One of the things that bothers me about the current economic crisis is what is going to happen with all the people who have been displaced by jobs that have ceased to exist or have been exported elsewhere?
At one time, the eager but (perhaps) undereducated could find work pumping gas or working on an assembly line. Or perhaps they stayed home and worked on the family farm — though I am not so naive as to think that agriculture is a function for those less intellectually endowed. But many of these jobs have been pushed out of the system or moved elsewhere. North America no longer makes its own electronics and fewer people are involved in making furniture or assembling cars.
So where do the displaced go? Not everyone can go to night school and become a computer programmer. And (thankfully) the military no longer absorbs so many young men and women and marches them off to distant killing fields — removing them from the equation.
So as a society, what is our responsibility to those displaced by economic and technological change? Can we recreate the low level jobs that once absorbed so many? Do we need a new civilian conservation corp like the one that took my father off the streets during the Great Depression and put him to work building park trails in Oregon? Or do we follow the conservative view that it is their problem and society has no responsibility for them — so I guess that mass starvation is the logical end?
I would like to believe that everyone should be capable of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and not need public assistance. But the plain fact of the matter is that there are a lot of people who just cannot do that. So should my tax dollars go to support them? I don’t know — I would rather not be party to a welfare state. But that may be because of my own good fortune as opposed to any real thoughts about the welfare of others. I have seen the misery that conservative cutbacks have caused and it bothers me.
But the problem is much broader. I can see that as computers become more capable and automated factories become more prevalent, that many of the jobs that have occupied my contemporaries will become obsolete. There may come a point where the vast numbers of humanity do not have jobs in the conventional sense to occupy them. What do we do then? Do we build a society of bread and circuses to keep the masses distracted? (It has been done before…) Do we try to reduce populations so that there are fewer mouths to feed? Do we find a way to provide a basic sustenance for all? Or do we let the less capable die off — specters of an African famine or form roaming gangs to prey on the rest of us?
Over the long haul this may be one of the larger challenges we as a society face — up there with water shortages and climate change. As a society, are we willing to take responsibility for the welfare of our brothers and sisters? And if not, are we really condemning all of us to extinction?