Afternoon Delight

Rust on the Iron Law of Wages

December 13, 2013

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Rust on the Iron Law of Wages

The other day I was thinking, which I know better than to do, and I started pondering the American economy, which ain’t got the chance of a frog in a French restaurant. Nobody else’s does, either. It’s just that we got there first.

Start with work. Just about nobody likes it. I hear folks such as Pat Buchanan talking about the work ethic and how work gives meaning to life and how contemptible Spaniards and such are because they’d rather drink wine at sidewalk cafés and bullshit with their friends.

Well, I guess you can call me Pedro.

The problem with people who talk about the sanctity of the work ethic is usually that they’ve never really worked a day in their life. For Pat, work means running for president, writing books, showing up on television, and being a large-bore columnist. I guess that really might be better than sitting at a bistro in Seville and drinking wine with Violeta, though I doubt it. Few of us have trophy jobs. For most people, work means some godawful daily drudge like spending thirty years in a federal-wall green cubicle doing something stupid, pointless, and dull enough to bore the varnish off a hat stand. Some jobs are rewarding. But not many.

“There isn’t enough work to go around—not real work that does something that actually needs doing.”

Trouble is, there isn’t enough work to go around—not real work that does something that actually needs doing. Over the years we’ve had to invent more and more ways to keep people from working. Child-labor laws and school-completion laws kept kids from competing with adults. Colleges, or places that look like colleges anyway, keep the older young off the market. And still there aren’t enough jobs.

Since just keeping people from working wasn’t enough, we started inventing jobs of diminishing usefulness. Think nail salons, grief therapists, dog groomers, and the federal bureaucracy. It is God’s holy truth that half of the feddle gummint could be fired tomorrow, and the only effect would be to unclog things. The armed forces are another pool of the disguised unemployed, along with most of the weapons industry.

When you can’t produce even semi-jobs, pretend jobs, or forthrightly silly jobs, you get open unemployment. Since the United States thinks it unbecoming to let droves of people starve to death, the country has turned to massive charity. The most intractable example is the urban underclass. Here we have millions of people for whom there is no work, who couldn’t do it if there were, and who will remain as they are until the planets grow weary and stop in space.

It gonna get worse, chillun. For one thing, the average level of intelligence needed to do jobs, even the pointless ones, rises. That’s why an illiterate underclass of wan IQ will never have jobs. They are not a problem, but a condition.

But technology threatens even the smart. For example, anyone who has used Siri, Apple’s talking digital assistant, can see that she is well on her way to carrying on secretarial-level conversations with people. Step by creeping step, she or her sisters will automate greater portions of clerical work.

And there is worse. Consider the very real threat to universities. One professor of Ancient Sumerian Grammar, or anything else, at MIT could put his lectures online, and the entire Earth could attend MIT. The Internet in its various forms—Amazon,, etc.—constitutes a magnificent library. Testing stations in cities could administer proctored exams for credit. It wouldn’t cost fifty big ones a year. The resulting unemployment among professors and administrators would be horrendous.

Will be horrendous. It is beginning.

The other half of the looming catastrophe concerns who is going to buy all the junk. It used to be that “production” meant making stuff that people needed. You know: food, clothes, hovels, corn whiskey. There was more demand than supply. Then production in these things, agriculture for example, caught up and everybody had enough to eat. Consequently production went into things people didn’t so much need as want: refrigerators, telephones, Model Ts. Pretty soon they came to think that they needed the things they wanted, but never mind. Still, there was more demand than supply. For a while.