by Martin Harris
Future cliometricians (folks who study history in conjunction with mathematical measures of economic activity) will look back to the first half of the 20th century when, as labor costs began to rise, employers in retail began training customers to do their own service-and-sales, for free. First to do so in the US, apparently, was the Horn & Hardart Company, which opened its first food-service Automat –viewing ready-to-eat items through a wall of multiple small glass window-doors, a customer could insert coins in a slot to open the selected one and retrieve his sandwich, pie, or whatever– in Philadelphia in 1902. Since then, customers have been successfully trained to push their own shopping carts for food (1937) and more recently for building materials –first Grossman’s, more recently Home Depot and Lowe’s—and most recently, to dictate their fast-food wishes at a drive-by kiosk , at some sites via a conversation with a live sales clerk, and at a few by pressing an electronic touch-screen. You’ll not be surprised that labor unions have resisted these self-service trends, at various times vandalizing establishments where customers were doing their own clerking –H&H—or picketing where other hired-labor employer expenses were being avoided by suitable customer training –first at the now-vanished A&P food stores, more recently at a range of various vendors. All that cliometric background is prologue to what’s happening in the District of Columbia right now, as low-sales-clerk-wage WalMart, having been invited to set up a half-dozen big-box retail stores in the three non-prosperous quadrants –NorthEast, SouthEast, and SouthWest—and having started construction on the first three buildings, has just been ordered by the DC government to plan on paying a special, “super” minimum wage to its clerks. WalMart’s initial response: to shut down construction. Your Humble Scribe predicts that WalMart will agree to return, but will do so only with a more automated sales-and-service process, in which customers perform not only item retrieval from supply shelves , as they (we) do now, but to calculate their charges and make their payments at self-service computer kiosks with touch-screens. The overall trend, in areas ranging from automated crop-harvesting and dairy-cow milking to all-you-can-eat self-service restaurants and similarly self-service retail bill-pay, is for robots to replace human labor. Savings to vendors (avoided labor cost) are such that they don’t at all care how much you eat or whether they still have to keep one manned check-out lane open for those of us, still incompetent at or still uneasy with, touch-screen payment. The political implications of this trend –fewer workers-voters in the economy and in the election process– are obvious for overall direction and, so far, quite unrecognized for overall impact.
Two sub-trends are already clear: one is that each raise-the-minimum-wage political demand, usually coming from the Left, supposedly so that ambitious pols will be seen as “friends of Labor” , increases pressures on employers to go McRobot, substituting either extremely expensive (but extremely labor-saving and therefore extremely Return-in-Investment profitable) machinery for ever-more-expensive, but with no corresponding increase in productivity, hand labor. Unions have resisted, but never successfully: for more than a decade, they successfully demanded that steam locomotives with then-new automatic stokers still have firemen with shovels in the cab, but now both the steam engines and the firemen are gone, and the modern locomotive cab is now manned by an engineer/ train-driver and his assistant/replacement/helper. The other is that the vanishing of such low-skill, low-wage, entry-level jobs (folks described in the Bible as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, both jobs now technologically reduced to near zero) means more importance for more sophisticated job-preparation in public education (something the traditional K-12 system, particularly after its various 60’s-era “modernizations’, hasn’t done very well) and more people on various forms of tax-payer-funded welfare because they can’t justify their wage to employers , and by many measures increasing numbers of this labor-force cohort have given up on even seeking employment. This pattern of dependence on government, which first attracted them to become reliable voters for Leftist re-distributionist policies in the early Progressive years, is even more pronounced today, when, by various measures, nearly half of the voting population is now so dependent. It’s more than half, if you count in those with jobs in or connected to government, ranging from the bureaucrats collecting the taxes for, and distributing the proceeds to, the “voters-for-stuff”, to the entire range of government employees in politics, (Vermont is near the top in State employees per 10,000 in population, at 266; US average is 213) administration, research, even education and selectively-favored solar panel or vehicle-battery companies. The once-realistic Jeffersonian ideal of each yeoman family with its own self-sufficient independence via its own farm at home and its own business in town, has pretty much vanished before this new set of realities. Many writers have labeled the “more-takers-than-makers” problem insoluble: read 18th century Alexander Tytler on “why democracies fail.”
Large areas of American cities are already labeled as “food deserts” because conventional supermarkets have found it economically impossible to sell there, for reasons ranging from customer aversion to fresh vegetables and cook-your-own, to non-customer propensity to theft and vandalism, but WalMart was, apparently, prepared to cope with these drawbacks. It isn’t prepared to cope with a “super” minimum wage for sales clerks, at some reports in the $12-plus range. Two questions: will it agree to return with its own version of McRobots, and will DC governance similarly agree? Stay tuned.