A Labor History of the World in a Few Hundred Words…

In tribal society, everyone was needed to hunt, gather, raise the kids, and perform the occasional raid on the Joneses. Food was shared among the tribe. Barring the odd banishment, if the tribe did OK, you did OK.

In agricultural society, 90% of the people were needed to grow the crops, herd the livestock, raise the kids and every so often go off and try to slaughter the Joneses. Taxes were raised among this 90% to support clergy and the nobility. These taxes were wildly popular among clergy and the nobility. There were also the “travelling salesmen” – artisans, courtesans, and others who traded goods and services with farmers or – for a better paying gig – the clergy and nobility. Finally, there were those with no access to land, and no education with which to gain skills. Taking care of the poor became a moral teaching in all of these societies. Sometimes it was followed, and sometimes people starved. In general, if you were lucky enough to have access to land (it was rare you would actually own it), and Mother Nature cooperated, you generally did ok, even after Uncle Samuel III, Divinely Ordained Ruler of All, took his cut.

As the industrial revolution took hold, fewer and fewer people were needed to provide the food for everybody. This freed up more people to make, transport, and sell inedible stuff; to search for meaning and make art and literature (more inedible stuff); and to organize the killings and threatened killings that kept the Joneses at bay. To keep track of it all, we invented the concept of “jobs”, whereby a worker was expected to do something “worth” the food that his (and later, his or her) family ate. Teaching the kids and taking care of the old and unwell became jobs in their own right. The total number of jobs was expected to approximately equal the number of workers (though this thick-skulled theologian has never understood why this should necessarily be the case). It turned out, in fact, that a sizeable minority of people did not have a job at all. It remained a moral teaching to take care of them, although there were   that they deserved their fate. Those with jobs, through the invisible hand of organized labor, were able to create for themselves better working conditions and better pay.

So we come to today, where less than 2% of the population makes all the food. About 15% are involved in making, building, or extracting inedible stuff. [1] The rest of us who have jobs don’t make stuff. We bandy about information, and/or provide experiences. Somehow, through the magic of our post-industrial society, this translates into food, shelter, healthcare, and educating our kids – more or less. You might think that with all these mouths to feed we’d be running out of food by now, but actually, rather than getting more expensive, we in the US spend less than half as much of our income on food, when compared with the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Food has gotten much more abundant and cheaper. Meanwhile, as we all know, the number of people who are unemployed or underemployed – or are listed in the category of “no longer seeking employment” but don’t want to be – is worryingly high.

Now, I’m just a humble pastor. I’m not remotely qualified to compare and contrast the likes of Friedman, Keynes, Smith and Marx. But, as a pastor, I am called to ask the obvious question: if it turns out that there are more people than jobs, what are our moral obligations as a society?

Clearly, it is morally indefensible to lambast someone for merely not having a job, when there are more workers than jobs. That’d be like beating up the losers in a game of musical chairs. It’s not like there are vast tracts of available farmland left to go West to, and banks take a dim view of would-be businesspeople with a bright idea and no collateral. As it happens, even with far less than 100% employment we are “getting it done” as a society – we are producing more food than ever (even per capita)[2], we have more, fancier and more technologically advanced stuff than previous generations could even dream about, and here in the United States we are less likely to be a victim of violent crime than we have been in the last three decades.[3] According to very uncontroversial statistics, we could feed everyone, clothe everyone, build a house for everyone[4], provide safety for everyone, create stuff for everyone, and we could do all this much, much more efficiently and to a higher standard than we did in 1950.[5] Our houses are twice as large, clothing is cheaper – and as for wifi-enablement, well, no contest there.[6] You can call it progress, or you can call it unchecked greed and materialism, but whatever your perspective on all this, you can’t argue with the facts: we have more, better, cheaper stuff, and more food too, for less money than we ever did before.

There’s only one catch: we have accomplished all this success, as a society, while about 15 percent of our working-age population (at least) do not have full employment.[7] And part of the reason we can get more for less is because we are paying people less and less. We talk about needing a highly-skilled workforce, but really the jobs market for lower-wage jobs is greatly outpacing both midwage and higher-wage jobs.[8] And the lower-wage jobs often are not sufficient for healthcare and real estate.

Here’s the curious thing, though: from a resource standpoint, not having 100% employment is not really a problem. Remember, in this decade we could house, feed, and clothe people far better than we could in 1950, or just about any other year. So what do we do about it? I know the devil’s in the details – there are many serious pitfalls with a centralized bureaucracy, local government can be unreliable, and charity is woefully ineffective. I’m not saying the solution is easy: we’re talking about a new model to the industrial age, a robust capitalism that isn’t set up like a game of musical chairs. A capitalism honest enough to acknowledge that 100% employment may be impossible. I just don’t understand why we’re making ourselves crazy trying to solve the “problem” of more people than jobs, when, from a resource standpoint, it’s really not a problem. Is there not ample room at our collective table for everyone?[9]


[1] These statistics are from the US, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Globally, those percentages would be higher, but they are shrinking there too. http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/01/art4full.pdf

[2] http://www.historylink101.com/lessons/farm-city/per_capita.htm. http://www.dailylivestockreport.com/documents/dlr%202-2-2011.pdf. Unlike wheat, rice, and fruit, our fresh vegetable production is down sharply but that’s more a result of our dietary choices. See also http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/money_01.html.

[4] Basic building materials and construction costs have both decreased over time. http://www.elcosh.org/en/document/54/1325/d000038/sect22.html.

[9] Luke 14:7-14, Acts 2:46

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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