HAS THE ECONOMIC PROBLEM BECOME A PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEM?

18 05 2013

…the economic problem is not-if we look into the future the permanent problem of the human race. Why, you may ask, is this so startling? It is startling because – if, instead of looking into the future, we look into the past – we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race                                                                               John Maynard Keynes from Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren

Open any basic economic textbook and one of the first things you will see is a definition of the economic problem. It goes something like this; human needs and wants are always much greater than our ability to satisfy them. Put another way – resources are limited but human wants are never ending, therefore we have to make decisions about what is the most intelligent way to use our resources to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. All economic systems and theories are born out of attempts to solve this problem.

An important question arises when looking at the problem of wants and needs – because obviously the needs of a poor African villager are very different to those of an affluent Westerner. As basic needs such as food and shelter are satisfied, needs and desires still arise, but they become less and less essential. This is the critical distinction between the concept of needs versus that of wants. Many economic theories try to deal with this difference. For example, we tax trivial wants such as luxury cars and then use those taxes to support more essential needs such as health care and education. But is it economically or psychologically wise to try to satisfy wants that are more and more trivial?

Most economists when they talk about the economic problem state that human wants are insatiable and then quickly pass on to the problem of how to satisfy these wants, rather than questioning the whole premise. Will satisfying insatiable desires really make us happy – is it even possible to satisfy them and what are the social and environmental consequences of trying to do so?

We have developed a technology that gives us the ability to provide for the comfortable living needs of everybody on the planet. We know how to do this with a minimum of drudgery. The prevailing idea that it is desirable to go on trying to satisfy trivial wants past this point only strengthens the bonds of our insecurities and feeds our addictions.

So is there a point where enough needs have been satisfied and we can say the economic problem has been solved – now we can really start living? I believe in most western countries we have gone well past that point. So much so that we now have an advertising industry whose job is to convince us we have needs that we otherwise would not have had. As well as this there is the sense of meaninglessness that many in the affluent west feel in spite of their material riches.

We are living at the remarkable time when, if we chose, we could declare the economic problem solved. One of the biggest impediments to being aware of this great possibility, let alone doing anything about it, is that we continue to look at the situation through outdated, psychologically simplistic economic theory.





WHY “UNEMPLOYMENT IS GOOD” revisited

28 02 2013

It’s been a while since writing here. Am in the process of editing and putting the posts in this blog into a little downloadable booklet that will put the whole argument into a more complete form.  Hopefully that will be available here in the near future..

Meanwhile here is an edited and expanded version of the post Why Unemployment is Good?

WHY “UNEMPLOYMENT IS GOOD”?

“Unemployment in a society that is already producing enough is simply a potential for lower working hours. That’s why it is good. It points to the fact we have solved the age old economic problem of survival”

Mostly we are told that unemployment is an evil to be avoided at all costs. That our best efforts should be directed to making sure there is enough work available for all. When there is an economic downturn such as in the recent global financial crisis, work dries up unemployment rises and people suffer. The usual approach to solving this problem is economic stimulus – that is; finding ways to get the economy moving. More demand for things results in more production which means more work and a lowering of unemployment.  I seriously question this way of looking at the problem. As the title of this blog suggests, I want to turn the whole idea on its head.

When I say “unemployment is good,” I’ve often found a need to qualify the statement. I don’t mean the suffering of those put out of work is good, neither do I mean that lazing around doing nothing or living an unfulfilled life is good. I am talking about unemployment as an economic indicator. Usually unemployment is seen as a sign of something wrong. in the economy. What I am saying is that in a world of plenty like ours it is actually a sign of an opportunity so great that it could transform the world.

Just say there is an economic downturn – production goes down, there is a shortage of work and people lose jobs. At this point I would ask; is there still enough being produced to support us all? Is food still being produced, are schools and hospitals still operating, are electricity and other utilities still available? The answer to this question in a country like Australia at least, is an obvious yes. The enormous productive capacity of our civilization means that even when less people are involved in production (i.e. unemployment) we can still produce plenty. In fact it’s not hard to argue that much of our production is for the creation of things that are unnecessary or even destructive. We could significantly reduce the amount of stuff we produce and still have enough, except for one problem. Unemployment. We are caught in a double bind. Reducing production increases unemployment, even if the reduced production is desirable.

But turn the whole thing on its head and an incredible opportunity becomes apparent.

Unemployment in a society that is already producing enough is simply a potential for lower working hours. That’s why it is good. It points to the fact we have solved the age old economic problem of survival. As machines do more and more of our work there is obviously less and less work for us to do. We are being freed from work not put out of work.

Each time there is a technological advance it frees up some labour, (or as we mostly say, it puts people out of work). Generally that excess labour has been used to do things we didn’t have time to do before – to improve our standard of living. This process has been occurring more or less continually since the Industrial Revolution began. It is a process of being able to do more and more with less and less human labour. Gradually over time it has gotten us to the point where material survival is easily taken care of.

Obviously in the early days of our technological development there were plenty of things that needed to be done and so we thrived on the extra labour and productivity that machines gave us. But now after much progress most of the essential things have been taken care of and it is increasingly difficult to find meaningful things for our excess workers to do. At this stage the option of reducing our work hours rather than producing more, comes into its own. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that reducing working hours is just another way of raising living standards. To my mind this is one of the great economic frontiers.

By simply absorbing the underlying unemployed of 5-10% into the workforce, we could not only reduce our working hours by about the same 5-10%, but end the problem of unemployment once and for all. By giving up the almost obsessive need to create work for employment’s sake, we could stop wasteful and unnecessary production and reduce working hours even more. Some people have estimated that it would be possible to work less than half the hours we do now and still have a similar lifestyle.

Many people writing on this subject speak about the four day working week, others about the four hour day. My point is that as long as we are driven to create work for employment’s sake rather than work for meeting our needs for living, then none of it will happen.





- Unemployment is not a disease; so it has no cure

2 09 2009

I love this extract from Robert Anton Wilson’s essay The Rich Economy

I don’t think there is, or ever again can be, a cure for unemployment. I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.

The inevitable direction of any technology, and of any rational species such as Homo sap., is toward what Buckminster Fuller calls ephemeralization, or doing-more-with-less. For instance, a modern computer does more (handles more bits of information) with less hardware than the proto-computers of the late ’40’s and ’50’s. One worker with a modern teletype machine does more in an hour than a thousand medieval monks painstakingly copying scrolls for a century. …

Unemployment is not a disease; so it has no “cure.” …

Unemployment is directly caused by this technological capacity to do more-with-less. Thousands of monks were technologically unemployed by Gutenberg. Thousands of blacksmiths were technologically unemployed by Ford’s Model T. Each device that does-more-with-less makes human labor that much less necessary.

Aristotle said that slavery could only be abolished when machines were built that could operate themselves. Working for wages, the modern equivalent of slavery — very accurately called “wage slavery” by social critics — is in the process of being abolished by just such self-programming machines. In fact, Norbert Wiener, one of the creators of cybernetics, foresaw this as early as 1947 and warned that we would have massive unemployment once the computer revolution really got moving.

It is arguable, and I for one would argue, that the only reason Wiener’s prediction has not totally been realized yet — although we do have ever-increasing unemployment — is that big unions, the corporations, and government have all tacitly agreed to slow down the pace of cybernation, to drag their feet and run the economy with the brakes on. This is because they all, still, regard unemployment as a “disease” and cannot imagine a “cure” for the nearly total unemployment that full cybernation will create.

Suppose, for a moment, we challenge this Calvinistic mind-set. Let us regard wage-work — as most people do, in fact, regard it — as a curse, a drag, a nuisance, a barrier that stands between us and what we really want to do. In that case, your job is the disease, and unemployment is the cure.

“But without working for wages we’ll all starve to death!?! Won’t we?”

Not at all. Many farseeing social thinkers have suggested intelligent and plausible plans for adapting to a society of rising unemployment. Here are some examples.

1. The National Dividend. This was invented by engineer C. H. Douglas and has been revived with some modifications by poet Ezra Pound and designer Buckminster Fuller. The basic idea (although Douglas, Pound, and Fuller differ on the details) is that every citizen should be declared a shareholder in the nation, and should receive dividends on the Gross National Product for the year. …

2. The Guaranteed Annual Income. This has been urged by economist Robert Theobald and others. The government would simply establish an income level above the poverty line and guarantee that no citizen would receive less; if your wages fall below that level, or you have no wages, the government makes up the difference. …

3. The Negative Income Tax. This was first devised by Nobel economist Milton Friedman and is a less radical variation on the above ideas. The Negative Income Tax would establish a minimum income for every citizen; anyone whose income fell below that level would receive the amount necessary to bring them up to that standard. …

What I am proposing, in brief, is that the Work Ethic (find a Master to employ you for wages, or live in squalid poverty) is obsolete. Delivered from the role of things and robots, people will learn to become fully developed persons, in the sense of the Human Potential movement. They will not seek work out of economic necessity, but out of psychological necessity—as an outlet for their creative potential.

As Bucky Fuller says, the first thought of people, once they are delivered from wage slavery, will be, “What was it that I was so interested in as a youth, before I was told I had to earn a living?”

The answer to that question, coming from millions and then billions of persons liberated from mechanical toil, will make the Renaissance look like a high school science fair or a Greenwich Village art show.





–Unemployment Is A Distribution Problem Not A Production Problem

4 08 2009

In current economic thinking unemployment is usually considered to be a production problem. That is when there is not enough production going on to make use of all the available labour you end up with some people left out of the whole economic cycle. The usual response to this is to try to create more work to absorb this excess labour. This is why we are compelled to continuously increase our production so as to keep ahead of the growing pool of unemployed.

But looked at from a broader perspective unemployment is not a problem of production but rather one of distribution.

Even if output goes down a little, as it has over the last year – putting more people out of work, our enormously productive technology still goes on churning out more than enough goods for us all. So we are not looking to find work for the unemployed because we need their labour to ensure we can produce enough. We are trying to find work for them so they can earn an income to gain access to the things that would be produced whether they were working or not. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just give it to them directly rather than go through this complicated process that results in so many negative side effects? (the marginalised unemployed, environmental problems of overproduction, the lack of fulfilment in trying to consume all this stuff, resources not being used where they are really needed – ie in ending hunger and poverty in the world for a start)

When I say – wouldn’t it be simpler to just give it to them directly – I’m not advocating having one section of the community sitting idly by while the rest of us work to support them. What I’m suggesting is that if we are already producing enough, we share the “less work” around equally and all work that much less while still having the same living standard as before. Paradoxically that would be an increase in living standard because the same living standard on less work is an increase in living standard.





-UNEMPLOYMENT IS GOOD #2

12 07 2009

In the United States steel industry between 1982 and the year 2002 production rose from 77 million tons a year to 120 million tons. At the same time the number of workers employed in the industry went from 289,000 down to 74,000.

This is not an isolated occurrence. Similar statistics can be found in most industries in all industrialised countries. The reason is not complicated – better machines and greater efficiency means an increasing ability to produce more with less labour.

Surely this is a good thing. The only question is what do we do with it. How do we best realise the great gift our technology is offering us. For example, if the  statistics for steel were more or less representational of productivity increases in all industries, that would mean we could sustain 1982 living standards on a 10 hour work week. I know it’s not as simple as that: there are many post 1982 developments that we would not want to do without and some industries have not had the productivity increases that steel production has (though some have had more). I’m just using this example to indicate the scale of what is happening.

We are not even coming close to taking full advantage of the possibilities that technology opens up. While our great productivity has resulted in large increases in living standards, it has also helped to cause two of our biggest problems. On the one hand we generate unemployment, turning the machine freed workers into the out of work. On the other hand we desperately start producing more and more stuff to create work for the unemployed to do. We have created the twin problem of unemployment and a global and personal smothering in excess stuff, when we could just be having more and more free time.

And please, not free time to drink more beer and watch more television. But free time to give our lives more meaning and transform the world.

PS. I am intending to set up a new page on this blog listing various statistics on productivity growth





-ECONOMIC GROWTH – GOING NOWHERE FASTER

4 07 2009

As I understand it generating work so as to avoid unemployment is one of the main reasons given for the desirability of economic growth as well as for the almost pathological fear of any reduction in growth. Whether the production that constitutes that growth (or negative growth) is really needed or is even destructive seems to be given secondary importance.

I believe one of the things that keeps us in this absurd situation is that working for a living has become our means to survival even if the things that that work produces contribute nothing or are destructive to our well-being/survival. It seems that we have the technological and organisational knowhow to have a more than adequate lifestyle on much less work than we are doing now. I think one of the main reasons this does not happen is that we have elevated an abstract concept (working to earn a living) to equal if not greater importance than the actuality of working to produce the real needs for living. Once we have produced what is needed for our level of lifestyle then it is patently absurd to go on working (and producing) simply to get the means to access the things that had already been produced.

There have been various solutions put forward to solve this problem. For example, some people advocate the guaranteed minimum income as a way separating the work/income connection. While I am not against this, I believe a lot can be achieved by staying with the problem for longer. Once the absurdity of what we are doing would be seen more widely, then enormous amounts of creative energy to find solutions would be released. By absurdity I mean that we are running faster and faster to stay in the same spot or even go backwards when we could just let the machines do the running for us.





-UNEMPLOYMENT AS A POSITIVE ECONOMIC INDICATOR

16 06 2009

Over the years whenever I’ve said “unemployment is good,” I’ve found I often need to qualify the statement. I don’t mean the suffering of those put out of work is good, or I don’t mean that lazing around doing nothing or living an unfulfilled life is good. I am talking about unemployment as an economic indicator. Usually unemployment is seen as a sign of something wrong with our economy. What I am saying is that it is a sign of an opportunity so great that it could help transform our world.

Most of the posts on this blog look at this issue from various perspectives. For me writing about it helps to develop my understanding of the question. I’m beginning to see that there is something here staring us in the face with it’s obviousness yet we remain oblivious. As the saying goes we have eyes but do not see.








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