The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

philosophical queries about Labor and Economy

with 5 comments

Labor day weekend got me thinking about Labor and the United States (surprise), and prompted a few queries that I’ve been considering for the past few months. Specifically, two separate trains of thought have been brewing, and I think that they are (or should be) related.

First. There has been much written recently regarding how the “green economy” that President Obama envisioned rescuing the US from the recession has failed, and that green jobs are not the future, but political hokem that provides great speeches but little results. David Brooks, this morning, for example:

In his 2008 convention speech, Barack Obama promised to create five million green economy jobs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimated in April 2009 that green jobs could account for 10 percent of new job growth over the next 30 years. Alas, it was not to be. The gigantic public investments in green energy may be stimulating innovation and helping the environment. But they are not evidence that the government knows how to create private-sector jobs.”

Or you could just call it like they see it, as  Jennifer Rubin at WashPo does, decrying the “green jobs fetish” of President Obama, and hoping to see an end to the “cotton-candy policies” of the liberals. Well it is true. Green Energy and Green Economy have not created as many jobs as are needed to facilitate a recovery from this recession; a recession not caused, by the way, by the growth of the green economy.

Second. On NPR, yesterday, I heard about 10 seconds of an interview with E.J. Dionne, (full disclosure: the Dionne and David Brooks Politics Chat on Fridays is my favorite NPR segment of the week). The interview was in conjunction with his Sunday Op-Ed: The Last Labor Day, where he argues: We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil — the phrase itself seems antique — as worthy of genuine respect.

In this interview, Dionne said something to the effect that the historical notion of Labor Day in the United States is antiquated, because the United States is no longer populated with laborers but with consumers. Even though most Americans actually do work blue-collar, labor-intensive jobs, these jobs fail to be a part of the vocabulary of modern culture, in part because blue-collar, hard-working America is no longer seen as celebratory in-itself, but as a way for consumers to earn money to consume things, and to move up in the world, (boot-strap America, as I call this notion). This lack of focus on labor is not just in the real world where the traditional notion of the laborer is now recession-unemployed (and unemployable?) but even in media and news coverage and popular culture.

To illustrate this point, E.J. Dionne asked listeners to consider Hollywood cinema. One need not go back too far to see regular film portrayals of hard-working low-income Americans celebrated for doing the work they do; the absolute pinnacle of working-class celebration in film is mentioned by Dionne, and has a special place in American cinematic history, and my heart: It’s a Wonderful Life. This today has (mostly) disappeared (Dionne rightly claims that John Sayles still makes films). Dionne cites two “blue-collar” movies that have been successful out of Hollywood in recent years: Good Will Hunting and The Fighter. Both are set in poor, hard-working, day-laboring Massachusetts, and show the plight of two exceptional men who do not belong in the life they are born into, and thus attempt to rise above. They are stories of upward mobility, according to Dionne, not celebration of the worker. Though both of these films are far more complex than this paragraph denotes, I think the point stands: We do not make movies about Ben Affleck’s loyal friend who will toil the rest of his life in construction while his buddy moves on to money and the girl. Maybe I heard more than 10 seconds of the interview.

This all got TRC on to various and sundry matters of inquiry. But here are two thoughts. Work is a good in itself, right? Regardless of the added value later of that which is manufactured for consumption or services that are rendered? Shouldn’t we remember the words of Abraham Lincoln (as quoted by Dionne) when we think about our day-to-day-lives: ” Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Capital is good, and consumption is good, but the Horse must come before the Cart, no? Otherwise workers are commodities, unions unnecessary, and rights lost because the capital is point, not the person.

But this leads to the second, and more difficult thought that has been stewing at TRC for the past few months. As people decry the green economy a failure, and find that the “green future” cannot provide the economic needs of the country, or the world, should we not ask: do we need to reevaluate the expectations of an employed, functioning economy? Are we at a point where the post-recession economy will not even resemble the pre-recession economy? These are philosophical questions, but they seem extremely important at this juncture in time.

Take renewable energy. Renewable energy requires manufacturing, assembly, installation and maintenance, just like dirty energy. It does not require fuel extraction, which is good because coal mining is a dangerous business. But it is a business that employs a lot of people. Wind and solar do not require daily employees. They are operated by a single man in a computer somewhere in the region who watches the energy demand and manages the generation needs. If we were to create a new infrastructure of renewable energy and high-speed rail and broad-band internet, there would be an influx of millions of jobs. But then these tasks would be accomplished, and then what? What should the future economy look like, beyond recovery from this recession?

Perhaps the green economy will not be able to sustain the US after recession because there will never be enough green jobs. Not because the green economy failed but because the green economy just does not need as many hands to operate. That’s not an endorsement of fossil fuels, but if its true, it means we need to find something else to make meaningful work. And this is just one field. Efficiency is rising in all sorts of tech and manufacturing fields. Robotics will only continue to increase productivity while requiring fewer human hands. And what happens when A.I. becomes A.I.? Which will happen, some day. These are maybe philosophical questions today, but will be actualities in the future, and must be accounted for.

We shouldn’t bandy about trying to destroy renewable energy and the green economy because it’s different from the past like a bunch of luddites. Rather, shouldn’t we re-imagine a new economy, where the future is prioritized over the past, and people are prioritized over capital, and labor means working for something that means something? All while moving society, and the economy, forward instead of backward? Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But I think we can use some wishful thinking in this country right about now, as we pass yet another Labor Day in the midst of economic recession. What this future economy looks like though, is beyond TRC’s current imagination. I guess the United Federation of Planets provides one option (seriously.)


Written by Christopher ZF

September 6, 2011 at 11:47

5 Responses

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  1. The last part of this gets to a pretty speculative place and one that perhaps assumes too much “progress.” Just because more jobs become automated does not mean that there will eventually be a complete replacement of the worker as such. Clean energy will also require workers doing more than just managing a computer. It’s just like any infrastructure (but you’re right, unlike other resource management) where you need a decently large maintenance force that cannot be automated.
    As for the first half, that’s spot on. It’s also very Marxist of you, might I add.


    September 6, 2011 at 13:20

    • I recognize the marxism inherent in the post, and can survive such a thing.

      the second part of this is pure speculation, of course. and the point is not that there will be a replacement of human workers as robotics, and A.I. increase.

      The point is that where jobs will come from is not going to be where jobs came from in the past. I do not envision an automated economy with no role for humans (yikes). But I do think that many of the jobs that will occupy the economy are jobs we don’t yet have functioning in the economy. And thus, imagining something to replace that which we have seen, and has failed, is necessary


      September 6, 2011 at 13:34

  2. I don’t have a real comment, except to ask WHB precisely what about CF’s post is Marxist? (I’ve decided to become pedantic about the over-application of this term, especially when the offender is a budding academic like WHB.)

    Luke Freeman

    September 6, 2011 at 14:30

    • czf’s rhapsody of labor and his elevation of it over capital is Marixist. Additionally, his call for labor to be treated as not just another input is Marxist.


      September 13, 2011 at 13:03

  3. Matt Yglesias posted this today, on “structural unemployment” in the post-industrial economy.

    The key point being: despite the decline in manufacturing activity in the US since its peak, the (long-term) economic trend isn’t toward contraction. It just shifts labor away from “production” and toward services. While his example of restaurants and massages is a gross oversimplification – czf, your job is a prime example, or mine, or WHB’s – the point remains the same.

    In a very general sense (excluding business cycle expansion/contraction), people are good at figuring out ways to fill in the gaps in the economy. If energy gets cheaper, someone will come up with something that money can be spent on, and currently that’s more likely to be a service than an object.


    September 6, 2011 at 21:15

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