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Coronavirus a reminder that we can’t return to business as usual

Even in the midst of a crisis that has yet to reach its peak, there are questions about what comes next.

The most pressing of those involve the economy, particularly how soon we can begin returning to our normal routines. At that point, the economy can begin to pick up, though it will take much longer to get back to speed, and much longer to recover fully – the timing of that will depend on how long the shutdown remains in effect.

Following a resumption of the national economy, we’ll have some hard questions about a range of topics, from doing business with China and rolling back globalization, to emergency planning and the implicit perils of increasing human populations and densities.

As with the financial crisis of a decade ago, the time will be ripe for regulatory changes, but there is likely to be little action, those who favour the status quo exercising more influence than the public good and long-term thinking.

One issue that must come to the fore is a universal basic income, as the measures to counteract the spread of COVID-19 revealed the inherent weakness of a consumer-driven economy financed largely by debt: the majority of us live paycheque to paycheque, and the loss of even a couple of weeks of work can be catastrophic.

The financial supports announced by government will do little to stop the bleeding, though the cost of propping up everyone’s incomes under the current system would be immense. (That’s a good segue into the appalling habit of deficit spending during economic good times, and the failure to put away great stores of savings for the inevitable downturns – again, short-term thinking by politicians concerned only about the next election, and adopting policies that benefit fewer than one per cent of the population over the good of the entire citizenry.)

The current shuttering of much of the economy, putting people out of work and disrupting the not-ideal consumer-dependent cycle, gives us a taste of the kind of changes that may come from automation and globalization. Those very forecasts are what prompted a renewed interest in the concept of a universal basic income.

We’re facing a shift that promises to alter jobs, incomes and the very way we live. Whether that sees a descent into feudal squalor or finally provides for the leisure society long discussed (even as we’ve headed away from it) remains to be seen.

Much of the discussion about mitigating the downside revolves on some form of universal basic income that would at a minimum keep people afloat. That grows increasingly important as automation moves beyond replacing manual labour to pretty much every facet of employment, including professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants.

We’re already living in a time of flux. Increasingly, good-paying jobs have disappeared, replaced by crappy service jobs. Well, in part. Fact is, across Canada and the U.S., there are fewer real jobs even as the population increases. Where the labour hasn’t been sent offshore, high immigration levels – legal or otherwise – have been used to drive down wages and to provide fodder for our consumer society. The one financed by debt that has, again, reached record levels – Canadians now owe a collective $2 trillion.

Increasingly, those service jobs – crappy and even those that aren’t – that are hyped by those eager to hide the truth from us are at risk through automation. Machines have already displaced many workers, but even jobs in the hospitality industry – waiters, hotel workers, retail clerks – seem destined to be replaced in the shift to automation and robotics. A 2013 Oxford University study, for instance, predicted that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades.

New stories about self-driving cars and trucks are increasingly commonplace, with the corollary that job losses are likely to follow for people currently making a living behind the wheel … and the millions of others in service jobs that cater to such people (restaurants and motels along well-travelled routes, for example).

Driverless technology already exists today, destined to displace jobs such as truckers, cabbies and couriers. Driverless buses and trains will eliminate the need for transit workers, many of them an increasing burden on governments and taxpayers. 

Automated transportation, from cars to airplanes, is safer, more efficient and much less costly to operate – computers don’t fall asleep, take bathroom breaks, drink on the job or a host of other human foibles. For all those reasons, driverless is the future of transportation.

This isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s here, and the technology’s spread is inevitable. The same transformation will migrate to many fields. Not just McJobs, but into accounting, medicine, teaching and host of other jobs that now pay well, and are typically considered safe.

Once upon a time, automation was a panacea that was to lead to a mythical leisure society – the machines would do the work, while we reaped the benefit of reclaimed time to do what we wanted rather than the drudgery of work. As we’ve seen so far, technology has extended workweeks and displaced people from high-paying to lesser jobs. There’s no reason to believe that will change as technology continues to change the way work is done. Which brings us to the idea of a basic income: what becomes of our economy when there are fewer and fewer jobs? In the short term, those at the top of the income scale, including the much-discussed 1%ers, make out like bandits due to reduced costs. But if people don’t have money to spend, who is going to keep the consumer society running? Without some system to share the fruits of the economy, things start to fall apart. First the economy, then the social order.

Another question for governments now in the pockets of the corporate interests – those 1%ers again – who is going to pay the taxes when the tax liability makes it impossible to make a living wage while a person tries to string together a series of low-paying, temporary and casual opportunities to work? The fanciful gig economy leaves people impoverished and no cohesive tax system.

We’re seeing the instability of the status quo at this very moment. Among the questions to come, the most important is what can we do to change the underlying nature of the economy to avoid repeating today’s experiences. A growing population, living in ever-closer proximity while encroaching on natural areas and wildlife pretty much means the next pandemic is a “when” and not an “if.”

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