Many commentators have called our economy a “jobless recovery”–labor productivity, corporate profits, stock market performance, per capita GDP, average household wealth are all up. Yet median income and wealth are down. On the surface, this indicates a skewed distribution of income and wealth. The gains are going to capital and not to labor.
Yet there’s a deeper story here. Two researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Nir Jaimovich and Henry E. Siu recently showed that recovery from the last three recessions has been “jobless” because of productivity gains from technology. One of the authors reminds us in a recent New York Times interview, “In the broad sweep of history, technology is good. We’ve been wrestling with this for 200 years. Remember the Luddites.” Progressive commentator Jim Hightower puts a more human face on the trend and urges us to ask, “For whom and to what end? Now is the time to start a national debate on the true cost of this shift — and to demand that we humans be factored into their ‘revolution.'”
Technological unemployment has a long history (and future). As early as the middle of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill noted that “demand for commodities is not demand for labor.” The Great Depression seemed to confirm Mill’s point and many economists warned of “permanent technological unemployment.”
Another way to look at this problem is to acknowledge that it requires less labor to produce material goods. This has been happening since the power, transportation, and communications revolutions of the 19th century. It seems to be accelerating today. Only about 20% of our labor force is devoted to agriculture and manufacturing. This figure is likely to decline continuously over time, given advances in computing technology, information and communication, robotics, 3D printing, etc.
So where does that leave us workers? Perhaps it’s time to decouple livelihood and work. Perhaps economic thought will shift from an economics of scarcity to an economics of abundance.
Fiction provides some scenarios for reflection. Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward is the story of a 19th century protagonist who wakes up from a long sleep in the world of 2000. In Bellamy’s utopia, people in the year 2000 have abundant goods and ample leisure. People join an Industrial Army for a couple decades and work at an occupation of their choosing before retiring to a life of study and contemplation.
Iain M. Banks’s wonderful Culture novels take place in a far future. In his books, humans and artificial intelligences called The Culture live in a post-scarcity universe where nobody works unless they want to. In many ways this is a projection of Bellamy’s utopia. With lots more sex, drugs, and misanthropic AIs.
Then we have the dystopias. Aldous Huxley posits a global dictatorship based on mass entertainment and consumer goods. His Brave New World is materially rich but spiritually empty. Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel Player Piano describes a world where automation has eliminated virtually all agricultural and manufacturing jobs. The former working class is taken care of through public relief, but is bored and restless. In alliance with a couple elite managers, they launch a failed revolt against their technocratic society.
So: where does this leave us? Increased life chances for everyone, a larger wealth gap between the rich and poor, or material abundance and spiritual impoverishment?