The End of Work, The Good Life, and You
In today’s economy, we find ourselves struggling with the question of how to get people back to work. In a recent podcast, David Wong (John Dies at the End) asks instead why we should get people back to work. In his view, automation has not only rendered many jobs obsolete, but in fact made it possible for society to fulfill its material needs without the labor of all of its members. He points to jobs such as barista that (he asserts—let’s see a machine do this) could be done just as well by machines, and casts them as surplusage—“make-work” positions—that exist not out of economic necessity, but rather a John Smith work-or-starve ethic: people must work as a precondition to living in our society. Wong suggests that in a society with as much productivity and material abundance as ours, there is no longer an economic reason for everyone to work, only a vestigial moral reason. Rather than production, then, society ought to demand consumption—all people need to do is provide a market for goods created by machines.
It is true that many jobs are being obviated by automation. It seems inevitable that even more jobs will be obviated as machines and software become ever more sophisticated. But I cannot agree with Wong when he reduces the economic role of tomorrow’s individual to consumption. There is an important type of production that Wong’s analysis overlooks: creative production—the production of ideas, through the arts, sciences and innovation. Jobs in these fields are not so easily supplanted by computers as we know them today (although this may change in a couple generations.) Furthermore, the creative professions form the backbone of what my old teacher Prof. Terry Fisher called "the good life": a utopian model that maximizes creative output and tempers passive consumption. (“A person living the good life would be a creator, not just a consumer, of works of the intellect.”) Prof. Fisher postulates that widespread economic security is a precondition to the “good life”; if Wong is correct and society would be just as well off without many currently existing menial jobs, Fisher’s “good life” may soon be feasible. In other words, if people are no longer needed to produce material goods, then they may be set to work producing intellectual goods.
Prof. Fisher’s “good life” is appealing, perhaps, because the way we reward artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and other creators is broken. Prof. F.M. Scherer characterized it as a "lottery": those lucky few who make it big earn outsized rewards, while the rest are left to rot. This happens for a number of reasons:
- The "superstar effect." The best performers can command far broader audiences than in generations past, and thus far greater revenues. This may seem fair, meritocratic even, until we consider that success in the creative market is often arbitrary.
- State-sanctioned monopolies. Patent and copyright law give creators the exclusive right to exploit their intellectual property for a time, with the intention that people will be encouraged to produce processes/methods (patent) or creative works (copyright.) As a result, while most patents and copyrights never pay off, those few that do can give rise to enormous monopoly rents: “Happy Birthday” earns $2 million in royalties per year, while last year AOL sold a package of 925 patents to Microsoft for $1.05 billion.
- Network economics. Products like Facebook, Microsoft Office, or Photoshop become more valuable as they gain more market share: people want to use the same software products and standards that their friends and colleagues are using. This means that the big winners will tend to stay big, and potential competitors (Google+, OpenOffice, Manga Studio, etc.) will face relatively high barriers.
- Many people do not think of art as something that needs to be rewarded or incentivized at all.
- 75% of startups fail, and not just because the underlying idea was bad. Webvan, for example, offered online grocery retail services long before Amazon did, but folded in 2001 after only two years of operation.
- And so on…
The lottery model of innovation is incompatible with the “good life” for two reasons. First, the “good life” requires widespread participation in creative activities. However, the many who lose the “innovation lottery” end up not being compensated for their mental labor, and are unlikely to continue in creative work when it is easier to work a stable job and passively consume the intellectual products of others. Second, the winner-take-all nature of the “innovation lottery” tends to lead to cultural homogenization, as people end up listening to the same few musicians, watching the same few TV shows, and so on. When Scherer published in 1999, 98 percent of singles sales came from just 800 recordings. (Since then, the Internet has lowered barriers to entry, allowing for the rise of indie music and gaming, and somewhat ameliorating the effects of the “innovation lottery.”)
How, then, do we get away from the “innovation lottery” and move closer to the “good life”? In his podcast, David Wong suggests a guaranteed minimum income as a way to ensure consumption, and the same measure would allow more people to engage in creative activity without fear of ruin. Other, possibly more politically palatable, options include grants, prizes, and weakening copyright and patent monopolies. I don’t have a definitive answer, but the question is important to think about. David Wong asks, how will our attitudes and incentives toward work look when people are no longer needed to produce things? I ask, how will our attitudes and incentives toward work look when people are free to produce ideas?