Friday, October 9, 2009

Manufactured Uselessness

The pervasive, willful ignorance which characterizes nearly all public discouse concerning unemployment is stunning. How can we be so blind to what is so obvious - that Growth makes the "crisis of surplus labor" worse and worse?

Consider the facts:

(1) We-the-consumers demand the lowest (internalized) costs
(2) We-the-investors demand the highest (internalized) rates of return
(3) Any business which ignores these demands is quickly rendered extinct in the Marketplace
(4) Therefore we mechanize and automate and outsource everything possible...
(5) ...replace human labor with coal and oil and every other easy-to-extract fossil fuel we can rip out of the Earth...
(6) ...throw power tools and robotic machines at every job we can…
(7) ...and then we're astonished that unemployment is a problem

DUH! God help us, really, we're too clueless to help ourselves. We cannot imagine such things as too much Progress or too much Productivity. We cannot see – cannot admit – that one of the main "outputs" of the Growth Economy is Manufactured Uselessness.

This is the mother of all third rails in American political and social discourse: no one will admit - in public - that Productivity has severed tens of millions of Americans from employment and vocations which are associated with real human needs. And not only are these workers TOTALLY UNNECESSARY for the production and delivery of essential goods and services, but less and less of their labor is needed for the provision of ever-more extravagent luxuries, indulgences, status symbols.

Always and forever we are told the solution is More Growth. "Drink more bottled water!" "Fly to Disneyland!" "Buy a vacation home, a bigger riding lawnmower – we need JOBS!" But every year it takes fewer and fewer people to provide that bottle of water, that vacation trip, that vinyl-clad McMansion, that gas-guzzling go-cart which happens to cut grass.

Heaven knows most of us don't need more stuff any more than we need the spiritually-corrosive manipulations which marketers use to foist more stuff upon us. Such things as greed and gluttony, lust and pride and envy are – as they have always been – vices, moral hazards, threats to family and community. Meanwhile we are reaching and exceeding the biophysical limits of Earth.

But mainstream economists and businessmen and politicians live in holy terror of thrift and frugality – if the consumer isn't spending "enough" on credit, then by God the government had better do so. Libertarians and Austrian-school types fervently believe that balanced budgets, minimal government, and a truly free Free Market will solve everything; they don't seem to worry about the fact that half the working population in America would be jobless if our nation REALLY got serious about living within our means. At least Keynesian liberals and progressives give a damn about employment for working people, but they focus so much of their energy on demonizing super-rich elites that they fail to recognize Productivity is a double-edged sword. And Productivity may become far more sinister than even the Luddites imagined:

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

Perhaps we are so enamored of our various Balkanized groups/ways of thinking that nothing less than a catastrophe will open our minds to real "Change". Is this why so many of our wise ancestors have deemed the human condition tragic?

2 comments:

isochroma said...

I detect excess "we" nouns in your post.

Who benefits, and who loses?

There have been a few very wealthy winners and the rest losers. You left that out. Be sure to include it in your next post.

Nathan P said...

Hi isochroma ("same-color"?)
Hans was talking about the 'few very wealthy winners' here:
"they (the Keynesians) focus so much of their energy on demonizing super-rich elites that they fail to recognize Productivity is a double-edged sword"

I tend to agree with Hans. It sounds like you're on board with the demonization, isochroma. Restarting the global growth machine with or without full employment seems like a bad deal. The free market isn't going to goad us in the right direction (toward sustainability), and the manipulated-market folks are actively pushing in the wrong direction! For example: "Let's pump some dollars and get GM employees turning out millions of hyper-efficient cars of highest quality!" Sounds great, but we don't need any more cars; we need fewer cars. We don't really need more non-perishable material goods of any sort. For a marginal improvement in fuel efficiency and employment, we reinvest in another decade (or more) of automobile dependence and make significant advances in entropy production - those new cars don't assemble themselves!

Hans - your assessment of tragedy is spot-on. It's the perfect term to describe our situation. We know we're racing each other toward the cliff-edge, but we don't know what else to do!