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For Heaven’s Sake, Don’t Give a Fish

Posted By on November 11, 2017

by Teri Ong 

 Besides summer wildfires and autumn hurricanes and all their attendant disruption and destruction, other forces of impending doom have been in the news in the last few weeks. I speak of top tech industry leaders warning about how artificial intelligence is going to cause catastrophic collapse of the workforce as we know it. Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Sam Altman have been holding conferences giving predictions about the millions of workers who will no longer be employable when their current jobs are taken over by automation. 

This kind of thing has happened before when there have been significant changes in technology. Many people lost their jobs when McCormick invented a machine that could take dirt and seeds out of cotton bolls. People lost their cottage industries knitting socks and sweaters when large scale powered looms were invented. People who spun wool yarn and wove fabric on backroom looms likewise lost out during the Industrial Revolution. 

Men and women who made a fair living and got personal satisfaction hand-crafting any number of beautiful, practical and individualized products lost out to cheap factory made goods. To keep from starving they had to do repetitive and menial jobs in the factories that had displaced their crafts, often for slave wages. But in time, people adjusted to new circumstances and found ways to cope, especially if they coped or they starved. 

We are facing a new revolution, in which it will not be the craftsmen who lose out; it will be the workers that already do menial “entry-level” work – the ones that take orders at fast-food places, that drive delivery trucks and cars, that fill packages, that mow lawns. Robots, voice-activated computers, drones, and self-driving vehicles have already made inroads. Someday we may not even need human workers to harvest crops, run the machines that manufacture items, or even to start IV’s or take blood samples. 

What will all of these unemployed and unemployable people do to support themselves? Well, some of our super-rich, technological elites have suggested that we set up a governmental program to provide a “UBI,” or Universal Basic Income. This is welfare on steroids! Finland is currently testing this sort of program for a very small number of chronically unemployed– 2,000 people to be exact. And some of our tech gurus are touting the Finnish program as a model. But supporting 2,000 people on tax money is a far cry from supporting 20 million, or 30, or 40, on the backs of the relative handful of people that will actually be providing a service or a product that generates enough cash to be taxed. 

The provision of money to supply basic necessities is only part, and not even the most important part of what employment does. Working at something is a necessity for the soul. Think about those retirees who seem to shrivel up as human beings when they suddenly quit doing meaningful work. The connection between work and purpose is not just for the elderly, who have worked at something for a good long while. Young people need the purpose attached to work as well. 

I believe the reason so many young people seem unhappy and disaffected is that they haven’t experienced the satisfaction of working at something to provide for their own basic needs. They have food, clothing, a roof over their heads, automobiles, car insurance, health insurance, provided by mom and dad until they are nearly 30 years old. They have been given so many fish that they have no interest whatsoever in learning to fish, unless learning to fish is a new kind of virtual reality game you can play in your parent’s basement. However, the Bank of Mom and Dad, for most young adults, cannot continue doling out forever. Mom and Dad have a 20 to 30 year head start on ultimate reality – death and taxes. So it is no wonder that Bernie Sanders knew where to turn to get support for his political program of “free everything for everybody.”  The same crowd will undoubtedly be there when it is time to vote for the Universal Basic Income. They have been taught to believe they should be able to get a career-track living wage for flipping burgers. It is merely one more small step to believing they are entitled to a career-track living wage just for taking up space on the earth. 

Idealists believe people with a Universal Basic Income will have much free time and will turn their energies into all kinds of creative pursuits. But how many garage studio drummers does the world need? How many guitarists that only know how to play primary chords? How many “ultimate cupcake” bakers will a local economy support? How many sculptors that make non-representational figures out of dryer lint and Gorilla Glue? 

The social experiences of Saudi Arabia, and more locally, of Alaska, where citizens are given stipends based on oil income, indicate that most idle people don’t turn their energies to creativity, even lame creativity. They become accustomed to watching daytime television, to playing internet poker tournaments, to buying things on the home shopping channels, trolling social media, wasting away physically in video game marathons, etc. In Saudi Arabia, the barrels of money are no longer rolling in with the barrels of oil, but the government is having a hard time getting people to go back to work to diversify the flagging economy. What a surprise! 

And when life gets to be unbearably dull and meaningless in almost any society, people turn to self-destructive behaviors that involve chemicals, sex, and/or violence in a variety of forms. Some form of stimulation is better than nothing. 

We have seen it ourselves in foreign countries we have visited. One time in London we got off the “Tube” at a station that was unfamiliar to us. We came up from the station in a neighborhood where the streets were lined with disenchanted male Millennials leaning against the store fronts, just waiting for a reason to pick a fight. We made a quick U-turn and went back to our familiar neighborhood. 

We have seen it in our own state. Since the legalization of recreational marijuana, our street corners are filled with able-bodied male Millennials who have wasted their substance,  their bodies and their minds on chemical addictions. And since there is no Universal Basic Income at the present time, they spend their free time creatively begging for money. It pains me deeply to see able-bodied males frittering away what should be the prime years of their strength in purposelessness and self-destruction. 

In an excellent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Dan Nidess observes that a Universal Basic Income might address the material needs of the unemployed, but that it would “undermine their aspirations” at the same time. In regard to the human need for purpose, he astutely writes, “…purpose can’t be manufactured, nor can it be given out alongside a government subsidy. It comes from having deep-seated responsibility – to yourself, your family, and society as a whole.” [Wall Street Journal, Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, p. A13, col. 1-4] 

As a Christian, I would add to his list “And to your God.” Honest labor is not a necessary evil; it was given to humankind as a gracious gift before the fall of man. The first thing we learn about God in Genesis chapter one is that He made things, and later we are told that He did it all for His good pleasure. Finding joy and pleasure in satisfying work is part of the image of God in man. And overcoming the painful and burdensome aspects of labor reminds us of our status as sinners and of our need for a Savior.  

As redeemed sinners our work gives us many opportunities to demonstrate character. In 2 Thessalonians 3 the Apostle Paul challenged his readers to exemplify a disciplined Christian life through their employment, as he did. 

 

6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept  working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example.  

 

The worst thing we could do as a nation to further erode our already perilously weak moral fiber is to start giving out the proverbial free fish. The Apostle Paul further wrote that those who don’t work for the food they eat shouldn’t eat. He understood that an empty stomach can be the best motivation to get out and do something purposeful, even if the purpose is just to fill your stomach. Those who won’t do that will come to a bad end. 

 

10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. 11 For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.   

We will never make progress as a society against crime, gang violence, chemical addictions, domestic violence, and radical political and religious violence, if we feed our young people on UBI’s instead of honest purposefulness. 

 

“Go, labour on, spend and be spent, 

Thy joy to do the Father’s will; 

It is the way the Master went, 

Should not the servant tread it still?” 

–Horatius Bonar, 1808-1889 


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