What Do We Really Want?

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James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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109 Responses

  1. Avatar Patrick says:

    Economics is the study of scarcity. In a post-scarcity world, you’d have a study of incentives and rewards, still, but with scarcity no longer being a problem, what incentives still exist? What rewards are there to have?

    Incentives are going to be there, somewhere. We’ll invent some if we have to. Time, undoubtedly, will still be scarce, in the sense that you’ve got a limited amount of it.

    Power differentials will probably still exist. After all, dictators still hold onto their power even when they lack for naught.

    I don’t know how that all shakes out. Not that I’m not looking forward to it.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Patrick says:

      Well until we achieve space travel there’ll always be some scarcity. Land, for instance, will remain scarce (at least until mass prosperity causes the population to level out at some lower level). Also humans seem very good at creating scarce goods, experiences for instance, there’ll only be so many seats for a given live performance.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to North says:

        I dunno, @north , as technology approves and becomes more affordable, much of the uninhabited part of the country can be made inhabitable. We’ve barely tapped the surface here in the good ole’ USA. Never mind Australia.

        The scarcity we presently have is mostly imposed by (a) economic needs/limitations and (b) a land vs preferred-land distinction.

        On (b), there is some definite truth to what you say. It will always be preferable to live in some places than others, and there will be bidding to that effect. Which is true for a lot of things. There will still be a fair amount of differentiation. Which sort of leaves us with my belief that we will live in an era that we consider to be post-scarcity, but they will not consider it to be post-scarcity because everyone will see what they don’t have access to (natural lobster) instead of what they do (lab-created lobster meat).Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to North says:

        “as technology approves and becomes more affordable, much of the uninhabited part of the country can be made inhabitable”

        Unless you have a replicator, you can’t make water out of no water. You can, of course, certainly transport water from one place to another, but we already do that; it’s how the West was won (in the 20th century).

        But that begets political complexity, and, on the edge cases, hydraulic despotism.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        Oh yes Will you are right. But here is hoping that some day the poor of the world will be grumbling that they don’t have equal access to owning homes on tropical beachfronts.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Patrick says:

      Sex is the ultimate incentive, and we’re not going to be able to get rid of it (at least for a good fraction of the population, who considers reproduction to be the point (or close enough to it), and not a happy side-effect, or a deleterious weird thing that happens to other people).Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Patrick says:

      I tried once to write a story about a post-scarcity world, one in which advanced technology made getting material things fast and easy. I could only think of one motivator for conflict after scarcity was removed: religion.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @burt-likko – Have you ever read Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan? Its premise is basically Hunter S. Thompson in Blade Runner. Anyway, they have “makers” (essentially, Star Trek-type replicators or molecular assemblers) that can make most anything quickly and easily; though they do require raw matter inputs and energy, and the AI running your unit may sometimes get addicted to manufacturing synthetic drugs for itself instead of working consistently.

        Anyway, there’s still conflicts to be had in such a world (and religion is definitely some of them).Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I’ll make a note of that book, @glyph . I suspect my failure to imagine any other basis for conflict says as much about me and my immersion in a culture of economics as it does about the nature of scarcity itself.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Transmetopolitan never quite worked out whether or not it was a post-scarcity society.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Patrick says:

      Post-work != post-scarcity. It just means many of the things we want will be cheap enough we’ll only need to do minimal amounts of labor (as a society) to provide them. Many luxury goods will still be scarce. Also, carrots will still be scarce, because good arable land is scarce, and some of it will be require for corn, potatoes, etc,Report

  2. Avatar Zac says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the contents of this essay. To answer the question posed at the end of the essay (why not go for it?): I think what’s standing in our way, mostly, is the idea that work has an inherent moral dimension, and that being a harder worker makes you a better person. I think this idea is deeply toxic and responsible for much of our cultural schizophrenia about the nature of work and social safety nets.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Zac says:

      “The idea that work has an inherent moral dimension, and that being a harder worker makes you a better person. I think this idea is deeply toxic and responsible for much of our cultural schizophrenia about the nature of work and social safety nets.”

      Seconded.

      I’ll note an additional nuance. There are inherent dangers here which are bad enough, but this gets particularly problematic when we think only certain types of work have a moral dimension. The types of work that we do. Not the types of work that other folks do.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Patrick says:

        I’ll actually push back here. I think noting hard work as a virtue is a very true observation that is too often taken to toxic places, almost always (in my experience) by people who do not themselves live up to the standard they set for others.

        But make no mistake: working hard does make you a better person. Take, if you will, a comparison — Burt Likko and a 4Chan Troll. Burt is, by my definition, a better person 4ChanGuy. And almost all of that has to do with work:

        4ChanGuy believes in (let’s just say) a world where all women are evil scum. He knows this because he’s basically lazy, and spends his day reading comments of people who tell him he’s right. Now, he could take the time to research where people who disagree with him write and go read them. He could take the time to read feminist theory, and then go take the time to read actual academic critique of feminist theory; he could likewise dig into history books, and bounce ideas off of non-trolls and sharpen his arguments, or even (possibly) change them as he wrestled with new data. But he won’t, because all of that is hard work. 4ChanGuy is a troll for many reasons, but one of the chief reasons is absolutely that he is lazy.

        Burt? He’s pretty much the opposite. Period.

        One of the worst but most prevalent ideas that I see on the internet is that hard work doesn’t mean crap. You don’t need to work hard to be an accomplished musician, you don’t need to work hard to be a good writer, you don’t need to work hard to produce meaningful journalism, etc. And that’s all bullshit.

        And yes, there are people out there who take that moral lesson and twist it: black people are disproportionately poor because they’re immoral and so they don’t work hard, and white people who are poor are hard working good folk who ca’t succeed because Obama. Or you should be happy with any shit job and not want higher wages because it’s somehow immoral to ever ask people with higher incomes not to treat people like objects. That kind os stuff is wrong, and needs to be constantly pulled up by the roots to be shown for the bullshit it is. (And again, in my experience it’s almost always propagated by people who don’t really walk their talk.)

        But hard work *is* a virtue.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Patrick says:

        Tod,
        hard work is a virtue, but Trolling takes a lot of it, if you’re ever going to be any good at it.
        ever seen “The Next Doctor”?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Patrick says:

        Well, thank you, @tod-kelly , for the compliment. I don’t know who this @4ChanGuy is, but he sure sounds like a dick.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        I’ll push back on the pushback, for the sake of clarifying.

        Well, we’re in danger of getting into tautological space, where “hard work” is being defined as “work that has virtue”.

        I mean, you can work hard at being malicious. Or you can work hard for the sake of working hard, which isn’t necessarily a virtue. Or you can work hard at doing something nobody wants to do, including yourself, to produce something nobody wants, because of whatever reasons.

        Virtues are virtues in the context of the tradeoffs with other virtues, too. Being a good dad can be thought of as hard work, or being a good dad can be thought of as a virtue, but being a nonpresent dad because you’re working 120 hours because hard work is a virtue is sorta stretching it, right?

        If you ask me, it’s not the working hard that is virtuous, it’s the byproducts and end-products of working hard that can be virtuous.

        Increased knowledge, discipline, awareness, whathaveyou.

        Yeah, some of those – if not all of ’em – you can’t get without working hard. But you work hard to get ’em, not to work hard.Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Patrick says:

        I’m sorry, Tod’s pushback is right on, I think, and I feel that I need to clarify what I said before. I mean work in the context of employment; essentially, what I’m against is the idea that having a job is what determines whether you deserve to be taken care of in society.

        Also, maybe confusingly, I agree with Patrick’s pushback on the pushback; the products of hard work are what’s important, not hard work as an end in and of itself.

        Hopefully that makes a little more sense?Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Patrick says:

        @zac Dude, off topic and sorry if you’ve already addressed it, but did you have surgery? If so, I’m assuming it went well?Report

      • the products of hard work are what’s important, not hard work as an end in and of itself.

        Despite and against what I said elsewhere on this thread, I think that’s true.Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Patrick says:

        @tod-kelly Yes, my surgery was Monday morning, although I’m still at an insane pain level even on about eight Vicodin a day.Hopefully that will decline dramatically in the next few days.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        The wonders of modern pharma. Hope you can get off those soon. Surgery always sucks.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar in reply to Patrick says:

        Especially lipo. Ba-da-boom!Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

        MOR-PHINE!

        MOR-PHINE!

        MOR-PHINE!

        (I’ve had morphine twice in my life. I completely understand why it’s addictive).Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    Great post Prof and I tend to agree. That said I also agree I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. Too much of the world’s population is undeveloped and too many of our old scourges; bad government, religious fanaticism and tribalism are rampant and active in inhibiting development. But maybe in my nephew’s lifetime?Report

  4. Three points:

    One: I really like the spirit of the OP, and I think a “post-work” society along the lines that James argues for is a good thing. I would like to point out, though, that this prediction bespeaks a certain millennial mindset among economists and others that is otherwise an object of ridicule when it comes from, say, religious people. That doesn’t negate at all whether a post-work society will ever happen or whether can or should work toward it. But it’s just an observation that hope for a millennium is not limited to religious kooks, but is also embraced by thoughtful people, even utilitarian materialists. By the way, have you read Robert H. Nelson’s “The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America”? I’ve read only the first 50 pages or so, but I’m curious what you think of it.

    Two:

    If you could have a 1970 level standard of living, while working only 12 hours a week, would you be willing to accept that in place of a 2020 standard of living while working 37 hours a week? For that matter, isn’t a 1970 level standard of living with 25 hours more free time a week actually a better than 1970 standard of living?

    I would choose a 1970 level of living and a 12 hour workweek in a heartbeat…..provided that I knew I could keep that standard, say, 20 years from now, or 40 years from now, assuming (knock on wood) that I don’t die younger than I expect. I think I’m just re-stating the problem of scarcity that Patrick and North mention above, but that really is the rub.

    Three: This more a response to @zic above, but I think work is a good thing. I don’t think it’s so good that I have a right or prerogative to compel others to do it or to shame them for not doing it. In other words, the more voluntary work is, the better and more our society is. But I think “work” (broadly defined, and preferably as little alienated as possible and under respectful conditions) is good for the soul and necessary for happiness. Maybe I’m just imposing my own thoughts on the matter. In fact, I’m probably imposing my own thoughts on the matter. But if I didn’t have the opportunity to work (a real possibility in my not so distant future), I will feel the absence of work dearly, and not just because I’d be lacking an income. Again, though, I’m not suggesting others ought to adopt my view that work can be per se a good thing, and I hesitate to say it’s a “moral” thing, but I do ask others to consider that it might be one necessary component of happiness.Report

    • Avatar Mo in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      @gabriel-conroy I think a lot fewer people would take the 1970 standard of living than you think, even if you could guarantee it. No personal computer, no wireless devices, no internet, no medical advances from the last 44 years, etc.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Mo says:

        @mo

        I was actually thinking about the no internet thing as I was walking to work today and I figuratively face-palmed myself for not having thought about it. Maybe I’ll split the difference and say I’d settle for 2010 lifestyle at 28 hours per week?Report

      • Avatar NoPublic in reply to Mo says:

        I think a lot fewer people would take the 1970 standard of living than you think, even if you could guarantee it. No personal computer, no wireless devices, no internet, no medical advances from the last 44 years, etc.

        Every time this hypothetical gets floated we see the same canards. 1970’s standard of living =/= Living in the 1970’s with 1970’s technology. If I could afford to raise a family, buy a decent house with the current average technological level of sophistication in appliances and own a car (two eventually) similarly scoped on one income for 40 hours/week I’d jump at it. And that’s exactly what my Dad did in the 70’s. And exactly what I can’t do today on an equivalent salary. Yes, I have the internet. On the other hand, I can’t actually do my job without it. Much like my dad couldn’t without a dedicated phone line (unusual in our area for the time, but he had one). Same-Same. And yet I pay the same or slightly more for my phone line (no long distance, no features) in 1970’s dollars than he did and that doesn’t include my internet service.Report

      • Avatar Mo in reply to Mo says:

        @nopublic Yes it does, living at 1970s standard of living does not mean you get modern conveniences, it means living at 1970s levels, period. Where do you think all those productivity improvements and extra work today goes to get and produce those technologies? You can live at 1970s standards and only work 20 hours because things like POTS is cheaper, if you limit yourself to a relatively limited choice of food, it’s cheaper, medical treatment would be cheaper with fewer treatment options and fewer machines that go “ping”. Getting 2014 creature comforts means that you are no longer living with a 1970s standard of living.

        @gabriel-conroy
        That’s cheating, if you go based on GDP growth, you get to lop off two, maybe three hours from your current work week.Report

    • I think your support of “work” might be contingent on certain definitions. If I didn’t have to work, I wouldn’t. I would, however, keep writing (which is a small part of my work, right now) and I would volunteer a lot more. It wouldn’t be employment, and I think some people might not consider it work (it might be more of a hobby), but these two things would, for me, fill any void that might be created by the lack of “work”.Report

  5. Ick….my overly long and typically wordy comment is in moderation.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I think I’d struggle in a post-work society. I don’t do well with stasis. Yesterday was the first day I officially had off now that summer vacation began. I spent the entirety of it outside weeding and mulching the planting beds. And when that was done I ran other errands. Not necessarily because all those errands needed to get done yesterday, but because I get bored too easily. And then I worked out. And did the dishes. And cleaned the downstairs. I’m not good at not moving. Zazzy and I leave for four days in Florida tomorrow. “Why aren’t you going longer?” people asked. Well, besides some practical reasons around traveling with a baby and my wife’s work schedule, I can’t sit on the beach for more than a few days without going crazy. I’ll probably need to run each morning and sneak away to a bar for a World Cup game each afternoon to keep my sanity. I’m terrible at relaxing.

    Now, if the rest of the world wasn’t working and there were people to hang out with? Sure, that’d probably be better. I can socialize until the cows come home.

    I also need structure. But I’m not good at imposing it on myself unilaterally. I’m often more productive with less time because I’m forced to be. I often work out more regularly when I’m working full time because the workout becomes part of an existing schedule than I do when I’m off.

    So, I in particular am not well-suited for a post-work society. I like to stay active and busy and productive. Maybe there would be other things to fill my time and if, as you say, these things become cheaper, that would go a long way towards making it work for me. But I don’t mind going to work. I generally like what I do. If working 35 hours a week situated me to do much, much more with my free time (i.e., 1970s standard versus 2020 standard), I’d probably opt for that route.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Kazzy says:

      I also need structure. But I’m not good at imposing it on myself unilaterally. I’m often more productive with less time because I’m forced to be. I often work out more regularly when I’m working full time because the workout becomes part of an existing schedule than I do when I’m off.

      I think this is going to be a huge problem. With less and less ‘formal’ work, and more of a gig economy, productive people have to create their own structure. My husband and I have managed to do this for many years; but we also both work every day; more out of habit then necessity; it’s what we do with our time. We have the habit, for instance, of settling in for several hours of work after dinner instead of watching TV. (But we’re also likely to spend the afternoons wandering the woods or on an adventure, too.)Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

      Kazzy,
      I loathe beach vacations too. Last vacation was (in 5 days): Watch Game of Thrones (First Season), take 12 mile hikes every day, spend an hour making salad per day, grill some, Buy Wine, visit farmer’s market, talk with parents in law, tell stories… and that was a light vacation.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

      After my mom had been retired for a couple of years she said she was so busy she wondered how she’d ever had time to work.

      I get that you like your job, and that’s a good thing. But weeding the garden, running, sitting at the bar in the middle of the day to watch World Cup games, that’s not a bad life, either.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        @james-hanley

        Again, some of what you describe filling my day with requires money (e.g., sitting at the bar). Some other things require — or are best enjoyed, at least — with companions. Right now, those things are difficult to come by during my extended periods of time off. I can’t afford to eat out every lunch and most of my other friends still work full time.

        Now, your scenario resolves the latter and possibly the former, which makes it far more interesting to me. But I have to wonder… at what point do we just turn life into adult summer camp? Gardening from 9-10, basketball from 10-12, break for lunch, reading from 1-2, etc. I mean, that ain’t a bad way to live life but it seems to me something is missing. Maybe that is a mindset we are socialized into accepting as the result of living in a decidedly non-post-work society.

        I also wonder what happens to our education system in this scenario. Once we teach people basic life skills, it would seem that they should only learn other things if they are so inclined. Again, not necessarily a bad thing… but possibly one.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        at what point do we just turn life into adult summer camp? Gardening from 9-10, basketball from 10-12, break for lunch, reading from 1-2, etc. I mean, that ain’t a bad way to live life but it seems to me something is missing.

        Maybe for some people there is something missing in that. For me, not really. I’m sad that I can only take week long wilderness trips at best. I think I was cut out for the hunter-gatherer life style. Hunt, gather, cook, eat, shoot the shit, fuck, repeat.

        I don’t think that’s the case for everyone. I think Saul DeGraw’s acquaintance who treats Saul’s choice as wrong, is…wrong.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        James,
        pretty sure you’re a bit smart for the hunter gatherer lifestyle.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        You should read what Jared Diamond says about HG intelligence in Guns, Germs and Steel.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        @james-hanley

        But even HG is different than summer camp. There is something very different between providing for oneself and being provided for.

        Shit… did I just go full blown libertarian?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Just accept that you are, Kazzy. Quit trying to make believe you’re actually a good kind caring person. And make that kid of yours start pulling his own weight.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        @kazzy

        No worries. It’s hard to discuss HG without being mercurial.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’ve sent Mayo out to forage for food but Zazzy keeps taking the grass out of his mouth.

        Women/liberals/white people/wives/veterans/Jews/Protestants…Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Kazzy says:

      I really enjoy my job, but I can always find any number of other things that keep me interested and busy without it (although admittedly, sometimes they look quite a bit like unpaid versions of my job). I don’t know that I’m bad at relaxing, but I don’t remember feeling anything like boredom during my free time in my adult life. There’s always something interesting to think about or fiddle with. I guess I can’t really be bored until I figure everything out, and the thing about “everything” is that we’re probably never going to run out of it.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        @troublesome-frog

        I agree, to an extent. But meandering through Wikipedia all morning or jabbering for hours on OT somehow seems less than working. If I do those things all day, I feel like I’ve wasted a day. Maybe I should give myself more credit for those exploits?Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        @Kazzy: This gets back to what I was saying before…I think it feels that way precisely because of our ingrained cultural expectations. If there was no pressure to work instead of goofing off on the internet, would you still feel the same way? Obviously I can’t know but I suspect not.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        @zac
        Probably not. But surely there are some things we want people to work hard at, no? How do we separate that out? Or does a post-work society just turn into 24/7 leisure time from birth (I’m presuming we have robots to care for the babies since, ya know, that’s work that is best done well)?Report

      • Avatar Zac in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        @kazzy : It seems to me that what we want is for people to work hard at the things they intrinsically care about, assuming those things don’t bring harm to others. But yes, ideally that is carved by choice out of a continuous block of leisure from birth to death. Obviously we have quite a ways to go before we get there; I certainly doubt I’ll live to see it. But that’s always seemed to me to be the overall goal of humanity; to remove ourselves from the state of nature and achieve as close as we can to true, absolute freedom. I’m reminded of this quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.”Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        @zac
        But how do you get people to care intrinsically about the right things? (Figure that out and you’ll be the greatest education reformer ever.) And if you “teach” them that, is it really intrinsic?

        Exactly how much does this society provide? Do people still have to food shop? Cook? Chew? I’m reminded of the humans on the spaceship in “Wall-E”. Also, of Homer Simpson looking at people in wheel chairs or on ventilators and lamenting that he’s using his legs/lungs “like a sucker.”

        And what if shit goes wrong? A major earthquake hits. Are the robots fast enough that no one has to act, even in the immediate immediate aftermath?

        This sounds like a world without caring; not in the sense of love, but just giving a shit. And while I probably tend to care too much about too many things, I’d rather do that than the opposite.

        How does a society function where no one does anything more than they want to? No sense of obligation to anything beyond meeting one’s own desires?

        Call me crazy, but count me out.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

      @kazzy – off-topic, but please check your e-mail when you get a chance….Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Kazzy says:

      Dude, you need to get a weed addiction or something. Just reading your comment made me tired.Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    There’s always human care. Small children will still need tending. Old people will still need aid. Sick people will still need medical care. Soylent Green Jobs.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I agree that jobs are going to disappear and not come back. The problem is that I don’t see much evidence that society is going to adjust to reflect the new reality without a long and painful transitionary period.Report

  9. Avatar Citizen says:

    “Will all this come to pass? I think it will.”
    I think someone a hundred years ago would have voiced as much. I think someone a hundred years in the future will voice the same. Scarcity is a tool of control structures, and as long as those control structures exist there will be required labor to produce those scarce things.

    I don’t believe we can remove ourselves from the teachings that anarchy is directly related to chaos. I don’t believe it, not even a little. We will always have the scarcity of security as every collective statist will revolt at the thought of a self policing and self ruling individual/society.

    We will suffer Hobbes another millennia if not ten.

    The greatest written text I have and will read in my lifetime is the amendment against rent-seeking. It unwinds 5000 years of control structure bloat, and gives the individual some hope of owning a significant portion of their life.Report

  10. Avatar DavidTC says:

    Modular factory-built housing–perhaps built in lights-out factories–that are assembled on-site could decimate construction jobs.

    We don’t really need this. We already have all the buildings we actually need right now, and could operate for several decades doing no construction at all.

    Of course, we don’t actually let homeless people live in the empty houses…

    If you could have a 1970 level standard of living, while working only 12 hours a week, would you be willing to accept that in place of a 2020 standard of living while working 37 hours a week?

    This is a false choice. Living with a 1970s standard of living right now would not be cheaper than living with a 2020 standard of living. In fact, it would be more expensive. Yes, there’s more electronic devices, but we’re talking about a total of maybe $200 extra dollars a month (And we’ve overcharged for that.), and that’s more than countered by reduced energy consumption in every aspect of modern life and automation in getting that energy to us.

    Life is, indeed, getting better and better, but it’s not costing us more to operate at that level. It’s not getting better because we’re spending more, it’s getting better because we have more knowledge about how to do more things in better ways, in ways that cost less than what we used to do. We can’t rewind the clock and magically make things easier…that’s exactly the opposite of what happens. It’s not cheaper to produce a 1985 computer than a iPad, or a 1970 car than a modern car. It’s not cheaper to operate a landline system than for everyone to get a cell phone.(As developing countries have discovered.) It’s not even really cheaper to give everyone a dumb cell phone instead of a smart phone.

    People seem to think that everything keeps costing the same, manpower-wise, and we move forward because we invent new, better things that cost slightly more. That is exactly the opposite of what actually happens. We move forward because we invent processes that let us make things for less, and then we make things better. There’s not any circumstances where ‘downgrading’ makes sense to save money.

    There are maybe a few thing that you can ask if people would do without, like the internet maybe, or a car at all. But a better question might be something like ‘If you could work only 12 hours a week, would you be willing to live in a city and use mass transit and have cheap internet, instead of spreading yourself all over creation?’ Or, perhaps better ‘Would you be willing to eat less meet and smaller portions of food?’, which is one of the real differences between America’s standard of living and other places.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to DavidTC says:

      Two folks have taken a different tack on the 1970s standard of living than I had in mind (which was very vague), and they’re both interesting and insightful comments. I need to think more about what I mean, and try to flesh it out more precisely in a future post. (Or, maybe, they’ve defeated me on that point.)Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to James Hanley says:

        Hey man, I don’t want to wear polyester and I don’t want to listen to Roxy Music.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to James Hanley says:

        Yeah, people always get the whole ‘advancing standards of living wrong’. I probably should write something about that in general.

        The needle of a record player alone costs much much more in time and energy to make than the two chips needed to build an mp3 player. And compare the entire VHS and DVD movie distribution, with dedicated stores and rental locations and everything, with how much Netflix costs to operate. (Or, as one famous photo shows, compare the cost of all items in a Radio Shack ad from the 1980s with a smart phone.)

        In the past aluminum was incredibly expensive. Incredibly. When it was used to cap the Washington monument 1884, it was more valuable than silver. Then two guys independently invented a new process in 1886 to recover it from ore, using that new-fangled ‘electricity’, and the price plummeted a thousand-fold.

        Within the next twenty years, clothing will repel all liquids. Including sweat. The technology already exists (You can see all sorts of awesome demos on Youtube), and it’s basically just a matter of scaling it up. This will save us an epic amount of resources, more than people realize. Much less water and soap for washing, less dry-cleaning, less replacement of clothing, etc. And there will be people in 2034 asking ‘Do you want to go back to 2014 technology where clothes got dirty and smelly all the time, and you couldn’t just shake out clothes, maybe give them a quick rinse, and wear them again?’, ignoring the fact that dirty clothing was much much more expensive for society. It wasn’t cheaper.

        That is how standards of living advance. Not because we spend more. But because we spend less on the same stuff, or even better stuff, because we know more.

        Asking whether or not we’d be willing to operate with a reduced standard of living is a reasonable question…but it wouldn’t, it couldn’t, be ‘a 1970s standard of living’. It would, like I said, be less meat, less food in general, somewhat smaller houses, maybe using mass transit instead of a car…you know, the sort of world that poorer people live in. Poorer people are not listening to LPs.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        David,

        Exactly, and I know that. In fact it’s at the heart of my “middle class is still better off” claim that gets some folks riled up. But I failed to apply or account for it in this posy. I was just thinking vaguely, too vaguely, about having less stuff. I’ll blame that on having scrapped my original essay and hammering this one out in a couple hours. I’m glad you made this critique, though.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        James,
        I am concerned, when I can suddenly buy “middle class brands” at the supermarket that contain meat that wouldn’t have been sold outside of the shadowiest regions of Mexico five years ago.
        How do you actually measure food safety/quality, in an era where food standards are changing?

        How much do you actually consider that relevant?

        I am also concerned about the dramatically escalating depreciation of housing expected lifetimes (but, by and large, not prices) that has occurred during the past few decades.

        If our most expensive items are worse than they were in the 1970’s, and we’re still paying the same for them, but our least expensive things (Shiny Toys!) are Way Way better, is our Standard of Living going Up or Down?

        [Also noteworthy is the 2000s idea of “spend into debt” — how do you measure future poverty? Does that effect our Standard of Living?]Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think this is an awesome comment, as well. David’s that is.Report

      • Within the next twenty years, clothing will repel all liquids. Including sweat.

        Just a nit, but I do too many things where I need the cloth to wick up sweat in some fashion and spread it out so that it can easily evaporate and cool me. Then allow water and detergent sufficient access to wash away the mineral residue :^)Report

      • Avatar North in reply to James Hanley says:

        Michael, then you’ll buy yerself an untreated piece of cloth man.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to DavidTC says:

      Well this is the crux of it. I am perfectly willing to live in the city. I love cities. I don’t really care too much about super fast or cheap internet because I would still rather go out to the movies or theatres than view things on Netflix. My ideal social life does involve a lot of out of the house socialization partially this is because San Francisco and New York apartments are usually small. I’d rather meet people for dinner and drinks that clean up my apartment after a party.

      There is a lot of policy wonkery and discussion of platonic ideals and antagonism at people who choose differently.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        There’s an awful lot of medical technology since the 1970’s that you’d be leaving out in a 1970’s lifestyle.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        North,
        and knowledge. back then we used to look at sugar levels in urine to treat diabetes.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        For one, the state of the art in toupees has advanced significantly. We now have “smart toupees” – the most advanced and expensive, like those worn by The Donald, are arguably smarter than their owners, and are well on their way to passing the Turing Test.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I found Christian Bale’s hair in American Hustle kinda brilliant.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @north
        There’s an awful lot of medical technology since the 1970?s that you’d be leaving out in a 1970?s lifestyle.

        That’s because that’s a silly premise. Just like all technological advances, medicine in the modern day should provide more benefits while being much cheaper, resource-wise, to provide. It’s not, but that’s not because higher standards of living, that’s because we let medicine get completely effed up and out of control in the last two decades.

        In reality, there’s almost nothing actually expensive going on in medicine, and there’s absolutely no reason we couldn’t provide the full spectrum of 2014 medical knowledge (Or, let’s say, 99% of it.), while spending only 1970s-level amounts of per-capita hours doing so.

        In fact, I suspect we do only spend 1970 of per-capita hours on it currently. Or less. The reason it costs so much is utterly unrelated to the amount of work being spent on it.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @north

        I am a bit confused about how my comment inspired your commen or what they have to do with each other.

        The big issue with hours worked is how we want to live and such. Camping vacation or European vacation and the like? Ikea or Design Within Reach (or higher?)Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        David: I’m not a Doctor so I can’t say for certain whether your assertion about medicine is correct but I’m skeptical. There’re a lot of chemo drugs, cancer treatments, surgery options and repair options that weren’t available in 1970 that are available now. Some of those can probably be provided cheapishly compared to 1970 perhaps, though probably only if you cut out the cost of developing them. That said I am skeptical about your assertion that all that extra cost on it is a consequence of the American medical system. America’s developed sibling countries get better outcomes for their spending; but not -that- much better.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @north
        There’re a lot of chemo drugs, cancer treatments, surgery options and repair options that weren’t available in 1970 that are available now. Some of those can probably be provided cheapishly compared to 1970 perhaps, though probably only if you cut out the cost of developing them.

        That’s almost exactly the opposite of how it works.

        More options makes things cheaper, not more expensive. Surgical techniques get better because they require less work and less recovery. I have a medical condition that used to require surgery basically every five years. The first time I remember that, I was in the hospital for a week. The last time…I was out the same day. It’s a combination of technology and just better ideas of how to do surgery.

        And there are no drugs that actually cost a lot of money to manufacture. Some of them might seem to cost a lot to develop…but they’ve always cost ‘a lot’ to develop, and that amount isn’t actually ‘a lot’ in the first place. It’s just we’ve changed the system where drug companies can profit more for them, so spend a lot of money developing things to profit off of.

        That said I am skeptical about your assertion that all that extra cost on it is a consequence of the American medical system. America’s developed sibling countries get better outcomes for their spending; but not -that- much better.

        Erm, I think you’ve lost the thread.

        The question isn’t if they get better outcomes v.s America. The question is if medical care literally requires more manpower and resources to operate our system now than in the 1970s.

        It doesn’t. (Well, it does, but only because there are more people in total, and a higher percentage of them getting medical care.) Per capita of care provided, no, it doesn’t.

        And if it does it’s in a few outliers, such as extreme elderly care. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t do that, but I would suggest that doesn’t really count. That’s like including in the average price of telephone system the phone from the international space station.

        Normal care for normal people is less work now than in 1970. Care for people that just would have died in 1970 is obviously more work, but I’m not convinced that even cancels out the gains on average, and if it does, it’s still pretty close.

        Now, because of our idiotic and entirely preventable doctor shortage, the same amount of medical work costs much more than it used to, but that is, like I said, entirely correctable and is not some inherent property of 2014 medicine that requires us to go back to 1970 medicine. In fact, going back to 1970 medicine would not solve that problem.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Well David, excluding care that’s extended at the end of people’s lifespan strikes me as base stealing since we both know that the vast majority of expense in medical care occurs there. It’s definitely a bit of “other than the gun how was the play Mrs. Lincoln”.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @north

        Well David, excluding care that’s extended at the end of people’s lifespan strikes me as base stealing since we both know that the vast majority of expense in medical care occurs there. It’s definitely a bit of “other than the gun how was the play Mrs. Lincoln”.

        The decision to spend tons of money to extend people’s lives is an actual societal change. Likewise, the decision to put older people into care instead of having them leive with the family is a societal change. Such things costs a large amount of money, but it’s not due to changing medicine.

        If we had wanted to, we could have spent absurd amounts of money trying to extend people’s lives in the 1970s, too. We didn’t want to then, we do now, apparently.

        My assertion is that providing any specific amount of medical care requires much less work than it did in the 1970s. There are indeed some new medical treatments that now are offered that are better than past treatments, and while they could, in theory, require more work than those older treatments…those changes are more than outweighed by the epic reductions of work required for every other aspect of medicine. Seriously, we have computer monitoring. The savings in man-power alone for that…

        Of course, the system is so completely screwed up this is impossible to see. But I’m talking actual man-hour of work, not the insane pricing that has happened. Actual man-hours of work, even with the levels of elderly care we provide now, has gone down. (And note by ‘man-hours of work’, yes, I’m including the man-hours used to acquire resources and produce medical technology and everything.)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        DavidTC,
        We’re at 3 kids a Nurse, nowadays. Are you trying to say that’s MORE than we used to do? Because I’m doubtful. While computer monitoring may indeed save lives, I’m not sure it actually makes “nights in the hospital” cheaper.

        (Now, better monitoring on prescriptions, that might be a different story. We have Scanners!)Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        We’re at 3 kids a Nurse, nowadays. Are you trying to say that’s MORE than we used to do? Because I’m doubtful.

        I have no idea of what the context here is. Did you used to have one? Fifty? What do you conceivable mean?

        I wish you’d stop saying thing without any context, just assuming we magically know what you’re thinking about.

        If the number of nurses per child has increased, that’s almost certainly due to other factors.

        While computer monitoring may indeed save lives, I’m not sure it actually makes “nights in the hospital” cheaper.

        I’ve been pretty clear I am not talking about ‘cheaper’. The medical system is completely screwed up beyond belief in how much it costs, and whether things are more expensive or cheaper is a coin toss.

        I’m saying computer monitoring allows the same amount of medical care with less work. Less man-hours.

        That isn’t actually a disputable statement. In fact, it’s patently obvious, almost a tautology. Whether it actually results in less work, or lower costs, is a completely different story, and something I would indeed be dubious about in a universe where a can of Coke costs $13.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        David,
        You say that manhours of work are going down, and you cite “Computer Monitoring”.

        I say… a notable hospital in my area has 1 Nurse per 3 Sick Kids. How is that less than before? Do you have statistics to show that Nurses per Patient are decreasing? (yes, you do still need to monitor the computers. they aren’t that good).

        Now, I’ll say my piece: we’re saving time/money through being able to transmit electronically records. Instead of needing to call the next hospital, you get it sent electronically… You pull up 3 year old x-rays, rather than sending the patient to go get the other doc to pull them out. Same thing with billing (which must have been evil in the 1960’s, pre computer).Report

  11. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    Everyone keeps taking my ideas for posts in this symposium and doing them better!

    Post-Work runs into what I call the utopia-dystopia mode of thinking that is highly problematic. Most of the people I know who seriously talk about a post-work society are fairly geeky and usually involved in SF Fandom and this seemingly colors their views. The camps come out this way:

    1. People who believe that a “post-work” future will be some Star Trek like utopia with replicators and everyone working together for the common good or most people working together for the common good. People will use their labors for their interests and/or to benefit their fellow citizens rather than for private gain. There is a strong dose of hippieism in this thought pattern. It is sweet if a bit to very naive at times.

    2. The cynics tend to imagine something that looks like Metropolis where the rich elite live in protected pleasure gardens and the great mass of humanity lives in miserable anarchy below.

    Both visions are a little too influenced by fiction for my liking.

    When discussing the post-work society on LGM, a commentator posted out that you probably could live like a median Brit from the 1930s on 15-18 hours of work a week but you probably wouldn’t want to because it would involve a house that did not have running hot water. James K correctly pointed out that Kaynes wrote his famous essay with all the prejudices of the British upper-class which assumed leisure time was better than material goods.

    A lot of people in the work-less or median chill movements are also of this assumption. I don’t necessarily share it though. For better or for worse, I would rather work more and be able to afford a house in Mill Valley or some other town in Marin or a Brooklyn rowhouse with history, distinction, and charm over a dime a dozen house in the far East Bay. I would also rather work more and be able to afford to vacation in Europe than make my vacation camping in the same place over and over again. The farther left of my friends say this makes me a tool of the system or something like that. The same goes with home furnishings and the like.

    Now I do have my limits. I purposefully choose not to go into Biglaw because I thought the billable hour requirements were insane and unreasonable. I am willing to work long hours during trial or when there is a sudden deadline but not as a constant activity. 50-60 hours seems like a reasonable amount with sometimes hitting 70-80 if necessary.

    There is nothing wrong with being medium chill but I dislike being seen as an enemy for saying I want differently. The problem with a lot of how should we live debates is that there is a lot of psychological armchair analysis and accusations of people being accused of being tools instead of expressing autonomous desires. “Wake up man, you are being fooled” is not great rhetoric.

    I would also argue my brother is correct about the transition period. For a long time, human culture revolved around the maxim that “those who don’t work don’t eat.” I think this is universal among cultures. So to get to a post-work society you need to deal with two big problems:

    1. Getting rid of the idea that work is good for its own sake and those that don’t work, don’t eat. We need to let people be allowed to slack and layabout.

    2. The Mill Valley problem. I.e. somethings will always be scarce like prime real estate. The charm in Mill Valley is the scarcity. It would lose charm if all the houses were turned into apartments and upzoned. The medium chill lifestyle seems to involve people saying “I don’t need Mill Valley. I don’t need European vacations. I don’t need to buy new anything. I don’t need to eat at restaurants. Etc.” There is nothing wrong with an individual deciding this for themselves but our economy would grind to halt if everyone thought and acted like this.Report

  12. Avatar LWA says:

    Whenever liberals complain about wage stagnation or the decline of the middle class, people are quick to point out “But you are richer than you were in 1970/ 1870/ than your potato digging ancestors!”

    Which is absolutely true.

    So an interesting question is, why are we complaining? Are we spoiled crybabies?
    If we are richer than ever, what have we got to complain about?

    But of course, that question cuts both ways. If I am a crybaby for complaining about middle class stagnation, what does that make golfer Phil Mickelson, complaining about his taxes? An uber-crybaby?

    Suppose the government swooped in and confiscated 90% of Phil’s 180million dollar wealth. He would still be richer, more free, and have more luxury than 99.99% of every human being who ever walked the earth.
    So why complain?

    The answer of course, is that yes, Phil is richer than 99.999% of every human, ever in history. Yet he still is angry that he doesn’t have more.

    And that is precisely why there will never, ever, be a post work, post scarcity economy.
    Remember my other comment where I envisioned aliens giving us all the wealth we wanted, essentially creating a post scarcity economy.

    Who here would stop working? Well, everyone would stop working for someone else. But I think every single person here, every single person on the planet, would continue to strive and work and scratch to get yet just a bit more.

    Incidentally, this is why religious faith- all faiths- seem to me to have an advantage over politics and economics- they grasp correctly that human nature has a flaw, a crack running through it that prevents us from being satisfied.
    So any proposal that is premised on “Lets do X so as to make people happy and satisfied” is doomed to fail.Report

  13. Coming from a libertarian, the penultimate paragraph reads like a surrender, at least so far as the economy is concerned. Is that what you intended?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I dunno Michael, I have read a lot of libertarians sound pretty amicable to the idea of a guaranteed minimum income.Report

      • Avatar Dave in reply to North says:

        I have no problem with the idea.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to North says:

        The devil will be in the details, particularly in the post-work kind of setting being described here. It is one thing to be in favor of a poverty-line sort of guaranteed minimum income in place of the myriad existing government services we have now, with the expectation that people will be able to work if they want better; it is another to be in favor of providing, say, a lower middle-class lifestyle because the demand for labor has been permanently reduced to something far less than the working-age population.

        I may be inferring the wrong things, but my take from the post is that the target in that paragraph would be that a couple could expect, in exchange for 24 hours of labor per week, a small house, a car, significant amounts of energy (25 kWh and a gallon of gasoline per day, natural gas heat in the winter), the usual sorts of food and clothing, and enough to raise a kid. Certainly that was the 1970s lifestyle in the small Nebraska town outside Omaha where I lived.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North says:

        It is one thing to be in favor of a poverty-line sort of guaranteed minimum income in place of the myriad existing government services we have now, with the expectation that people will be able to work if they want better; it is another to be in favor of providing, say, a lower middle-class lifestyle because the demand for labor has been permanently reduced to something far less than the working-age population.

        I was assuming the two would just opportunistically happen to coincide.Report

      • Avatar Hoosegow Flask in reply to North says:

        Going by wikipedia’s definitions, I would think a “basic income” would be preferable to a “guaranteed minimum income”, the difference being means testing. Means testing could create a disincentive to work for people at or below the bubble, would add extra bureaucracy for validation of applicants, and undoubtedly lead to fraud (and, in turn, investigation and punishment). Sending the same check to everyone, rich or poor, seems like a much cleaner and more efficient system.

        With a basic income you could abolish not only programs like SNAP and TANF, but also the minimum wage, since employers wouldn’t have to provide a “living wage”. It seems to me like it would be a much more voluntary exchange of labor for money if I didn’t need to work to keep a roof over my kid’s head.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to North says:

        @hoosegow-flask
        With a basic income you could abolish not only programs like SNAP and TANF, but also the minimum wage, since employers wouldn’t have to provide a “living wage”. It seems to me like it would be a much more voluntary exchange of labor for money if I didn’t need to work to keep a roof over my kid’s head.

        Yup. You could get rid of all government assistance.

        And you’d also turn the labor market on its head, from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market. People would no longer be at the mercy of their boss. They run into problems at work, whatever, they just quit and cut back for a few months.

        Which is why the people that own everything will never allow it. They’ll mutter some nonsense about ‘inflation’, and idiots, being trained that such a thing is bad, will react in horror. (Of course, they’ve somehow having manipulated the $1.28 trillion in actual circulation into something like a $11 trillion money supply.)Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

      The long run view? That’s speculative, and really designed to force contemplation about the contradictions in what we want.

      Or the short run “policy solutions” bit? That’s just pragmatism, really.Report

      • Another question: In this world with the 12-hour and 37-hour option, is employment guaranteed in some fashion? That is, if I say that I want the 2020 lifestyle and that I’m willing to work 37 hours per week, is someone guaranteeing that I can have a 37-hour-per-week job? Or can I only have that lifestyle if I can find an employer willing to let me work for them for 37 hours per week? In a world with a massive labor glut, that might be… difficult. And like David’s comment above, isn’t there a free-rider problem? “Oh, I’ve got a cancer that’s treatable with 2020 tech, but not with 1970 tech, guess I’d better switch to the 37-hour job for the next few months while I get the cure.” Or just hard-hearted: if someone has a chronic condition that is fatal with 1970 tech but easily controlled with 2020 tech, is their choice work 37 hours or die?

        The original post is still neat, it just leaves lots of questions unanswered :^)Report

      • In some ways, I’m asking if the situation is something like earning the right to vote in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers by service. As I recall, the protagonist says something to the effect of, “If the only task you’re capable of doing is to sort caterpillars into hairy or not-hairy by touch, then you’ll be given the opportunity to do that job for two years so you can earn the vote.”Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        The original post is still neat, it just leaves lots of questions unanswered :^)

        Yes, purposely so. In part the post is speculatively predictive. I.e., something like this may come to pass. The specific details of it? Who knows. Even if we’re certain something like this will come to pass we can’t know exactly how our descendants will structure it. And I’m not trying to make the classic utopian mistake of trying to lay out how it “should” be structured.

        And in other part the speculation was designed to highlight some aspects of the conflictual wants, with which the post begins.Report

  14. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I think another issue is that there seems to be a culture war aspect to this.

    I knew a medium chill guy once. He was perfectly happy with a not great job, living with roommates, because we wanted time to write and not be exhausted from a demanding job.

    He once told me very angrily “Just because you were raised by upper-middle class yuppies does not mean you have to live like one.” or something similar. While he is technically correct, I wonder if medium chill types feel that people willing to work more for more hurt their ability to be medium chill.Report

  15. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Excellent post, @james-hanley , and a great question. Also many great comments. The answer is that we’re already moving into a “less-work” economy, but I have a hard time envisioning a true post-work society because there will always be a certain amount of managerial and creative work even in an I-Robot scenario.

    On the moral dimension I notice that we only disparage certain classes of non-workers. We don’t complain about retirees living off savings, stay-at-home parents living off a spouse’s income, or in general, the idle rich. So it isn’t really about not working so much as sponging off society. In fact, we’re far more likely to sneer at someone who is willing to work but can’t find employment or someone who is disabled and needs assistance (particularly if the disablement is less visible) than we are to disparage someone who could work if they chose to but doesn’t really need to for whatever reason.

    The key to a non-dystopian future in which garden-variety work is needed, and therefore valued and compensated, less and less, lies in the distribution of the other factors of production. Our current trajectory is not promising though historically it’s pretty normal; a very small elite owning most of everything, a smallish professional/merchant class, and a seething mass of impoverished peasantry. If we want to avoid that we’re going to have to consciously decide to engineer something better. Frankly I’m not hopeful but I have ideas if anyone is actually interested.Report

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