Our Economic Future Is Not Just About How Much We Make

By Barney Blakeney

I recently was watching a television newsmagazine broadcast and was enthralled by the story about automated retail checkout initiatives. Automated cashiers are coming in the wave of the future. It’s already here!

For years I’ve been concerned about our shifting economy and value system, but it seems too few people are paying any attention. Retired educator Mr. James Campbell is among the few Black people I know who even thinks about our economic system. “Black community leaders” haven’t even got a clue.

I’m no economist, so I don’t have any expert opinions about our economic system. But I live in ‘Everyday America’; I see stuff and can figure out much of it. When I walk into a fast food restaurant and see that the machine that takes orders and payments soon will totally displace Black women at the cash registers who too often have no people skills and no clue about customer service, I wonder what will become of those people – people we’ve failed to formally educate to prosper in a doomed economic system.

My ‘ex’ recently offered an explanation about those poorly trained unmotivated sisters I too often see at many cash registers in entry level positions around town. She said some of them are people who receive public assistance and now are required to work. They’re being hired and put into low paying part time slots with no benefits. They function similarly as slaves who worked the rice plantations that made Charleston rich – they are expendable in a global economy that only requires bodies to provide labor. But that’s been changing.

Back in the day, my mom’s cousin Susie and her husband left Charleston and their rented apartment on Dewey Street for jobs in Detroit Mich.’s automobile industry. They were a young couple without kids. Susie’s husband, whose name I can’t remember, was a cool dude. He had a red car with a knob on the steering wheel he used to turn the wheel. He sometimes drove us to Kingstree for visits. They never came back. I’ve always wondered what happened to them after the auto industry automated.

In a 2016 story International Longshoremen Association Local 1422 President Kenny Riley said, “It’s no secret that a longshoreman with decent seniority who applies himself or herself may earn in excess of $100,000 per year. In addition, millions of dollars are spent annually throughout the Charleston health care system as a result of the employer sponsored health care programs.”

A year later he said as the ILA positions itself for the increased flow in container volume, it also must protect itself. One of the greatest challenges to the union is automation, Riley said. Technology and automation helps to increase productivity, but it also eliminates the need for human workers. Automation at grocery stores and banks are among the most obvious contributors to unemployment. The union has to insure its members perform all the jobs on the docks, Riley said.

I think today’s Black leadership has done a poor job of addressing civil and human rights issues. Comparatively, it has paid almost no attention to economic rights. However, Rev. Nelson Rivers reminded me to respectfully acknowledge accomplishments that have been made. Thank God for people like Rev. William Barber who some 50 years after the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign realizes the need to specifically address those issues today. Still I’m dismayed by civil rights leaders who tell me how many jobs their organizations save for individuals who experience discrimination in the workplace. That’s like stomping on bushes that are burning when the forest is on fire.

That forest, I believe, is our system of economics. Fix that and we fix a lot of the crap that is wrong with our society. Wealth redistribution – okay, that’s a good place to start. But as long as you have wealth, you’ll have poverty.

Again, I’m no economist. In her May 10 Justice Initiative article Heather Gray reprinted a Washington Post column by Joseph E. Stiglitz  who wrote, “It is no surprise that the extremes of capitalism and its dysfunction have given rise to questions such as: Can capitalism be saved from itself? Is it inevitable that the materialistic greed that it breeds will lead to ever-increasing pay packages for chief executives? Or that those with money will use their political influence to shape our tax system so that the richest pay proportionately less than everyone else? Progressive capitalism can, I believe, save capitalism from itself – if only we can get the political will behind it.

“Research over the past 40 years has explained why markets on their own don’t deliver rising economic benefits for all. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, recognized how, if unregulated, businesses would conspire against the public interest by raising prices and suppressing wages.”

A CBS 60 Minutes news show ran a story about the increased cost of generic medicines. It reported that pharmaceutical companies are conspiring to raise the cost of medicines to unaffordable levels for average citizens. This ain’t about black or white, it’s about green. People who never have worked a day in their lives or made any contribution to our society enjoy incalculable wealth. They and their henchmen – our political and business leaders – could care less about you and me. Some of the most powerful people in our government are political leaders in South Carolina, one of the nation’s poorest and most undereducated states. How the heck does that add up?

If this is our present, what will be our future in a world where machines replace men – in a world where how much you earn determines how well you live? Civil rights, human rights, economic justice – all are vital elements in the human equation. We need to look at this thing differently.

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