Politics: Labor, Luddites, & Laws

Background: (you can skip to the line if you just want to read the thought-rambling without historical context I’m working from)

My mother and I were talking and she mentioned an article she remembered reading in college about China passing a law where companies couldn’t replace a person with a machine to do a job. And in the “capitalism is great” way of the cold-war-era article it made fun of a picture of fifteen Chinese workers digging a ditch which could have been done by one bulldozer. We laughed a little about how machines are replacing people all over and that’s part of job scarcity – but it is very true. This is something that has been bubbling as a thought for awhile and I’m going to try to hash through it.

I remember reading a paper in my college career where Queen Elizabeth I (I think) was shown a sock-weaving machine to determine if the inventor should have a patent.  She refused his patent because it would put all those sock-weaving-workers out of work and make them beggars. She had the attitude the Chinese had – it was more important for the individuals to be allowed to have life-sustaining jobs.

Obviously, progress continued to develop and we got weaving machines anyway and shockingly – new jobs developed.  Luddites in the 19th century (1800’s) attacked machines that were replacing their jobs. I mean, the machines totally replaced the artisan crafters eventually (Ford anyone?). Again, society and economies adapted.

In the twentieth century there was grumbling within unions about machines replacing jobs (which they did).  Earlier this year Bill Gates had a speech about “software substitution” where computer bots will replace people at “low level jobs” like retail workers. I have seen discussions ranging from the late eighteenth century on about when “machines replace your job” (I mean, wired.com posted earlier this year to say 66% of US jobs are poised to be replaced!).

Now, there are some jobs we (thankfully) haven’t programmed computers for yet: painting (I mean art, not painting walls), writing novels, coding creative pieces of software to make our lives better, designing fashion, engineering new inventions, and… ummm… I can’t think of others.  Notice what all of these are? Artistic. Creative. Inspirational. Fortunately, we have not managed to imbue computers with a great deal of creativity.

I don’t have a solution. Let me start with that. I don’t know THE ANSWER OF ULTIMATE SUCCESS. But I also don’t think ignoring the problem will make it just go away. And worse still, there are a lot of people  who are far more vulnerable than I am. I feel passionate that we should start discussing the issue in a real way. And ask some very painful questions:

  • Is our societal worth defined by our jobs? (I will scream at the top of my lungs against this idea. you know, something about all people created equal…)
  • Do people have a right to live?
  • What does “quality of life” mean when talking about inequality and it’s importance?
  • Who is responsible for life or quality of life?
  • Do people need jobs to be considered productive members of society?
  • Do we have enough full-time, “worthwhile” jobs for everyone to strive for?
  • Are there enough resources for everyone to live?
  • Are there enough jobs for everyone to have one? and is this the goal?
  • If you are not defined by a job, what defines a person’s “worth”? (internally or externally)
  • If not to “grow up and get a job” what is the purpose of education?
  • If not to “grow up and get a job” what are young people supposed to be doing?

Some of these are highly volatile questions, I know! But I think we, as a society, need to take a very long, hard, soul-searching look at how we treat “life” as a society.  And as I said before – I don’t have answers. But I’m asking myself these questions. I don’t want to – asking whether someone has the right to have a child or has the right to eat or has the right…

What does it mean to have a “right to Life”*? Does that mean you have a right to healthcare? What about food? What about shelter (a home)? Where is the line that says “this is the right to life but that isn’t”? I don’t know. But I keep asking and I keep struggling with it.

I have started to think we should run an experiment on guaranteed income. Mincome** in Canada was an interesting, if incomplete, experiment.  What would change if your basic living needs were met by an income? I know I personally would probably not work a full-time job.  Honestly, I would love to work in a bookstore or back at Party City (I had fun there and I’d never want to NOT have a place to go be “social-ish” outside the house) and devote 4-6 hours a day to being a writer instead. I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a dream for my life to be able to spend more time per week writing than working… but I like having food and clothes and a roof over my head too much to give up the “American Dream” as it’s currently defined.

I want to redefine the American Dream where people are not judged by the color of their skin, the balance in their bank account, or the size of their house.  In my American Dream- people are allowed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without being judged.

*”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – American Declaration of Independence July 4th, 1776

**”The Town with No Poverty” a paper by Evelyn Forget in 2011 based off a Canadian town where 1974-1979 they had a guaranteed income – with a focus on healthcare and whether universal healthcare (which was country-wide by 1962)