Tuesday, September 06, 2011


The Wisdom of Tom Friedman

A friend records things on the TV for me to watch later.  The other day I watched a recording of the program "Face the Nation."  One of the guests was Thomas Friedman, who has written many books about important events that are transforming the modern world.  The host posed the question of what should Obama do and say next Thursday in his address to Congress about the recession.  There were several answers.  Maxine Waters, the Congresswoman from Los Angeles, hoped that Mr. Obama would propose a program of jobs to put people to work right away.  Paul Gigot, who manages the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, argued against a repetition of the WPA of Franklin Roosevelt that didn't, in his opinion, do much to cure the depression of the 1930's.  Other guests had their opinions.  A labor leader, James Hoffa, agreed with Ms Waters and said the country needs more jobs now.

Tom Friedman tried to justify the long view.  He argued that simply spending money now to provide "temporary work" for the unemployed wouldn't do anything to fix the long-term problem facing the country.  He argued in favor of such things as more education so that people could be trained to do the high tech jobs that are available in some of the new industries.  He didn't say anything about the number of persons that these new industries would hire.

On a related subject I learned a few days ago that the firm "Facebook" is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has millions of subscribers all over the planet.  (Yes, I have a facebook page.)  However, providing this service requires only ab out 2,500 employees.  A similar situation exists with other new giants, such as Google and Twitter.  Companies that manufacture and sell computers and fancy telephones similarly can provide products and services for millions of people with relatively small staffs.  It's true that the employees of these firms are well educated, with college degrees in electrical or computer engineering.  Unfortunately, it's also true that their total employment is well under a million.  Mr. Friedman has not explained how the others are going to find work even with their degrees in various branches of engineering.

We are approaching a situation predicted many years ago in which a relatively small portion of the adult population will be able, through the use of computers and other machines, to provide all the food, other goods, housing, entertainment, and other services for the entire population.  This condition is inevitable.  Already fewer than five percent of the workers in this country operate farms and provide more food than the rest of us can consume.  The United States is a big food exporter.

There are several ways to approach the problem of mass unemployment coupled with a surfeit of goods and services.  The Conservative approach is to do nothing.  Let things develop naturally and don't try to undertake "social engineering."  I believe that the end result of that approach is a society in which a relatively small number of well-educated workers provide nearly all the goods and services we want.  Everyone else will be forced to work at low-paying, menial jobs.  We now use illegal immigrants to do these jobs.  "Real" Americans have not yet realized that low-pay jobs with no hope of advancement is the likely future for most Americans.

I tend to favor a socialist approach.  Let each person do what he or she can do well and provide what is necessary for everyone.  In this approach wages would have to be coupled to need and not to the character of the work done.  If everyone can be guaranteed an adequate living standard during retirement - and we already have all the goods and services available to achieve that goal - then what one is paid relates to his or her needs and not to whether the person is a gardener or a brain surgeon.  I don't know whether this approach can work.  The Russians tried it, but their system collapsed due to corruption and greed.

Perhaps we need a blend.  Pay for work should provide an incentive for work of original nature and high quality.  Perhaps the common needs of everyone could be met with a subsidy, like food stamps for all.  We might be able to provide an adequate living for everyone, even those persons who are unemployed or unemployable.  The brain surgeon would command a higher salary than the gardener, but both would be entitled to food stamps, housing vouchers, and annual vacation trips.

My ideas are not very good.  I haven't done any calculations to determine how big the common subsidy should be.  There is no political will in this country at present to do anything remotely like what I have just suggested.  If any of you readers of this blog (Virge, Steve, Pat, Charley, Roy, etc.) have any ideas, write them down below or send me an e-mail.

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