My Blog

January 18, 2020

Of Scanners and Governments

It happens so gradually we don’t really notice.

Flatbottom, my poor benighted husband, does notice. (The name, by the way, comes from our manicurist who says her husband, like mine, spends much of his day happily sitting in front of the television with his computer by his side so he can order the latest gadget from Amazon).

Flatbottom HATES the new scanners in the check-out lanes at Walmart. Little by little, the powers that be have decreased the number of human checkers, increasing the lines and the wait for the customers. Frustrated by the long wait and staring at the piles of items on the conveyor belts, we grudgingly, but more and more willingly, consider using the automated, do-it-yourself scanners. Scan it, bag it and we’re outta there! Flatbottom cannot, does not and will not.

On our way out, he stopped at the “Service” Center to advise them that they needed more checkers. The two women chatting behind the counter just smiled but didn’t move. Same thing from the two Walmart workers standing at the front. A sort-of smile, but no action. Evidently the corporate behemoth has already shifted the workers to picking out the computer-assisted grocery list for those who are willing and wealthy enough to pay for the “we’ll-do-it-for-you” service. The rest of us glare at the self-scanners.  

Remember the movie “Back to the Future”? In it there is a scene where Marty looks across at a gas station. A car drives up and half a dozen young men in gas station uniforms race out to pump the gas, wash the windows, front and back, pop the hood to check the radiator and even check the tires. The movie character is amazed. We laugh. It’s not so funny now when young men, never mind the girls, can’t find those jobs anymore. Pump it yourself!

And even at our favorite eatery, Taco Bell, we are “encouraged” to use the computers on the wall or even the app on our cell phone to order our food. You guessed right, Flatbottom does not have an app on his phone for that. Even the assembly-line to create the food is computerized to cut down on the labor force. The computerized ordering eliminates another $7.25 an hour job.

I was chatting with a clerk at the bank and asked how her son was doing. He is newly graduated from high school and had rebelled when she suggested he attend college. He put in more than twenty computerized applications on-line all over town—HEB, Kroger, all the pizza places, the restaurants, delivery places, everywhere he could think of. Nothing, Not even a call back. And it didn’t do any good to go ask at the individual stores. The answer was invariably, “Sorry, it’s on-line.”

 In a college town where every young person is vying for the fewer and fewer jobs, his lack of success wasn’t surprising. Even mowing lawns is not a young kid’s job anymore. Although the pay is abysmal, teams of hard-working Mexicans have created their own small businesses, investing their earnings into giant mowers and trucks to haul them. My friend’s son went to work for a brother’s brother-in-law with a cleaning company at a little more than minimum wage.  

And have you noticed all the elderly folks sacking groceries or standing for hours offering tastes of this or that new product? Many have little or no retirement. They may not have saved enough over their lifetimes or they have lost their 401-Ks in the 2008 down-turn and are living paycheck-to-paycheck on Social Security. They are now fighting for those menial $7.25 an hour jobs too. Greeters at Wal-mart may have been eliminated, but the elderly, rickety though they might be, can at least be counted on to be desperate, dependable, hard-working and always on-time as baggers.  

There was a frightening article recently by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn entitled “Who Killed the Knapp Family?” (New York Times, Sunday, January 12, 2020 – look it up, you can find it on-line). The family, from Yamhill, Oregon, like many throughout the heartland of America, had looked promising in the 1970s. There was hope of college for the kids, a good job for the father and a contented stay-at-home mom.

Then, as corporate America gained ground with tax breaks and cheaper labor overseas, the jobs disappeared. The loss of jobs drove many into poverty, including the Knapp family. Even at minimum wage, the below-poverty-line jobs were scarce. The increasingly profitable benefits of selling opioids or cooking meth ensnared several of the family members. And for those faced with the depression of losing jobs, homelessness and hunger, the temptations of alcoholism and drug addiction took hold of the rest.

Kristoff and WuDunn  described the out-come for the family: “Of the five Knapp kids who had once been so cheery, Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.”

This is happening nation-wide. And it is happening under our very noses. Simple things like self-scanners that cut out more jobs. Lack of job training or retraining for those who lose jobs. A lack of investment in education, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. Blame on the poor, both black and white, for a loss of family values and a lack of God in the home. It’s hard to pray for food when there are no jobs.

Me ‘n the dogs will take our trash to the dump today. We live out in the country so we don’t pay for city trash pick-up. Once the dump-truck comes by and those computerized arms (another job lost) reach out to lift and empty the big green containers, we don’t think about what happens next. Have you ever seen the mountains of trash we produce in this country every day? I have. It is truly staggering. I thank the Lord we have a government that takes care of it for us so we don’t have to think about it.

We’ve all heard the complaints about the few bad eggs among poorly paid teachers and social workers and government employees. But there are hundreds of thousands who work tirelessly and with incredible dedication to keep the country functioning. Their government pay is often scarcely enough to live on. As my principal told me while I was teaching, “Get a second job, all teachers have them.” Our government employees are neither thanked nor compensated for their efforts.   

After the 2008 recession, many auto-workers lost jobs both in the US and Canada. In the article, the authors point out that, “as the scholar Victor Tan Chen has showed, the two countries responded differently.”  The Canadians invested in retraining. We threw welfare at people and blamed them for their misery and homelessness, and then threatened to cut off the welfare if they didn’t get jobs. The Canadians succeeded. We have not.

When there is no huge, healthy profit to be made for the corporate giants and billionaires, there is no interest in investing in education or prisons or drug programs. Our society counts on philanthropy and self-help to solve these issues. The problems, however, are far too massive for a few churches and do-gooders to resolve.

 It’s not welfare we need. It is better schools and job training; it is a focus on creating jobs in small towns in middle America; it is an emphasis on drug programs and prison reform. As Kirstof and WuDunn said, “we can’t build a national preschool program or a national drug recovery program with private money. We need the government to step up and jump-start nationwide programs in early childhood education, job retraining, drug treatment and more.”

I’m afraid I can’t see that happening. The current hatred of big government and its attendant taxes by many in our country robs me of any hope that we will solve our social problems.

So, Flatbottom will go on hating the government, the self-scanners and computerized ordering, but he had better get used to it. The jobs are gone. Corporate America has won. The government won’t step in.  Drugs and alcoholism are here to stay.

Scan it yourself.

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About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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