14.5.14

INCOME EFFECTS MATTER.

I've long done my part to get people thinking that working longer hours when each hour worked is more productive is individually subobtimal, and likely to be misused by employers.  Now comes Matt Ridley suggesting that people stop fretting about the "job-destroying" effects of automation.
If the worst comes to the worst, and the androids take over absolutely every kind of work, providing all our daily needs so cheaply and efficiently that we just don’t need people at all, not even as politicians — why, then what’s the blooming problem? The point of work is so we can consume, not vice versa. Do not forget that the poor benefit more than most from automation — as consumers of ever cheaper goods and services.
Yes, although the current dispensation recognizes the value of mutually beneficial trade. The transition from a primitive division of labor based on hunting, gathering, and cultivating to a richer division of labor based on specialization, invention, and exchange might bring with it elites and masses, workers and shirkers, hosts and parasites, and the underlying causes and incentives are still not well understood by economists.  Nor is the evolution of the new division of labour likely to be within the ken of any one person, or any National Society of Serious People to design.
Keynes predicted that we would eventually have more stuff than we needed and would start to ration work down to 15 hours a week. When you consider that we work far fewer days a year and hours a week than in his day, and make allowance for the fact that we spend much longer in education and retirement, we are already there in a sense. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “the goal of the future is full unemployment so we can play”.
Perhaps so, although ensuring that the internet of things doesn't get caught in a Hofstadter - Moebius loop or recognize that its human controllers  are superfluous might also concern the Serious People.
In 1700 nearly all of us had to dig the soil from dawn to dusk or everybody starved (and some did anyway). Technology liberated us from that precarious and awful world. If it does so again, so that our grandchildren never have to think in terms of “jobs” at all, but merely in terms of how they can fill their days fulfilling their wishes and helping others, mixing bits of work with bits of leisure, while drawing on the output of Stakhanovite machines for income, will they envy us our daily commutes and our office politics? I don’t think so.
Yes, we are all underemployed compared to our ancestors, and people put a lot of money into steam traction engines for the sociability of it, not because they are the most effective way to help God give us our daily bread.

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