A people-first economy

March 1, 2017 - 12:00am -- Sarah Mundell

A people-first economy
As robots and machines do more and more of the work, how do we improve people’s lives?

By Sarah Mundell

It’s not uncommon that I have problems with the ticket machines at the train station. Sometimes it goes well, but more than a few times I have had to resort to the old-fashioned way of getting the right ticket: talking to a fellow human being.

Once, after a broken machine had slowed me down, I waited in line to talk to the man behind the counter. He quickly helped me and then said: “Please keep coming to the ticket booth to buy your tickets! People are worth more than machines!”

Yes they are, I thought. And I went away promising myself to go to the ticket booth first, machine second from then on. And where there is the choice, I’ve kept that promise, not only at the train station.

The machines can be more efficient. You can serve more people at a time with fewer workers to pay. Automated phone messages from the pharmacy, for instance, get the word out faster that your prescription is ready for pick-up.

The same with online shopping: You can refill your paper towel supply with the press of a little button, and the next day they are at your door without the hassle of driving.  You have more retail choices, and often the price is cheaper than in the store. Some people even go to the mall to browse, then drive home and buy online to save money.

I went to an office supply store recently, and the shelves were shockingly bare. The high school clerk attentively tried to offer me help, and yet three times had to answer: “You’ll probably have better luck on our website.” Yes, a website, where algorithms show me products that I might need and that can be cheaply shipped to me from  anywhere in the world.

It is pretty amazing that we can do that today. But at what price?

Companies like Amazon certainly make shopping easier, but experts are saying it will hurt us — our economies and our communities — more than help in the long-run. More jobs in the U.S. are threatened by automation than by being outsourced to other countries, economics professor Lawrence Katz told The New York Times in January. In fact, a 2013 report by Oxford researchers Carl Benedikts Frey and Michael A. Osborne said that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. were threatened by machines. Others have lower numbers, but the truth is that fewer workers are needed to supervise the machines that take over human labor.

In the last four years, traditional retailers have cut more than 200,000 jobs, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm. And even since January 1, the traditional retail sector has absorbed more blows, like Macy’s saying it will soon eliminate 10,000 positions.

And while large online companies like Amazon announce the creation of thousands of jobs, they are also introducing automation that could one day cost jobs. They already use robots in many of their warehouses. And once solid trades, like truck driving and delivery services, are threatened by the development of driverless cars and drones.

Yes, buying online can save us a few dollars, and going to the grocery store self-checkout a few minutes (if you’re good at it), but we risk not providing a chance for families to make a living, which in turn provides healthcare, education, and more.

Our very opportunities to connect are at risk as well. The small personal interactions with a clerk or others also give us the ability to relate and to build a real network in our local community. A website can’t apologize for not having what I was looking for, or smile or wish me a good afternoon, improving my day.

And there’s an added value to buying in person. The teenage clerk can no longer share his passion for computers if he cannot show customers the variety of models that may fit their needs.

So, before making a choice about what and how to order, take a second to ask yourself: “Is my purchase building up my community, or does it reduce myself and others to users, producers and the objects of marketing schemes and algorithms?”

The higher costs of local goods disappear when you consider higher local employment and the relationships that grow when people buy from people they know, executive director of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, Susan Witt, told Time in 2009. It also reduces environmental impact if you count the reduced transportation of these goods.

I don’t mean all online shopping is bad. Many sites are homegrown and provide for local connections. But overall, the choices we make to put people first, or not, will speak to how important it is us for us to improve the human condition for all people, in all places, and not only now but for generations to come.


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