-unemployment is good

10 03 2009

This essay that this blog is named after was written in the early 1990’s and published in a small journal I used to edit called Economics for the Global Good (EGG)


When God kicked Adam out of the garden of Eden, He put the curse of work on him. Up until that time whenever Adam needed any food, shelter or entertainment it was always there for the taking. But from then on he was told he would have to work for his keep. According to the good book, God’s words to Adam were as follows;
…cursed is the ground because of you, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.
For good measure he threw in a few by the sweat of your brows, and that was it for poor old Adam.
Whether you believe the story of Adam and Eve is factual, allegorical or just not true is not important here. The fact is that the ‘curse of Adam’ has become part of our cultural heritage. Throughout history this curse has been taken up by the various churches and governments. You’ve got to work they would tell us, You probably won’t enjoy it, but that’s the way things are. And to a certain extent they were right. In pre-industrial times survival was a labour intensive activity.

In the late 20th century this philosophy of work is still with us. Sometimes  known as the Protestant work ethic it is alive and well, living inside the brains of most westerners. If you’re from the west and you’re not working hard it’s almost something to feel embarrassed or guilty about.
But does this curse of Adam have any relevance to our time at all? Or has its day passed. In the past people had to labour and toil simply so they could eat. But that was before the machine age. These days (in the west at least) most of that labouring and toiling has been taken over by machines. Which leaves us free to devote ourselves to whatever takes our fancy. We could be virtually back at the Garden of Eden where the only duty was to enjoy the fruits of the earth. But something has gone wrong For some reason we are not taking full advantage of the extraordinary benefits the age of technology is offering us.

The signs of this reluctance to utilise our technological mastery can be seen all around us. Of these one of the most disturbing is third world poverty and hunger. To be sure hunger and poverty have always been with us. But the difference now is that we have the medical and agricultural know how to completely eradicate them. Meanwhile around 25,000 people die every day as a direct result of not having enough food.

The evidence suggests that inspite of the proliference of labour saving machines many people are finding survival more and more difficult.

To better understand the phenomenon of this outdated curse of Adam it helps to look back and compare our present situation with that of our recent ancestors.
One hundred and fifty years ago in most western countries the poorest half of society had a lifestyle very similar to that of the poorest half of many third world countries today. Getting food was the main occupation of the day. The men would work about 60 hours a week under very tough conditions. Between them the women and children put in at least the same again. All this work got them a simple dwelling and just enough food to get by on. When there was an extra expense such as buying a new pair of shoes or seeing a doctor, someone had to eat less. This someone was usually the mother or the children as their health was considered less important than that of the father who needed the energy for his work. Because there were no mod-cons such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners women worked extremely hard looking after the home and the children. From the age of about ten to the time of her death most of a women’s waking  hours were taken up by this work. In those days many children died in their first few years of life. If you had an average sized family of eight children you could reasonably expect that two of them would die while still young. For those who survived childhood the average life expectancy was around fifty years.

Now all this could easily be a description of life in a poor African country today. But no, that was us in the newly industrialised west. Since then there has been a dramatic change in lifestyles.

These days the pursuit of food occupies a very small part of our time. We certainly never have to worry about going hungry. We now have televisions, telephones, cars, computers, well equipped kitchens and bathrooms and a vastly improved health care that has lifted our life expectancy to eighty years. And we only work about thirty- seven hours a week to get all this.

But that is only part of the picture, because a large portion of those thirty-seven hours we work is taken up in the production of the enormous amounts of excess and waste that we have become so notorious for. Much of our time is now devoted to the creation of an endless flow of excess packaging, excess weaponry and even excess food and buildings. Further time is spent trying to deal with the resultant mess. Just imagine if we stopped producing all that surplus stuff in the first place. We would then be working shorter hours and would be able to compare our situation with that of our struggling forefathers even more favourably.

As far back as the 1930’s Bertrand Russell, in his essay In Praise of Idleness, was of the opinion that it would be possible to get by quite comfortably on a four hour working day. And our productive ability has increased by many times since then. JM Keynes the economist and Einstein – among others – have also looked at this problem and come up with similar conclusions. The question they asked was how much work would we need to do if we got organised, eliminated waste and made full use of our technology. Depending on what sort of assumptions were made, most studies have concluded that we could quite easily maintain a high living standard and only need to work a few days a week.

Now could that be true? Are we really doing twice the amount of work than is needed to support our living standards? And if is this is so why do we constantly hear that one of the biggest problems in our society today is that there is not enough work?

We do have a problem with work. You can’t help hearing about it. Every day on the television, on the radio and in the newspapers, politicians and economists tell us. There’s mass unemployment! People are suffering! Times are tough! There is a desperate search going on for solutions to this great problem of our time.

But why should there be any problem at all? We are blessed with an incredible technology which makes it possible to produce enough for everyone with ease. It isn’t hard to put up an argument that we are producing far too much. Yet people are suffering and times are tough.

It has already been shown that the fact we can afford to spend so much of our time producing waste and excess is really a hidden sign of how far we have advanced. Well it’s exactly the same thing with unemployment.

Unemployment is a sign of our unrealised potential. It simply means we are not making full use of the available work force. Wouldn’t we all be better off if the whole labour-force was being used?

To illustrate this; say there is a big pile of rock that has to be carried to the top of a hill. There are a hundred people available to do this work. Unemployment is like saying we will only use ninety-five of these people for the job. The other five are not allowed to help. They must remain idle. Not only that but they are penalised for their enforced idleness. Under a system like this everyone suffers. Wouldn’t the job be much easier to do if there were five extra people to help? With five additional pairs of hands, the rock would be at the top of the hill much faster’ no-one would be redundant and everyone’s work load would be less.

But this is exactly what happens in our society. Ninety-five percent of the work force do all of the work while the other five percent (through no choice of their own) don’t contribute at all. Isn’t it logical that if the unused five percent (the unemployed) were to help with the work it would all get done that much faster. Then there would be no unemployment, everybody could work less and we’d still be producing just as much as we do now, which is more than enough for everyone.

But what about money? We are told that if there is not enough of it around then we can’t afford to make use of our excess labour. We are told that if we were to share the workload more equally then everybody would earn less and thus have a lower living standard. Money, – those bits of paper and metal with numbers written on them – has become of such importance that the matter of whether or not we are producing enough is now a secondary issue. Surely one of the main reasons we work is to get whatever needs to be done, completed as quickly and enjoyably as possible. And surely one of the main reasons we have money is to make it easier to distribute the fruits of that labour amongst one another. The real question should be not whether there is enough money but whether there is enough stuff being produced. And it’s obvious there’s enough stuff. Our current technological and organisational abilities mean we can now produce an abundance with ease.

Economists can write volumes giving all sorts of complicated reasons for unemployment, but isn’t the reality that it is an illogical and absurd concept? We have been persuaded to believe in it as a necessary evil. Woe is us, we tell each other, there’s not enough work.

But how on earth can there be such a thing as not enough work? There is only as much work as needs to be done. Either we are producing enough to satisfy all our requirements, in which case we don’t need to do any more work, or, we aren’t producing enough, in which case we do need to do more. The common wisdom is that if we increase the amount of work that has to be done, then we’re better off. To my way of thinking, as long as all the work that needs to be done, is getting done, then the less work the better.

Unemployment in a society that is already producing enough is simply a potential for lower working hours. To illustrate this I’d like to go back to the example of the 95 people carting rocks up a hill. Just say in order to complete the job each one of those 95 people has to carry rocks for 37 hours. In that case the total number of hours worked would be 3515. (95 x 37 = 3515) but if they subsequently got their 5 idle companions to help then that 3515 hours of work could be divided between 100 workers instead of 95. (3515 – 100 = 35.15) each worker would then only have to lug rocks for 35.1 hours – a saving of about 2 hours.

These figures show that in Australia for example where the unemployment rate is around 5%, there is scope for a reduction of about 2 hours from the average working week. But for some reason we always seem to be looking for ways to increase the amount of work that is done. We are told about the need for increased exports, increased retail sales and economic activity – and about impending disaster if there is ever any decrease. My argument is the exact opposite to that. It’s about reducing economic activity – about less work. Once a certain level of comfort and ease has been achieved in our lives then there should be no need to produce any more. From that point on we ought to be freed from having to work.

This statement, freed from having to work, doesn’t mean that people have to stop working or that they can’t produce more stuff if that’s what they want to do. It’s not a pretext for lazing around and vegetating. It rather means that survival no longer be the main purpose for working. Once all the work that needs to be done has been completed, people ought to be able to spend their time doing whatever pleases and fulfils them; whether it be rock climbing, stamp collecting or brain surgery. And the less work we could get by on, the more possibility there would be for people to devote themselves to the things they enjoy. This is not to say that that work which needs to be done can’t also be fulfilling. Many of us could think of nothing better than to be a farmer, a doctor or a teacher. Even a job like collecting the garbage could be rewarding if you didn’t have to do it all the time.

But that’s not all if we were to reduce the amount of stuff that we produce and at the same time equally share round the work load, we could go a long way to solving the environmental crisis. Because our current level of production is not sustainable – our environment is being destroyed in the pursuit of production at any cost. Making major  cuts to production would help solve that urgent problem.

Our present situation reminds me of the golden age of Greece – a civilisation that gave us so many great ideas in philosophy, politics, sport, science and art. But there was a downside to the civilisation;- slavery. The reason that all those philosophers and artists had time to excel as they did was because of the vast army of slaves that looked after them. At that time about 50% of the population were slaves. People have struggled with the question – was the enslavement of fellow human beings worth the great intellectual advances that were attained? In many ways we live in a parallel situation today, only we have solved the slavery problem – because the machines are our slaves. So one could say that we are now at the very threshold of a new golden age, we just haven’t realised that we’re there yet.

As things stand all this talk about increased leisure is just a dream. As long as our present attitude to work persists, we will continue along this path of over-production till our planet bursts at the seams – all the time worrying that we need to produce even more. In order to realise the economic utopia that has all but arrived, we need to understand that less work is desirable – that unemployment is good.

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