The future of eating out: microwaved frozen food served by robots

The dining experience of most Americans is beginning to resemble how the agricultural industry prefers to raise cattle and chickens: an impersonal industrialized process.

Unbeknownst to many, most of the food eaten in casual dining restaurants comes to the restaurant already prepared and partially cooked, often frozen, ready to be popped in the microwave or plunged in the deep fryer for a little finishing. As it turns out a very small number of companies manufactures these mostly finished dinners.

While diners might not know that their restaurant night out is little more than microwaved frozen food, they can’t help but notice automation beginning to take over the service part of the dining experience. Some restaurants have now started placing order tablets in their outlets. A few years back, McDonald’s announced that it was replacing human cashiers with touch-screens at more than 7,000 European locations.

Right-wing ideologues such as Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, use service industry automation as a stick to beat back the beasts of the minimum wage, mandatory sick leave and employer-sponsored health care. Saltsman, who never saw an employee benefit or government program he liked, writes that raising the minimum wage will make employers in the fast food, casual dining and retail industries seek to automate as many parts of the food delivery process as possible as quickly as possible.

Saltsman’s reasoning is specious: The large retail, fast food and casual dining chains are already galloping towards greater automation as fast as they can. If we lowered the minimum wage, the manufacturers would still seek to automate. The top 1% of the country—the people who own and run the large retail corporations that are automating—has consumed virtually all of the economic gains we have made in recent decades. And yet this outsized explosion in their slice of the pie has not prevented major employers from continuing to look for whatever way possible to cut more of their employees…and automation does just that!

Standard economic theory states that automation frees labor to do other things: new needs are created, such as designing and building the machines and computers that have taken away so many jobs. Educating workers for the new jobs is the key according to this standard version of the creative destruction of capitalism.

Unfortunately, it may not work this time. A recent Economist article reports that a 2013 paper by two Oxford professors theorizes that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of all occupational categories, including such “brain-work” service professions as accountancy, the law and technical writing. Employment caused by the coming blitzkrieg of automation may permanently disrupt the economy. There is no way that training and retraining will enable us to fit all the workers that future automation will replace in the next few decades.

Economic right-wingers don’t like to hear it, but for our economy to perform its basic function of providing goods and services to people, the distribution of the wealth will have to become far more equitable. We will need to implement higher minimum wages and cut the number of hours that constitute full-time work, to spread the work that does exist around to more people. With so many people out of jobs, the safety net will have to be expanded—more unemployment and food stamp benefits. It would help if our population falls, so that our automated economy has fewer people chasing after jobs.

We will also have to consider how much automation is really good for society. Having waiters serve meals that are prepared on the premises by individual chefs expressing their creativity is a pleasure that more people could enjoy if salaries were high enough to enable people to afford something other than Mickey D’s. Organic agriculture and animal husbandry are more labor intensive than the industrialized agriculture that developed in the 20th century. Requiring greater environmental regulations on coal and natural gas production and electricity generation creates more jobs as well.

But it’s not just a matter of seeing where it makes more sense to have humans do the work, even if it costs more money. We also have to raise wages, benefits and the government safety net—change the split between labor and capital—so that the other 99% can afford to enjoy the benefits of human intervention in the delivery of goods and services.

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