Monday, January 20, 2014

Unemployment is a Resource

Much of the industrialized world’s economic policy focuses on “creating jobs.” August councils of bankers peg their currencies and interest rates to an annual inflation index that’s designed to minimize unemployment; massive subsidies are directed at public education systems that are supposed to provide students with the skills they will need in the workplace; cities from St. Louis to Kisumu to Moscow build ‘technology hubs’ that foster new businesses that are expected to hire scads of engineers; the bragging rights of Germany and Brazil and Bangladesh focus primarily on the strength of their manufacturing sectors, i.e., on how many people can be put to work in ‘real’ factory jobs. Countries very seldom brag about how many artists and musicians and philosophers this industry can comfortably support.

Work vs. Usefulness

Yet, as Miya Tokumitsu thoughtfully pointed out on last week, most people do not love their work, if only because so much of the work that needs to get done is “repetitive, unintellectual, and undistinguished.” Certainly, many people find dignity in a task well done, or in earning enough money to pay the bills of their family. But the subtle compensations of work are surprisingly unsuited to (or even incompatible with) the kind of wholesale “maximization” practiced by today’s technocrats. People want to be useful, but, ironically, the more aggressively we seek to provide people with opportunities to be useful, the less likely it is that those opportunities will be perceived as authentically fulfilling. There is something deeply satisfying about digging a ditch because the ditch is needed to hold a grove of native vegetation needed to support the local ecosystem; there is nothing at all satisfying about digging a ditch because someone thought you looked bored. There is something deeply fulfilling about bringing in your crop because without your crop someone’s family will go hungry; there is nothing fulfilling about being denied access to food that is sitting and rotting on the supermarket shelf unless and until you agree to clean your neighbor’s toilets, especially when you know your neighbor is perfectly capable of cleaning her own damn toilets. Work can be manufactured in unlimited quantities; usefulness is a scarce resource.

Engineered Obsolecence

For better or worse, vast swaths of the industrial labor force have been caught up in jobs that are of little or no use to humanity. No doubt most people are useful to their individual companies and industries; there has been enough downsizing that people who do not even help generate a profit for their firm are now mostly unemployed. But profit is not a reliable indicator of usefulness; sometimes the two come into direct conflict. It is an open secret that our cars, computers, phones, furniture, and clothing are designed with engineered obsolescence in mind; things wear out faster than any reasonable utilitarian calculus would allow, because the company that sells them will generate more profit by selling you a replacement than they could gain from building a durable product that improves their reputation. People will pay more money for a jacket that lasts twice as long, but they will not pay twice as much money for it, and so the company would rather sell you two (or even three) cheap jackets.

Bogus Product Development Cycles

It is another open secret that the ‘new and improved’ version of a product is rarely either of these things; products cycle in and out of fashion with only marginal improvements. The main idea is to get you to pay a premium for the illusion of progress, and not to actually invent a better mousetrap. Between 1982 and 2006, according to the October ‘06 issue of Car and Driver magazine, private automobiles improved their gas mileage from 22.2 mpg to 24.6 mpg, their interior volume from 106 to 112 cubic feet, and their 0-to-60 acceleration time from 14.4 seconds down to 9.5 seconds. The overall effect is in the neighborhood of a 1% improvement per year, but car companies still re-issue a brand new ‘model’ each year, incurring billions of dollars of costs for re-design, re-engineering, and re-marketing. Similar problems occur with, e.g., Microsoft Word, or Adobe Flash – both of which have gone through at least ten versions in the last twelve years without any noticeable improvements. And don’t even get me started on toothpaste. The alternative – waiting until engineers have actually come up with a significant technical advance before releasing a new product – is not even seriously considered.

Useless Industries

What is perhaps less well-understood is the extent to which entire industries are saturated with social uselessness. Obviously, some medical spending is useful – vaccines work, as do appendectomies and certain antibiotics. But, at the margins, it is extremely likely that medical care offers zero or even negative health benefits. Robin Hanson’s “Cut Medicine in Half” blog post surveys the relevant literature, and demolishes the argument that spending money on more medical care leads to better health. We like to believe that medical care is useful, because we like the idea of doctors as heroes, and we don’t like to think that diseases can kill or cripple us in ways that we are powerless to prevent. But reality doesn’t turn on what weprefer to believe – there is no reason why we must live in a reality where going to medical school will result in additional lives saved, and in point of fact the evidence suggests that we don’t.

There is nothing particularly unique about health care – we like to think that teachers help the young, and so we assume that education and literacy have the power to raise the quality of people’s lives – but there is precious little evidence that education itself leads to happiness, productivity, health, sanity, or anything else worth having. Schools often serve as a social safety net, providing nutrition, vaccines, and a peer group to those who might otherwise not have such things, and this is certainly useful. And, of course, people who are willing and able to invest years of effort in acquiring degrees with little intrinsic value are also likely to be smarter, healthier, and more resilient than comparable peers; this selection bias often tempts researchers into comparing a group of successful, educated people with a group of unsuccessful, uneducated people, and assuming that education is the cause of success. But the assumption is just that – for all we know, people acquire an education and then lead a successful life because of some unseen third cause, such as genetics, or class privilege, or good parenting.

A similar analysis can be applied to most of the public and semi-public projects of society. On average, jails do not reduce the rate of recidivism, highway construction does not reduce the rate of traffic congestion, neither gun control nor gun ownership does anything to promote your safety, and fund managers do not outperform the market index. The problem transcends the usual debate about whether such tasks should be handled by government bureaucracies or the private market: put simply, neither alternative is likely to accomplish anything especially useful, because our world is so phenomenally complicated that any given project can stumble upon any of dozens of ways to go irretrievably wrong, and it usually will.

Self-Sustaining Deflation

The picture grows grimmer still when we consider how many people spend their time supporting folks who are working in socially useless industries. If the stockbroker realized that his efforts were useless and he stopped working 60-hour weeks, he would regain the time and energy to, e.g., cook for himself, and to bike to his destinations, depriving a fast food clerk and a taxi driver of their livelihoods. The fast food clerk and taxi driver, in turn, no doubt require the services of several other people in order to perform their jobs; when we cut back the hours of the laundromat technician who helps the fast food clerk clean her uniforms, and the hours of the gas station attendant who watches the taxi driver re-fill his cab, we trigger a deflationary spiral – decreased employment in one industry leads to decreased demand in another, which leads to decreased employment in that industry, and so on until very few jobs are left at all.

Makeshift Work?

And so we are at last confronted squarely with a question that society has been dodging for the last 100 years or so: do we want most people to have jobs? Not just because it’s convenient, not just because we want some tasks to get done, but do we want to organize our society around the principle of salaried work for its own sake, as a good unto itself? It is easy enough to insist on re-employment campaigns when the unemployed are a small minority; society abhors aberrations, and we like to fix each other. But what happens when, sooner or later, we realize that only a tiny fraction of the population has to work at all to support our actual needs – to synthesize the vaccines and grow the food and construct the apartments and manufacture the guitars? Do we send a majority of the adult population to work at makeshift jobs simply for the sake of maintaining the status quo? Even though, at some level, we will know that we are fooling ourselves; we will know that the most precious part of the status quo – the authentic need to serve – has not really been maintained? Will we insist that people who used to work because they had to (thereby achieving great fulfillment) continue to work in artificial jobs (drawing very little fulfillment) simply in order to shield ourselves from acknowledging the possibility of a world built around something other than work?

We might. Such a world is terrifying in its novelty. Since at least the dawn of agriculture, most people in most places have lived most of their lives quite near the bleeding edge of starvation. If any significant number of people stopped working, a clan would lose the ability to feed and clothe and house itself at anything like the population density it had achieved; transitioning to a lower population density was not really an option because (on top of the absurd mass casualties that implied during the transition), a high population density was needed to hold military control over the land against hungry, expansionist neighbors. Human culture, morals, mores, stories, all evolved to reinforce the message that hard work pays off and that other virtues – like continence, mindfulness, innovation, persistence, duty, and honor – are useful largely because they help you get your job done.

Culture without Work

Work is so fundamental to our conception of what human life is about that we have trouble imagining how a life without work could even have value. We are not, obviously, immune to the charms of permanent vacation. People indulge fantasies about spending their life at the golf course, or the beach house, or the nightclub. And there have always been a privileged few – an aristocracy – who really could afford to pursue such lifestyles by exploiting less powerful neighbors and extracting a surplus from their labor. Some aristocrats have even managed to convince themselves that it was the natural order of things – a good thing – for them to play while others worked. What we have such difficulty imagining is a world that is good becauseeveryone in it is relieved of work. From Homer’s hallucinogenic island of the Lotus-Eaters inOdysseus, to Cervantes’s dream-addled Don Quixote, to Pinocchio’s metamorphic Donkey Island, to Asimov’s robot-supported Solarians, Western literature has consistently depicted cultures that entirely relieve themselves of work as effete, weird, and doomed.

Yet just as past societies were forced to promote work or else founder and succumb to invasion at the hands of more industrious neighbors, in the near future we may have to choose between sharply limiting the scope of paid work and sharply limiting the joy of actually being useful. Whether we like it or not, technological advances and the accumulation of capital will continue to make each worker more productive, whereas the material goods that any one person can reasonably desire to consume will remain relatively constant. We are no more capable of limiting our technology or destroying our capital than ancient civilizations were of depressing their population density; any segments of society that tried it would rapidly lose power and influence to the segments who made full use of their abilities. And so whether we will it or no, the era when the human desire to be useful roughly matched up with the economic need to do work will soon end.

Our best chance for thriving in the new era will be to celebrate our freedom from the need to do work – to see unemployment as a resource, and as a milestone of success. Every person who does not have to till a field, or turn an assembly line, is another person who can cultivate a garden, or tinker with a new toy. Every person who does not have to write advertising copy is another person who can write poetry and song lyrics. Every person who does not have to perform needless surgeries is another person who can offer soothing massages. Higher and higher productivity means that fewer and fewer people can do ‘real’ work without any decrease in our material quality of life. All that remains to be done is to cast off the mindset of a bygone era, to acknowledge that lack of work is a function of vast economic trends rather than personal laziness, and to find a way to equitably share the fruits of society’s production. The question of distribution is not trivial, but it will be made easier as continued material progress helps to eliminate material scarcities: it is much, much easier to share 20 dinners among 20 people than it is to share 19 dinners among 20 people. The future is not heroic, it is not manly, and it is perhaps not quite what we would have wished for – but for all that, if we embrace it, the future can be a wonderful place to live.