Do you ever think about how strange it is to worry about “creating jobs”? Wednesday, Douglas Rushkoff observed this:
Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.
Originally, economics was supposed to be about scarcity. People didn’t have enough food, clothing, housing, or tools. So you worked to make some, and then traded your surplus for somebody else’s surplus of the things you needed.
Today it’s all backwards. We produce plenty of goods, and if necessary we could dial the process up and produce more. What’s scarce now is work.
Try to imagine that on a personal level: It’s dinnertime. You’re hungry. There’s so much good food in the frig that you worry about it spoiling. But you haven’t justified your meal yet and you can’t think how you’re going to do it. So you have to sit there and be hungry until you can create a task for yourself.
Or on a family level: The kids each had jobs to do to help with dinner. But then we got a dishwasher, so now Jenny doesn’t get to eat dinner because we haven’t found a new job for her yet.
Crazy, isn’t it?
But think about that speech’s focus. Not that we need to grow more food or make more cars or build more houses because those things are needed, but that we need to produce more of something so that people can be employed producing it. He tried to justify the needfulness of the jobs, but all the same it would miss the point if Obama could accomplish the same things by snapping his fingers instead of hiring people.
it seems to me there’s something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.
I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?
John Kenneth Galbraith was making similar observations half a century ago. In The Affluent Society he described the following paradox: We judge our nation’s economic success by how much it produces, and we justify production because it satisfies demand. But demand has to be created by advertising, because without constant hectoring people would not want all the things we produce.
After a certain point, Galbraith said, “Production only fills a void that it has itself created.”
So why are we doing all this? In theory, our society could work less, produce less, advertise less, and we’d have no more unmet desires than we have now. But then there wouldn’t be as many jobs.
If production is a paradox, productivity as an even bigger one. On the one hand, productivity is our best friend. The reason the standard of living today is so much higher than in the Middle Ages is that an hour of work now (with the assistance of machinery, electronics, fossil fuels, and a better-organized society) produces so much more than an hour of work did then. Beyond an occasional hobbyist project, why would you choose to work all week making something that you could buy for 20 minutes worth of your salary?
But productivity and new technology kills jobs. Rushkoff begins his essay talking about the Post Office, which faces massive layoffs because email and electronic bill payments don’t require human sorters and couriers.
Again, that’s not a new idea. The French economist Sismondi satirized the pure productivity-is-good view in 1819 in New Principles of Political Economy:
In truth then, there is nothing more to wish for than that the king, remaining alone on the island, by constantly turning a crank, might produce, through automata, all the output of England.
That fantasy gets closer and closer to reality. In his 1995 book The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin wrote:
The quickening pace of automation is fast moving the global economy to the day of the workerless factory.
Sismondi’s image of the king turning a crank captures the social problem of the workerless factory: The only reason to care whether it is in Topeka, Taipei, or Timbuktu is who owns it and who gets to tax it. Wherever it is, it will make goods, but it won’t provide jobs.
So even if “the output of England” stays the same, all the value of it now belongs to the crank-turning king (or maybe to the Workless Factory Corporation). No matter how plentiful those goods are, what can the people of England trade in order to get them?
In 1930, at the depths of the Depression, John Maynard Keynes wrote the hopeful essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“:
We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.
But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem.
Imagine if humanity really did “solve its economic problem”. Suppose we got off the hamster wheel of ever-increasing desires, and kept improving our productivity until we could comfortably supply everything people really wanted.
Now imagine that we could do all that with only a few people working. The way we’re currently organized, that would be Hell. Whoever owned the machines and the natural resources would have the whip hand over the rest of us, who would scratch and claw to get the few remaining jobs.
So I want to suggest this: Yes, in the short-to-medium term we really do need to create jobs. But maybe our economic problems seem so intractable because we’re using economic tools to attack what is really a social problem. Currently (because in centuries past scarcity seemed eternal and the production system needed as many workers as possible) jobs organize our lives, give us our identities, and (most of all) allow us to prove that we deserve to eat.
But unless we either outlaw progress or keep inflating our desires until we consume the planet, eventually we’re going to have to rethink our lives, our identities, and the system that distributes goods. Otherwise we’re headed for Cornucopian Hell.