Monday, September 2, 2019

Surviving vs. Living: The Role of Work in the Robotic Age

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Work.  It's the backbone of a smoothly-running economy & society...a means by which a person earns their living & contributes to the world.  In America, it's not uncommon to see people working 10-14 hour days, 6-7 days a week or having 2+ jobs to make ends meet.  We're told it's a point of pride to be a hard-working person.  That a good work ethic is a virtue & laziness is one of the least desirable qualities.  Our very worth is often defined by our productivity (which doesn't feel too great for the disabled, I'd imagine). But at what point does "work" become exploitation and these ideas become propaganda?

People guzzle coffee in the morning & slam caffeine-packed energy drinks in the afternoon to fuel their output.  Some resort to stronger stimulants.  Despite their devotion to hard work, many are left unable to pay for their most basic necessities--food, rent, bills--and must go on public assistance to make ends meet.  They are then looked down on by society for accepting help even though they're running themselves ragged going to work, school & taking care of their families.  The stress of such a life undoubtedly shaves years off one's life in addition to making years lived less enjoyable.

Wal-Mart is one of the largest contributors to welfare use in the U.S. economy.  Maybe their "Everyday Low Prices" aren't really so low after all?  If we're subsidizing the cost of their employees' cost of living via welfare, taxpayers end up picking up the tab one way or another.  I personally know more than 5 elderly women over 65 who work low-paying customer service jobs where they stand on their feet all day.  One of them has a Master's degree.  At one time she was both teaching my English class in high school & working the night shift at Wal-Mart to make ends meet.  As you can imagine, she wasn't too pleasant during her day job.  We never got along too well.  Now she stands on her feet all day making minimum wage as a cashier at Dollar General.  She's 68.  Her 87-year-old mom still works too.

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Are you living or just surviving?

But it goes way beyond unskilled labor.  Nurses & doctors are also disgustingly overworked & understaffed, leading to dangerous conditions in hospitals.  Medical errors are the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease & cancer.  All in the name of saving a buck by paying fewer people to do more work.  This has become the business model for too many companies in too many industries in the past few decades.  President George W. Bush once praised a divorced mom of three for working 3 jobs, calling it "uniquely American" and "fantastic."  Yeah.  Easy to say when it's not YOU being subjected to that life of utter struggle & stress.  This is capitalist brainwashing at its most blatant; treating human beings like machines to be lauded only for their output & cast aside when they're no longer able to produce.  

That's always been the model within the military.  Ask any veteran about the quality of treatment they receive from the V.A. & you'll get a similar answer.  Even those who voluntarily risk their lives at the peak of their youth to fight unnecessary wars are treated like dirt by the government when they return home, having to rely on private charities like the Wounded Warrior Project for basic care.  If you think the rest of us have a chance at being treated with dignity, you're living in a fantasy.

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(Racist) military propaganda discouraging laziness

There's nothing inherently wrong with hard work.  It's supposed to be a transaction in which a person's time, effort & skill are traded for money or goods.  Once spent, time & effort can never be regained which makes them very precious.  Life is incredibly short & many of your best years are spent working unless you're incredibly lucky or born into wealth.  If a person is going to trade these valuable assets for money, it must be sufficient amounts to meet their basic needs.  But it's often not, and it hasn't been for a long time now.  The balance has tipped so far in favor of businesses & corporations that the American worker has nearly no power anymore.  Workers' unions are virtually a thing of the past.  Strikes & protests are a rarity.  Organized boycotts?  Pffft.  Who has the time or attention span?  

The cost of living has risen steadily while wages have stagnated.  Jobs have been outsourced while many companies at home secretly recruit undocumented immigrant workers whom they can exploit & endanger more readily than American citizens.  This is a widespread problem in the dairy, fruit-picking, meat processing & hotel janitorial service industries.  But an even larger threat is looming...one that will make outsourcing & illegal immigration seem like small potatoes.  

Artificial intelligence.  

Automation.  

Robotics.  

The dawn of the robotic age is projected to be akin to the Industrial Revolution in terms of how drastically it changes working conditions all over the world.  How governments deal with it will either make or break economic & social stability in coming years.  

If we don't institute some kind of basic income system for all people, the job loss due to automation will result in mass homelessness, hunger & civil unrest.  We're already seeing uprisings in the form of Occupy Wallstreet, the Poor Peoples' Campaign, teachers' strikes in Oklahoma & West Virginia, the Kentucky miners' blockade, the Amazon workers' union protests and many more.  People are finally becoming disillusioned with the 2-party political system & demanding better living conditions here at home, though it's going to be an uphill battle with plenty of distractions to keep us bickering & unfocused.  Things will only come to a head when enough people are disenfranchised & have lost everything, no longer able to sit comfortably in their reclining chair & peruse Facebook while the Nightly News drones on in the background.

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The future is now.

A universal basic income (UBI) system would replace all current inefficient welfare programs in the U.S.  It would supply all Americans with a baseline monthly income that would cover their most basic needs like housing, food & bills.  It would not cover luxuries or make everyone rich.  People would still have to work & earn their own additional money to achieve anything beyond the bare basics.  UBI would do away with homelessness, reduce crime & address child hunger while freeing up everyone's time to pursue things other than working to survive.  Studying, hobbies, travel, spending more time with your kids or aging parents, volunteering, self-care or any other non-work activity imaginable would be within reach under a UBI system.  Things you currently put off "until tomorrow" but never get around to because of your hectic work schedule.  Things that make up a balanced, meaningful life.  No more dreaded "Monday" blues.  Your passion could be your work & vice versa.

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Basic Income: the simple solution
Would some people abuse it & laze around doing drugs or sleeping all day?  Of course.  But people do that NOW.  At least with UBI they wouldn't have to commit fraud, steal or panhandle to meet their needs.  We're moving past the point where humans need to toil to survive.  If we're to evolve to the next level of consciousness as a species, we need to free up our time & minds to do things other than commuting to/from work, serving some abusive boss & wearing our bodies down with manual labor.  Lord knows we have enough complex problems to solve--climate change, disease, terrorism, government corruption.  We'll need all the creative minds we can get to come up with solutions.  It's impossible to be creative when you're working 80 hours a week with no vacation or sick leave & living paycheck to paycheck.  

And whether we implement UBI or not, the jobs are going away forever.  Many have already gone, such as those in the American automobile industry.  The only question is how we'll support our citizens & economy when there's no manual labor jobs left.  One expert predicts 40% of jobs will be replaced by robots in 15 years.  Even if those numbers aren't exactly right, change is coming & it's going to affect those at the bottom of the economic totem pole first & hardest.  Our only choice is how we deal with it.  

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