Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Tollbooth Dilemma

Let me describe a beautiful feeling: you are on a road trip with a close friend. You are driving on the highway going west in the summertime, the sun is hot and bright and the sky is blue and there are thin clouds lazing at the horizon right above the mountains, which are orange, and the window is down (you are driving) and your arm is resting on the window, your fingers testing the rush of wind going by you (you are driving very fast) and you are wearing sunglasses, so you look cool and feel cool, and you are talking to your friend about some pleasant but trivial topic, or maybe just listening to an upbeat song and mouthing the lyrics to yourself as you drive, away from a city you’ve just visited for the first time where you stayed with an old friend who moved there recently, and now the city is at your back and you are driving towards the mountains, perhaps a National Park, where you and your friend will go hiking and camping and cook food on a dinghy portable gas stove before lighting a campfire and drinking hot cocoa and falling asleep happily in your tent, to awake with the birds the next morning.

You are doing all of this when you arrive at a tollbooth: a silent, one-lane tollbooth on a quiet, empty stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. You pull up to pay the toll. There is a woman (or a man); she is elderly and looks kind (or young and surly). You roll down your window.

“Hi,” you say.
“Hi,” she says. “That’ll be 50 cents, sir.”
“Here you go,” you say, giving her three dimes and four nickels. “Have a nice day.”
“You, too,” she says, tossing your coins in a basket and pressing a button.
And off you drive.

Here is the truth of the matter: tollbooth attendants have the single silliest, most obsolete job in all of America. In an age where electronic bank transfers turn the wheels of automated factories that use robots to assemble highly complex microchip platforms, why in the name of all that is reasonable and good do tollbooth attendants still have jobs? The single task that they perform with such mind-numbing repetitiveness could be more easily and inexpensively accomplished by the most rudimentary of machines; these people should be fired faster than you can say “E-Z Pass.”

But wait— there are deeper considerations to be made. For one thing, there is the union. Yes, the Tollbooth Workers of America lobbies ferociously against automating the time-honored industry of human toll-collection. We must protect America’s jobs, after all. Which raises another point: if we fire this old, kind woman (or young, surly man), how will they make a living? This is their job, their livelihood! Are we really to leave them unemployed for the sake of technology’s cruel march forward? Never!

This is the Tollbooth Dilemma.

My solution is simple. State and local governments should (at a very low cost) replace human tollbooth collectors with automated ones, and continue paying the laid-off workers the exact same wages they were paid before. But instead of asking them to come to work every morning, have them stay home and write poetry or paint or play music; tell them to exercise or meditate or work on unsolved chess problems; encourage them to contribute to a local community project or better yet, start one of their own; organize community language lessons so that laid-off Spanish-speaking tollbooth workers can swap linguistics skills with laid-off English-speaking tollbooth workers; let some of them sing opera in the park and others grow tomatoes in the garden—all of this is to say, let these people do whatever they want, only let them be happy and productive!

As long as we are paying these people to do nothing (which we are), we might as well give them the opportunity to be happy and productive (which they are not). I know that some will argue that tollbooth collectors like being tollbooth collectors. This is nonsense. Tollbooth collectors are engaged in the most menial of pursuits: it the very definition of Marx’s “alienation of labor.” I refuse to believe that sane human beings—given the opportunity—would rather put change in a basket than paint portraits of their children.
But what if they don’t like painting? Then they can dance. What if they don’t like dancing? Than they can cook. What if they don’t like cooking? Nor this? Nor that?

Listen: it is my deepest conviction that every man, woman, and child on this earth has some activity—however silly or mundane—that makes them happy and productive. Furthermore, I believe a society of happy and productive people is the best kind of society there could ever be, and think we should always be looking for opportunities and incentives with which to encourage people to be as happy and productive as possible. And if, in the end, they cannot or will not—if, when all is said in done, they are so stupid and ungrateful as to refuse all opportunities and instead cling stubbornly to their dead, out-of-date profession…… then let them join the military. Because whereas the best citizens are happy and productive, the best soldiers must surely be angry and destructive, and even in an ideal society we will surely need some stupid, angry people to defend the smart, happy people from danger.


Matt McDonald said...

I feel the exact same way about pharmacists. Pharmacists have to count pills, organize prescriptions and records, and cross-reference drug-interactions. Gee, sounds like a perfect job for a database to me.

We should stop sending a human to do a computer's job, just because we used to. The problem with pharmacists is sometimes they get uppity and think they're important, and refuse to give birth control to women with a prescription for it.

Noam Ross said...

You yelled this entire post to be somewhere between Albany and Montreal once.