I worry about the future of middle-class jobs. What’s going to fill the void between a fast-food worker and a Wall Street quant? What jobs are going to be immune to outsourcing and able to support a middle-class lifestyle?
Factory jobs aren’t going to cut it. Environmental regulations and robots will make sure that factory work becomes an increasingly rare feature of our economy. And as computing power grows, the number of middle-class jobs made obsolete by automation will grow as well. I’m 54-years-old. When I die forty or fifty years from now, I seriously doubt that delivery trucks will be driven by humans or that prescription drugs will be dispensed by humans.
So what are we to do? Just accept that our future will entail a large amount of jobless adults? Will our only rational recourse be to vastly increase the scope of our safety net and guarantee a base income for every adult in America? That would certainly reduce future poverty. But how stable will our country be with tens of millions of unemployed young men?
One possible solution that doesn’t accommodate widespread unemployment is the expansion of the craft economy. Think about it. Just a generation ago, there were few if any craft breweries. Now they’re all over the place. By one estimate, the number of craft breweries in America has exploded from fewer than 100 in the 1970s to over 4000 today. And you know what these 4000-plus craft breweries bring to the table that Big Beer doesn’t? Jobs. In Big Beer, jobs are disappearing. When Mrs. Groovy and I toured the Budweiser plant in St. Louis a few years ago, we counted two workers on the production floor. And this production floor, which was processing tens of thousands of beer-filled bottles and cans, was massive, easily the size of a football field.
I have nothing against Big Beer, of course. Budweiser makes a fine product. But when I’m in a new town, I don’t want a Bud. I can get that freakin’ anywhere. I want a Hoppy Ending Pale Ale or a Brew Free! Or Die IPA. Reaching for the brew less traveled strikes me as a fantastic win-win. It makes life more interesting for me, and it helps support the local economy.
Now a question. Can the craft revolution in beer be replicated with other products? Sure it can. There’s no reason why every town shouldn’t have its own twist on chocolate, ketchup, toothpaste, and perfume. And there’s no reason why every supermarket, Target, and Walmart shouldn’t have an aisle or two dedicated to locally produced goods.
Okay, groovy freedomists, am I off my rocker or what? Can the crafting of micro-brews, micro-toiletries, micro-condiments. micro-perfumes, and micro-whatever save us from a dystopian future of mass unemployment, mass welfare, and mass unrest? I sure hope so. Because I can’t think of anything else that’s going to reverse the decline of our middle class. There’s got to be something for the average American to do, to fill his day with constructive labor, to satisfy his hunger for entrepreneurial adventure, to give him a reasonable shot at a middle-class lifestyle. There’s only going to be so many jobs at the top. And while there will be plenty of fast-food and retail gigs in the future, those gigs will not be the foundation upon which we build a vibrant middle class.
Supporting the Craft Economy
Since I got the bug of the craft economy up a certain part of my anatomy, I decided to patronize an example of it this past weekend. Below is a picture of a sign on the front of a craft distillery here in Charlotte. Doc Porter’s Distillery was started by Andrew and Liz Porter way back in 2014. They make their signature vodka with locally grown wheat.
Andrew and Liz give tours of their distillery every Friday and Saturday. Here’s Andrew explaining how the process of turning wheat into vodka begins. Who knew that making a clear liquid with a powerful kick could be so involved?
Andrew and Liz were super hosts. And because our tour group consisted of nine friendly people, I got to ask a lot of annoying questions. Did you know that the 15-gallon oak barrels that Andrew and Liz used for their recently distilled bourbon run cost them $275 a pop? And they can only be used once?
Beware Crony Capitalism
I’m not a vodka guy. But Doc Porter’s went down very smoothly during our post-tour tasting. So smoothly, in fact, I was compelled to buy some. And fortunately for me, Doc Porter’s and all micro-distilleries in North Carolina just got permission from the state to sell their product on premises. But here’s the catch: you can only buy one bottle of spirits per year. I had to give Andrew my driver’s license so he could enter my name in a database. Now I can’t buy another bottle of vodka from Doc Porter’s shop until 3/20/2017.
While Andrew was entering my name in his database, I asked him why permission to sell on premises was only recently granted and why sales were limited to one bottle per person per year. He was after all making a legal product. Why couldn’t he make as many direct sales as possible? Well, it seems the wine and beer interests in the state don’t like the idea of unfettered competition. If anyone is going to get blotto in the state, they want to it done with wine or beer. So to get the highly constrained retail environment he now enjoys, Andrew and his distillery buddies had to fight tooth and nail with the wine and beer lobbyists in Raleigh.
Ah, the perils of crony capitalism. If the promise of the craft economy is ever going to be realized, government has to get out of the protection racket. All businesses should be equal before the law. Businesses that are very good at organizing and paying for lobbyists shouldn’t be more equal than those that aren’t.
Deregulation has a bad rap now. And given the way Wall Street behaved prior to the 2008 collapse, this is perfectly understandable. But try to remember this: not all regulations are beneficial. Regulations that ensure safety and promote transparency are good. Regulations that restrict competition are bad.
Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. Go strike a blow for liberty (and the middle class) this weekend and get comfortably numb at a micro-brewery or micro-distillery in your town.