This is a 22 min read about how we will value our values in the emerging Digital Environment
This is a very preliminary sort of ramble, because my ideas are still in a pretty early stage, and I’m quite likely to be wrong about several things. But it’s good to explore these ideas publicly, hear feedback, and think more; everything I’ve thought so far has come from some very thoughtful critiques I’ve heard of these ideas, both Leftist and Conservative. (In fact, it’s the intersection of the two critiques that has been most thought-provoking, a sure sign that this is a complicated question!)
Basically, more and more jobs are vanishing, and they aren’t going to come back.
But it’s a weird sort of vanishing. What happened is that our productivity per worker has been skyrocketing since the 50’s. At first, this meant not just more pay per worker, but a drop in prices of goods, so everyone was better off. Until the late 70’s. At that point, we started to hit the point where we had enough production of all sorts of things that we simply needed fewer workers to make all the stuff anyone would want, and that meant that while prices dropped, wages did, too. Some of this briefly got hidden by “offshoring” — it was cheaper to move manufacturing to China, then to Bangladesh, and so on — but those countries are starting to see automation take jobs away, too. The cost of production is dropping to zero.
What’s really stupid about this is that it leads to people starving in the midst of plenty. That’s because we actually use jobs for three different things:
- To make things we need;
- To allocate resources (via things like wages); and
- As sources of individual meaning in our lives.
If the last one seems fuzzy compared the first two, stop: this is a classic “naïve Marxist” fallacy that everything is money. People get a lot of their sense of self-worth and role in their society from being seen as a productive, contributing member of the group. This can be extremely healthy, or extremely unhealthy, depending on the details — something we’ll get to in a bit.
The basic problem we have is that we can achieve goal (1) with capital equipment right now, and since our companies are shareholder-owned rather than worker-owned, that means that they do so, quite cheaply, but in the process stop satisfying (2) and (3).
And so you end up with a bunch of people un- or under-employed, frantically struggling to make ends meet, even as productivity is at an all-time high. It is; there are lots of goods. But the allocation of resources becomes intensely lopsided. And there are lots of reasons for people with goods to want it to be lopsided; Peter Whoriskey’s article, “‘A way of monetizing poor people’: How private equity firms make money offering loans to cash-strapped Americans” illustrates one of many.
Basically, people with limited economic options are a resource to be harvested, if you have a mind to. If you want to go deeper, here’s an article I wrote a while ago explaining in more detail why “a pool of poor people” is really valuable if you’re rich — as well as what “rich” actually means.
But this is something valuable only to a pretty small fraction of society. To most people, the idea of “everyone starves to death” seems pretty unpleasant, not to mention idiotically unnecessary if everyone is starving to death because we have too much wealth.