Edward Packard

November 14, 2011

The Unemployment Problem, continued

    Unacceptably high unemployment has become endemic in America. It’s not going away by itself. Consider this thought experiment: What if machines could do more work at less cost than all those in the bottom quintile of intelligence, education, and training? In no instance would it make economic sense to hire one of these individuals rather than plug in a machine to do the work. What happens to these people? We can’t let them starve. We don’t want to drive them to drugs or crime in response to the hopelessness of their situation. It would be demeaning and demoralizing to pay them a stipend so they could survive. Instead they should be given work opportunities in specially designed enterprises, even though machines could accomplish that work at less cost. Efficiency is important, but not as important as enabling people to find some fulfillment and satisfaction in work. A society with such technologically advanced machines can afford the cost of subsidizing such a socially vital policy.
     Thought experiments tend to be simplistic, particularly in the social sciences. There is not a fixed bottom quintile –- there is always an amount of mobility and uncertainty.  Some who are not in the bottom quintile slip into it. Some who are in it move out of it. But for those who are in such a fix –– who can’t get a job after a long period of trying –– we need projects in which they can engage themselves, be productive, benefit society, and earn a modest living. Private enterprise isn’t going to create these jobs. The government must.
 Next week I’ll discuss how this could work and how it could be financed.

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