Monday, October 23, 2017

Jobs again

I'm back on the same puzzle: in a high-tech society, what can people who aren't cut out for the high tech actually do?

I hear the "guaranteed income" proposal over and over. That feeds somebody, but doesn't give him anything useful to do. A job may not give meaning to your life, but it at least can make you feel part of the group. I know some people who can and do used enforced idleness for creative work, but I also have seen others who live for sports or video games. I don't hang around the folks who go in for mischief and drugs.

Guaranteed jobs defined by central planners haven't worked very well, though.

Any job that has very strict protocols in a tightly controlled environment will be done by a robot. Assembly line, order taking, some kinds of driving, and rewriting press releases to look like news stories. A carefully designed warehouse can be made very automatic. But things go wrong, and even the automated warehouse will need humans to clean up when a robot springs a leak or the crate of molasses gets crushed. Or the sewer backs up. Been there, done that. A factory floor can accumulate a lot of water.

People are still good at the very creative things, in chaotic situations (think walking dogs in a park), in situations where the protocols aren't always clear. I suspect that driverless cars are going to be farther away than people hope. The basics are simple, but the special cases--the corner cases--are what complicate things, and often city driving is nothing but corner cases. Only when the environment can be tightly controlled does programming become easy and easily verified. Think tunnels or elevated tracks, not streets with dogs and schoolkids and potholes. And snow.

People are also very good for personalized service. An automatic clerk that instantly googles for your preferences may make (creepy) customized "small talk," but a human can be more pleasant to interact with. (Yes, I know of exceptions.)

Skilled people can customize things. This may compete with canned customization schemes using programmable machine tools, but retrofitting stuff you already bought is always likely to be manual.

Servants are always a popular way to show off wealth. I gather servants used to be common even among middle class families in England. The ill effects of this are well known, but I notice that nominally egalitarian folks still manage to cherish implicit feelings of superiority to "those people," even without an explicit master/servant hierarchy. Would I trust my daughter to be treated well as a servant in a wealthy household? Not really. If I knew them well, maybe.

Two large problems bar the way to "jobs per tutti." The first, of course, is "what are they, and who will be willing to pay for them?" As you can see, I'm not overburdened with breakthrough ideas here. The other is "how do you get there from here?" Skipping for now the folks who disdain "menial" jobs, how do you organize a wage to live on from tasks here and there?

One thing we may have to give up is the goal that a person be independent on his own. As I've written before, I don't think that's realistic for a lot of people, who can be jointly independent in a family or friend group--but there needs to be some legal machinery to fit this into our simple-minded income tax and insurance/retirement systems. (Which will vary by state...)

My notion (it is perhaps too vague to call it a plan) is that some churches attempt to first find a few unemployed people whose prospects seem dim, and then try to match them with some perceived needs. The candidates would effectively be self-employed; the church would assist with legal i's and t's that need to be crossed and dotted, and in looking for new tasks as the old ones are completed, and in matching them to tutors as appropriate. The churches would have to keep each other abreast of what is working and why. There might need to be several iterations for a single person while they try to get the fit right--it could easily take several years to converge on something that works for that person.

If all goes well, you would have some people who now have something useful to do, and the churches would have collected a set of schemes that worked. No one plan can do everything--you need a lot of options to match the variety of gifts and limitations people bring to the table. And what works well in one subculture may be a disaster in another.

And, people being fallen, there would be occasional failures due to screw-ups or ill-will. But that's true of any enterprise at all.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

It sounds like the sort of plan that would need a skilled, devoted businessperson to take on with a little fanaticism.

Christopher B said...

I generally like UBI but mostly because I'd like to see a lot of unemployed government bureaucrats subsisting on it. I think it has potential to rationalize the crazy quilt of benefit programs that we're already funding. It's not like we're not already providing benefits that in total could come very close to a UBI for some people, as well as disability income programs. I did have a thought as I read through your proposal that one of the issues we have is minimum wage requirements, both the legally defined one and what people are actually willing to show up to a job to earn, often make it economically infeasible to pay people to perform labor of many kinds. There's some benefit but not enough to cover the required cost plus even a minimal profit. I don't know if anyone is pushing this but it might make sense to join the introduction of UBI with both elimination of as many standard welfare programs as possible and the minimum wage, with UBI replace all or most of the minimum wage.

jaed said...

My standard statement on this issue is that there is literally no end to the things people can find to do that are valuable enough that other people will pay them to do them. (This is assuming that we don't pre-regulate new jobs out of existence before they're even born. My particular concern here is that a lot of people are so used to the idea that going into business for yourself is something that requires a lot of money or connections that they never even get started in their heads, much less in real life.)

What you describe being done by churches sounds something like having an agent, a person or an organization that takes your skill set and finds appropriate work for you to do. (The idea works at many levels, and I've often wished I had an programming/math problems agent, because I'm not good at marketing myself and looking for work.)