Welcome to Nirvana, or whatever we call our economy
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Whether you realize it or not, you live in heaven on Earth, or at least an economist’s idea of Nirvana. In terms of jobs, we have a full-employment economy in this country, where everyone that wants a job can have a job. The worker pool is so shallow and the number of job vacancies so large that we employ millions of undocumented workers in this country, and in order to stay in Nirvana, we’re told we must find a way to accommodate them and millions more like them, or fall from heaven.
Of course, Nirvana is not the same for everyone. Just because everyone that wants a job can find a job doesn’t mean that it’s a job anyone would want, or a job close to home, or a job that matches the employee’s qualifications, or pays anything close to a living wage. It’s hardly Nirvana for employers, who must pay more in wages and benefits to attract the employees that they want, or warm bodies of any kind to fill the retail, hospitality, and janitorial jobs that are the future of this economy.
Otherwise, employers must find ways to eliminate jobs, do more with fewer people, or put the consumer to work. Consumers pump their own gas, do their own banking and make travel arrangements without bank tellers or travel agents, all without complaint. We’re saving time, we tell ourselves, employers are saving money, and no one’s put out of work because, in a full employment economy, there’s always another job.
One of the remaining strongholds of labor-intensive production is retail, specifically the retail checkout. In the back of the store, ordering, delivery, shipping and receiving, and pricing, in all these areas, fewer people do more work than ever before. But in the front at the checkout, a warm body is still required to take your money and close the deal, or at least supervise the closing of the deal.
At Kroger’s City Market grocery stores, the Uscan system employs one clerk to supervise four consumer employees doing the jobs of four checkers. I don’t remember at what point I overcame my resistance to doing someone else’s job and started to use the Uscan, but I do know they’ve got me trained, so much so that I get slightly irritated when the Uscan is closed.
I doubt Uscan is any faster, but at least I’ve got four chances at a register, rather than making the wrong choice of line for a human cashier, and finding myself behind the rude woman on her cell phone, or silently screaming “No!” as the gentle old man pulls out his pocket of change. Uscan even has its moments of theatre, as someone does the huffy-puffy at one of the terminals, demanding loudly to know why the infernal machine won’t work as they stare blankly at the “Touch Here To Start” screen.
The Kroger public relations folk will tell you that Uscan is not about reducing the number of employees, but rather enhancing the consumer experience. Maybe. Certainly automation does not always “enhance” the consumer experience. Wait ’til the Frisco Safeway introduces its Fastlane system, now in use in a Denver store that I frequent on my trips back and forth.
On my last visit, I counted five open Fastlanes and not one in use as all of us “enhanced” consumers stood in line for human clerks. We’ve learned that Fastlane is slow, inefficient, and frequently breakdowns mid-transaction, and so we’re willing to stand in line for help rather than help ourselves.
But at Kroger stores, we use Uscan, designed and manufactured by Fujitsu, one of Japan’s finest. At Safeway, consumers shun the Fastlane, designed and manufactured by NCR, one of America’s finest.
America’s economic future rests on the premise that we have the technological edge. We’ve lost much of our manufacturing capability in this country but, we’re told, by economists and politicians as well, that it’s our brains and smarts, America’s leadership in software and intellectual property that will keep us in Nirvana. Apparently, Nirvana is truly a state of mind, not a condition of reality, perfection bordering on self-delusion.
I think we’ve crossed that border.
Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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