Unemployed in ‘The Affluent Society’

I read John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society more than 15 years ago in an edition, the fourth, that was then already 10 years old.

I don’t know how the argument of that book has held up over time or whether it is still well-regarded within the discipline of economics. But yesterday I found myself plucking this book down from the shelf for two reasons: 1) More than 14 million Americans are unable to find work, and 2) I am one of them.

Given that, a few passages from Galbraith’s book seem particularly timely.

On “the situation”:

The situation is this. Production for the sake of the goods produced is no longer very urgent. … At the same time, production does remain important and urgent for its effect on economic security. When [people] are unemployed, society does not miss the goods they do not produce. The loss here is marginal. But the [people] who are without work do miss the income they no longer earn. Here the effect is not marginal. It involves all or a large share of the [people's] earnings and hence all or a large share of what they are able to buy. (pg. 140)

On “highly convenient indifference”:

A system of morality is at stake. For what we regard as the Puritan inheritance was soundly grounded on economic circumstance. … The central or classical tradition of economics was more than an analysis of economic behavior and a set of rules for economic polity. It also had a moral code. The world owed no [person] a living. Unless [they] worked, [they] did not eat. The obligation thus imposed required [them] to labor on [their] own behalf and therewith on behalf of others. Failure to work, even when it could be afforded, was offensive to what came to be called the Victorian, but could as well have been named the economic, morality. “To live in idleness, even if you have the means, is not only injurious to yourself, but a species of fraud upon the community.”

But if the goods have ceased to be urgent, where is the fraud? Are we desperately dependent on the diligence of the worker who applies maroon enamel to the functionless metal of a motorcar? The idle man may still be an enemy of himself. But it is hard to say that the loss of his effort is damaging to society. Yet it is such damage which causes us to condemn idleness.

Again, the fact that a [person] was damaging society by [their] failure to produce has been, in the last analysis, the basis for a fair amount of highly convenient indifference and even cruelty in our behavior. The churches have long featured the virtue of loving one’s neighbor. But the practical churchman has also recognized the need to reconcile this with basic economic necessities. A good deal of practical heartlessness was what served the social good. … In the United States, as in other western countries, we have for long had a respected secular priesthood whose function it has been to rise above questions of religious ethics, kindness and compassion and show how these might have to be sacrificed on the altar of the larger good. That larger good, invariably, was more efficient production. The sacrifice obviously loses some of its point if it is on behalf of the more efficient production of goods for the satisfaction of wants of which people are not yet aware. It is even more tenuous, in its philosophical foundations, if it is to permit the more efficient contriving of wants of which people are not aware. And this latter is no insignificant industry in our time. …

In the world of scarcity, the need for goods was, as just noticed, powerfully reinforced by the compulsion to work. The individual who did not work, unless rarely favored by circumstance, was penalized by a total loss of income. That penalty still persists widely even though it now enforces the production of relatively unimportant goods. (pp. 210-212)

On “a comfortable disregard for those excluded” from affluence:

There is  … the danger that, with affluence, we will settle into a comfortable disregard for those excluded from its benefits and its culture. And there is the likelihood that, as so often in the past, we will develop a doctrine to justify the neglect. Indeed, we are already well on the way to doing so … — the thesis that the rich have not been working because of too little income and the poor have been idling because of too much. That is social perception and justification at an unduly primitive level. More influential is the argument that stresses the inefficiency of government and sees its costs and taxes (those for defense apart) as a threat to liberty. From this comes the philosophical basis for resistance to government help to the poor. … Such doctrine, once again, allows the affluent to relax not with the ostentatious cruelty of Social Darwinism, but nonetheless in the contented belief that no ameliorative action is possible or socially wise. (pg. 262)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Ayep.  Explains a lot.

  • Anonymous

    no work to do and for the work there is no reward.

  • Marshall Pease

    The obligation thus imposed required [people] to labor on [their] own behalf and therewith on behalf of others. Failure to work, even when it could be afforded, was offensive …

    As Jesus put it, “First seek the Kingdom”. “Work” is obligatory for Christians because it moves humanity closer to the Kingdom, “a new Earth” where the hungry are fed, the afflicted are cared for, and God is worshiped as He desires to be (Ps 50:14). Production that consumes Creation’s substance and the substance of the workers but doesn’t produce anything useful isn’t Kingdom work but “busy work”. In the old days humanity lived close to the subsistence level and everybody had to work hard and produce real stuff so everybody could stay alive and invest a little something in infrastructure. These days we’ve moved away from concern about producing enough for universal subsistence, we’ve got lots and lots of infrastructure but that which was supposed to be the foundations of the Kingdom is getting wasted in pointless busy work. 

    I think the Puritan ethic still applies. The question is how to get people to reject busy work and turn themselves to Kingdom work. Personally, I hardly even know how to do that for myself. 

    But Fred, you aren’t unemployed; you’re just unpaid.

  • Anonymous

    Galbraith’s description of the “situation”  is the shortfall of demand that Krugman has been pointing out for the last 2 years or so and which a few others are beginning to recognize more recently.  But the prevailing wisdom among the serious people is that the only way to resolve this situation is to reduce demand even further and when those lazy unemployed people get hungry enough they will be demanding an end to minimum wage laws and pleading to work for scrip they can use in the company store.

  • Anonymous

    Much of the work that is done in an affluent society is still productive, just farther up the hierarchy of needs. Galbraith’s example is a good one: the man who colors your car maroon is still providing a useful service because he makes the world more palatable to live in, and provides his company a competitive advantage over the burgundy car shop next door. I personally would rather work and live in a society where so many nonessential jobs exist to make my life more pleasant than not work and live in a society where only the essentials are provided.

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    David Simon’s comments in one interview might also be applicable:

    You know, all the same problems that a guy coming out of addiction at 30, 35, because it often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. The fact that these really are the excess people in America, we– our economy doesn’t need them. We don’t need ten or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones that are undereducated, that have been ill served by the inner city school system, that have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy. We pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it.

    Another thing: In a society wealthy and well-organized enough that everyone was guaranteed a decent standard of living, people would still want to work. As was noted in Reality Is Broken, people actually like hard work if the right conditions hold.

  • Ann the Mad

    Various 19th century socialists dreamed that increased productivity would give workers more time, instead of giving the bosses more money.

    If a new machine doubles productivity, they thought, you could cut everyone’s work day in half while keeping daily wages the same, prices the same, and profits the same.

    That last part’s the problem.

  • Ann the Mad

    Also, from Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904:

    One of the technical means which the modern employer uses in order to secure the greatest possible amount of work from his men is the device of piece- rates. In agriculture, for instance… the difference between high profit and heavy loss may depend on the speed with which the harvesting can be done. Hence a system of piece-rates is almost universal in this case. And since the interest of the employer in a speeding-up of harvesting increases with the increase of the results and the intensity of the work, the attempt has again and again been made, by increasing the piece-rates of the workmen… to interest them in increasing their own efficiency.
    But a peculiar difficulty has been met with surprising frequency: raising the piece-rates has often had the result that not more but less has been accomplished in the same time, because the worker reacted to the increase not by increasing but by decreasing the amount of his work….
    The opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less. He did not ask, “How much can I earn in a day if I do as much work as possible?” but “How much must I work in order to earn the wage … which I earned before, and which takes care of my traditional needs?” This is an example of what is here meant by traditionalism. A man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.
     Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labor by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labor.

  • Guest-again

    ‘That last part’s the problem.’
    What, that profit can be measured in other terms than money? And profit is not something reserved simply for the owner?

    ‘…it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labor.’
    Or modern social democratic principles – as seen in countries like Germany or Sweden or France, where vacation time is seen as valuable as wages. Time isn’t money – it is time, and it the one thing you will never get more of. Some people just aren’t willing to sell it for someone’s else idea of profit.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Galbraith had the truth of a lot of things, I think. He was literally and figuratively a giant among people. Too many small-minded conservatives would pooh-pooh him and everything he stood for.

  • Ann the Mad

    ‘That last part’s the problem.’What, that profit can be measured in other terms than money? And profit is not something reserved simply for the owner?

    Yep. Time is money. Specifically, your time and my time are their money.
    It’s an unalterable truth of nature that any change in productivity must result in the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the owning class. Otherwise, the earth would fly off its axis and go hurtling into the sun.

    It must be something like that. Why else would it be so unthinkably awful to hint that there are other possible arrangements?

  • Anonymous

    If you want to read a good book about the value of time I suggest you read Momo by Michael Ende. 

  • Anonymous

    “People never seemed to notice that, by saving time, they were losing something else. No one cared to admit that life was becoming ever poorer, bleaker and more monotonous. The ones who felt this most keenly were the children, because no one had time for them anymore. But time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. And the more people saved, the less they had.

    ” Michael Ende

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I also highly recommend Edward Bellamy’s book Looking Backward.

  • Anonymous

    Otherwise, the earth would fly off its axis and go hurtling into the sun.

    Now you’ve done it! You’ve uncovered the ‘Occupy…’ movements’ real agenda of occupying particular pieces of earth so that when they have sufficient numbers, they can all jump at the same time and send us flying into the sun! Don’t be surprised if you hear an ominous rap on your door in the wee hours of the morning…

  • http://www.facebook.com/ehcoleman Elizabeth S Coleman
  • Anonymous

    He was literally … a giant among people.

    I was going to call you out on this, but then I saw this image. The importance of research! Though I think it’s exaggerated by Friedman’s shortness (Galbraith is on the right).

  • Lori

    They’re having the same issue with the tomato crop in California. A friend and I were talking about it the other day. Picking is referred to as unskilled labor, but that’s sort of deceiving. There is skill involved in doing it well enough to make a decent living at it and it’s very difficult to go from zero to skilled enough, fast enough. It’s also true that Americans on the whole have gotten away from doing this kind of very physical labor. We don’t want to do it and even if we do want to, we’re not in good enough shape. It’s tough to go back for Day 2 or 3 of picking when Day 1 leaves you too sore to move. 

    Unless we’re actually going to take Wendell Barry’s advice, which has some significant problems, we’re going to have to allow other people into the country to do the work. http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/10/farms-need-people-not-machines/246944/

  • Anonymous

    Indeed.  There was a nationwide campaign (not sure how well-publicised it was) that had the Agricultural Workers of America basically saying ‘Take our jobs!’  They had a web site with loads of agricultural jobs that needed filling.  They got 12 applicants.

    There are a couple of reasons for this.  Obviously, the ones you listed are the big ones.  I think it’s also part of the problem that these jobs require more mobility than is posible or desired.  Go to one farm one week, another farm further upstate the next.  And none of it is what would be considered ‘stable’ work.  It’s very much dependent on how many other people show up for work, what the crop is like, and who needs pickers this particular day or week.  It’s all essentially temp work.  No benefits.  I doubt they would get more than minimum wage, McCain’s gaffe about ‘picking cabbage for $50 an hour’ notwithstanding.  It’s precarious to do all that.  You have to be really dedicated and have a distinct goal, and you need to be making enough that the people getting the money you’re making live in a place where that money means something.

    Unfortunately this causes further problems.  Migrant workers become a new form of economic serf.  They are paid minimally, for the rather lot of backbreaking labor that they do.  But I don’t know what the long-term solution is.

  • Lori

      I think it’s also part of the problem that these jobs require more mobility than is posible or desired. 

    This is very true. The life of migrant farm workers is really tough for so many reasons. Following the crops is not a life most people want. Most migrant laborers certainly don’t want it for their kids. 

    Needing very large numbers of workers at one time and then needing very few for months and months is one of the side-effects of large scale monoculture. 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Since leaving my retail job in early 2006, I have worked nothing but temp jobs for the last half-decade.  Granted, these were a bit longer term than a migrant fruit-and-vegatable picker’s job, ranging from one month to one year, but still temporary jobs with no security, minimal benefits, and rarely any insurance plan. 

    Hell, and these are positions that require college level education. 

    The thought of doing some migrant labor actually has some appeal, but to even get started with that would require that I own a car to get from site to site.  To date, I have been unable to afford one. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Maybe if instead of saying $175 a day they should say $20 an hour.

    That at least has the advantage of being more true than those CollegePro paint houses ads which lie and claim “up to” $14 an hour.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    There’s this idea I’ve been mulling over all day.

    Part of the reason we fall into a cycle of bubbles and busts is this: 

    As I have repeatedly mentioned, back in the ’60s, pretty much every futurist predicted three things: Moon colonies, flying cars, and the three-day work week. 

    Now, the first two aside, the reason we don’t have a three day work week is this: we decided as a society that 40 hours of work per week was the moral optimum, and so even though most workers produce at least 5/3 as much as their 1960s counterparts, they don’t make significantly more money.

    9% of americans are out of work, but there isn’t 9% less *stuff for me to buy*.  We don’t *need* the productivity of the 9% who are out of work. 

    Which means that this kind of unemployment is *a necessary correction*. The market cycles because, to support sustained growth, it needs to create a *market* for all that surplus production. But this market isn’t driven by real demand, but by an artificial demand. And that means that inevitably, something will give, like adding solute to a supersaturated solution, and everyone will wake up one day and realize that not only don’t they *need* what they’re buying, they can’t *afford* it. Demand deflates to where it should be, and suddenly the productivity of 9% of your workforce is no longer required.

    Creating jobs in infrastructure through government action is a great idea because it is an immediate solution to an immediate problem, but I’m starting to think that there’s no way to break the cycle if we remain committed to the idea that it is somehow “right” for everyone to work five(ish) days a week, that those who don’t are underemployed, and those who exceed it .

    So I’m thinking.  Would it destroy the world if we just doubled everyone’s salary and standardized on a 20 hour work week? In sectors where the demand was real, you’d instantly double the number of available jobs, and in sectors where demand was artificial, there’s be reduced incentive to remain in a world of ever-increasing productivity targets to ensure constant growth.

    You get jobs for those without them, more time off for those with them, and people who do work hard and make good money don’t get told “For the greater good, *YOU* have to give up your standard of living”

  • Anonymous

    First of all, Fred, I know you mean well, and maybe I’m just a representative of the Man-o-centric Male-ocracy, but you don’t need to Bowdlerize the text to make it gender-neutral.  We know how people used to write (and “him/he” as a general term is still technically acceptable in English).

    But anyway, this also relates to the targetting of unions as the latest bugaboo of the right. In general, union members get paid better than non-union labour, because guess what, genius – that’s the job of the union!  To work for better conditions for its membership!  What do they pay dues for otherwise? And in this case, it’s actually an example of benefits trickling-down.  See: 40-hour work week, the notion of weekends off, overtime pay, safety in the workplace, the list goes on. It gets argued that those battles have all been won, but ask anyone in Wisconsin – or really, anyone who’s been awake in the last three years – how secure those winnings are. I think the real reason to attack unions is what’s been mentioned above: they’re the last bulwark of organized labour rights, and once you can eliminate them you can start to scale those rights back without too much fear of resistance.  And see how THAT trickles down. 
    As always, Step One of that strategy is to get public opinion on your side.  Which, sadly, is happening already.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, Fred, I know you mean well, and maybe I’m just a representative of the Man-o-centric Male-ocracy, but you don’t need to Bowdlerize the text to make it gender-neutral.  We know how people used to write (and “him/he” as a general term is still technically acceptable in English).

    Well it shouldn’t be. And I’m glad Fred did it. It shows concern for the fact that a good half of the unemployed, and most of the employed-but-unpaid, are women.

  • Anonymous

    Would it destroy the world if we just doubled everyone’s salary and standardized on a 20 hour work week?

    Double everyone’s wages, because that’s a per-hour. Keep salary the same, because that’s a per-year. And while we’re at it, bump up minimum wage to something where twenty hours a week feeds, clothes, transports, shelters, and provides for health care and entertainment for one person.

  • Lori

     So I’m thinking.  Would it destroy the world if we just doubled everyone’s salary and standardized on a 20 hour work week? In sectors where the demand was real, you’d instantly double the number of available jobs, and in sectors where demand was artificial, there’s be reduced incentive to remain in a world of ever-increasing productivity targets to ensure constant growth.  

    IDK, based on a much of the experience I’ve had it seems like we could benefit simply by standardizing back down to the 40 hour work week for a lot of jobs. I’ve never had a salaried job that didn’t suffer from hours creep. Working an extra hour a day was totally normal and there were some jobs where it was much more. The 60+ hour week is still the norm for plenty of people. Those “productivity gains” folks on the business channels love so much aren’t so good for workers. 

  • Anonymous

    We know how people used to write (and “him/he” as a general term is still technically acceptable in English.

    Actually, I really appreciate it.
    Just because people used to do it, and because he/him is acceptable to most grammar standards, doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel othering when the entire damn internet uses “he/his wife.”

    You can retain all the historical maleness you like on your own blog, but I do greatly appreciate it when people update pronouns. Is it really a problem?

    And while we’re at it, bump up minimum wage to something where twenty
    hours a week feeds, clothes, transports, shelters, and provides for
    health care and entertainment for one person.

    This would be fabulous, by itself!

    The usual argument against is that business owners can’t retain their profits if they have to pay that much money, and in the case of a larger business with wide margins, my usual response is *yawn*. In the case of a smaller business, I can see the point better, and I don’t have a good solution to that.

    Especially because, at least for a while, the increased wage would be used for things like buying ramen and paying down debt, rather than being automatically able to pay higher rates for everything, if the business owners put that increased cost into the price of goods.

  • Anonymous

    This is a nit, but I took “functionless metal of a motorcar” to mean the bits that cannot normally be seen. The inside of the oil pan, for example. I don’t think he was referring to folks who paint the outward-facing sheetmetal maroon. Clearly that is a useful endeavor for the reasons you state. Perhaps painting the inside of oil pans is not.

  • Anonymous

    (and “him/he” as a general term is still technically acceptable in English).

    I’ll put on my descriptivist hat here.  Who gets to say that it’s technically acceptable?  Some arbitrary authority figure, or the people who actually speak the language?  There’s no way that anything can be “technically acceptable” in any language.  Either speakers accept it or they don’t, and usually there are both types.  You can’t use some arbitrary authority to tell other speakers that they must accept your usage even they disagree with it because someone somewhere proclaimed that it’s still acceptable.

    The terms have to stand on their own merits.  And among most of this audience, we find it unacceptable.  You can’t claim high ground because of tradition unless you keep going farther and farther back until nobody can understand you.  If you want to keep using something that others object to, then you need to justify without resorting to appeals to authority or tradition.  Language doesn’t work that way.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Y’know, I wouldn’t have minded had Fred not made the edits he did. If he hadn’t, and someone had complained, I’d have probably rolled my eyes and thought it was counterproductive, troublesome, and dumb to take Fred to task for not editing someone else’s work.
    But he did make the change, and I’m fine with that too. 

    What I’m not fine with is someone feeling the need to actually stop the conversation to complain about the change. Why did you feel the need to take time out of your day and out of your conversation to say “Hey! You there! Stop trying to be inclusive!”  What good did you think would come of it? In what way would the world be a better place had Fred left the gendered language as it was? (Well, okay, aside from “we wouldn’t be having this derail right now”)  What great wrong do you see as being the consequent of Fred’s choice to use gender-inclusive language, that you felt the need to speak out against it?

    I’m sure there are some folks who feel more strongly on the issue of gendered language in english who would reasonably object to _not_ removing the gendered language. But what I can’t imagine is a charitable reason that anyone could have a reaction to neutering the pronouns that was any more negative than “Eh, whatever.”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Why haven’t we gotten to the point where machines and/or robots could pick the freakin’ fruit?

    Also:

    I hate to say it, but the anecdata pouring out about the dearth of born Americans who’ll do work like that when we on the left constantly bash from pillar to post people who hire migrant laborers, and we keep arguing that their excuses for hiring migrants are so much twaddle–

    Well, frankly, it’s word eating time and I for one freely admit that the evidence is in: Americans really actually DO seem to feel they don’t need or want to do these kinds of jobs for all that there is also anecdata about people who grouse and moan that they would gladly do that scut work if it meant getting paid a decent wage (and by all reports, it can be up to $20 an hour if piecework).

    So I dunno. Maybe eventually labor market shifts will bring in Americans who will do the jobs but until then I hate to admit that at least in one respect right-wingers who aren’t absolutely rigid on anti-immigration are actually correct about who will work hard enough at such jobs.

  • Anonymous

    S/he brought it up to feel superior, just like all prescriptivists who love “correcting” other people’s use of language.  It makes them feel smart to tell others that they’re wrong.

  • Don Gisselbeck

    Hunter-gatherers work 3-5 hours a day. With all our machines, we should be able to do the same and have vastly better lives than they did. If the free market refuses to employ someone, it should be taxed to provide them work.

  • Anonymous

    Invisible Neutrino, if I may ask, what changed your mind?

    I’ve seen the attitude of “you couldn’t pay me enough to do that,” mostly among affluent and privileged, but the alternative of “all work is honorable” is much more common in my neck of the woods.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    It’s the recent news articles posted here in this thread wherein it ended up that a couple college students took the jobs, were snapped up, and couldn’t hack it after a week or two.

    You could look at it in the sense that our society’s evolved to the point where such work isn’t perceived as necessary anymore, but it also opens a disturbing point:

    I know I have loved to say that given half a chance, the workers of the USA would gladly prove their mettle against any migrant workers and that the people who hire (and use their position to take advantage of) migrant workers have usually profferred so much twaddle when it comes to defending why they won’t hire Americans.

    Well, in at least one case, given half a chance, American workers largely pass up the kind of work that could, in theory, net tem $20 an hour. (-_-)

  • Lori

     Why haven’t we gotten to the point where machines and/or robots could pick the freakin’ fruit?  

     

    Because it’s actually a complex with a lot of components, many of which involve making fairly fine distinctions. Creating machines to do that work is not cost-effective. 

    I hate to say it, but the anecdata pouring out about the dearth of born Americans who’ll do work like that when we on the left constantly bash from pillar to post people who hire migrant laborers, and we keep arguing that their excuses for hiring migrants are so much twaddle–

    Where are you hearing this? I don’t recall ever hearing people on the left bash employers strictly for hiring immigrant labor. The left complains about the mean-spirited hypocrisy of advocating for immigration “crack downs” while ignoring those how hire immigrants. The left also complains about businesses that exploit immigrant labor and about the way those exploitative policies are used to harm non-immigrant labor. Not at all the same as bashing from pillar to post about hiring immigrants. Quite the opposite actually. When you hear someone talking about how immigrant labor is necessary to the American economy and policies need to reflect that reality it’s a pretty safe bet that person is a leftie. 

  • Anonymous

    Ah, gotcha.
    I read a similar article a while ago, regarding a different pair of college students who went to pick cucumbers, which – delicious pickles aside – are not nice plants. Their story was similar, in that they tried it for a while and then discovered why “back-breaking” is still so frequently used for describing farm labor, and quit.

    Those articles have a pretty strong whiff of “kids these days,” if you ask me – and that causes me to question their veracity. Layer that on top of the oft-cited statistic about number of workers, and number of available jobs, and I start thinking it’s pretty fishy.

    Then again, if farms are in need of pickers that badly, I’d think there would be news articles about farmers not getting their crops to market, so I’m going to go look for some…

  • Lori

     Perhaps paying by volume, as in the apple example, is not a good idea.  

     

    People pay by volume rather than time because it incentivizes fast, high-volume work. Harvesting crops is time-sensitive so that’s what they’re aiming for. 

  • Anonymous

    That makes sense, but I still wonder if there’s some other incentive that could be provided. Perhaps a flat hourly pay, with a bonus for volume? That way you can still hold up the carrot of more pay for more work, and still give everyone a reasonable wage.

    Or even make it a non-monetary bonus. I live in the world of beige cubes, but are the principles of getting people to do their best really different? We are encouraged not by pay bonuses, but by recognition and by the support of our teams; maybe something like that would work here, too.

  • Lori

     Perhaps a flat hourly pay, with a bonus for volume? That way you can still hold up the carrot of more pay for more work, and still give everyone a reasonable wage. 

    This is essentially what’s happening now. The workers make at least minimum wage, because if their volume is too low the farmer has to bump up their pay to comply with the law. If they picked enough, they’d make more than minimum wage. 

    Or even make it a non-monetary bonus. I live in the world of beige cubes, but are the principles of getting people to do their best really different? We are encouraged not by pay bonuses, but by recognition and by the support of our teams; maybe something like that would work here, too.  

    Yes, the incentives are different. You work in the same place, with the same people all the time. You have a long-term investment in a pleasing work environment, the continued success of the company (if only so that it can continue to pay you) and the regard of your coworkers. Farm labor is essentially an endless series of temp jobs. How well does an attaboy and team spirit usually work on temps in your office? 

  • Apocalypse Review

    Re: Robots.

    Never say never. We live in a world where creative genius is squandered on finding ever more exotic ways to generate volatility in the financial markets so someone can profit from it*, and you’re telling me that the Asimovian ideal of a world filled with robot labor is unattanable?

    I hold that it is.

    —-

    * In a book I read one amazingly exotic derivative that somehow cancelled out its own changes was called a “flip-floption”. This was fiction, but the author’s pretty familiar with the way things work in the financial markets.

  • Apocalypse Review

    And I meant that “it is attainable”.

  • Lori

     Never say never. We live in a world where creative genius is squandered on finding ever more exotic ways to generate volatility in the financial markets so someone can profit from it*, and you’re telling me that the Asimovian ideal of a world filled with robot labor is unattanable?

    I hold that it is.  

    Read my post again. Where exactly did I say never? The question was why we don’t have robot pickers now. I answered that it’s not cost effective and thought that the “at this time” was clearly implied. Apparently not. I’m certainly not telling you anything at all about Asimov’s robot-filled world. I would say that thus far robot labor has been a decidedly mixed blessing. 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    That makes sense, but I still wonder if there’s some other incentive that could be provided. Perhaps a flat hourly pay, with a bonus for volume? That way you can still hold up the carrot of more pay for more work, and still give everyone a reasonable wage. 

    The way the law is structured in most places, the pay is either minimum wage or volume, whatever is higher.  So people who pick will be making at least minimum wage, and the more above the minimum they go, the more they get paid.  The issue is, it takes some experience and elbow grease to earn well above minimum, and that is not something a lot of American citizens want to stick around to build up.  

  • Apocalypse Review

    I would say that thus far robot labor has been a decidedly mixed blessing.

    True, but one of the biggest factors is that the way the wealth is distributed from adding robots to something all gets sucked into the pockets of the very rich instead of being used to improve the lot of everyone’s lives.

  • Lori

     The issue is, it takes some experience and elbow grease to earn well above minimum, and that is not something a lot of American citizens want to stick around to build up. 

    There is a definite lack of interest in doing farm labor, especially long enough to get good enough at it to make any real money. The fact that it is, by it’s nature, a temp job is also a factor though. If you’re receiving any kind of aid taking a temp job can end up being more damaging than helpful. You work just long enough and make just enough money to stop qualifying for aid but not long enough or for enough money to live on. You then have to go through what can be a huge PITA to get full aid back. Which brings us back to incentives, because on that side of things they’re all wrong. 

  • Lori

     True, but one of the biggest factors is that the way the wealth is distributed from adding robots to something all gets sucked into the pockets of the very rich instead of being used to improve the lot of everyone’s lives.  

    Of course, but unless someone is able to invent a greed removal robot that doesn’t seem likely to change drastically in the foreseeable future. 

  • Apocalypse Review

    Anyway, I misread your post; sorry for rushing off at you a bit there.

  • Anonymous

    The issue is, it takes some experience and elbow grease to earn well
    above minimum, and that is not something a lot of American citizens want
    to stick around to build up.

    That’s one issue.  The other issue is that minimum wage is not.  That is to say that in most places a person making minimum wage, even for the (presumably) extra long days of a fruit picker, is not going to be making enough money to get by.  Migrant workers not only have the expertise, they’ve generally been willing/forced to live in really crappy circumstances while doing the picking.  I don’t know that young people going “this is shit, I’m going to go work at McDonalds (or wherever) instead” is condemnation of young people so much as a condemnation of the working conditions of fruit and vegetable pickers.

    Even if the conditions were okay, I’m not sure people would be able to get by long enough to get the skills.  But my understanding is that the job of a migrant worker is horrible, even if the pay, for the skilled, isn’t bad.