Wistful Thinking: Volunteer, Have Fun and Let Robots Do Our Work

Bernie Sanders economy cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

The attraction of Donald Trump, such as it is, is based on his promise to totally ignore the currently structured government—executive, legislative and judicial—and by brushing it all aside and using his own strengths as a deal maker, bring more jobs to America. We used to have good jobs. Now we don’t have them. Trump will send those who have stolen the good jobs from the American working class back to where they came from and build a tall wall so they can’t get back in. He will primarily use our military as a service to be leased and paid for by our allies, and he will badger and even penalize businesses that want to move their factories overseas.

As this is a really bizarre bunch of ideas, the current campaign for the presidency—all caught up in name-calling and a kind of Paul Revere wake-up call to join in keeping democracy from collapsing into a Donald Trump dictatorship—the conversation really has come to ignore the problem of fewer jobs and lower hourly pay.

It seems that Hillary Clinton, but especially Barack Obama, doesn’t even think that America has a problem. Obama points to unemployment at under 5%. He points to the economy expanding. Not long ago, he stood on the factory floor of the Saft America manufacturing company in Jacksonville, Florida—a company that makes batteries—and he spoke to the 500 factory workers who now work there since the factory was built after funding came from a federal grant in 2009.

The assembly line is humming. Thanks to his American Investment and Recovery Act, he told the workers, the people have good jobs again. America is on the move.

What he didn’t talk about was the fact that in the old days such a factory needed 5,000 workers to make batteries. Today the same number of batteries comes off the assembly line with one-tenth the number of workers. The reason is that robots are doing what the other 4,500 workers used to do. Furthermore Saft America is owned by a French company. Profits go to the French.

Also what he didn’t talk about—I’m not even sure he even knows about it—is, for the first time since job-force record-keeping has been done, the total of those no longer looking for work EXCEEDED those who want work but can’t find it. And the two added together were in the double digits for the first time in years. So much for the fairytale of a robust working economy.

Indeed, you can no longer make ends meet with a working class job in America, and even if there’s two of you, it’s a stretch. Supporting a family? For that you lean on unemployment, welfare, free medical care, food stamps and sitting at home getting by on the safety net if that’s all there is. Many are ashamed of this, thinking it is a bad example to set for their kids.

Blame it on the world economy. People from the Third World and many other countries are used to working hard, making ridiculously low pay, and, here in America, are willing to double- or triple-up in houses, and, with that, even send some of what they make to their families back home. And there is another break for some of these people, who are working illegally: They don’t pay taxes.

This appears to be a sorry, sorry state for the American public, and it certainly is fertile ground for the likes of Donald Trump. His supporters, mostly the white, out-of-work majority, think he will unravel this horrendous situation. And of course he can’t. We are too far down the road. And when you get to specifics with him, there aren’t any.

But here’s what I think. I think everyone is looking at this situation upside down.

When I was a little boy in the 1950s, it was, indeed, all about jobs. Everyone got by if they had a job. And with a job, they were proud of themselves. And they were proud Americans.

When I was 12 years old, my dad took me to where he worked. He was the sales manager for the O’Dell Cosmetics Company in Bellville, New Jersey. On the day he took me along, I vividly remember going to the big factory floor in Bellville, where about 100 workers stood happily by conveyor belts as empty bottles came down a chute, got injected with white hair tonic, got capped, got labeled, got boxed, got sealed shut and put into trucks to be driven off to pharmacies around the Northeast. People chattered away as they worked on the floor. They had jobs.

They were making enough to support a family on, of course, though not much more. But the floor was dusty and badly lit and noisy, and here they were doing exactly the same thing over and over and over for eight hours a day, and then they’d go home, come back the next day and do it again.

I decided I never wanted to work on the floor of a factory. It was dreadful.

By the time I was in high school, the dream had changed. In the future, robots would do all this crappy work. Americans workers could stay home. They would go on long vacations. They’d have hobbies and time off. Recreation, good books, good works, sports and travel would be the order of the day.

Well, you know what? Being without a good-paying job is exactly what has happened in America. It’s come about with robots and immigrants willing to do the work for $10 an hour.

The upside-down part of this is that we don’t consider this situation wonderful. We think it horrible.

People shouldn’t want just a job. What they should want really is something to do that would be fun, and that the food will get put on the table. With robots and immigrants, why not?

In some ways, you can seize on the argument of Bernie Sanders. The rich owners get richer. The former middle class goes on the dole, ashamed of itself. And the gap between rich and poor is widening. But I don’t think fixing that will solve everything.

I am an officer in a childcare center in Bridgehampton that has a summer camp largely available for those in the disadvantaged community. For those who can’t afford the fee, we have an offer. Your kid gets a scholarship, and you show up as a volunteer to do whatever you can to make up the difference. We can tell you what to do. Disadvantaged people are proud to accept this offer.

The former middle class of Americans should be only lightly employed. Business owners could get rich running things. As for the rest, there should be fun. The robots will do the work. There should be no dole. Indeed, right now there are a huge number of people employed by the government administering the dole. Instead, the dole should be slowly phased out, with those administering the dole getting re-trained into new jobs that would teach the general non-working public how to, with part of their time, do voluntary things that would make them happy, and in exchange get money, food, shelter, medical care and schooling. Enjoy our free time. Do exactly what would make us proud.

You can call it socialism, communism, volunteerism, a proud American citizenry—whatever. It will work.

Way back then, this is what we were praying for.

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