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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, December 04, 2013

 
Next, say goodbye to the waiters and waitresses

by David Atkins

The internet, workforce mechanization and deskilling have already decimated America's manufacturing jobs. Soon those forces will be coming for the white collar jobs as well. Also, package delivery people. Cab drivers and car salesmen, too.

But service sector jobs should be OK, right? You still need people to serve other people, right?

About that:

Score one for the machines. On Tuesday, Applebee’s announced plans to install a tablet at every table in its 1,860 restaurants across the United States. Customers will be able to use the devices to order food, pay the bill, and ignore their dining companions by playing video games.

Chili’s unveiled basically the same plan three months ago. But that doesn’t mean Applebee’s hasn’t been plotting this move for years. In fact, Applebee’s was the name that came up when my former Slate colleague Annie Lowrey first wrote about the tablets-for-restaurants idea in April 2011. Her story focused on Palo Alto-based startup E La Carte, which is in fact Applebee’s partner on the just-announced deal. Chili’s opted for a rival vendor, Ziosk. Applebee's went light on details in announcing the terms of its deal, but here's how the economics of the proposition looked when Lowrey wrote about it in 2011:

The Presto [E La Carte’s tablet] aspires to be the food-services version of the airline check-in kiosk or the ATM or the self-checkout at your local pharmacy. It makes a person's job a computer's job, and that cuts costs. Each console goes for $100 per month. If a restaurant serves meals eight hours a day, seven days a week, it works out to 42 cents per hour per table—making the Presto cheaper than even the very cheapest waiter. Moreover, no manager needs to train it, replace it if it quits, or offer it sick days. And it doesn't forget to take off the cheese, walk off for 20 minutes, or accidentally offend with small talk, either.
It mustn't be understated what is at stake here. There's a reason the big money boys want to cut "entitlements" so much. Under the current social and economic order, in 20 years or so there really won't be enough tax revenue from jobs to support the welfare state we have. And the welfare state we have won't be half as big as will be needed to take on the social need when the natural unemployment rate is 20%.

The big money boys can see where all of this is headed: either the developed world's middle classes start learning to live with a lot less, or their tax rates are going back up to Eisenhower levels. Or there will be a revolution and dramatic re-ordering of the social and economic contract.

The next few decades are going to be a very interesting time, particularly with climate change thrown into the mix. It's going to entail a dramatic battle of ideas between two very different solutions to a vexing problem complex human societies have never really faced before. In that battle, the neoliberal "New Democrats" aren't all that different from the hardcore conservatives. When you have 25% real unemployment/underemployment and massive climate disruption, all of a sudden a bunch of other issues that separate the corporate New Dems from the Bible-thumping Republicans start to become trivial by comparison.


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