Here's a brief excerpt from After America, but prefaced by a quote from my holiday column from The National Post nine years ago. Here's what I wrote for Labour Day 2002:
This Labour Day, I thought about the working class, the masses.
No, honestly, I did. Okay, I was on the beach, but the folks around me lying on the sand had jobs they'll be getting back to this morning. They worked. They would be classed as workers. But they're not a homogeneous "working class," they're not conscripts in Karl Marx's "masses." The transformation of Labour Day, from a celebration of workers' solidarity to a cook-out, is the perfect precis of the history of Anglo-American capitalism.
If you want to see what "the masses" are meant to look like, buy a DVD of Metropolis, Fritz Lang's 1926 "expressionist masterpiece." As futuristic nightmares go, it's hilarious: The workers are slaves, living underground, chained to the levers, wheels, cranks and cogs of a vast machine, dehumanized by the crushing anonymity of their servitude, etc., etc.
Alas, nothing dates faster than a futuristic vision: Today, the nightmare that beckons is quite the opposite. Instead of a world in which the workers are forced to operate huge, clanking machines below the Earth all day long, the machines are small and silent and so computerized no manpower is required and the masses have to be sedated by shallow distractions like supersized shakes and Wal-Mart and 24-hour lesbian wrestling channels on Premium Cable.
It took the workers' tribunes a while to catch on: Even today, when your average union leader issues his annual Labour Day address, you can tell at heart he still thinks it's 1926 and Metropolis is just around the corner.
And in many respects Big Labor and Big Politics would prefer it like that: centralized authority directing huge numbers of the masses. As Barack Obama has discovered, as hard as it is for the government to "create" jobs when it's dealing with the automobile or steel industries, it's an even more forlorn endeavor with "green" start-ups. What's the future for the labor market? Here's what I had to say in After America:
As disastrous as the squandering of America's money has been, the squandering of its human capital has been worse. While our over-refined Eloi pass the years until their mid-twenties in desultory sham education in hopes of securing a place in professions that are ever more removed from genuine wealth creation, by the time they emerge from their own schooling too many of the rest have learned nothing that will equip them for productive employment. Already, much of what's left of agricultural labor is done by the undocumented; manufacturing has gone to China and elsewhere; and so 40 per cent of Americans now work in low-paying service jobs. What happens when more supermarkets move to computerized checkouts with R2D2 cash registers? Which fast-food chain will be the first to introduce automated service for drive-thru? Once upon a time, millions of Americans worked on farms. Then, as agriculture declined, they moved into the factories. When manufacturing was outsourced, they settled into low-paying service jobs or better-paying cubicle jobs – so-called "professional services" often deriving from the ever swelling accounting and legal administration that now attends almost any activity in America. What comes next?
Or, more to the point, what if there is no "next"?
Jobs rarely "come back". When they go, they go for good. Something else takes their place. After the recession of the early Nineties, America lost some three million jobs in manufacturing but gained a little under the same number in construction. Then the subprime hit the fan, and America now has more housing stock than it will need for a generation. So what replaces those three million lost construction jobs? What are all those carpenters, plasterers, excavators going to be doing? Not to mention the realtors, home-loan bankers, contract lawyers, rental-income accountants and other "professional service" cube people whose business also relies to one degree or another on a soaraway property market.
What if we've run out of "next"? When the factories closed, Americans moved into cubicles and checkout registers. What happens when the checkouts automate and the cubicles go the way of the typing pool?
At America's founding, 90 per cent of the labor force worked in agriculture. Today, fewer than three per cent do. Food is more plentiful than ever, and American farms export some $75 billion worth of their produce. But they don't need the manpower anymore.
So the labor force moved to the mills and factories. And they don't need the manpower anymore. Manufacturing produces the same amount with about a third of the labor that it took in 1950. By 2010, the US economy had restored pre-recession levels of output but without restoring pre-recession levels of employment: It turned out there was no reason to hire back laid off workers, and a lot of reasons not to, once you factor in the taxes, insurance and the other burdens the state imposes on you for putting even modest sums in the pocket of employees you don't really need. In H G Wells' bifurcated future, the Eloi lounged around all day while the Morlocks did manual labor underground. In our dystopia, the Eloi face a subtly different bifurcation: There's nothing for the Morlocks to do. A society with tens of millions of people for whom there is no work, augmented by tens of millions of low-skilled peasantry from outside its borders, is unlikely to be placid.
The first year of the Obama era and its failed "stimulus" pushed the national unemployment numbers up to almost ten per cent – officially. But if you were one of his core supporters – black or young or both – then the unemployment rate was at least half as much again, and higher than that in many other places. In the summer of 2010, as Barack was golfing and Michelle was having public beaches closed on the Costa del Sol to accommodate her sunbathing needs, the black unemployment rate in America climbed to just under 16 per cent, as opposed to a general figure of 9.5 per cent. That's two-thirds higher – again, officially. That year, the number of young people (16-24) in summer employment hit a record low. Big Government is a jobs killer. Big Government augmented by a terrible education system and a tide of mass immigration is a life killer. So if – when - the United States' AAA credit rating is downgraded and the economy starts to contract, what happens? An increase in the unemployment rate to 30 per cent, higher in the decaying cities. Core government services cut. Basic shortages and deteriorating infrastructure for delivery. Civil unrest. Most of those go without saying: If you lay off a bunch of sixtysomethings a couple of years before retirement, they sit at home and fester. If you fire – or never even hire – younger, fitter groups, they tend to express their dissatisfactions more directly.
Think London in riot season. Or the Wisconsin State Fair. Or flash-mobs preying on the more walker-intense parts of Florida. A world with no "next" will not be tranquil.
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: