The Disposable Economy
The most important fact about modern economies is rarely remarked on: they are job societies. The vast majority of the population works for someone else. For those without jobs, poverty, homelessness, and in some cases death, is a real prospect. Members of modern societies cannot support themselves if someone doesn’t hire them.
This is, in human history, unusual. For most of American history, most people lived on farms, in the country, and grew much of the food they ate, made their own clothes, raised their own homes. They often lived lives we would consider horribly deprived, but they were able to provide for many of their own needs. The craftsman and professional, while they worked for others, had clients, not bosses, and while they had employees many of those employees were training so they might go out on their own.
We take for granted that industrialization, and moving off the farm has improved human welfare, but that is not true in all places, nor in all times. Industrialization in the Britain is synonymous with land enclosure: pushing feudal tenants off land they had previously had the right to use. Supposedly land enclosure vastly improved agricultural output, but it has been shown that communal fields were almost as productive as enclosed ones. Enclosure was done not to grow more food, but to make more profit, and the people who were displaced flooded into England’s cities, where they were compelled by the real prospect of starvation and death, to work in the new factories, six and a half days a week, 12 hours or more (check the #s).
These factory workers lived worse than they had as tenant farmers and serfs. They worked more hours, had less food, died younger, and during their lives suffered more from disease because of the horrible sanitation of European cities at the time. Their lives were virtually unending misery. This is the reason for the idea of Jeffersonain farmer’s democracy: because Americans were aware of the misery of industrialization.
In Mexico, after NAFTA, small farmers lost their farms because they could not compete with subsidized American agriculture. They flooded into Mexican cities, or they headed north to America to work as illegal immigrants. Again, though in some cases they earned more money, the vast majority of them were worse off than when they lived on the farms, and Mexicans as a whole suffered because after American interests bought Mexico’s food industry, the price of food soared, and the quality of that food dropped.
After World War II Americans flooded from the farms into the new cities. For this generation, the GI generation, it was a straight upgrade: their lives were better. They worked less hours, they had more food, they had access to power and indoor plumbing, and good jobs with good pay.
Those Americans were treated very well, and if you weren’t black, the 1950s and 1960s are looked back on as the heyday of American prosperity. Good jobs were plentiful and easy to find and they came with healthcare and good pensions. Life was good.
Today, millenials and Gen-Xers don’t have such a good deal. Unemployment is high, if you lose your job you will have a hard time finding as good one, or a job at all, and good pensions and healthcare plans are more and more uncommon, and increasingly restricted to the executive class.
Why? Well, one reason is this, the family farms are gone. The first generation had to be treated well because they had options: they could go back to the family farm. So their jobs, and their lives as consumers had to be clearly superior to being on a farm.
I’ve spent a lot of time discussing how to make job economies work in the past, because we live in them, and even if we decide to transition away from jobs as our primary method of distribution, it will take time. But never forget: as long as you need a job to survive, you are at the mercy of those who provide jobs, and for most, the only way you are treated well is if you are not easily replaceable. That lack of replaceability is in most cases a social attribute, not a personal one. You are not replaceable if the job market for your set of skills is very tight. As programmers found out, even if you think ahead and master a skill set that is in short supply, that can and will change, because it is not in the interest of employers for you to be hard to replace.
There are a few people who are their own brands. There is only one Madonna, and you cannot easily replace her. There are a few people who are supremely fitted to the current world, for whom making money is easy. But most of us aren’t in one of those positions, and we need to stop thinking that we are. We aren’t special, we aren’t a unique snowflake, and we are replaceable. We will be prosperous together, or not at all.
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