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Mares: The Future of Work

“Where have all the jobs gone?” asked a recent New York Times headline. Writer, economist Jared Bernstein argued that for 30 years our economy has generated too few jobs for those who want them.

In follow-up articles other writers gave both descriptions and prescriptions for action. Some decried a booming stock market and a stagnant jobs picture. Some blamed the situation on the concentration of wealth. One person wrote that the job crisis is a historic transition and that efficiency, automation and globalization will continue to kill jobs. Another person wrote bitterly that mechanization and globalization have “liberated” people from the ability to make a living. One person even asked if we should still consider work to be a necessary element in how we define a human being.

Some called for a return to a specific full-employment strategy with government as the employer of last resort in a massive public works program like the WPA of the New Deal era. Others said: reduce the workweek to 30 hours, levy more taxes on high incomes; and have the government do more direct investment. For a couple of contrary views, I went to Art Woolf, an economist at UVM - and Eric Hanson, an investment manager. Woolf said fears of unrecoverable job losses are not new. He pointed to a famous 1954 dystopian novel, titled ‘Player Piano’ by Kurt Vonnegut, in which automation almost totally eliminates the need for human labor.

Woolf added that no one will doubt that the last five years have been very tough. But he insists that simple solutions, like implementing a federal industrial policy where the government channels investment and spending to industries it “knows” will grow, or using regulation to improve economic performance won’t work.

He believes that our task now is to channel resources, especially unemployed workers, into more productive tasks. Woolf admits he doesn’t know what they are. “ But,” he says, “neither does the government. Only entrepreneurs, responding to decentralized signals in the marketplace, can figure that out. That’s how economies have always grown in the past and will continue to grow and generate jobs in the future.”

Eric Hanson predicts more long term slowing of American economic growth, as more economic activity shifts to Asia . To compete, businesses are indeed doing more with fewer workers. He says the government’s most constructive role is to give people the best possible education, both specialized and diverse. In this global economy, both companies and employees will have to be nimble. He notes that, ironically, a liberal arts education is coming back into vogue, because it teaches openness and flexibility.”

That remark made me think of the mission statement of Champlain Valley Union High School where I used to teach. Part of it reads: We believe that every student can demonstrate the behaviors, skills, and knowledge essential for a contributing member of a democratic society.” Which I would amend to:“ ...a contributing member of a democratic society IN a global economy.”

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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