My long-departed (from my house, not from this earth) first wife had a lot of suggestions for me during our marriage: Stop skipping work! Don’t leave stuff all over the kitchen! Quit buying things you don’t need! Tucked in among those absolutely ridiculous ideas, however, was a rather brilliant one. She thought I should write a book called Self-Service Nation about the bizarre lengths to which modern corporations will go in order to offload labor from employees to customers. I told her I’d get around to it as soon as I cleaned up the kitchen, which never happened.
Too late now, of course. We now expect as a matter of course that we will be self-servicing much of our interaction with everybody from Wells Fargo to Kroger to Google to the airlines, via Byzantine web forms with unique logins and mandatory 12-character passwords that expire every afternoon at 3:01. We understand that when we call for help that we will be forced to navigate through a deliberately confusing touch-tone questionnaire in which the penalty for making a single mistake is to be disconnected and pressing the “O” key out of frustration results in a snippy-sounding recording of a stoned Valley Girl saying, “Hmmm… I didn’t get that.” Bitch, of course you didn’t get that! You’re not real!
They promised us that service and retail work would replace the factory jobs that were sent to China, but the minute people got uppity about wanting to earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of 1968’s minimum wage the corporate cash taps get opened and all of a sudden an insane amount of money is being spent on machines to replace those service and retail jobs. The most obvious and obnoxious example: the self-checkout machines at grocery stores and Wal-Marts across the country, which cost about $20,000 per lane and last five years, thus theoretically saving money over the $60,000 per year it would cost to staff a checkout lane sixteen hours per day.
The numbers really work. You could arguably have $250,000 worth of additional theft and shortages over that five-year period and still come up ahead compared to a human cashier. That’s about $150 a day of theft that you can just wink at.
Well, if recent reports are any indication, there’s a lot of winking going on.