Friday, 17 August 2012

100% Unemployment

A while ago I heard a seemingly radical proposal.  Instead of having unemployment benefits, carers' benefits, disability pensions, the old-age pension and so on; just pay everyone in the country a universal allowance.  The main motivation of the proponent was to remove the stigma associated with some of these (especially unemployment), however what struck me was the efficiency of such a scheme.  It would be (more or less) fiscally neutral as wage earners would have their allowance taken back through increased income tax.  Despite the churn (the government handing out money and, in most cases, taking it straight back) it would lead to the abolition of a significant chunk of the public service: all that chasing job seekers and assessing disability claims would be unnecessary.  Needless to say, the political leaders of this great nation showed no sign of being inspired by this idea.

I thought of it again recently, however, in a rather different context.  The usual urging to greater efficiency and productivity in the private sector, and cutting of costs in the public sector have been steadily growing louder as the global economic environment continues struggle.  I think few people appreciate that "increased efficiency", "improved productivity" and "cost-cutting" are all euphemisms for "sacking people", both directly and indirectly (e.g. using less printer paper, forcing the paper supplier to sack people).  Of course, in some countries the meaning of the word "austerity" has become quite transparent.  However, all this is true in good times as well as bad.  An improvement in productivity (such as one driven by technological innovation) means a decreased need for labour, once the need for that good or service is close to saturated.  Innovation, organisation, efficiency: these are the natural enemies of employment.

The fact that near-universal unemployment is an inevitable result of a technological civilisation is no revelation.  Whether it's the utopian vision of Star Trek, where the combination of advanced technology and social innovation has liberated humanity from the need to work; or the dystopian visions of Brave New World, where innovation is suppressed so as to maintain the need for menial labour, or 1984, where perpetual war consumes production so that it cannot benefit humanity; this is a well-explored idea.  A more mundane scenario is offered by Judge Dredd, where near total unemployment leads to increased crime (and suitably draconian measures to control it) and the popularity of impressively reckless hobbies.  One memorable Judge Dredd story involved a riot sparked by rumours of a job opening as a "human canary" at a gas plant.  The canary just sits around all day, but if he or she suddenly keels over then the robots know there's a gas leak.

Whilst unemployment rates rise and fall according to local and global fluctuations in economic activity, it's possible we are already entering the phase where growth in production overwhelms growth in demand.  As Guy Rundle pointed out -- in a report on the global financial crisis -- much of the economic activity of developed countries already consists of selling coffee to each other.  The incredible growth over the last century in executive wages (as multiples of the average wage) is well documented.  There are, no doubt, many factors in this: one being a disconnection between the interests of the company and those of the people running it, leaving the foxes in charge of the hen-house.  But it's possible that we are already seeing the narrowing of the pyramid of production, with (relatively) fewer staff involved in actually producing and distributing goods and services.  Those profits have got to go somewhere, and they're winding up at the top.  Do we follow this to its logical conclusion, when developments in technology and infrastructure (both physical and social) mean that the profits of production are entirely in the hands of the person who owns the machine that makes everything, and the chief technician who pushes the button?

Sooner or later we will have to make the transition to a society where employment -- in the sense of each individual needing to work to sustain themselves -- no longer exists.  This will involve massive challenges, as it means that the people of that future civilisation will need to be motivated by rather different causes than the bulk of today's humanity.  This will also require further changes in the way we control production, to distribute the spoils of production in an equitable way that still rewards those responsible for production.  Abolishing the kind of "hand outs" mentioned above in favour of just paying everyone a "dividend" -- a share of the collective production -- seems a modest step in that direction.

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