Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Universal Efficiency

I recently got to reading some articles about old economic predictions from economists in the 30s.

Stop laughing.

One of the most famous is Keynes' prediction that people would have dropped down to a 15 hour workweek by this point due to increases in efficiency.  We are way more efficient, as many people including Keynes predicted, but that efficiency hasn't lowered our workweek length.  There are lots of reasons, including that people like working hard and long at their jobs, and that our efficiency gains have gotten rid of jobs in factories but people simply expect even more services now than ever before.  Our watches are cheaper but we want more baristas, more therapists, and more entertainers, and their jobs aren't really improving in efficiency via technology.

We also adapt to new technology by simply having higher standards.  Better washing machines doesn't mean more free time, it just means we wash clothes more often than we used to.  Vaccuum cleaners have increased the standard of cleanliness of floors.  People change to demand more of everyone else rather than keeping the standards the same when new tools arise.

I think we should consider our way of distributing wealth as another major factor.  In the salary method we use now if I decide to work 4 hours a week I can't exist.  It doesn't matter that stuff is cheaper and that we are efficient, because a normal person working 40 hours a week has ten times as much money.  They have more computers and clothes and such, which isn't a big problem, but they also have 10 times as much money to spend on housing.  There aren't any places to live that are 1/10th as much as a normal apartment.  I don't just have less house - I am homeless.  That is going to be true no matter how much more efficient we get.  If I have 10% of the money of a normal person, my life is nonfunctional.  If I work 40 hours a week, a normal person can earn more than me by working longer, but they actually can't work that much longer, and they definitely can't work 10 times as long to price me out of the market completely.

That all changes under a Universal Income scheme.  Suddenly I am guaranteed enough money for a basic living.  My home won't be nice, but it won't be a box in an alley.  If I want to work 4 hours a week it will improve my situation, and I might do it, or I might not, but it is possible to live while doing so.  The pressure of competition is mightily reduced when my income is not proportional to the hours I work.

This is one of the arguments for a Universal Income policy.  Our lives have so much more than they used to but the benefits are deeply concentrated at the top.  Normal people can't actually make use of the gains in efficiency we are seeing because they have to compete so tirelessly against everyone else.

I don't think we actually want a situation where every year human society produces so much more stuff than the year before but everyone has to continue to work at pointless jobs to have enough to exist.  I think we want a society where increased robotics usage means people have more time to do what they want.  Maybe what they want is reading, painting, raising children, or writing cool code.  Maybe it is rock climbing or dating or learning a new language.

A world where people can pay their bills and still pursue these other things is a good world.  It is a world where we can honestly say that all the things our society is doing to make things more and bigger and faster is actually improving our lives.

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