Roughly speaking the world’s economy has always worked as a giant pass-along-game between the planet’s citizens. Person A needed stuff from person B and person B needed stuff from person C and person C needed stuff from person A. So everyone needed everybody. It has been a kind of giant circle of needs.
But as a smaller and smaller number of people are needed to make the basic things that people need for survival, from food to energy, to clothing and housing, the less likely it is that some people will be needed at all.
When you read in the press the oft-quoted concept that “those jobs aren’t coming back” this “reduction of need” is what underlies all of it. Technology has reduced the need for labour. And the labour that *is* needed can’t be done in more developed nations because there are people elsewhere who will happily provide that labour less expensively.
In the long term, technology is almost certainly the solution to the problem. When we create devices that individuals will be able to own that will be able to produce everything that we need, the solution will be at hand. This is *not* science fiction. We are starting to see that happen with energy with things like rooftop solar panels and less expensive wind turbines. We are nowhere near where we need to be, but it is obvious that eventually everyone will be able to produce his or her own energy.
The same will be true for clothing, where personal devices will be able to make our clothing in our homes on demand. Food will be commoditized in a similar way, making it possible to have the basic necessities of life with a few low cost source materials.
The problem is that we are in this awful in-between phase of our planets productivity curve. Technology has vastly reduced the number of workers and resources that are required to make what the planet needs. This means that a small number of people, the people in control of the creation of goods, get the benefit of the increased productivity. When we get to the end of this curve and everyone can, in essence, be their own manufacturer, things will be good again. But until we can ride this curve to its natural stopping point, there will be much suffering, as the jobs that technology kills are not replaced.
The political implications of this are staggering. Clearly, more and more jobs will move from more developed nations to countries like China, and it is difficult to see how, as this process continues, the United States retains its leadership position. In fact, it seems entirely possible that the U.S. will exchange places with less well-developed nations. Yes, there will certainly be fabulously wealthy people in the US, because many US companies will own these highly productive businesses. Unfortunately, that wealth will be held by a very small number of people. And their operations will need to employ very few people.
In short you will have a few very wealthy folks, and a much larger majority that will just not be needed for the most important things that the country needs to do.
I don’t know what the short-term solution to this problem is. In fact, I fear there may not be one. But it is clear that what I am describing has already started and there is little we can do to stop it. GDP will increase as demand for labour **decreases**! How is that for the ultimate economist’s oxymoron?
Hank Williams is a tech entrepreneur. He writes at Why Does Everything Suck?, where this post originally appeared.
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