As the gap grows between the grotesque wealth of the few and the desperate poverty of the many, I think our society needs to rethink the rapid development of robotic cars, self-checkout lanes and other automated methods of getting daily work done.
These labor-saving methods save the labor of low-paid workers (taxi drivers, cashiers), while they increase jobs for ultra-educated computer engineers and the fortunes of CEOs at Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.
That is great for the few graduate-level trained engineers – who move up in the economic world with six-digit salaries that provide a decent family living. However, it leaves behind an army of previously low-paid workers, who now have fewer jobs to split amongst them.
The laws of our capitalistic society ordain that when there are more people competing for the same jobs, the wages they are offered will be less. No $15 an hour rule really addresses that.
In order to earn a living, we must all become computer engineers, or others whose work supports their work. This is unrealistic and sets up false expectations and false promises in American society.
Already, I see this trend in education. As a community college professor, I strongly advocate college education for students who have the motivation, interest and ability. I have seen many underprivileged students – those who came from lives of poverty, drugs or crime; those who were quite literally living on the streets – pull themselves up and get degrees that saved their own futures. I applaud these students every day of my life.
But the fact is that only 30 percent of those students who enter a community college program leave with a degree or certificate in hand. There are lots of theories about why this may be so. One of the less frequently cited reasons is that some students do not have true interest in the subjects they study; they are studying what they think they should.
Our current presidential candidates promise free or reduced-cost college education to all Americans. Yet some students say this isn’t a good plan: “You won’t work very hard if you don’t have to pay for at least part of it yourself,” one argued.
When I go to my neighborhood Safeway, I have a choice these days: I can wait in a long line to have my groceries rung up efficiently by a professional cashier who will deduct coupons and dispense my Monopoly tokens. Or I can wait in a short line and inefficiently ring up my own groceries.
The process will pause when, untrained and lacking natural ability for the task, I put something in the wrong spot, I can’t find the code or I see the wrong price display. I will then have to wait for help from the one cashier assigned to instruct all nine unskilled self-cashiers.
I guess the machinery must save Safeway enough money so that it is willing to deal with disgruntled customers on a daily basis, until we are all trained-up. But it also costs the community jobs for folks who trained to be cashiers as an alternative to going to college. We have lost bank clerks to ATMs and warehouse workers to Amazon robots. Soon, we will lose professional drivers to Google cars that drive themselves.
Don’t worry, American taxpayers will buy all those workers college educations, but as we do so, the educations will be watered down and become less valuable and less likely to help those workers earn jobs.
I am a proud Luddite. I don’t mean that I am afraid of computers or that I don’t use cell phones; that’s not really what the term means. But I am worried about a future world in which human jobs are lost to machines, which is what the original Luddites were also concerned about.
Why are we working so hard to make our own workers obsolete?
Barbara Parsons is a college English professor and writer who lives in Tacoma's North End. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.