can be destructive of labor/the environment, it can also offer opportunities for improving the conditions of labor/the environment. Progressives, rather than trying to stop what we agree is inevitable (the march of technology and the associated loss of jobs in some sectors) should adapt and fight for what we have always fought for in the context of the new technologies. It is compatible with this view to see environmental upsides in technologies with short term negative effects on labor. The job losses are going to happen regardless, and what we need to fight for isn’t preservation of obsolete jobs but an economic system in which the interests of the working class are guaranteed regardless of what technology does to the economy.

                Erik Loomis and others obviously disagree with this. They don’t believe it’s likely that we will adapt an economic system that protects the majority of the population and therefore see technology as mostly loss. So far I understand. People differ in their predictions about the future. What I don’t know is, if you’re a pessimist about technology but also don’t believe we can stop it, what do you think we should actually do differently than the optimists? Is it just: we should fight for jobs x y and z for the benefit of current workers, knowing that our best chance of success is to delay their loss a few more years?

                If that’s it, and you want environmentalists to join in that fight, I personally don’t find that very convincing. But in any case while that battle may make some people’s lives somewhat better for a short period of time (and I don’t discount the value to that) it’s not quite “trying to ensure people make a fair wage and are treated with dignity?” as a principle, because nothing you gain will last, it’s just preserving a little of what you had a little longer than you otherwise would.

      • de stijl says:

        Is Right Now the optimal time in human history? Is it the optimal time for workers?

        Obviously, it is not on the second question.

        I have no idea whether on-line grocers will be a going concern 10 years from now. Will Amazon be our grocer or the corner bodega or the supermarket – probably all.

        But I do know this, 10 years from now will be different – in how we live and how we work and how we buy stuff. Borders, Barnes & Noble, care to chime in? Change is constant.

        Again, I incredibly happy that we don’t have 12 year-olds producing buggy whips in a steam powered factory anymore.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Not having 12 year olds producing buggy whips is a whole lot different than eliminating good union jobs. It’s not a fair comparison.

          • de stijl says:

            I do not want to eliminate good union jobs, but good union jobs 10 years from now will not be the same exact jobs, nor will they employ the same people in the same way as they do today.

            It will happen.

            It’s not a fair comparison.

            Why not? You seem to be arguing for the eternal preservation of today’s status quo – in the Industrial Age, that was the status.

            I’m trying not to be unfair to you, but from my perspective, you’re overvaluing today.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              I’m not sure how opposing something silly like online grocery stories is the eternal preservation of the status quo.

              But if you think that new jobs are likely to be good union jobs, well I have an economy you should take a look at.

              • de stijl says:

                Echoing tt, implicitly, you are arguing for the status quo. Tomorrow seems like it will be less favorable to organized labor than today, so let’s fight to preserve today.

                We have no idea whether on-line groceries will be “silly” or not. Who would have predicted that a silly on-line bookstore like Amazon would become the world’s biggest cloud host?

                How about organizing Amazon – blue-collar & white-?

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  “How about organizing Amazon – blue-collar & white-?”

                  Hard to do when we’ve eliminated all union jobs and therefore all unions. Where’s the organizing support going to come from?

                • de stijl says:

                  I’m not getting a reply button on your comment so I have to do it this way:

                  Erik Loomis:

                  Hard to do when we’ve eliminated all union jobs and therefore all unions. Where’s the organizing support going to come from?

                  Do you really want to be a “Remember when” guy? Producing synopses of past labor activities as if they were the Whigs?

                  What’s the way forward then? I know, unanswerable question.

                  But what can we do today? The day after? Next week? Next year?

                  Amazon like companies are going to be in our intermediate future. I’d really not like to see us end up in a Snow Crash-type timeline, but I can see how it will happen unless we do something to bend the trajectory.

                  20 years from now, I would love to write a mocking comment to Neal Stephenson: D00d – U g0t it s0 wr0ng.

                  Right now, I’m scared to the bone that I won’t be able to.

          • Dilan Esper says:

            In the 1960′s, unionized linotype operators at newspapers were the buggy whip workers. Technology eliminated their jobs, and unions tried to save them anyway.

            It is a fair comparison. Technological progress reduces labor inputs over time. It’s the reason we don’t work 80 hours a week.

  11. Greg says:

    I’m curious what you all think of food co-ops. (I belong to the infamous Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn.) They obviously draw people away from supermarkets and union jobs. Are they anti-labor?

    Don’t know the answer, myself. Just wondering what the hive-mind here has to say.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      No, they certainly don’t have to be. Depends on how they treat their employees. I realize that worksites like that are not going to be part of unions, but there are other models.

      • Greg says:

        I should have been more specific. The Park Slope co-op only has a few employees as such, because all of the several thousand members are required to do work shifts every four weeks. This co-op is alone, I think, in requiring all members to work, but all of them have a similar model. The point I’m making is that co-ops cut into the business of traditional food markets, much like this on-line plan would do.

        • sparks says:

          They don’t around here. Our co-ops cater to hipsters and have no real influence outside them. I can say with confidence that stores like Trader Joe’s have more customers.

  12. c u n d gulag says:

    I’m too busy watching the Seahawks getting their avian-@$$es handed to them to look, but I remember several studies back in about 10 years ago that said that people are better off buying many frozen or canned fruits and veggies because their “fresh” counterparts in the Supermarkets have virtually NO nutritiotonal value, since they were picked when they were not yet ripe, sprayed to stay not-ripe during shipping, which can take weeks, and then sprayed to look “fresh!”
    And then kept on the shelves for weeks.

    Maybe we need to look for frozen and canned fruits and veggies made by Union labor?

    Just throwing this out there.

    Ok, back to the game…
    Yeeeeeesh!

  13. Fred Bush says:

    Why should leftists be in favor of terrible jobs like the ones you get in a grocery store instead of working towards a guaranteed income and automation for the terrible jobs?

    Put another way — the people who hold terrible jobs out of economic necessity are worthy, but the jobs themselves are only worthy of contempt.

    • Marek says:

      OK, but what’s the alternative to those jobs? You mention guaranteed income, but I don’t see that happening.

      • Walt says:

        I don’t see preventing automation happening, either.

        • Alan in SF says:

          Supermarket jobs here in SF are mostly union.

          Again, people keep trying to get online grocery shopping going, and it doesn’t happen. People don’t want it. People who try it don’t like it. Also can’t help noting that vast majority of shoppers at big Safeways here choose human checkers vs. self checkout.

          • Hanspeter says:

            At the Stop & Shop here, the automated checkouts using personal scanners you carry around the store works great and you see it being used all the time (as well as shoppers self scanning things at checkout or using manned checkout aisles)

            At the Shop Rite across the street, the self scan checkouts (swipe scanner only) suck, don’t accept coupons, and are very finicky. The manned checkout lanes are always in full use.

            Pointing this out just to say that implementation is as important as the idea itself in how users judge/utilize a system.

          • sparks says:

            I made a similar point in the past. Self-checkout is not used by anyone with even a half-full basket. It’s for the grab and dash crowd before work and at lunchtime. Otherwise it’s not used greatly. Of course my stores also have baggers, which gives an incentive to use the checkouts.

      • Joshua says:

        I can’t honestly answer that question. I do know automation is not going away, though. There’s really no point in wishing otherwise.

        “What happens to the workers” will not be a consideration, if it ever was. If people want online groceries, those jobs will be gone.

  14. Dana Houle says:

    FWIW, here’s how we deal with it:
    We get a kindasorta CSA vegetable box delivered to our house every week. Except a portion during the winter, everything is seasonal and comes from within about 100 miles. We also get our eggs and most of our meat from them; pasture raised/free range, comes frozen so we don’t waste it and it doesn’t go bad on us. Since I discovered I’m lactose intolerant we’ve started ordering lactose free milk as well. We are very, very diligent about not wasting food, especially animal products (and not only because my wife teaches classes on the ethics of food).

    During the summer we buy our fruit at the local farmers markets (we’re fortunate enough to have several, throughout the week, a walk or bikeride away, and they sell real food, not dainty like craft projects that cost a fortune). We grow herbs, greens and a few vegetables in a small plot in our front yard and in pots in our alley. Our perishable staples–onions, garlic, lemon, lime, parsley, cilantro, ginger, etc–as well as our bread and winter fruit we buy from our corner market, which is not unionized but which not only caters to the people of our wildly diverse neighborhood–probably one of the most diverse places in the world–but also hires Bosnians, Peruvians, Ecuadorian, Vietnamese and Eritreans from our neighborhood. We also buy most of our beer there, with most of the rest from another nearby store with a great selection. For some specific items we shop at South Asian, East Asian and Greek markets nearby. We now seldom give any money to the libertarian lunatic who owns Whole Foods; it’s still about our only feasible option for bulk foods. But for everything else, including all our prepared good and home goods like cleaning stuff, paper products, cat litter, etc, we shop at a unionized supermarket like Jewel-Osco. We specifically avoid any non-unionized stores; we never shop at WalMart, and almost never at Target (and then only for stuff we can’t get at a unionized store, like housewares and such). If we didn’t have the great local market, we wouldn’t be getting anything from a non-unionized store. We also occasionally get some game from my step-brother, and recently got some goat from a friend of my wife’s parents who goes in with other members of their diaspora community here in Chicago to pay a farmer to raise and slaughter goats for them.

    Since we’ve settled on this mix of stores/markets, we hardly ever waste any food. We buy little processed food–mostly cereal, peanut butter, pasta, bread and crackers–and we usually end up using just about everything that comes to us in the box; it’s week-to-week, so we cancel it when we’re both gone or go to the smaller version when one of us is traveling.

    There’s a lot that the unionized stores have that doesn’t fit our ethos of food. I’m not sure the large chains can adapt to a more local/seasonal approach, and I also recognize that because we’re in maybe the most diverse part of one of the earth’s most diverse metropolitan areas, and that the metro area is surrounded by some of the richest and most diverse agriculture in the world, we have options not available to most. But when I lived in Kansas and Minnesota it was possible to shop and eat in a similar way. Even in DC it’s possible, though much more expensive, especially if you’re in the District and not the suburbs, in particular the Virginia ‘burbs.

    I hope that shopping and food distribution can develop in ways that make our options available to more people, affordable to more people, and that it employs in a fair and just way people who can be treated with dignity in the workplace, including, should they make the choice, representation by a labor union that collectively bargains the rules and compensation of their employment. Erik, you’re 100% right that enviros have to be cognizant of worker rights, and it’s infuriating that many aren’t (and that many don’t consider the carbon footprint of that pasture raised lamb shipped to Whole Foods from New Zealand). But labor needs to not only accept changes in food retail, I hope unions like UFCW figure out ways to push their employers to provide better options that are more local, seasonal, sustainable and healthy. Maybe Peapod can expand to more areas, and provide more options like we get from our local delivery service that provides us with local produce and ethically-raised meat. Maybe UFCW can push to unionize the growing ethical and sustainable food retailers. Whatever it is, other than transportation and energy, probably no US union sector is more at the heart of global sustainability challenges than the UFCW. I hope enviros embrace the UFCW, but I also hope UFCW embraces sustainability.

    • Dana Houle says:

      And to the matter of online vs stores, since our options are shaped by availability rather than availability shaped by people wanting fresh raspberries year round, there’s a lot less waste because they’re selling what’s available, and not getting stuck with much excess. And a decline in the number of large supermarkets need not lead to a decline in the number of unionized jobs; UPS is unionized, I’m pretty sure, wall-to-wall, so if Ralphs and Safeway and Giant and the other big regional and/or national chains start to get in to online/home delivery, they can leverage their warehouse/distribution networks for distribution to homes rather than stores, and over time they may have fewer cashiers but they’ll have more drivers. One person driving and dropping off food is probably for energy-efficient than multiple people driving alone to a store. And those drivers can be unionized.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Tell me why the UFCW should embrace sustainability if what you are saying is that their model is finished and that we are moving to non-unionized establishments?

      I know the broader reasons why we all should, but from the perspective of membership and rank and file concerns, why?

      • Dana Houle says:

        Because there’s profit to be made there, even if the leadership/owners of supermarket chains don’t yet realize it/can’t yet figure out how to do it. It’s like the US auto industry in the 60′s; Reuther was on board for building better, more energy-efficient cars. But the US auto industry was opposed to it, which helped the Japanese get their toe-hold in our market. Supermarket chains still have the best networks for getting most items that you’d want for your fridge, pantry or home. And people outside population-dense areas will have fewer options that we have, in our 29K/sq mile neighborhood. But Peapod already exists, and I think it’s expanding, so there’s already a model for the unionized food retail industry to look to. They don’t have to wait until their model is obsolete. They can probably adapt their model to changing times and still keep their corporate viability and their employees can probably keep their unionized jobs.

  15. Murc says:

    We talk about unemployment and underemployment but are extremely reticent to consider that our unstated goal that eliminating work in the name of efficiency is a positive good is a big part of the problem.

    Generally speaking, don’t we have literally centuries of evidence that increased efficiency is a good thing?

    We don’t build things anymore by getting thousands of people to haul stone around on their backs and building elaborate scaffolding to lift them up high. It no longer takes seventy years to build a cathedral that is smaller than a modern apartment building. The clothing I wear isn’t made by hand, and a good thing, to; I can’t afford handmade clothing. Mass production threw literally thousands, if not millions, of people out of work, and replaced the artisanal goods they made with cheap replicas.

    But because there’s always work to do, that labor can, in the aggregate, be re-allocated to go do something else, which improves everyone’s lot. If it turns out you no longer need to bust your ass at one thing, society can either send you to bust your ass at something else, or it can allocate the need for less ass-busting into increased leisure time.

    True, that’s in the aggregate. It is true that on the individual level, this causes a lot of pain and hardship. A fifty year old weaver doing piecework in the 1800s who suddenly found himself unemployed was basically fucked. So was someone who’d been a manual laborer who found himself pushed out of work because the guy he worked for bought a steam shovel instead. Those people were reduced to penury.

    But it seems like the solution to this is “a robust social safety net, publicly funded education, pensions, retirement plans, universal health care so that your well-being and that of your kids isn’t tied to one SPECIFIC job, and well-organized job retraining programs.”

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the idea that any specific job is sacred and should be preserved even if it isn’t all that useful anymore. People have the right to dignified employment. They don’t have the right to sit around doing make-work.

    There is, of course, the possibility we’re reaching the point where labor actually becomes unnecessary and doesn’t add value to society anymore. But people have been claiming ‘oh, the robots will do everything and the rest of us will be at the mercy of whatever scraps the robot owners throw us’ for awhile now. That’s an extraordinary claim and requires extraordinary evidence.

    And, finally… it seems to me that there may come a point in which preserving the environment in a livable state REALLY DOES entail punching the economy in the nuts over and over and dislocating hundreds of thousands of workers at least temporarily.

    • Bruce Baugh says:

      Some efficiency is good. Some isn’t.

    • Bill Murray says:

      Are people happier in modern societies or in hunter gatherer societies? Which has more leisure time? We certainly have by some measures accomplished more but whether this is a good thing is open to question. But then I missed out on the Victorian progess fetish

      Further, as they say, past performance is no guarantee of future rewards.

      Finally, doing nothing about ridiculously high unemployment for 4 years is at least the beginning of the proof of the new Feudalism

      • Murc says:

        Are people happier in modern societies or in hunter gatherer societies? Which has more leisure time?

        Well, I know that me, my entire immediate family, and a decent number of my friends would be dead if we lived in a hunter-gatherer society. I can’t speak to the aggregate, but being dead would cut down on my personal leisure time a lot.

        Further, as they say, past performance is no guarantee of future rewards.

        Yeah, and a lot of times that’s bullshit. We use the past to learn about how to act in the future. The fact that the sun rose yesterday is no guarantee it’ll rise tomorrow, but claiming it WON’T rise tomorrow requires some pretty extraordinary justification on the part of the person claiming it before they’ll be taken seriously.

        Finally, doing nothing about ridiculously high unemployment for 4 years is at least the beginning of the proof of the new Feudalism

        This is absolutely true, but I kind of wonder how it’s germane. We were talking about whether gains in efficiency that reduce specific employment prospects (which efficiency gains always do) are good or not. That’s a bit different from whether the Masters of the Universe want to make us all serfs or not, which would be true even if we were still making fire by banging rocks together.

  16. shah8 says:

    Okay, having read the article, I really see no problems with the reasoning, and it talks about the issues some commentators have mentioned already.

    I also do not think that this transition would result in fewer jobs, at least not at the same quality delivered. What it would do more than anything else is drive the specialization back towards the way things used to be, with a genuine butcher, a green grocer, etc. That means, where only high end beef, like Kobe beef gets sold online, more normal cuts starts being delivered online. Where you have to go online to get a proper sapodilla, cherimoya, or durian delivered to your home, it will be that normal carrots, brocolli, and apples can be shopped for online. So forth and on.

    Moreover, many of the jobs most vulnerable are the crap jobs in the grocery store. Knowledge workers acknowledged as such will seep into what was once repetitive sales/”customer service” help. I really don’t see a problem here, largely because most of the functions in a food source outlet cannot truly be automated, given what customers ask for. The original failures of online shopping did have much to do with the attitude that one could *conserve* on the back of customer service. That one could look at a representative of of an item, like an apple (just as one would look at a fast-food burger image at the fast food restaurant), and simply accepts what comes. People don’t have that approach with *real food* the way that they do with fast food. And they will not accept a mechanized experience, no more than they would self-checkout. An integrated online experience within the grocery store utility should offer maybe fewer jobs, but higher value ones, and that should be welcomed.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      If you really believe that technological advancement is going to lead to the RETURN of skilled labor, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you.

      • Dana Houle says:

        Delivery may require as many people, maybe fewer, but they have to be bonded and insured, so the bottom level of employee in a home delivery-based food retail model will be significantly higher than a 15 year old with a mop or bagging groceries.

        Besides, supermarkets have been pushing self-checkout for a while; they’re already trimming the staff per store, so this problem exists even without a shift to online and delivery.

        • sparks says:

          Why bother? The idea here is to load all the costs on the person with the least ability to negotiate.

        • Ed says:

          Besides, supermarkets have been pushing self-checkout for a while; they’re already trimming the staff per store, so this problem exists even without a shift to online and delivery.

          Self-checkout has presented some difficulties – it’s easier to steal, for one thing. I never use them myself and I know others who don’t, as well, since they exist only to deprive people of jobs. The farmers markets in my area tend to be ripoffs, so the choice is mainly between the supermarkets and the Walmarts and Targets, both of which are aggressively expanding into groceries. I know where I’d rather have my money go.

      • shah8 says:

        Okay, look…saying “believe” is a cheap fucking way to avoid real debate. I did offer my reasoning. If you can’t actually discuss the merits of what I said, perhaps you shouldn’t reply at all? Since everything I could say is just bullshit to your ears anyways.

        As to what there was of your point, I said that customers would not accept lower quality service in certain areas. I gave an example of that. More than any of this, in particular, the current attitude of the elite set, that we should always maintain a pool of desperate labor, and the policies and incentives they enact, like the crippling lack of money in the real economy, the lower government activity, the slack assets and personnel, tends to overwhelm any of the minor accrual of job losses due to technological advances. There are tons of jobs that have been enabled by technology. There just aren’t so many of them because nobody has real money anymore to spend on services they want.

  17. shah8 says:

    OOooooh, long responses! They look good, too!

    /me gets to reading…

  18. Matt says:

    Yeah, the grocery workers unions should totally join the right – then they can enjoy watching this exact same thing happen (only for “efficiency”) and having their union dissolved!

  19. Ned Ludd says:

    Grade-A Yglesias bate. I will be disappointed if ‘disintermediation’ is not mentioned at least once.

  20. Alan in SF says:

    I’m gonna go watch the game now instead of delving into this, but…since sustainable, organic, local, artisan ag & farmer’s market distribution all tend to be much more labor intensive than big supermarket, and more skilled labor intensive, couldn’t UFCW organize this business? Granted it’d be a different organizing model.

    • anthony says:

      I was thinking that too, Alan. Online delivery for toilet paper and garbage bags and all the other things I go to a big supermarket and keep food shopping for butchers, bakers and markets to shove the money to smaller operators

  21. anthony says:

    I don’t know if anyone here actually went to the Soviet Union but when you bought something, one shop assistant wrote the prices on a piece of paper and you’d then take it to a cashier, who took your money. It was excellent for full employment and they managed to do it without the wasteful facade of abundance and choice that comes from aisles of 26 different kinds of cola and 32 types of tinned tuna.

    • Alan in SF says:

      When I shopped in Communist countries in the ’80s, one of the features was you had to have a shopping basket to go into the store, even if you were only going to get one thing. So there was someone to monitor the shopping basket handout and another monitoring the gate to make sure you had one. If you wanted a CD or something, it was behind a counter and someone had to hand it to you.

      In Greece at the same time, once you bought some small item at a pharmacy or bookstore, the cashier, instead of putting it in a bag, gave it to someone else to wrap — folded paper, tape, the whole deal. They probably need to get back to that.

    • Dave says:

      Christ on a stick! All the crap that needs dealing with in the world, and you want to pay someone to watch a pile of shopping baskets? You ARE taking the piss, please say you are…

  22. MikeN says:

    Think about how many jobs could have been saved if all these responses had been typed out, sent to the post office, and delivered by hand.

    Or for that matter, if Erik’s article had been printed in a magazine or newspaper.

    Loggers, pulp and paper makers, printers, delivery boys….

    I also don’t think online groceries won’t work because people want to pick and choose for themselves on the spot, but then again I scoffed at Amazon and Netflix (the original business plan) for the same reason.

    • sparks says:

      I didn’t, those items can be bought without much regard as to quality as long as you know what you want, and Netflix especially solved the return issue that irritated customers at places like Blockbuster.

      There still are bookstores, including Barnes & Noble around here. A smaller number of clientele likes to browse but there are enough to keep bookstores viable. Reading by tablet will displace more, but I’d guess its main cannibalization is paper books bought online.

  23. CaseyL says:

    That horse has long since left the barn.

    On-line non-grocery shopping has already eliminated thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of jobs. It’s devastated local and state budgets due to the lack of sales taxes which were once paid when people bought things at actual stores – in fact, not having to pay sales tax is one of the main reason people shop on-line.

    I think the best way to cry “Halt!” is to tie the loss of grocery jobs to the overall impact on-line commerce has had, and encourage people to go shopping live and in person again.

  24. DocAmazing says:

    Obviously, my suggestion ain’t gonna happen, but: we need to get past the job paradigm. Technology has advanced to the point where most people’s labor is superfluous. Humans, using current technology, can feed and care for the existing population; the problem is one of distribution. Keeping people busy performing nonessential and even damaging tasks only serves the “work or starve!” mindset.

    I have no suggestions for how we get from here to there. Our political system is set up to enrich the already-rich; a needs-based economy could quite literally save the world, but the resistance to common sense is powerful.

    • Vance Maverick says:

      I think we’re a long way from the point you describe, and it may keep receding indefinitely. Is the work of an elementary-school teacher superfluous?

      Rather, I think we’re in a stage of transition in the distribution of jobs. Manufacturing, for example, will employ fewer people. But I don’t think that has to mean low employment. Assuming I’m right in this, though, there still remains the problem of how to make the transition work for the humans who hold the jobs.

      (I’m fortunate enough to be in a specialty which will probably not shrink in the remainder of my working life, so these are abstract questions for me, but trying to imagine having to pick up a new line of work as I approach 50 makes me nervous.)

      Trying, as consumers, to shore up a job sector with our individual purchases seems to me futile on the one hand and too narrow on the other. What about all the other sectors we happen not to have read blog posts on lately?

      It’s enough to make me dream of centralized economic planning. Sure, it doesn’t work to compute in advance how many pipe fittings should be cast this year — but maybe we can induce the companies, as they nimbly adapt to the precise number of pipe fittings actually required, to put to work just the right balance of people and skills!

  25. Dave says:

    First, catch your social democracy, then allow it to attend to the various dimensions of distributional problem. Anything else is just playing “pass the snark”. If you can’t find a social democracy, that may be your actual problem, about which you should either try to do something, or let out a long, mournful howl of despair.

  26. [...] much care about any of the substantive points raised here, but I do want to point out that online grocery shopping is not about protecting the environment. I [...]

  27. Linnaeus says:

    Interesting article in the The Atlantic that might be germane:

    The End of Labor

  28. bradP says:

    Presumably, if customers save money, that money will be spent in other job creating avenues. I see the concern over the grocery store workers, but there are also a lot of unemployed people who might be able to find a good income providing goods and services for that extra disposable cash.

    Also, unless technology has advanced further than I was aware, transportation of the groceries would mean that you would be transferring labor to a different model of distribution, rather than actually doing away with all of the jobs altogether.

  29. Pete Mack says:

    In addition, I think the article is just wrong: online grocery stores tend to sell a lot more packaged goods than brick-and mortar. Do you want your tomatoes in little plastic boxes? Go to amazon.com

  30. Jameson Quinn says:

    I think the idea of this post isn’t “online groceries BAD” but “environmentalists who don’t even notice how the policies they advocate affect people’s jobs are insufferable and thus not really helping their own cause.” Perhaps certain jobs are doomed; perhaps in some cases that’s a good thing from an environmental perspective; and perhaps (though this one I severely doubt) both of those apply to grocery jobs in the next few years. But even if all of those are true, it’s no excuse to ignore the people currently in those jobs and their unions.

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