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 scarcity of work problem is economic stimulus – that is finding ways to get the economy moving. The idea being, more demand for things results in more production which means more work and a corresponding 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 upside down.

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). In the past 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. But 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. Really though; the associated lowering of stress, the freeing up of our creative spirits, the ability to direct our attention to things in the world that desperately need doing would not make it a similar lifestyle at all – it would as Robert Anton Wilson says; “make the Renaissance look like a high school science fair or a Greenwich Village art show“.

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.

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2 responses

12 11 2014
Ted Carron

Someone is only unemployed if they want to work and can’t find a job. Most of the people who are unemployed want to work so they can have a decent life style for themselves and their children. Having people who do not have a decent live style and can’t do anything about it – because they can’t get a job – is not a good thing.

12 11 2014
Michael

It doesn’t appear you have understood my argument Ted. I thought I said it pretty clearly in the second paragrah of this post that “Unemployment is Good” does not mean I think the struggles of those who can’t find work is good. Obviously that is not good. As I said “I am talking about unemployment as an economic indicator” The fact that we have unemployment in a world of plenty like ours shows we are blind to the incredible opportunites that exist for a much better than decent life style for everyone.

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