The New Distributive Justice Problem Could Doom America

12/03/2016 03:54 pm ET

Unemployment is at 4.6%, and government officials are celebrating. I beg to differ. We as a nation are facing an economic Armageddon of staggering proportions if we don't pay attention to what is really going on. In a nutshell, an increasing percentage of Americans are no longer economically viable. Not just Baby Boomers; but Americans across the board. What this means is that there is a broad swath of people who do not have the skills, education, or knowledge that corporations are seeking. And it's only going to get worse. For example, in less than 10 years trucks will be fully self-driving. Truck drivers constitute the largest group of workers on the planet. In the U.S., there are over 3.5 million truck drivers, including your friendly UPS and FedEx drivers, long haul drivers, and people who work in port and rail yards. All gone. Poof. There will not be 3.5 million new jobs to replace those lost to the self-driving trucks. No amount of legislation or regulation or tax incentives will change this inexorable development. No president can negotiate a better deal for American workers.

People know this. Remember the Occupy Wall St. movement? More recently, Bernie Sanders stirred up the people hurt by the new economy. Trump was elected by a bunch of them. No one really understands the underlying problem, however. Fundamentally, we have a structural distributive justice problem that needs to be solved with an entirely new mindset. Otherwise, America is doomed.

Distributive justice is based on three ideas. Think of these ideas as the legs of a stool. They are equity, equality, and need.

Equity says that I should earn in proportion to what I contribute. The more I contribute, the more I should earn. It is the philosophical foundation of capitalism.

Equality says that, as human beings, we are all equal and should therefore share in the economic spoils equally. You may have killed the hairy wooly mammoth today, but tomorrow you might not. Eat what you kill is a short term mechanism that does not promote social cohesion or long term collaboration. WE should all therefore share equally in the economic wealth we each create and contribute to our clan. Equality is the philosophical foundation of socialism.

Need says that there are those in our clan who are young, sick, injured, and elderly. No clan can thrive without taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Need is the foundation for social justice and philanthropy.

When one of these three legs becomes imbalanced, we experience a deep sense of injustice. Too much equity means not enough equality and need. Too much equality creates resentment from those who are high producers. Too much need frustrates equity and equality.

The American dream has been based on a basic formulation of distribution justice: work hard and you may have a chance at financial wealth. We are a society of equals under the law, so in pursuit of wealth and financial security, you may not discriminate against others on the basis of things they cannot change about themselves. Finally, as a society that values stability, we have a social welfare net that takes care of the very poor, the disabled, and the elderly. This is funded through taxes on the equity side of the equation.

Viewed this way, the political polarization we are experiencing is a difference in perspectives on what is out of balance with our system of distributive justice.

There is a deeper, bigger problem however. As our society and the world moves towards automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, the number of people that can participate in the equity side of the equation is rapidly diminishing while the economic wealth being generated by the new technology is growing astronomically. Fewer workers are producing far more wealth than ever before. This trend will accelerate over the next 10 to 20 years. There will come a time when it will be impossible for most people to find a job as jobs will simply not exist.

Switzerland sees this coming. Its leaders have started a national discussion about whether there should be some basic wage paid to citizens that is not welfare, but simply a re-balancing of distributive justice. Maybe this will work. I fear that without controls, paying a basic wage will stratify society into those dependent on redistribution and those few producing the wealth to be re-distributed. Anyone can see this would be disastrous for America. On the other hand, if there are simply no longer jobs for 10s of millions of people, what should be done?

Interestingly, there is a population in the U.S. that is struggling to solve this problem right now, The Native American tribes operating gaming casinos. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act states that tribes should use gaming for five purposes: “(1) to fund Tribal government services, operations and programs; (2) to promote Tribal welfare; (3) to promote Tribal economic development; (4) to make charitable donations; and (5) to help fund local government agencies."

The equity side is, of course, the casino. While tribal members are guaranteed jobs if jobs are available, sometimes there are not enough to go around. Notwithstanding the lack of jobs, a typical casino properly managed will create sufficient wealth for distribution beyond the employees, management, and investors. The debate that the tribes deal with constantly is how to balance the dictates of distributive justice. This is a microcosm of the debate America must have. We can learn from our Native Americans what has worked and what has failed. Perhaps a synthesis of ideas can create a new definition of America that is no longer completely dependent on capitalism and economic opportunity and veers away from the dulling, bludgeoning effects of unfettered socialism.

The most important first step is that we as a people wake up to the new reality facing us. How do we want to be in the 21st century? What do we do with huge amounts of wealth and few workers? How do we prevent oligarchy? How do we incentivize people to improve themselves and find meaning other than in employment? How do we encourage people to serve their communities as teachers, musicians, artists, counselors and mentors? Should we encourage a renaissance of the artisan crafts, now that economic survival is not an issue? How do we value service and craftsmanship in comparison to code writing, engineering and management?

These are the questions, and many more, that we have to ask and begin answering. If we do nothing, I fear America will be doomed as another failed idea. If we take up the challenge, we may find a glorious future of freedom from economic stress and the unleashing of human potential in ways that are unimaginable today.

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