Hey all! I didn’t post earlier this week because I was on a really quick research trip that took me a half-day’s drive away to a place without internet (!) I enjoyed the time away. But the driving, especially, got me thinking.
Do you remember what it was like the first time you went through an EZPass toll booth? I do; it was like magic! We zipped through this booth, past a long long long line of cars and trucks waiting to pay with cash. I remember feeling like, oh, this is what it’s like to be rich!
That wasn’t all that long ago, but now the EZPass and other similar schemes (most interchangeable at this point so you can use whatever you have anywhere in the U.S.) are nearly ubiquitous. Yes, there are still cash lanes at most toll plazas…but they too are disappearing. I’ve been through several plazas in the last couple of years where the alternative to an EZPass was either to pay with a credit card in a machine, or to pay online later. My guess is that within the next five or at most ten years, there will be only a single person stationed at most toll plazas (to help sort out human errors and problems with the machinery, not to take cash.)
A Brief History of the Rise, Decline, and Fall of the Tollbooth Operator
Tollbooth operators have a long history — various kinds of safe-passage fees have been collected as long as we have written records — but their modern form dates to the 18th century, when British law established turnpike trusts as the main way to collect and disburse funds to improve roads, which were needed due to increasing travel to and from various cities, as well as for the post. At various points along a turnpike, a family would live in a house right by a barrier or gate across the road; when a traveler wanted to go through, the family would collect the fee and open the gate (literally turning the pike!) As you can imagine, this led to a fair amount of skulduggery: bribes, smuggling, embezzling (by the turnpike operator), robbery (of the turnpike operator), etc. Like highwaymen, turnpike operators lived on and by the open road, not in the safety of a village, and like highwaymen they could be seen as menaces or as romantic figures. (There’s a wonderful Georgette Heyer romance set at a 19th century turnpike: The Toll-Gate.)
Fast forward to the mid 20th century, and travel on interstate highways becomes frequent as many Americans own cars — more than 65 million by the end of the 1950s, which more doubled the number owned in 1950. Many of the roads they travel on are toll roads, and suddenly tollbooth operators are needed in great numbers. Like most blue-collar jobs in those days, these are unionized positions; they’re not exactly enabling workers to join the 1%, but they’re steady, reasonably paid, and so on. When I was a little kid in the 1980s, I remember wanting to be a tollbooth operator when I grew up. (I was thinking about meeting lots of people every day and getting to listen to music all day in my nice little homey booth, not about the exhaust fumes, low pay, undoubtedly nasty customers, and minimal bathroom breaks. Plus they all have to have repetitive stress injuries in their shoulders, right?)
Fast forward again, and while there are obviously still people employed as tollbooth operators today, their numbers have to have been decimated and will decline still more as older, unionized operators with protected jobs retire or die (I couldn’t find any actual statistics with a quick search, but common sense seems good enough here.) What once was a growth industry, then provided a steady living for thousands of families, has been nearly totally destroyed in just a couple of decades since the widespread implementation of electronic toll collection starting in the late 1990s.This is a different matter from the offshoring of manufacturing jobs; it’s vanishingly unlikely in practice, but at least in theory, some combination of rising fuel costs, tariffs, and other legal measures could pressure manufacturing into returning to the U.S. Nothing is going to reverse the decline and fall of the middle class tollbooth operator, since they haven’t been replaced by cheaper workers elsewhere — they’ve been replaced by machines that work really, really well and make life better for basically everyone but the operators. And this is happening in other areas too. I used to totally refuse to go through a self-checkout line at the store; not only did I identify them as ways for the stores to save on labor costs (which I don’t approve of) but also they didn’t work very well. They were balky, didn’t read bar codes reliably, old people got confused by them and jammed up the line while the one employee on duty tried to help them, I got confused by them and jammed up the line…. But at least at the local Meijer, the tech is noticeably improving. If I only have a few items, I often go through the self-checkout line now. The error rate has dropped to something fairly small and the experience is much smoother…and yes, faster than waiting in a single line for an employee. Not pointing in a good direction for checkout workers. And this also goes for fast-food cashiers (some places let you order on an ipad or similar thing now, and more inevitably will.)
OK, so what?
While I was already planning this post, a study came out that I think is really relevant. It found that white Americans with a high school diploma have an increasing mortality rate. Much of it is due to drug abuse and suicide, and this is the same population that increasingly reports disability (have trouble walking even a couple of blocks, constant pain). It seems we have a lot of people literally dying of despair. And obviously, this is the exact population that’s increasingly being made economically irrelevant by vast changes in global business (offshoring) and technology (EZPass!) Again, those toll booth jobs — those would have been good jobs. They’re just not there anymore. And there’s a serious limit to how many of them can be replaced by, for example, Amazon warehouse jobs, which are ALSO liable to be replaced by machines in fairly short order.
A Society That Supports Helping, Rather Than Producing?
The thing is, it’s not like we’ve run out of work as a society just because we no longer need tollbooth operators. We badly need all sorts of what academics call “care work” — childcare (which is insanely expensive, and yet the workers make right around the minimum wage), eldercare. I would add to that various kinds of community work that used to be done by women in one-income families: running the Christmas bazaar! Putting together the charity dinner! Volunteering at the school! Helping refugees and immigrants settle into the community, learn English, etc! I suppose in some communities it still is done by those women, but in my lifetime I’ve seen the number of people available for it decrease. We could go a step further and include some stuff that maybe isn’t societally necessary, but sure is nice to have around, and where you can’t make enough of an income to meet basic needs of housing and transportation and health care: community gardening, extremely small-scale farming, music and art making.
That’s the crux of the problem right there: there is a LOT of work people could be doing, even without much of an education, to make our country a better place to live in for all of us. Useful work. Rewarding work. The problem is, most of that work either doesn’t pay at all, or doesn’t pay enough to keep up with the real costs of life here (housing, a functional car, health care.) It’s really not sufficient to say that every ex-tollbooth operator with a high school diploma should retrain to become a computer programmer, or be totally out of luck. There needs to be some way for people who are not highly educated — and frankly, not necessarily go-getters — to contribute usefully to the community and keep a roof over their heads.
Enter the Mincome!
I read about this a few years back. A town in Canada experimented for a few years in the 70s with guaranteeing a basic income for all adults, regardless of whether or not they worked for money. The idea was to find out if such a scheme would disincentivize work. The study was never compiled though and the data sat around in boxes for decades until some scholars looked into it in the 2000s. Here’s their report (you can also google Mincome and find summaries/news articles.) The way it worked was that if you didn’t make any money at all, you got the basic minimum guaranteed income. If you did work for money, the Mincome was reduced by $.50 for every dollar you made, but of course you got to keep extra money on top of it, so there was still an economic incentive to work for money — but if you chose not to for whatever reason, you were still going to have enough coming in to contribute to keeping a roof over the family head.
The upshot is that the only two groups who significantly cut back on work hours were teenagers (who focused more on school) and new mothers. Everyone was less stressed. Health and education outcomes improved significantly. It turns out that guaranteeing a basic level of income, simply by reducing the fear of total familial poverty, makes everything MUCH BETTER because it helps to fend off despair. And it generates the kinds of caring work investments that we need to flourish as human beings.
It’s depressing to me how vanishingly unlikely it is that the US will institute such a thing, despite the relative ease with which we could (via, yup, redistribution of wealth! Did I mention I’m a Christian socialist?) However, it would really help to solve a lot of the major social problems which are being created now — and will be increasingly in the future — by the automation of the jobs that used to be available to people with less education. A minimum income wouldn’t likely mean that everyone would just give up on work. It would likely mean, rather, that people who lose their jobs would be less stressed, and people who go into low-paying care work would have a support under their income.