Our Expanding Birthright
An Equal Minimum Share
(Publisher's note -- this editorial was originally written in 1964!)
by Frederic JohnsonDespite all the very best of economic reasons why it should not be so, a rather high rate of unemployment has persisted in the United States, even during periods of the highest employment in our history.
There have been several proposals for the solution of this problem, but all of them suffer from one of the great intellectual difficulties of our time in that they advance a correct solution of a theoretical problem as an ad hoc solution of a spec ific social problem, without regard to--without, in fact, any serious investigation into--the collateral effects the proposed solution may have on other facets of society. One of the principal defects in the Marxian economic theories is simply that peo ple don't react the way it would be necessary far them to in order to make communism function according to the books.
What precisely is our unemployment problem, not on the dry basis of 5% today and 4.5%, tomorrow, but rather in terms of the place employment has in our society now and in the plannable future? Must a Job be available for everyone? If so, must every job b e productive in today's market? These are questions whose answers should condition programs to provide additional jobs.
Until recently, temporary unemployment was a consequence of the inertia built into the economic machine. With the further development of our economic sophistication, the organic inertia has been practically eliminated by governmental interference. However, until a hundred years ago, the problem of permanent unemployment has been ad equately dissipated by war, pestilence, and famine. Automation and health services have tended to curtail famine and pestilence, and the day may not be too distant when even war will be virtually eliminated.
Even so, and despite a high level economy and cold war-space exploration expenditures, there is a large pool of permanently unemployed. Should we eliminate the cold war and foreign aid expenditures, there would result a substantial increase in the perma nently unemployed.
Most of the proposals for the solution of our unemployment problem that have been made by government, industry, and labor have involved the application of the techniques used to deal with the temporary unemployment problem. There has been little discussion of the problem in its true light, as one requiring a permanent solution. We are in a phase where it is difficult to discuss the problem because of its confusion with the old problem of temporary unemployment and the built-in belief that every man should "earn" his own subsistence.
Today, of course, certainly there are people enough in the world to themselves be "the demand" that would allow us to devote our energies for some time to come in bringing them up to our standards of living and education. But no matter, we here in the U nited States are presented now with problems of surplus everything. There are no problems today of a material character in the United States preventing the production of enough of everything for every one of us. Our only problem is one of distribution. Certainly today with little effort, evert adult in the U.S. could own an automobile, and there could be a refrigerator, deep freeze, washing machine, and so on in every house in the United States. There would be plenty of food for everyone.
Unless we develop a planned program of turning back the clock to a pre-twentieth century time, there will soon be further development towards the elimination of virtually all manual labor. About the only work not presently capable of being automated is housekeeping, and someone will probably soon develop a humanoid robot capable of doing that. Eventually the labors of ten percent of the population will be able to support everyone. In this light we should be able to see that unemployment insurance offers no solution whatever.
What then is the choice? Shall we have a public dole for ninety percent of our workers? What about a featherbedding proposition, such as hiring a person to sit beside each memory bank? There has never been an adequate investigation into the effects that enforced idleness have on those qualities of a person that make him a man. There is no justification for anyone in the United States having to exist at a subhuman level because of poverty, but neither is there much improvement when you fill a man's belly and teach him to sit up and bark three times a day.
There are several generalities that are consistently treated as mutually inconsistent: "Individuality." "Liberty," "Competition," "Free Enterprise," and "Hard Work" an the one hand, and "Democracy (Pure)" "Government Controls," "Equal Opportunity ," "Full Stomachs for Everyone," "Medicare," and "Security" on the other. If we could develop an economic and political theory that safely blended these concepts, we could see further into a proper solution of the permanent unemployment problem.
We could conceive of a program set up so that subsistence was not dependent on production, where everyone, man, woman, and child, is entitled by virtue of having been born to a minimum supply of food for the maintenance of good health, to minimum shelter , and to education and medical care. Each and every person would receive the same benefits regardless of his wealth. For the moneyed class there could be a credit on white bread instead of brown flour, but each man would receive his equal share regardless , and without charity entering into the picture. For those who desired something more than the minimum, there would be the "free" world of commerce where everything above the subsistence level would be earned in a "free enterprise" economy as a result of "hard work" or ingenuity.
There are, of course, only two important sources of economic wealth, one the chemical composition of the dominion and the other human energy. The only way to bankrupt the dominion is to transmute the mineral wealth into unusable forms or let it es cape entirely. The endless conversion of iron ore into an auto, into scrap, into a bicycle, into scrap, into a bath-tub has cost the dominion only the fuel.
There is an inexhaustible supply of economic wealth which is spent each day whether there is production or not. This is the personal energy of people, and it should be utilized both for the benefit of future civilization and the mental wellbeing of pers ons now alive. There are reasons to believe private industry can supply anything better than the government, but this needn't mean that the government cannot provide carrots and wield sticks to see that private enterprise functions properly. The governmen t might well stockpile cake pans made in the Mojave Desert. If the price was right, industry would convert the desert into an airconditioned fairy-land at no great cost to the dominion, since we would still have the metal and would have spent only fuel and human energy.
The current argument against landing a man on the moon, examined in this light, leaves much to be desired from the economic standpoint. We will have really sent only a few tons of matter into outer space; all of this elaborate multi-billion dollar ente rprise is mainly the expenditure of thousands of man hours in twisting a few pounds of metal into fantastic shapes. This energy is expended each passing day, whether in building rockets or in standing in bread lines. There is legitimate argument that this energy should be first expended on known problems, but there has been little indication that we would have spent this energy any more wisely.
When we have everyone in this world with a minimum subsistence and wealth for the energetic, we still will have worlds to conquer both in this solar system and throughout all space. Between the problems on this earth and the fartherest star, there is a dequate work available to occupy every human till the end of time; but not work that is "constructive" as we customarily think of it. We cannot find a solution to our present problem unll we can bring ourselves to realize tlat solutions may be necessary w hich will mean that we cannot continue to operate our economic society on the old system, tried and true though it has been. The probabilities are that we are going to have to make some drastic changes in our socio-economic system in order to continue to be a living, growing, vibrant civilization in this universe. If we instead turn back industrial production so that it will not continue to become an increasing cause of permanent unemployment, some later civilization will write our epitaph along the following lines: They parted the veil but died of photophobia.
Frederic Johnson is a lawyer in Sinton, Texas.
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