Friday, July 31, 2015

Machines and the Jobless Future

This conversation was inspired in part by Episodes 622 through 626 of the podcast called Planet Money, which episodes imagine a world where machines do most of the work. Check it out.

Today's people of highest social status are the leaders of big companies. As machines replace human beings in many jobs, we can imagine a world in which the number of people actually working becomes lower and lower, as a percentage of the population. Let's say that after a certain point, only 35% of people need to work in order to support everybody. 

Let's assume that within the realm of those 35% (the producers with jobs) there will always be a range of jobs from desirable - e.g. the CEO of a company - to undesirable - e.g. harvesting food. It's hard to deny that those with desirable jobs will always have a high social status - it will be both necessary for their morale and natural for them to be approved of by society at large by granting them high status. But it's not hard to imagine a food picker having a lower status than someone who doesn't work at all.

Of course there are the positive psychological effects of working, which are hard to distinguish from the current social status we give to workers as opposed to "lazy" non-workers. What if people who did not work were no longer considered lazy, but rather just unnecessary for the effective functioning of the economy? And many people who do work today are not even granted the rights of citizens (migrant Mexican farm workers) - so it's not hard at all to imagine that a group of very low paid workers would continue to have very low social status. But what of the 65% of people who are not needed at all, as far as the macro-economy was concerned? It's not hard to imagine that some of them will have very high social status - they can't all be destined to be beggars, or else no one will be able to afford to buy the stuff the 35% are producing. The 35% could keep it for themselves, out of an indigence that only workers should be able to buy the products of other workers.

The problem is that the people who don't work will still need to be able to buy stuff from the people who do, and how will they get the money to do this? Will the problem be solved by simply creating as many jobs out of thin air as possible? People will need a way of judging themselves, and it's only natural to imagine the person who works is more valuable than the one who doesn't - except that in the days of slavery it was just the opposite.

Modern capitalist companies are driven by the goals of cutting costs, but this seems unsustainable when you consider that people need to have money to buy things. If a single machine could produce all the clothes for a billion people, how would the people get the money to buy the clothes, if they didn't have jobs? If machines could produce everything they needed, there would be fewer and fewer jobs. But a company only thrives on their ability to sell things.


In all likelihood, people will create more jobs in the service business, where the jobs consist of poorer people being servants to richer people - jobs DEFINED as requiring real people instead of machines. Either that, or some artificial way of distributing wealth can be conceived, like Social Security already is, but extended to all people instead of just certain groups.




Check out this episode!

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