The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

Local News

March 6, 2013

Guest Column

All play and no work makes Jack a ... ?

— According to research reported by Associated Press writers Bernard Condon and Paul Wiseman in January, we are trending toward a time when there will be massive and permanent unemployment. What will be the consequences?

We might start by taking a look at ancient Rome. Roman citizens didn’t work; it was beneath their dignity. Slaves worked. The wealthy and powerful rulers of Rome had to provide food and entertainment for the citizens of Rome. Rome’s armies conquered everything within their reach and sent back to Rome a continuing supply of slaves and food. Egypt became a “breadbasket for Rome.” Baking in Rome was a major activity. The baked bread was distributed to the citizens, and it was free. Full unemployment required a form of socialism.

Unemployed Romans needed entertainment. Rulers staged the entertainment and, to be entertaining, each event had to be more exhilarating than previous events. That led, eventually, to gladiatorial combat.  Gladiators fought to their deaths to please the crowd.

The Associated Press report indicates that, in addition to jobs already lost to outsourcing and other causes, we should expect extensive permanent job losses driven by computerized automation. One person interviewed by the Associated Press, Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston, asked, “Are we prepared for an economy in which 50 percent of people aren’t working?”

If 50 percent of our workforce were permanently unemployed, how would those unemployed people and their families survive? Is it possible that our most successful capitalists are unwittingly designing a socialist America? Currently, profits from “productivity gains” accrue to a small percentage of our population, but if massive numbers of people become permanently unemployed, the profits from those computerized-automated machines will have to be distributed to the unemployed.

America is well-endowed with entertainment. But what shall we do about the permanently unemployed among us who are ambitious and want a sense of purpose for our lives or a sense of accomplishment as we age?

If this job loss projection becomes reality, it will cause profound changes in American society.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” is a proverb that first appeared in print in a book by James Howell that was published in 1659.

(Stevenson is a writer from Houston, Texas.)

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