A friend of mine was telling me about the latest rage in gambling: virtual Blackjack dealers. A company called ShuffleMaster has developed a machine that presents players with a life-size video image of a dealer that makes eye contact, speaks and can play a slew of games, including Blackjack, Three Card Poker, Let It Ride, Dragon Bonus Baccarat and Ultimate Texas Hold’em. My friend said machines like this were on their way to Indiana.

According to gambling columnist Mark Pilarski, casino operators love these things. As Pilarski writes on PokerZone: “…they can offer these games at a fraction of the cost of live tables – no whining dealers to pay – they can be placed where live games aren’t legal, they are dispute and misplay free and, here’s the hook…[these] games nearly double the number of hands played per hour.”

This reminds me of a guy I know in Michigan City. He’s a talented filmmaker and a good teacher. But these qualities weren’t enough to keep him from getting laid off by the school system up there. Like most of us, he needed money – and job opportunities in Michigan City are scarce -- so he applied for a job at the most successful business in town, the local casino. Before long he was working fulltime, as a Blackjack dealer.

Needless to say, this was not exactly the way he imagined crossing the threshold into middle age. But hey: The pay, he said, was surprisingly good and the benefits were decent.

Now, however, even this port in life’s storm could be denied him. A virtual dealer can trim twice as many suckers a night.

This is a story that’s been played out time and again in our economy. It wasn’t really that long ago that every time you stepped into an elevator, the first thing you did was tell a guy in a threadbare usher’s jacket what floor you wanted. He pushed a button and pulled a crank and when you arrived at your destination, he yanked the door open.

Not exactly rocket science, but this was once called “a living.”

Of course some genius figured out we could push those buttons ourselves and, presto, an entire tribe of guys in threadbare usher’s jackets were on the street.

In America, where we like to believe that there’s no problem a little more education can’t solve, unemployed elevator operators were not considered a big deal. All they needed was a little job training and everything would be fine. Or better than fine. I mean, who would want to be an elevator operator, anyway?

That some of these elevator operators were too old to make a change or be considered desirable by a new employer, that maybe they lacked certain social graces, abilities or talents, or that, for some, taking people from one floor to the next was really their niche, a little crack in the world of work that felt ok as far as they were concerned, didn’t matter.

It was cheaper to run a building without them.

It turns out to be cheaper to do a lot of things without workers these days. The latest unemployment statistics bear this out. The unemployment rate rose 6.1 percent in May, according to a Labor Dept. report. This is the highest level of unemployment in nine years and the longest-running period without job growth since before World War II.

Analysts say this is because companies are cutting costs. They’re becoming more efficient thanks to new technologies and able to increase production without adding workers. Jobs continue to be cut in manufacturing, but there have also been significant cuts in areas like department stores, public schools, telecommunications and publishing.

After that Labor Dept. report was released, the stock market immediately bumped upward, showing once again how strangely disconnected business has become from the lives of people and communities.

For the past 25 years we’ve lived in a country where it was believed markets didn’t need to be regulated because they naturally corrected themselves. We’ve seen the rise of university business degrees that measured success in terms of the bottom line. And we’ve put almost all of our energy into the invention of what we like to call “labor saving devices.”

We’ve turned economics into a numbers game. The trouble is that this misses the point of why we have those numbers in the first place. An economy without an array of job opportunities as diverse as the people who support it isn’t just a house of cards, it’s a raw deal.

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