There was a time when practically everybody’s job was essential, and nearly anyone old enough to walk and young enough to, well, walk, had a job, assuming they were healthy enough.
That time was almost all of human history.
Had the coronavirus pandemic swept through in 1800 BC or 1800 AD, the screening process to escape quarantine would have been pretty streamlined.
“Ok, hunters, gatherers, farmers, soldiers, police, slaves, masons, millers, tanners, tailors, teachers, cobblers and healers, keep working. And brewers and mead makers, of course, we don’t need people getting so sober they realize the king is a loony. That’s everyone except ... you, what do you do, and what are you wearing?”
“It’s athleisure wear, and I’m a life coach. I inspire. I help people overcome plagues through personal affirmation.”
“You make a living at that?”
“Not yet. I’m crashing at my mom’s hut until it takes off.”
“Well, we’re going to have to ask you to go home and do nothing, which you should be fine with.”
It is not like that today.
There are 325 million people in this nation but the workforce is only 160 million people, and about 30% percent of those are considered, by government standards, to be essential. That means the key needs of the nation can, if necessary, be met via the toil of just 50 million folks. The other 275 million Americans could be free to watch South Korean baseball, order Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supremes via GrubHub, hoard pork chops like Gollum guarding the precious and try to stay one distance-learning lesson ahead of their kids in Algebra until this thing blows over.
If they have money.
The oddity of modern society is that every job is crucial to the job holder, but few are crucial to the customers. We’ve gone from being dedicated almost entirely to meeting needs to spending vast amounts of time and energy and money fulfilling wants.
We don’t need to get our hair or nails done, or mow our lawn or do our dry cleaning. We don’t need to eat out or go to movies or get massages or exercise in gyms or have our homes cleaned or consume advertising. We don’t need to gamble or drink in bars or own 37 shirts or buy candles or prints of cats “hanging in there.” We don’t need to go to Crate & Barrel to buy containers or Bed Bath & Beyond to fill the containers up.
And this is newish. The traditional laws of economics we’ve been taught, of supply and demand and inflation and monetary and fiscal policy, are based on scarcity and necessity as forces driving behavior and pricing and markets.
At the root of the idea of a universal basic income, provided by the government, is a concept that’s rarely explained: What do we do if our society has plenty of food, clothing, shelter and medicine and the only shortage is of crucial jobs to earn the money to pay for those things?
Until we legally couldn’t get our hair and nails styled, we didn’t think much about the fact that hair and nail stylists need to eat a lot more than we need to keep our locks and limbs tidy. Now we are.
When a small fraction of the people and an awful lot of technology can provide the whole society with its basic needs, no one’s basic needs should go unmet. That doesn’t mean everyone should live the same: people who work hard and effectively deserve luxuries people who refuse to don’t.
But no one deserves to go without essentials because machines have knocked them out of the essential jobs, and their inessential work only earns them a living when circumstances and governments permit.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.