The story of human progress has mostly been the story of increased productivity. Food, clothing, shelter and all the stuff we want has gotten easier to produce, demanding less labor. This has meant, for most of us, bigger houses and appliances and cars and more foods and 24 multihued pairs of sneakers for the kids and iPhones and TV/DVD players in SUVs.
Increased productivity has mostly been good news. Now, it is sowing the destruction of our economic system, and it could tear our country apart.
If the industries many people work in to provide their needs and wants become so productive that they don’t need to hire as many laborers, then our system won’t provide those workers with their needs and wants.
The disconnect won’t be caused by sinful laziness or demands for handouts. It will just be because the form of capitalism that sprang up to serve an agricultural and industrial era is ill-designed to distribute goods and services in an increasingly technological one.
From 1947 to 2013, hourly productivity in the automobile industry increased 243 percent. And from 1969 to 2015, the average life span of a car in the United States doubled, from 11.2 years to 23. Together, these facts illustrate a broader trend in the U.S. economy: In 1947, 1 in 3 workers had a job in manufacturing or agriculture. By 2007, it was 1 in 8, and the decline is continuing. These good jobs are disappearing.
We tend to look at economic systems such as capitalism and socialism and communism in moral terms, but economic systems ideally change to meet changing needs. The morality is mostly a construct.
If the Bible is to be believed, the oldest and most moral distribution of goods was the one God created for Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, where everything was provided and no one worked. Everything since then has been downhill.
For 100 generations in Europe, the feudal economic system developed around nobles convincing everyone else everything belonged to them.
“Yeah, um, this 10,000 acres is all mine. The king said so. And God. And I have this awesome family crest with Latin. So, yeah, farm that part and give me half of what you raise, and also, don’t kill me in my sleep. Because, well, the crest!”
But when America was colonized, with its abundant natural resources when Europe had been short of all those things, a sort of labor-rewarding capitalism made perfect sense. The United States was a place where everyone could have as much prosperity as they were willing to work for. And for many people that equation held up, even as mechanization and productivity increased, creating more prosperity, not less demand for labor. Until now.
Now, we are reaching the end of ever-increasing demand, even as we have learned how to produce goods and services with less labor. This is going to cause a tremendous upheaval, one that has seemingly kicked off with the election of President Donald Trump by a populace very upset at the passing of the old economic model.
A world where plenty is produced with little labor could be a Garden of Eden. People need to be useful, but many things still need to be done, from mentoring and watching children to caring for senior citizens to creating art and music, and on and on. There can be plenty of ways to contribute besides plowing a field or working a line.
A world of plenty and ease ought to be a wonderful thing, and it can be. We just have to be careful of serpents who might whisper selfish thoughts in our ears, telling us to greedily deny many members of society the goods and services they need just because society didn’t need their labor to produce the goods and services.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.