The future was supposed to bring prosperity and leisure to working people, not joblessness and misery. But that was before the money guys took over.
This week Amazon announced that it’s planning to open a grocery store that has no cashiers or checkout lines. The corporation said that customers would be able to download an app, link their phones to electronic shopping carts that track the items they take from the shelves, then simply walk out with their items.
It was also reported this week that President-elect Donald Trump is considering Andrew Puzder, CEO of the parent company to fast-food chains Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, for Secretary of Labor. Puzder, who is already an influential Trump advisor, once boasted about the advantages of replacing human employees with machines.
"They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case," Puzder said.
According to the 1913 law that created it, “The purpose of the Department of Labor shall be to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment.”
Now we learn that Trump may entrust the well-being of working Americans to someone who wants to eliminate them altogether.
You want fries with that robot apocalypse?
Before the Fall
The technology revolution isn’t here yet. Puzder’s automation project is a case in point. A joint venture between Microsoft and Hardee's, it’s more sizzle than steak (perhaps appropriately, given his line of business). The kiosks shown in the rollout video are already in use at restaurants like Panera. Chains like Chili’s have experimented with the use of tablets.
The Hardee's kiosks don't replace humans with robots as much as they allow people to communicate with human workers in a different way. They are undoubtedly useful in eliminating checkout lines but, as a Reuters report points out, they are – at least at this point – less effective at eliminating workers.
The hype is typical for today's technology. Demonstration projects like Amazon’s, or Hardee’s, or Google's “driverless car,” are at least as much about promoting a technophilic ideology or a political agenda as they are about the device itself.
Puzder quickly walked back some of his anti-worker rhetoric in an interview with Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times. (It's bad for business, for one thing.) But Puzder's automation project had already served its political purpose: it underscored his argument – rebutted by economic studies like this one – that higher minimum wages lead to lost jobs.
“With government driving up the cost of labor, it's driving down the number of jobs," he told Business Insider. "You're going to see automation not just in airports and grocery stores, but in restaurants."
For now, that’s just talk. So is the argument that we don’t need to renegotiate bad trade deals, or avoid future ones, because robots are taking those jobs anyway. For now, robots are more of a rhetorical device than a job-stealing one.
According to the data, the robot revolution isn’t here yet. But the day is coming. A well-publicized 2013 study suggested that 47 percent of American jobs will be lost to automation at some point in the near future. Robert McChesney and John Nichols review its implication for progressive activism in their book, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.
The Money Guy
To be fair, Puzder has fought against workers' interests in more traditional ways too. He wants to cut assistance programs, opposes minimum wage increases, and has been a leading spokesperson for the corporate use of franchises to evade benefit obligations. Workers at his own restaurants are among “the overwhelming majority of fast-food employees (who) make less than $9 per hour and face significant ‘barriers to upward mobility’ in the profession.”
Puzder’s corporation has also been cited for numerous violations of the workplace laws he may soon be responsible for enforcing.
Many low-income employees are forced to take government assistance to survive, which means that Puzder’s wealth is partially built on government handouts. And that’s not considering the public health costs of Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. recent rollout: “a $4 meal that includes a double cheeseburger, spicy chicken sandwich, fries and a drink."
Puzder is the perfect example of the modern CEO as a hands-off manipulator of money rather than a hands-on builder of businesses. Although he runs a restaurant chain with more than 20,000 employees, Puzder has never flipped burgers, worked a cash register, or opened a restaurant. An attorney by background, Puzder’s restaurant career began when he helped Carl Karcher (the “Carl” in Carl’s Jr.”) salvage his struggling chain through a major financial transaction with Fidelity National Capital. He later orchestrated a series of additional deals to expand the corporation.
Puzder’s a money guy, not a job creator (despite his participation in an advocacy grouped called the “Job Creator Network”).
The “rentiers” (in economic parlance) of the non-productive, financialized economy have reshaped the American economy in ways that were inconceivable a half-century ago. In the post-War II era, people wondered what working Americans would do with all the wealth and free time automation was going to bring. George Jetson, the dad in the 1963 TV cartoon “The Jetsons,” worked for an hour a day, two days a week – while complaining about his boss, Mr. Spacely, and his unethical and predatory competitor, Mr. Cogswell.
The future is here, and Mr. Cogswell won. Corporate owners stopped sharing productivity gains with their workers four decades ago. That has led to record levels of inequality, a deepening corruption of our democracy by big-money donors and, in its latest and darkest flowering, the kleptocratic presidential administration of Donald J. Trump.
The challenges of the future can’t be addressed in humane, transformative ways until that trend is reversed.
McChesney and Nichols write, “Imagine if a justifiably frightened and angered American people … realized that the present is unsatisfactory and that the future looks terrifying.”
That's a pretty good description of the American workforce, circa 2016.
The potential Puzder pick, and the current state of American labor, underscores an important principle: the fight for a just economic future is inseparable from the fight for a fair economy today. It's indivisible from the fight for fair trade, for decent jobs, and for a living wage.
Those fights are the continuation of a deeper struggle that’s been underway for many centuries: between those who seek ever-greater wealth for the few and those who want a decent life for everyone.
Donald Trump and his friends are pursuing the ancient vision, as old as the pyramids, of a society where the rich call the shots so they can keep getting richer.
That’s the real apocalypse, the one people have been resisting since history began. Robots are just its latest symptom.