''Forget full employment!'' the headline fairly shouted. If it was meant to shock, it succeeded - especially since it appeared on the sober cover of the New York Review of Books as a caption for the commentary by an Ivy League professor on books by other professors, with impeccable data tables supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of the Census.
Here, then, are the most rational voices of the Establishment, accepting with varying degrees of regret a hypothesis that a few years ago would have been unthinkable, or at least unspeakable - a permanent substate of people out of work.
It is an odd fact. Of all the civil rights revered by Americans, only the right to work seems to have grown weaker rather than stronger in the past decade or two. It is not even certain that most of us still regard our right to work as a right. We just check out the advancing state of automation in our particular bailiwick, figure out our time to retirement, and hope for the best.
Forget full employment!mThe farmers were the first to get the blandly devastating message. For a half century they have been told that the world cannot consume all the food they are capable of producing, though it remains a hungry world.
Now the same message has been sent to automobile workers - the sons and grandsons of ex-farmers who went to the city because nobody would ever have to plow under a new car, right? Alas, overproductivity has become a dirty word among the smokestacks too. As the recovery begins, American steel mills are still operating at only half capacity. Nor is this condition temporary. Robots - who work for the same minimum wage in the US as in Japan or even Taiwan, and never, never strike for fringe benefits - will become the blue-collar force of the future. Or so we are told, as we are told, ''Forget full employment here also!''
Not to worry, say the more optimistic economists, whose careers as explainers have never been more secure. High-tech will replace the jobs lost among dinosaur industries of the Industrial Revolution. ''Plastics!'' the Old Grad cried as occupational advice to the Young Grad two decades ago in ''The Graduate.'' Today the recommendation might read: ''Computers!'' Or: ''Lasers!'' Or: ''Genetic engineering!''
But behind the slightly too cheery chant of ''More opportunity than ever!'' one can still hear that nasty new whisper, ''Forget full employment!''
What an irony that it should be considered ''normal'' when the stock market goes up 46 points in a week! But it is not considered normal that there should be full employment.
Indeed whole occupations have been written off in advance. Much has been made of the transfer of jobs from ''production'' to ''services.'' But the forecasters put the clergy on the list of 10 worst job prospects. Their chances are as dim as those for shoe-machine operators. And what - if true - does that say about the world ahead?
Forget full employment for high school teachers and college professors too. They also belong among the 10 occupations cited as least likely to flourish. And in this lost crowd, inevitably, here come the farmers again! Are all the nourishers and feeders to be without honor?
It is cruel to contemplate unemployment quite so calmly, whenever it occurs. We appear curiously resigned to a certain amount of this damage, rather like casualties in a war game. Almost callously we ask ourselves the new question, ''How much employment is acceptable?'' And this may be the real unemployment problem: We have forgotten that for the person out of work, unemployment is always 100 percent.
Nor is the standard evasion an adequate answer: ''Nobody starves in America.'' It is not, finally, a matter of physical survival. It is not, finally , a matter of work ethic either. Work is not an end in itself.
What is at stake is the individual's right to participate in the community - a right without which full humanity cannot be expressed.
To say, ''Forget full employment!'' is to signal ''You're not needed - you're not wanted'' to those who, for one reason or another, are left without a chair when the music stops.
Even to a hermit, this is an intolerable untruth, and it will be a sad day for the rest of us if we allow ourselves to grow used to it.