THE DEATH OF FULL EMPLOYMENT -- THE BIRTH OF COOKIE GRABBING
by Charles Carreon
[This wistful utopian musing, salted with a dash of revolutionary aspiration, has worn relatively well during the intervening decades since I wrote it. Nothing has changed worth mentioning, and those of us who rode the dot-com bubble know that cookies are still there to be grabbed. Live and learn.]
More and more Americans don't work for a living. Could this be a fulfillment of the old sci-fi predictions that technology would reach such a height as to make work obsolete? Of course these predictions were usually made with an optimistic intention, and implied that all those persons fortunate enough to live in such an age would willingly embrace unlimited leisure. Only a few prognosticators had the foresight to consider that commonsense morality might balk at such a development, which could be construed as tantamount to turning our world into a vast devil's playground.
Early sci-fi utopias depicted domed cities, free energy and a social organization that provided liberty, leisure and stimulation in ample proportions. Less enthusiastic scenarios have evoked a lethargic and unimaginative humanity drowning in hedonistic ennui. But not many, until very recently, considered the least dramatic possibility: mass unemployment and poverty for millions and colossal profits for the owners of priceless mechanical slaves. For such would be the results of an unequal distribution of the benefits wrought by a hyper-efficient technology.
Up to this point we've been speaking as if non-working as a lifestyle were something new -- a potential development as yet unexplored. In fact, the non-working life has in every generation been the prerogative of a few clever people and their descendants. It's known as letting your money work for you, and money, as we all know, works exceedingly well. Slavery, debt, peonage, and just plain starvation wages all serve to lighten the load on some people by making it heavier on others.
The automatic gospel that was advanced at the dawn of the industrial age proposed that some day machines might take the load off everyone, or at least lighten it considerably. This has not occurred anywhere, of course, but in our own country it becomes more and more feasible. Daily we see reductions in the person power required to do a job. In grocery stores, on loading docks, in offices, the wonders of heavy equipment and high electronics make short work of unskilled personnel and/or turn dull jobs into masterpieces of boredom where human beings are obviously being retained only until some suitably stupid robot can be designed.
But there's no general admission of this reality. Instead there's talk about how great the demand is for computer personnel. And machines eliminate more work and turn more workers into non-workers. Could it be that the cookie-jar has been left unattended? Could there be, at this moment, positions open to non-working personnel? Could you be ready to embark upon this exciting career?
Naturally, there's a certain stigma attached to this sort of activity, which looks a lot like cutting into line by mere force of audacity. Society takes a dim view of persons who take up the non-working lifestyle without first establishing a pile of capital to "work for them." No matter how you amass your pile -- society favors clever entrepreneurs and energetic hustlers over indolent cookie-grabbers. It is, perhaps, a matter of protocol, of going through the proper channels, making the right noises, and appearing energetic even as one rides elegantly on the backs of others.
Even for cookie-grabbers, however, there are certain job requirements. One must be good at keeping appointments and standing in line, and, till recently, able to withstand the sneers of postal workers. An ability to fill out forms is indispensable, and in the case of the elite among non-working personnel, the grant writers, it becomes the entire raison d'etre. At present, then, truly ept cookie-grabbing requires some form of education, or at least a natural ability to navigate the ebbs and flows of bureaucracy, to discern the patterns that recur amid spools of red tape.
The economic policies of the Reagan administration aim to drastically reduce the number of openings in this promising field. Reducing environmental restrictions, lowering the minimum wage and removing various wage-price protections are meant to usher in a new era of prosperity a la laissez faire. But fundamentally the growth of profit in industry depends upon reducing worker-hours, and there is no way out of this cycle but down, down, down. Corporate policies will continue to eliminate jobs and pocket the wages saved thereby for the benefit of those who can make their money work more efficiently in this way. And commonsense morality will continue to require that the unemployed share the dwindling piece of pie that is their share. Until something happens. And until then, if you happen to see a cookie lying around ...
(October, 1981, Issue 34, "More Than Food," Ashland, Oregon)