Friday, May 6, 2011

Productivity and Society

When I was young, in the fifties and sixties give or take, science fiction sometimes ran stories speculating about how to have a society in which it is not necessary for everyone to work. If I knew a scifi writer who was looking for an idea, I’d suggest reviving that theme. It seems like America, at least, if not all of the first world, is rapidly approaching the point when all the stuff we need, and a large chunk of what we want, can be produced by a portion of the population. Things I have read recently seem to indicate that this trend may continue, and even accelerate.

First, why didn’t it happen sooner? Writers of that era, both fiction and academic, observed that technology was making output per worker grow much faster than before. Sometime, probably pretty soon, technology would reach the point that having everyone work was unnecessary. It didn’t happen, because while the new tech increased productivity, it also made new things possible, and those new things needed new workers to produce them, and thus more new jobs were created. While assembly line cars needed fewer workers per car, those cars were cheap enough that new demand turned into demand for more workers. Mainframe computers required both programmers and operators, since they made new applications possible, or cheap enough to be practical.

But that’s not happening with the new, www-based inventions. Things like Google and Facebook make their originators billionaires, but generate mere thousands of new jobs, instead of the millions of the last technology generation. So again, we face the prospect of a system which supports more people than it needs.

Actually, this is not a new situation in human history. Most societies have a leisure class. But until industrialization, it has only been possible by having a slave class to make the leisure class possible. The advanced societies of antiquity, both eastern and western, had a leisure class supported by hordes of slaves. The leisure class was nearly always the highest social class, and was usually a tiny percentage of the population. The late Roman Republic was a bit of an anomaly, in having a grain dole and public entertainment that effectively made the lowest social class a leisure class. Of course this was made possible by vast hordes of foreign slaves, mainly in Egypt. It developed from the standard democratic practice of politicians buying votes.

The welfare system of the “Great Society” of the sixties could have been the beginning of a return to the Roman Republic system, only with machines instead of human slaves. It was later pretty much scrapped, for two main reasons. The first was the moral argument: Why should the most useless people get a free ride? Shouldn’t everyone have to earn their way? The other reason was the growing trend toward a radical selfishness: My money is MINE! I don’t want to share any of it with anyone! Taxes are always evil, and taxes which support bums are the greatest evil. These arguments will need to be addressed.

Actually, the selfish argument is more easily addressed, at least in theory. A greater population, especially a population with money to spend, is good for all of the working people. More money being circulated for more goods is prosperity, by definition. Such a system could work. It would have to have a sharp divide between working and non-working, with both social and economic advantage to the working class. It would also need two-way class mobility. This theory may be too abstract to be effective as a short-term political stance, even if it convinces the more educated.

The moral argument is more difficult. The moral teaching that everyone should earn their way in the world has been, up till now, a practical necessity. The result of most people’s natural tendency to do no more than necessary has been the downfall of socialist systems. Some people are full of energy and work helps them feel worthwhile; they will be workers in any system. Others are bums; they will never work harder than they absolutely must to stay alive and are willing to lie, cheat and steal to avoid working. Most, of course, are along a spectrum in the middle. Many, if not most, people will work more if they can receive more for their work. Some will work more even if they only might receive more for the work. So, even with much greater productivity this moral teaching is practical and advisable.

I think that the most likely solution will involve reduced working hours for workers, and generation of make-work, likely by the government. The latter was part of the New Deal attempt to get out of the Great Depression. These projects did many good things of marginal economic value. As a result they were condemned and mocked by passionate believers in capitalism and the work ethic. But they did ease the pain of the Depression, while they lasted.

Sigh, that’s the best I can come up with. Another imperfect solution for this imperfect world. Sometimes I feel really ready for the Kingdom of Heaven.