Saturday, 6 June 2015

Work After Work

As automation of the economy proceeds, there are two possible outcomes. One is that more and more jobs are lost, as the marginal product of low skilled labour becomes less than the minimum wage. The other is that we continue to improve human capital and come up with more and more jobs that people could possibly do. So far in human history, it has mostly been the latter. Most jobs that existed hundreds of years ago in the west are now performed by machines, and yet we are not seeing massive increases in unemployment. Some jobs may not ever be amenable to automation, or at least be automated very late in the process. In this vein, I think it is likely that in the next century we may see a revival in domestic servitude. 

We may also be able to increase human capital through genetic engineering or other eugenic methods in order to stay one step ahead of the machines. It is not certain, however, that this will always be the case. It is at least a possibility that at some point, the vast majority of people will not be able to produce enough economic value for it to make sense for anyone to employ them.

In this situation, clearly the mass unemployment requires some sort of government action in order to prevent civil unrest and extreme poverty. Some sort of citizen's income seems the simplest solution, and people with more economics knowledge than me can speculate over exactly what such a society would look like. 

What would we do in such a future? Would a population of people who were comfortable but unproductive be happy? Many people would gain meaning from family, or through endless education for the sake of itself. Most unemployed people, however, are very unhappy. This must partly be because of the short term setback of becoming unemployed, the fact they have little money, and the stigma attached to unemployment. It is also possible, however, that the structure and purpose of work helps give people meaning and happiness. I'm not some sort of Stakhanovite or calvinist, I usually dislike work and can happily find things to fill my days without it, but I don't know if this is the case for everyone, it is at least worth entertaining the idea that work is in some sense necessary.

How do we square this circle? It may be necessary for the government to provide some sort of make work scheme. These jobs may be similar to those we do today, we could employ people to dig holes and fill them in again, or even create whole potemkin industries of fake customers, products and supply chains. This doesn't sound like much fun though, and shows a lack of ambition. Today many people hate their jobs, the hours are long and the conditions poor. Free of any of any of the forces that cause this, however, jobs might be very different. We're not producing anything, so productivity is irrelevant. We can instead attempt to optimise jobs so that people actually enjoy them. Most paperwork would presumably be eliminated, everyone seems to hate that. Working hours would be obscenely flexible and likely shorter than now. Many countries by convention take more weeks of holidays than others, and they certainly don't seem unhappier for it, so holiday time would longer. Jobs may require a lot of travel, and variety would be greater, since specialisation and skills are irrelevant. Perhaps some sort of pressure is helpful for people, so arbitrary deadlines may by invented in order to give a pleasant ebb and flow to the rhythm of life. Rather than looking at it as a make work scheme, it may be better to think of it as an adult daycare centre, though even better not to ever call it that.

It is possible that in spite of all this variety and fun, if people knew deep down that it was all unnecessary, they would still be very unhappy. Would it, in this case, be right to lie to them, to tell them that they were helping? If I were a super benevolent artificial intelligence entrusted with maximising human happiness, it's possible that I wouldn't even tell them. Just secretly outsource all the real work over time, while the old jobs inexplicably get a lot more fun, their boss is suddenly a lot nicer, and everyone suddenly has a lot more holiday time. If this inexplicably starts to happen over the next few years, I recommend we all keep quiet about it.

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