Everybody knows that, in matters economic, a rising tide lifts all boats. That is the heart of the program President Reagan initiated shortly after he took office. The idea was to stimulate economic production--by business-tax breaks, by reducing governmental interference with business and by slashing social expenditures--on the assumption that a surging economy would take care of the other problems.
Well, the tide is rising, and an awful lot of boats are staying put. Business executives and hard-nosed economists alike agree that the economic recovery, now under way, won't do much to reduce unemployment. The chairman of Union Pacific, interviewed at the recent meeting of the Business Council, told The New York Times that the 6,000 employees his company had laid off during the late recession will "probably not" be rehired. The head of E. I. du Pont de Nemours, which laid off 7 percent of its 174,000 workers, said that only "a few" of the furloughed workers would be recalled--even in a booming economy.
Other members of the Business Council, made up of the chief executive officers of the nation's largest corporations, said much the same thing. Cost-cutting, they said, is the name of the game, and they have learned to play it even while increasing output. As Union Pacific's James H. Evans put it: "We're running 40 percent more freight tonnage than we did 20 years ago--with half as many employees. If we had the same number of employees we had then, we would have priced ourselves out of the market. How have we done it? Automation."
Automation, a magic elixir for industry, may turn out to be another name for poison for workers. It's especially bad for those who, by reason of their youth or their lack of skills, have never had steady work. For automation and robotics tend to erode the low-skill, entry-level jobs that traditionally have started Americans on the way to economic security. The microchip may turn out to be a buzz saw, cutting off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
It is one of the dilemmas of the decade--certainly for Reagan, who may face reelection with simultaneous high economic production and high unemployment. It may turn out to be a dilemma as well for the very corporations that are in the forefront of automation. What, after all, is the point of being able to produce more goods with fewer workers if the fewer workers means fewer consumers to buy the products?
The mistake of Reaganomics was to assume that since most of our problems cannot be solved absent a healthy economy, a healthy economy will fix everything. It won't. Reagan's business tax breaks enabled many corporations to increase their profits, often by acquiring other corporations--with no gain for the general society. It would have made more sense to link the tax breaks to increased hiring, perhaps by targeting new businesses-- still the principal creators of new jobs. Now that recovery appears to be under way, maybe Reagan will give some thought to the problem of jobs--if only because failure to do so will jeopardize his own.