According to Matt Baume, one of the main reasons Seattle restaurants are currently experiencing a sharp shortage of labor is because of this disincentive: Wages are too low to make livability stressless in a city that has almost no affordable or public/cost-controlled housing options. This reading, which is not wrong, will here serve as a point of departure.
A look into the grounding structure of this crisis reveals something that is not said enough in the majority of journalistic or academic examinations that categorize the economic period that follows the 1960s as "post-Fordist." On one side, the present structure of capitalism features the rise of a deregulated financial sector that corresponds with the fall of a unionized production department. On another side, we see an increase in indebtedness that corresponds with the stagnation (or even the fall) of wages in the de-unionized circulation department, the services.
This economic formulation explains the present and local business environment that Baume described in the Slog AM post. The four-decade-long inflation of housing values expresses the strength of a sector that has securitized livability; the four-decade-long repression of wages expresses the structurally weak position of service labor. Two developments, however, provided a boost and breathing room to workers in this department. One can be attributed to activism (such as the nationwide success of Kshama Sawant's $15 minimum wage project); the other to nature, to chance, to a pandemic that came out of nowhere and seems to be going nowhere soon.
Working for fifteen dollars per hour is, for sure, not enough to make ends meet in a city such as Seattle, but minimum wage activism made the issue mainstream. The other development, the pandemic, forced the government to redirect some of its massive monetary support of the equity markets to the job market, to workers. This had to happen because capitalism almost immediately collapses if the movement of goods, services, and capital is impaired. The job loss due to the lockdown was so severe that the government was forced to set in motion a meaningful (though temporary) job insurance program.
That said, the sense of urgency concerning the present labor shortage needs an even deeper explanation, which I think can be found in the pages of Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie.
In Marxian economics, the theory of the organic composition of production (the ratio between machines and human beings) provides an explanation for the falling rate of the profit. To understand this explanation one must first distinguish value from price. The habit in orthodox and heterodox economics is to see the two as the same. But they are not. Value is made, and prices, on the other hand, realize this value. And because value is made, surplus value—the life-blood of capitalism—can also be made.
The part of the day when compensation for the time spent working ends and free time begins, is, according to the standard Marxian critique of classical political economy, the moment when value (equality between worker and employer) becomes surplus value (inequality between worker and employer). The former is determined by socially necessary labor time (the cost of living—or, put another way, the cost of replenishing labor-power), and the more this determinant is decreased, the more surplus is available for the profits realized by cash.
An important insight provided by David Harvey's reading of Grundrisse, which is a collection notes that form the foundation for Karl Marx's mature works, is that capitalism cannot function as is if variable capital (labor), the source of surplus value, is extensively replaced by constant capital (machines), which do, for sure, increase tremendously the rate of production but add little more to this process. The equipment of manufacturing can only, according Marx, transmit the value they already have into products. Robots, oddly enough, can't be exploited. As a result, profits derived from surplus value start to fall.
But if such is the case, how is capitalism able to persist in a society like the US, a society that's technologically over-developed? Post-Keynesians such as Steve Keen—a brilliant, mathematically minded economist—often set this trap for orthodox Marxists to fall in. If labor is the source of all value, why is capitalism still around? Why didn't the organic composition of US capitalism lead to its collapse in the second half of the 20th century? For Keen, the labor theory of value, which actually goes back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the fathers of classical political economy, is proved wrong by the seemingly obvious fact that capitalism is still, in the 21st century, the order of the day.
But Harvey has an honest path around this post-Keynesian trap. According to his way of thinking, which is guided by pages 750 and 751 of the Penguin edition of the English translation of Grundrisse, if one department of the capitalist process in a given society is saturated with robots, which can only transmit the value they have, then another one must be saturated with labor, which can transform "muscles, nerves, bones, and brains" into value and, most importantly, additional value. In the case of American capitalism today, capital-intensive departments such as manufacturing can survive because the service department is still labor-intensive, and so it generates the surplus value that's distributed among capitalists.
This is why labor activism and shortages are occurring in restaurants, a significant section of the services department. It's also why there's a frantic search for constant capital solutions to services in general. One is the self-driving car, another is self-checkout machines, another is autonomous pizza delivery pods.
The autonomous pizza-delivery pods are coming — tens of thousands of them https://t.co/ciZW2ZXsre
— Bloomberg (@business) August 27, 2021