Automation is irrevocably changing the shape of the American economy and the work-pattern of the American people. With the rapid development of self-regulating machines, unskilled, semi-skilled and white collar workers have in turn been left jobless. Since the mid-fifties unemployment has tended to rise in times of prosperity as well as recession.
Almost as if they lacked a sense of history, the Government economists have treated automation an aberration rather than the fundamental condition of future economic development. The new technology calls for readjustments of policy geared to a vision of structural change; but they have not been forthcoming.
The President's plan to reform the tax mechanism, set forth in the budget message as a panacea-of-sorts, was described by Leon Keyserling as "a pigmy sent out to do a giant's job." The economist explained to the Joint Economic Committee that the Kennedy tax program assumes that awarding rebates to those in the upper-brackets will provide the financial and psychological impetus to reinvest. But the program rests on a hope, and the hope itself entails certain assumptions about the risk-taking mentality of the prevailing industrial leadership.
At one point in his budgetary address the President did mention that tax reform would help the economy toward its goal of "full employment" (a level which he, like Eisenhower, before him, defined as a 4 percent unemployment rate). The Administration has thus taken a third-hand role in trying to reach a fairly conservative employment level.
There seems little reason to expect that such an indirect governmental commitment can begin to solve the problems of unemployment. Eighty thousand new jobs must be created each week for workers displaced by machines plus others entering the labor force. The United States must foster "a new DuPont every week," as Walter Reuther put it, just to hold the employment rate steady.
Those who fear governmental participation in the economy insist that maintaining a margin of unemployed fellow-citizens is "the price we have to pay for prosperity." This readiness to degrade a minority for the benefit of a prosperous majority implies moral acceptance of the breadline as a way of life (for others). To advocate a margin of unemployment as if it were static or intermittently fluctuating is to ignore the dynamics of technological unemployment in America. Moreover, it is not only the jobless who suffer. People in mills and factories and offices throughout the country today live in fear that their seniority may soon be insufficient to save their jobs when the next lay-off comes.
The waste and inefficiency of unemployment were emphasized both in ethical and commercial terms when Secretary of Labor Willard W. Wirtz told the Joint Economic Committee that "more manpower had been lost in the past year of unemployment than in 35 years of strikes." Wirtz added that if unemployment statistics properly embraced young people trying to get into the work force, the poorly educated, the semi-skilled and the non-white, the jobless rate could be placed as high as 12 percent.
Public concern and Presidential indignation, however, have focused largely on the melodrama of strikes rather than on the tragedy of unemployment. The newspaper dispute, the East Coast dock strike, and a prospective walkout by the rail-road employees served to evoke the image of "featherbedding" by reactionary union leaders (ironically, the Typographers' rank-and-file now demand more advantageous terms than Mr. Powers had settled for).
But what if the alternate to mass feather bedding is mass unemployment? In both the newspaper, shipping and railroads, technological progress is not creating jobs while it obviates them. Nor will railroad jobs be opening up twenty years hence. The fact is that automation renders certain jobs and skills extraneous, and just a handful of growth industries (chemicals, electronics, book publishing) are expanding at a rate broad enough to offset the modernization lay-offs.
Eventually automation, like previous technological upheavals, should lead to new industrial expansion. But only if the Government acts to speed and case the process can this country hope to avoid the protracted dislocation and human suffering that characterized the historical analogues of automation.
A program to combat the possibility of an aimless, technically helpless generation in America would certainly be worthy of the long, twilight struggle envisioned by the President. The questions raised by the structural changes in the economy are national in character and scope: they deal with the level of education and vocational training to which the nation must aspire, the composition and purpose of the labor movement, and the uses to which the society will direct its leisure. Certainly the tone of American life will change in the next twenty years, and that change need not imply misery, insecurity and a Luddite reaction to progress--if the Administration acts with foresight.
To Ease the Readjustment
The Federal Government should embark on a policy of full, rational employment by establishing a United States Employment Agency, staffed, financed and chartered to sponsor research, make policy recommendations to the President, and administer necessary compensatory, retraining and relocation programs. With its national perspective, such an agency could treat regional and industry-wide patterns of disruption in the context of structural economic change.
The Agency should therefore consider the following approaches to meaningful employment:
* Endorsement of a 35 hour work-week in those industries where a 40 hour week is causing layoffs and/or featherbedding.
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