Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Enough Jobs for People

Posted by butalidnl on 16 December 2011

There is apparently a job shortage in the world. It seems as if machines are replacing a lot of people in agriculture, industry and even services (See Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines) So, does progress mean that people are being out-competed by machines? In other words: are we headed (or are in) a situation where there are too few jobs to go around?

One approach to ‘solving’ the job question, especially in developed countries, is to make workers upgrade their skills. Farmers become agricultural managers and agri-machine operators, factor workers become processing engineers, etc. But let’s face it: up-skilling is not for everyone. So, unless we are prepared to have a large army of unemployed unskilled workers, this solution is not adequate at all.

Enough Work
The question of enough jobs actually boils down to there not being enough tasks that businessmen are willing to pay people to do. There are a lot of things that need to be done, but which are either done by volunteers, or don’t get done at all. It all is a question of economic arrangements. Or, put another way, it is a question of rearranging the market so that the market makes sure that there is a need for those other things.
Let us now look at some areas where there are plenty of jobs.

Urban Farming could put so many people to work, while at the same time be good for people’s health and the environment. People could grow vegetables, potatoes, even grain on rooftops, backyards and empty lots. But they don’t. And this is because there is no ready market for the products. People don’t buy that much vegetables and fruits, and when they do they buy these in grocery stores, not from a neighbor’s garden.

The government could stimulate urban farming by helping develop a market for the products. Ad campaigns could promote the consumption of locally-grown fruit and vegetables. The government could also help set up neighborhood vegetable markets. Also, it could provide technical advice and help for growers, e.g. cheap fertilizers and seeds. It would help a lot if governments declare that income from growing vegetables would not be included in the computation of income for food stamps or welfare benefits (up to a certain limit, of course). This should entice the very poor to take up farming.

At the same time, other kinds of food (especially grains and meat) could continue to be produced in the rural areas. These foods should be produced in an efficient and environmentally sound manner.

Recycling. Collecting and sorting recyclable materials is quite labor-intensive. On the basis of market forces alone, most recycling activities would not be profitable. This results in a lot of recyclable materials simply ending up in dump sites or incinerators.

People could collect recyclable materials door-to-door. This is especially good for things like furniture and appliances. And garbage processing centers need people to physically sort materials. A lot of people could work at recycling electronics – dismantling these to get reusable materials.

The problem with recycling is that it does not yet give a market profit. ‘Externalities’ (e.g. pollution, displacement of people, waste of water etc) in obtaining raw materials are not fully included in the market price for these raw materials. And the result of this is that it is much cheaper to simply dispose of things rather than recycling them.

But recycling does not only mean that vital resources are reused, it also means that much less gets dumped in landfills or incinerated. And this translates into a savings of government expenses for garbage handling.

Governments should step in and make recycling profitable, by imposing a tax on the importation of all raw materials. Or by granting tax exemptions on the operations of recycling companies. Or by charging a recycling fee upon sale of consumer durables, which would be collected by those who would actually recycle them (system is used by Netherlands). Or by stepping in and providing a market for certain minerals – esp. rare earth minerals. Or, a combination of the above measures. These measure would not be a distortion of the market, but merely a matter of internalizing the externalities of the production of raw materials.

Tailored’ Products. It is now increasingly possible to produce many things tailored to a person’s tastes, measurements, DNA and whims. And this is a great opportunity to get people to work. Even though mass-manufactured items may still be cheaper, people seeking quality will opt for made-to-order items. Medicines, for one, will be increasingly based on a person’s DNA – for maximal effectiveness and minimal side effects. When this happens, there will be a need for advisers in pharmacies who will help people get the right medicine variety for their illnesses.

Clothes will be more made-to-order, and they can be made quickly. People would just input their measurements from a file or chip, and specify designs and materials (also selected from various fashion databases), and then a CAD-CAM dress shop would instantly cut the cloth and human seamstresses will put the clothes together in a matter of hours. These shops could be located near airports or train stations, and a traveler could order their clothes before leaving home, and have them ready when they arrive. They would need a lot less luggage.

Fab centers with 3D printers could also make things like personal jewelry and household items. Already, it is possible to ‘print’ 3D objects made out of a single material. Soon, it should become possible to print using 2 or more materials in one product.
Fab centers could also be combined with Clothes centers. They could provide employment for many. In these new kinds of shops, you could also have a physical book produced (from an e-book database) or a CD burned.

The shops which personalize services and products would employ a lot of people. They would also increase the quality of products, and people’s satisfaction with them.

Governments could stimulate the growth of the ‘tailored products’ industry by establishing standards, extending technical support and maybe even initial wage subsidies.

Infrastructure Maintenance. The government should require that all buildings be maintained properly. There would be building inspectors who mete out fines, or order repairs themselves, on buildings. Badly maintained buildings should either be taken over by the government, or torn down, giving way to new construction.

As a result of the ‘maintenance directive’ a lot of companies catering to building and infrastructure maintenance will be formed, giving employment to many. The building supplies industry will also thrive. Good maintenance make sure that buildings and infrastructure get used optimally. In effect, it conserves the materials that went into those buildings and infrastructure.

Community Services. There are a lot of things that need to be done under the overall heading of community services.  Services could include helping people with the upbringing of children, from parenting seminars, ‘homework supervision, pre-school to teen programs.

Families in distress also need help. Those with ‘especially challenged’ members need help, as well as those with sick or invalid members. Dysfunctional families would need family coaches, and some families need help in managing their budgets.

Activities to help forge communities, and to get people to participate are also important. This would include inter-cultural interaction, settling disputes among neighbors, etc.

Governments often don’t fully appreciate the need for community services. This is especially felt in the tendency to cut down on ‘social services’. The government does not need to completely bear the burden for doing these things. What it could do would be to strengthen the community level networks and institutions that do these things. The government and businesses could put in money, but community members themselves should also contribute in the form of labor or cash.

Community services are necessary to maintain a stable social environment, which in turn helps make workers more productive.  A good quality of life will also help make the whole population able to respond better to any changes caused by environmental or market conditions.

Quality not Quantity
Machines will only make workers obsolete if the economic system continues to concentrate on producing ever increasing amounts of goods. This will lead, not only to making workers obsolete, but also the exhaustion of natural resources, and the lowering of the quality of life. But if governments aim is to maximize people’s culture and the Earth’s resources, the economy will continue to grow and employ people while improving the quality of life.

Recycling, maintenance and tailored products are things that seek to maximize the use of resources. On the one hand, there would be a closed loop for raw materials (minimizing extraction as well as garbage); on the other hand, what gets made is used optimally (in the case of tailored goods and well-maintained buildings). Urban farming maximizes both space and labor for producing food; and minimizes the use of fuel or storage facilities because the food is produced near the consumer.

These measures could be taken even without any radical change of economic system. It is only a matter of including some additional dimensions to the present system.


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