The Work Ethic

(Actually December 25, 2007)

Listening to a discussion about globalization on “The NewsHour” tonight, I recall that it occurred to me in the mid-1970s that computers made complicated things simple and automatic, so automation itself would increase tremendously. I’d thought about automating grape harvesting when I picked grapes in France in 1973, and considered that it would be easy, using sonar, to implement on existing farm equipment, and ought to come about in the near future.

The obvious consequence of automation is that there is less work for people to do, and taken to the extreme, none at all. Would that be catastrophic for mankind? Not if we all had guaranteed minimum incomes, as I’d heard recommended by Communist NYC Mayoral Candidate Rasheed Storey, and later by Richard Nixon! But where would the money come from?

Obviously, if nobody had jobs, only the producers of goods and services (that is, the corporations) would be making money, and they’d have to support the population by paying taxes.

I recognized the disturbance such a transformation would create in our concept of what life is all about (that is, how we humans ought to conduct our lives and what should be expected of us), and knew it would mean abandoning the “Protestant work ethic,” which was as far as my speculation took me.

Tonight’s discussion — about Taiwan’s loss of jobs in the shoemaking industry to China, its loss of jobs to Thailand, its loss to Latin America, and the Tanzanian representative’s prediction that advances in automation would prevent Tanzania from ever seeing the industry benefit his country — brought these thirty-year-old notions into clearer focus.

The idea of earning is a natural one, going back to the birds and the bees, to hunting and gathering, to survival, to self-sufficiency, to the passage in the Book of Acts requiring members of the community to work, to America’s “rugged individualism.” It’s as natural as property and territory, familiar to every creature that absorbs nutrients and occupies space. This conflict between nature and the march of progress is as predictable as (though more consequential than) the advent of robotic bank-robbers and home-invaders.

Racism, too, is natural, I infer from the opening passages of King Solomon’s Ring by Conrad Lorentz. It’s the human equivalent of adaptive radiation among the cichlids he observed in John Pennekamp State Park.

But we are not natural beings; we are thoughtful, and civilized, and governed by morality. We recognize racism as a vice, and nature as cruel.

Perhaps some day we may cease to regard earning as a universal duty or a virtue. We may start to think of rivalry among nations and corporations, or global economic inequity, or progress in technology, as a vice. We may decide to limit population or solve our problems through philanthropy, if not taxation and income redistribution.

But unless we take one or more of these steps, we all ought to recognize the collision course we’re on before taking comfort in the knowledge that our mortality will prevent us from experiencing the calamity ahead.

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