Monday, October 19, 2015

A world without work?

The Best Boss I Ever Had told me  that he liked to hire smart, lazy people from middle class backgrounds. In those days, a middle class upbringing was assumed to come with a pre-installed work ethic and sense of personal responsibility. The intelligence and laziness meant that you weren't particularly comfortable with the work ethic, and would expend enormous effort to find an easier way. Our shop was a wonderland of labor saving innovations and idiot-proofing.

This would not be a completely unfair characterization of Baby Boomers as a group, and I believe we may have ruined the world because of it. To be fair, we didn't start this process by any means, but we certainly accelerated the trend, and we have taught our children and grandchildren to be really good at it.

Take garbage trucks as an example. Not too many years ago, three men rode a giant trash compactor up and down the street, banging cans on the back to make sure everyone was awake. Today in most places, one driver in a truck with a robot arm has replaced that three person crew. The savings are divided between the millionaire who invented the arm, the international conglomerate who built the truck, and the waste disposal company. Oh, and property owners. Everyone with trash to pick up pays less for it than they otherwise would.

This is how free market capitalism has always worked. Someone comes up with a better/cheaper/faster way, and everyone wins. Except people invested in the old system. Omelet something-something eggs, right? The sons of displaced armorers, whalers, and buggy whip makers would adapt or go for soldiers, and civilization marched on, better and stronger.

Unfortunately, the disruption now is so widespread that there is no place left to go. The entire middle class is invested in the old system. Displaced sanitation workers are competing with former factory workers, administrative assistants, shop owners, and bank tellers for a dwindling number of barista openings. Machines are already reading your mammograms, packing and shipping your Amazon order, and approving your loan applications. Within a very few years they will be driving your cars, caring for your children, and yes, making your skinny vanilla chai latte with extra shot and non-fat whip.

PewDiePie owns the most watched YouTube channel on the planet. This real life Beavis makes professional athlete money for doing this. Warning: NSFW.  Also, you will probably find this incredibly stupid if you are a grownup with a job.

An old friend calls this phenomenon the robot economy, and you are not going to believe how much it will change the world in the next quarter century. Not only will the garbage truck no longer need the driver, your can will bring itself to the curb. The only real growth sector in the economy now is twenty-three year olds figuring out ways to either eliminate jobs or entertain us. Even that may soon become the work of computers.

So what of work? If you were raised with that middle class work ethic I was going on about, or you watch Fox News, you are uncomfortable with the idea of people sitting around the house watching cat videos, instead of going to an office somewhere to do the same thing. But once there is literally nothing productive left for us to do, what other choices are there? Seriously. Not a rhetorical question.

And then there is the future of money. If we don't have jobs, how can we be good consumers? The opening salvos of this dispute can be seen in today's politics, though without anyone publicly acknowledging the long term structural problem. We have become consumers of information more than things, and today's economy seems to trade in attention, a fixed (and some would say dwindling) resource. Even with free market innovations, this hardly seems like a sustainable model.

I think this is the top economic question of this still-somewhat-new century. More than one war will be fought over what comes next. Fought mostly by computers, of course. The rest of us will probably just do whatever our implants tell us.