Work and Money

will work for food

He’s a gentleman with a family
A gentle man, living day to day
He’s a gentleman with pride, one may conclude
Sign reads, “Gentleman with a family will work for food.”

Manhattan Transfer, Gentleman With a Family

Norwegian Petter Amlie is an entrepreneur, technology consultant, and frequent contributor on Medium. Work runs our economy, he writes in a recent article, “but if future technology lets us keep our standard of living without it, why do we hold on to it?” It’s a good question — one of those obvious ones we don’t think to ask. Why would we insist on working for food — or the money we need to buy food — if we don’t have to?

As we’ve seen, at the center of the objections to robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, marketing algorithms, machine learning, and universal basic income is that they threaten the link between work and money. That’s upsetting because we believe jobs are the only way to “make a living.” But what if a day comes — sooner than we’d like to think — when that’s no longer true?

Work comes naturally to us, but the link between work and money is artificial — the function of an economic/social contract that relies on jobs to support both the production and consumption sides of the supply/demand curve:  we work to produce goods and services, we get paid for doing it, we use the money to buy goods and services from each other. If technology takes over the production jobs, we won’t get paid to produce things — then how are we supposed to buy them? Faced with that question, “the captains of industry and their fools on the hill” (Don Henley) generally talk jobs, jobs, jobs — or, in the absence of jobs, workfare.

John Maynard Keynes had a different idea back in 1930, just after the original Black Friday, when he predicted that technological progress would end the need for jobs, so that we would work for pay maybe fifteen hours per week, leaving us free to pursue nobler pursuits. He spoke in rapturous, Biblical terms:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue–that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those who walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin.”

But then, after a second world war tore the planet apart, jobs rebuilt it. We’ve lived with that reality so long that we readily pooh-pooh Keynes’s euphoric prophecy. Amlie suggests we open our minds to it:

“Work and money are both systems we’ve invented that were right for their time, but there’s no reason to see them as universally unavoidable parts of society. They helped us build a strong global economy, but why would we battle to keep it that way, if societal and technological progress could help us change it?

“We have a built-in defense mechanism when the status quo is challenged by ideas such as Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks and even just basic flexibility at the workplace, often without considering why we have an urge to defend it.

“You’re supposed to be here at eight, even if you’re tired. You’re supposedto sit here in an open landscape, even if the isolation of a home office can help you concentrate on challenging tasks. You have exactly X number of weeks to recharge your batteries every year, because that’s how it’s always been done.

“While many organizations have made significant policy adjustments in the last two decades, we’re still clinging to the idea that we should form companies, they should have employees that are paid a monthly sum to be there at the same time every morning five days a week, even if this system is not making us very happy.

“I do know that work is not something I necessarily want to hold on to, if I could sustain my standard of living without it, which may just be the case if robots of the future could supply us with all the productivity we could ever need. If every job we can conceive could be done better by a machine than a human, and the machines demand no pay, vacation or motivation to produce goods and services for mankind for all eternity, is it such a ridiculous thought to ask in such a society why we would need money?

“We should be exploring eagerly how to meet these challenges and how they can improve the human existence, rather than fighting tooth and nail to sustain it without knowing why we want it that way.

“The change is coming. Why not see it in a positive light, and work towards a future where waking up at 4 am to go to an office is not considered the peak of human achievement?”

One gentleman with a family who’s been seeing change in a positive new light is Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test that just ended. He’s no longer working hard for the money, but he is working harder than ever.  We’ll meet him next time.

Utopia

utopia-fox

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

John Maynard Keynes

We met law professor and economics visionary James Kwak a few months ago. In his book Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality (2017), he tells this well-known story about John Maynard Keynes:

“In 1930, John Maynard Keynes argued that, thanks to technological progress, the ‘economic problem’ would be solved in about a century and people would only work fifteen hours per week — primarily to keep themselves occupied. When freed from the need to accumulate wealth, the human life would change profoundly.”

This passage is from Keynes’ 1930 essay:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue–that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those who walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom are take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin.”

The timing of Keynes’ essay is fascinating:  he wrote it right after the original Black Friday and as the Great Depression was rolling out. Today, it seems as though his prediction was more than out of time, it was just plain wrong. Plus, it was undeniably utopian — which for most of us is usually a warning sign. Someone says “utopia,” and we automatically hear “dystopia,” which is where utopias usually end up after “reproduc[ing] many of the same tyrannies that people were trying to escape: egoism, power struggles, envy, mistrust and fear.” “Utopia, Inc.,” Aeon Magazine.

commune family

It’s just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You’d give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will-

The Eagles

To be fair, the post-WWII surge truly was a worldwide feast of economic utopia, served up mostly by the Mont Pelerin Society and other champions of neoliberal ideology. If they didn’t create the precise utopia Keynes envisioned, that’s because even the best ideas can grow out of time:  a growing international body of data, analysis, and commentary indicates that continued unexamined allegiance to neoliberalism is rapidly turning postwar economic utopia into its opposite.

But what if we actually could, if not create utopia, then at least root out some persistent strains of dystopia — things like poverty, lack of access to meaningful work, even a more even-handed and less unequal income distribution? Kwak isn’t alone in thinking we could do just that, but to get there from here will require more than a new ideology to bump neoliberalism aside. Instead, we need an entirely new economic narrative, based on a new understanding of how the world works:

“Almost a century [after Keynes made his prediction], we have the physical, financial, and human capital necessary for everyone in our country to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, and within a few generations the same should be true of the entire planet, And yet our social organization remains the same as it was in the Great Depression:  some people work very hard and make more money than they will ever need, while many others are unable to find work and live in poverty.

“Real change will not be achieved by mastering the details of marginal costs and marginal benefits, but by constructing a new, controlling narrative about how the world works.”

Rooting out the persistent strains of economic dystopia in our midst will require a whole new way of thinking — maybe even some utopia thinking. If we’re going to go there, we’ll need to keep our wits about us. More on that next time.