08 December 2013

What About the Future?

What do millions of people do in a world in which, in Marxian terms, “capital” no longer needs “labor”? America’s liberal elite seem to enjoy having a domestic-servant class on hand, but, unlike the Downton Abbey crowd, are vaguely uncomfortable with having them drawn from the sturdy yokel stock of the village, and thus favor, to a degree only the Saudis can match, importing their maids and pool boys from a permanent subordinate class of cheap foreign labor. Hence the fetishization of the “undocumented,” soon to be reflected in the multimillion bipartisan amnesty for those willing to do “the jobs Americans won’t do.”
So what jobs will Americans get to do? We dignify the new age as “the knowledge economy,” although, to the casual observer, it doesn’t seem to require a lot of knowledge. One of the advantages of Obamacare, according to Nancy Pelosi, is that it will liberate the citizenry: “Think of an economy where people could be an artist or a photographer or a writer without worrying about keeping their day job in order to have health insurance.” It’s certainly true that employer-based health coverage distorts the job market, but what’s more likely in a world without work? A new golden age of American sculpture and opera? Or millions more people who live vicariously through celebrity gossip and electronic diversions? One of the differences between government health care in America compared to, say, Sweden is the costs of obesity, heart disease, childhood diabetes, etc. In an ever-more sedentary society where fewer and fewer have to get up to go to work in the morning, is it likely that those trends will diminish or increase?
Consider Vermont. Unlike my own state of New Hampshire, it has a bucolic image: Holsteins, dirt roads, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, Ben & Jerry’s, Howard Dean … . And yet the Green Mountain State has appalling levels of heroin and meth addiction, and the social chaos that follows.

While a future without work for millions of underclass humans seems not only dystopic but downright likely, I think a couple of points are in order.

First, the black market always exists.  I suspect that it will flourish during the coming time of economic contraction, hyper-regulation, and mass immigration.  As such, while many people will appear to be nominally poor, the reality will be that they will earn more than is officially reflected because it is considerably more profitable to keep one’s economic activity on the DL as much as possible.  Thus, to some extent, it will appear that Americans aren’t working while in reality they are but not telling the government about it.

Second, it must be remembered that technology is not permanent.  Roman arches were a high achievement in architecture by the first century.  Then Roman society collapsed and arches were not seen again for hundreds of years because it took people forever to figure out how to reverse-engineer that particular technology.  In like manner, it is simply foolish to assume that this current level of technology can be maintained indefinitely.  Technological systems have become extremely complex and dependent on other technologies.  A full power outage in a single city renders basically all technology in that city useless.  Tech systems are incredibly fragile, and it is truly a testament to American engineering that American tech systems are as hyper-reliable as they are.

Unfortunately, this good fortune is not guaranteed to last.  Economic regulation is trending towards making the power grid less reliable (production is regulated, as is pricing in some instances).  The dumbing-down of education will eventually mean that there will arise a generation of citizens who completely lack the intellectual tools to even grasp, let alone maintain or repair the current tech system in America.  Furthermore, planned obsolescence is becoming a feature of modern life, which means that machines will not last as long, and that repairs will be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive than before.  Also, the software and programming side of things is becoming more complex, which makes it harder to completely master software systems and maintain them.  This layered complexity coupled with predictable unreliability of gadgets will make for a nasty ending once we run out of people who aren’t smart enough to maintain the current level of technology.  To put it simply, machines will never replace people because we will eventually run out of people to keep the machines going.

Finally, it must be noted that the drug abuse culture is pretty much a dead end.  By this I mean that those whose only goal in life is to destroy their bodies with drugs will eventually succeed, and will eventually breed and die out.  Society is not built on the backs of those who drop out of society to do mind-altering drugs.  While this is a sad development, it is not a permanently major development.

As such, the current lamentation about the future seems a little misguided.  Yes, it is currently the case that a lot of Americans will, in the immediate future, find themselves unemployed and hopeless.  The general social trends, however, suggest that in the longer run technology will eat itself while the black market expands, which means that there will be plenty of work for everyone in the future.  Unfortunately, everyone will be poorer, hence the need for work, but they will at least have plenty of work.  The short run, though, should be a sadly painful transition.