Saturday, February 2, 2019
Creating Jobless Prosperity
written 26 January 2019
published 2 February 2019
In 1971 Edgar Mitchell was the sixth man to step onto the surface of the moon. On his return trip, he saw Earth suspended in the black of space and had an epiphany: it is all connected. Two years later he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), dedicated to helping shift worldwide consciousness toward recognizing the interconnected whole. From 1978 to 1997, the president of IONS was Willis Harman.
Harman wrote "Creative Work" in 1990, pointing out that two centuries of industrial progress had created effective labor saving devices which allowed 10% of the working population to produce everything needed. However, our Puritanical culture requires everyone to work in order to participate in the economy, so 90% of the workforce is busy producing things we don't need, or they are forced into poverty.
He was obviously correct, as we are drowning in stuff that is not necessary for life, and the advertising industry spends billions insisting this stuff will make us happy. We have more stuff than we can fit into our homes, and storage units are a growth industry. This flood of stuff depletes resources, wastes energy, and doesn't seem to make us happy, evidenced by the rise in anti-depressant consumption.
Decades of outsourcing jobs to countries with cheaper labor reduced domestic employment. This was made worse by the economic disruption of the Internet, which came into being since Harman's book. The explosion of the online economy, the growth in computer aided manufacturing, and the rise of robots, has furthered the collapse of meaningful work. Even China, the definition of a cheap labor country, is investing in robotic design and manufacture. Silicon Valley is aware that artificial intelligence and robotics are destroying the economy as it is now structured, but they are still obsessed with building self-driving vehicles, which will displace hundreds of thousands more workers in the US alone.
Adjusted for inflation, wages haven't increased since 1980. This lack of buying power has hollowed out our society. Though the stock market is booming and houses keep increasing in price, most of the prosperity has accrued to the few at the top of the economic heap. Each day in 2018, the billionaire class of 2200 individuals, increased wealth by $2.5 billion while the poorest 3.5 billion on the planet lost $500 million. The recently concluded government shutdown highlighted that 40% of America lives paycheck to paycheck, with little saved for emergencies.
What will happen to the consumer economy with the trend toward elimination of most jobs? This question deserves serious thought. One idea being considered globally is Universal Basic Income (UBI), which decouples income from employment. This would be a payment to every citizen, without regard to other income. Understanding the world as unity, all citizens should benefit from the larger economic system. This would be an economy that works like our bodies, where the support and thriving of every part is the definition of good health. A UBI stipend would allow people to develop their own potentials, engage in activities that inspire them, independent of the economic return. Money is a very limited measure of real social value. People would be able to provide services that are of value to society, which are not currently funded with a living wage. Wage slavery and working a job one hates would become a thing of the past.
Many cities and regions are currently experimenting with limited forms of UBI. The big question is how to fund such a system. Alternatives range from tax reform to collective ownership models. People would receive equal shares, like the Alaskan Oil Dividend, so UBI could replace most existing social welfare systems, eliminating the expense of massive bureaucracies dedicated to means testing. A simple Google search will provide more details.
The real barrier to this idea is the belief in separation, and the punitive belief in salvation through work. The fact that meaningful, well paid work is going away is demanding a new consideration. As long we believe the poor are lazy sinners and the rich are blessed by God, as reflected by the latest Republican tax scam, we will accelerate the decay of our civilization and hasten collapse of the economy.