There’s plenty of work; we need to direct resources to actually do it

Oregon now allows you to pump your own gas. While there’s some back and forth between people who are very afraid of inserting a nozzle into a hole and people laughing at them, this article¬†points out that thanks to the old law, many people had jobs pumping gas. Most obviously, this means they have money. The advocates of universal basic income (UBI) and automation say that part can be handled anyway. Loomis rejects that as the end of the problem, though, as Americans, especially of the working class, place a lot of value in work itself. Work provides a sense of accomplishment and identity. Sending people home to watch TV and collect a weekly check won’t be accepted. We need jobs.

With a connection soon to come, some people talk about the need for job creation. Some then appeal to the virtues of so-called job creators, and others point to infrastructure projects or other public works. In either case, the discussion is centered around the need for more jobs, and the problem both are solving is people needing money.

But this is a conflation of two different problems. With the current rules in places, yes, they are tied together. If we’re talking about changing the rules, let’s at least consider them in separation. The first problem is people having work. The second is people having money.

Loomis’s article, to its credit, gives the first some importance apart from the second. Now, whether pumping gas is a good use of human resources, I don’t really know. I do know there’s plenty of work that could be done. Infrastructure is a popular goto. Roads and bridges are in need of repair. Mass transit in the US leaves much to be desired. Outside of infrastructure, some places are known for having unreasonably long lines. Put in a few more people to move things along. There’s a lot of translation that could be done but isn’t. Artistic works leave seemingly limitless options. I’m sure you can think of other things that could be done if only someone would do them. If we step away from money for a moment, there is plenty to be done. Possibly more to do than can be done with all hands on deck. Or more to be done than everyone actually wants to do. Where each job falls on the scale of importance is another question. (I do imagine our current arrangement is far from optimal. But when a few people acting out of self-interest get to organize as much as they do, of course you end up with worse results for almost everybody.)

The second, people having money, is where the jobs discussion usually centers. Of course if we implement something like UBI that ensures everyone has enough without a job, then the money problem is solved. Or, more abstractly, the problem is a matter of getting money from people with a lot of it to people who need more of it. The usual jobs answer is an answer of waiting for (or creating incentives for) people with plenty to find a way to make paying others a wage to be a way to acquire even more. A law such as having to have an attendant pump gas is one that just mandates certain people with plenty to do this. UBI generally works by just taking from those with plenty, giving to everyone, ensuring nobody needs more.

Given waiting on the few with plenty to decide to do things in the interests of everyone else isn’t really working out, furthering the gas attendant route to other areas seems like a rather viable way to address the first problem and, without a UBI, also the second. Especially for large chains where the idea of individual liberty isn’t really in play anyway (whose liberty is violated by corporate regulations?) start having higher cleanliness and service mandates. (Pump more money into medicine and law, too. Given new lawyers are having problems finding jobs and the system is badly backed up, this isn’t a problem of no work to do. This is a problem of needing to take resources from those hoarding it and putting it to use for everyone.)

Get over work

Another article getting at our need to get over the idea of everyone working in the traditional sense. All hands on deck made sense when there was more work to do than people to do it. We’re at the point where everyone working 40 hours a week is impossible. We’re going towards a point where everyone working even 10 hours a week will be impossible. Work qua employment isn’t some intrinsically great thing. People don’t need jobs, people need goods and services. If we can get the latter without the former, all the better.

I disagree with the last part of the article, though. Post-employment, “What do you do?” will become a more meaningful question, not less. Instead of commonly getting answers about jobs that really have nothing to do with the person, answers will reflect how one chooses to spend their time without unneeded restraint. Of the people I know who work in jobs that they don’t really care about outside the paycheck, pretty much all of them do far more interesting and worthwhile things outside of their jobs, and those who don’t would if their jobs didn’t suck their energy away.

In response to the common objection that without a need to work people will just become lazy, in places where universal basic income has been tried, employment stays around the same rate. The need for employment is, surprisingly, even lower than the current employment, too. With most office workers only actually working about 20% of the time, if not for a religious devotion to 40 hour work weeks, we could have many people already closer to 10 hour weeks with no drop in production.

Automation is also being held back by (unreasonably) cheap labor. Fast food, for instance, can be mostly automated. Cut off the need for employment and the wages people will demand to do those jobs rather than something more fulfilling will jump up, likely to the point where building the robots is cheaper.