Author: robertbgharries

Do ‘Bullshit Jobs’ Exist?

LSE anthropologist David Graeber writing in Strike Magazine made a persuasive argument that capitalist society has seen a proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’, jobs that have no ‘social value’ or necessity and serve only the purpose of keeping people employed. ‘Bullshit jobs’ provide an occupation for the population and an illusion that helps maintain ruling class and capitalist relations, the explanation to their existence “isn’t economic: it’s moral and political”[i] according to Graeber.

The number of books and articles on automated unemployment, Universal Basic Income, more leisure time, AI, post-work and post-capitalism have exploded in recent years and with this focus on the future, Graeber’s thesis has become popular amongst many on the Left (his political constituency) and dissatisfied critics of our current economic situation.

The idea of ‘bullshit jobs’ is persuasively argued and at the very least, Graeber touches upon topics ripe for interrogation and debate whatever your political position. However, a familiarity with the Subjective Theory of Value may help explain why Graeber’s thesis is not entirely convincing.

Underpinning (albeit undeclared) Graeber’s thesis is the classic ‘Labour Theory of Value’, the idea that it is the amount of ‘socially necessary labour’ in producing a good or service that gives economic value, rather than market pricing mechanisms based on other criteria.

For example, Graeber observes that socially necessary jobs, such as garbage men, nurses and car mechanics, are less remunerated than abstract knowledge workers such as bankers, who may or may not produce as much ‘social’ value for society. If it takes eight hours to collect a city’s garbage, no more and no less, then the economic value (and remuneration) of such an activity is those eight hours of ‘socially necessary labour’, not how much someone values the activity, the supply of labour or any other factor that determines value within capitalism.

However, challenging the Labour Theory of Value (LTV) is the Subjective Theory of Value (STV), which is the idea that the economic value of a good or service is not related to labour hours, but the subjective value and willingness to pay from a consumer. This is best exemplified in the ‘Diamond-Water Paradox’, which observes that water is necessary to human life, yet is cheaper than diamonds which serve non-necessary purposes in human existence. The explanation as to why this difference in economic value exists (at least anywhere with adequate supplies of water) is down to the Subjective Theory of Value, which holds that the consumer is evaluating different utilities and trade-offs at the present moment and then subjectively determines the value of a water or diamond to them.

The debate between LTV and STV is an interesting and rewarding subject area in its own right; however it punctuates Graeber’s thesis and any subsequent criticism of it. The capitalist elite are not acting or thinking in unison, and capitalism has yet to produce the super-abundance that might necessitate the political need for artificial ‘bullshit jobs’ of which Graeber describes.

The main contestation with the argument Graeber makes is what constitutes a ‘bullshit job’ and why? Defining and discovering what ‘bullshit jobs’ exist is a difficult exercise and the justifications as to why such jobs exist (if indeed they do) help undermine the confident assertion that current capitalism is creating a plethora of ‘bullshit jobs’.

Calculating Value

The cost of labour is determined by a number of combined factors such as: market rate for a particular job; scarcity; productivity and bargaining power of both employer and employee among other factors. Wages and salaries are not usually subject to complex modelling based on these inputs, as this is time consuming, the inputs are volatile and ever changing and it is currently conceptually impossible to invent a scientific method to determine wages that reflects an accurate and precise relationship to value produced. Wages are often set by simple markers such as what the rest of the market pays to get a job done and the discretion and preferences of the employer based on their business acumen.

All in all, it is extremely hard for most workers to even begin to know how to calculate their economic value and subsequent rate of surplus extraction (if indeed they produce such a surplus).

Even a crude calculation of dividing profit after deductions, interest and taxation by the number of workers in a firm and then adding this to the existing wage is unsatisfactory. As different workers produce different rates of value, therefore that crude exercise would render a small margin of profit per worker in most companies, which would not necessarily reflect underlying economic realities.

This is assuming that the company in question turns a profit, and disregards paying for capital investment, extra employment costs (such as Employers NI) or any type of risk associated with undergoing enterprise. All the factors which need to be considered when calculating how much value are produced when compared to the cost of employing labour.

Then there is the attempt to calculate the value created by a particular job. A social media manger’s work might produce a sales lead two years in the making, this would not be picked up by supervisors/analysts and would be impossible to quantify. Even workers who have a closer relationship with revenue, such as sales staff cannot accurately discount the intangibles such as brand awareness; quality of the produce; demand in the market (which could be completely unrelated to how well a worker sells) and level of competition which reduce the net value they have produced when making a sale.

Therefore workers are blind to whether they create economic value or not, sweeping generalisations about certain jobs lacking economic value are unlikely to be founded on anything but a fashionable opinion and an unsubstantiated opinion at that.

Payment indicates value

The fact that many people (at least in the private sector) in these ‘bullshit jobs’ receive remuneration for their work indicates that someone within a firm believes value is being created, they could be wrong when the ‘numbers are run’, but they created the job because they believed it creates economic value, rather than serving some intangible political and ethical goal of the ruling class.

Jobs that do not produce more value than their costs do eventually get destroyed. Business exists to turn a profit; which is achieved by marshalling inputs such as: land, labour, enterprise and capital together and producing an outcome that is greater than the input costs.

Even if we ignore economic value, and instead focus on ‘social value’, this is even harder to calculate, let alone define as all of us have different definitions and preferences regarding what activities have ‘social value’. The deployment of ‘social value’ into the debate ignores that quite obviously (albeit unbelievably) inane activities, such as the twitter account of a popular cake, has social value, in so far as that people follow the account and presumably gather some value (I too am perplexed as much as anyone else) from its existence.

Even if we want to replace ‘cold’ economic value calculations with ‘social value’ calculations and outcomes in a new economic system, debate around definitions and trade-offs do not disappear. We all might say that we prefer more economic activity to serve a ‘social value’ outcome such as health or education, at the expense of economic activity that produces something of less ‘social value’.

We could have all discretionary spending diverted to health care if we desired. Though this would be produce a boring and unsatisfying economic life, for what is the point of a healthy and prolonged life if there is little else to occupy one’s time? Therefore it is likely we would still have demand for economic activity devoted to supposed lesser ‘social’ outcomes which would not be directed to economic activity of greater ‘social value’. Labour employed making a sitcom is labour that could be directed to health care, there is always a trade-off and opportunity cost, the debate is about what percentages we might want to be split on different forms of economic activity.

However, that debate must recognize the difference between expressed preferences versus revealed preferences, people might say they want more economic activity directed to things of greater ‘social value’ but their spending habits indicate that may not actually be the case. For better or for worse many ‘bullshit jobs’ exist because there is internal demand within a business for the labour which is then sustained externally by market demand for that labour, even if that demand for labour is hidden from consumers and analysts focusing on where the value is created.

Face Value is False Value

Personal opinion of one’s job being ‘bullshit’ is simply an anecdote rather than a carefully defined data point that supports the thesis that their job is a ‘bullshit job’. People often exaggerate and enjoy relieving stress by complaining about their workplace and job.

Furthermore, few people have the knowledge, motivation and interest to attempt to calculate their own economic value within their firm and compare rates of exploitation and value creation across jobs in the wider economy.

Therefore many who claim that their administration job is ‘of no value’ probably do not know whether that is the case or not, or even how much value they create compared to their cost of labour. A personal and clearly biased opinion on one’s own economic value is no substitute for economic and business analysis.

‘Common Sense’ opinions regarding business and economic rationality are rarely useful, if not downright misinformed and few workers outside of the accounting department or senior management have any visibility on the financial structure of the firm, which is critical in helping calculate the ‘true’ economic value of a job. Therefore it is doubtful that many who claim their job is of no economic value either know that to be the case or have the ability to know whether that is the case.

The only certainty of finding false value in this debate is taking what workers say about their jobs at face value.

If a job is ‘bullshit’ is could be because…..

‘Bullshit jobs’ defined as jobs that produce less economic value than their cost or jobs that exist for a no economic purpose except to serve some agent’s interest do probably exist, but not necessarily for all the reasons Graeber highlighted.

Government regulation, licensure and perverse public sector incentives can create jobs that in a market economy would otherwise not exist. The existence of trade negotiators, for example, owes its existence as a professional occupation to the decree of states that engage in trade barriers, regulation and tariffs. Restrictions and regulations on trade may be both desirable and in some ways useful, but they do not exist without political will for regulation, something that would not naturally emerge from the market.

Furthermore, government regulation rent seeking opportunities can arise and produce jobs that Graeber argues are ‘bullshit jobs’. Graeber mentions that a number of his acquaintances are lawyers who openly admit that their work does not create value and should not exist. The Universal Basic Income advocate Rutger Bregman in his recently English translated book ‘Utopia for Realists’ goes further arguing that many jobs, and in particular the law profession, merely shifts wealth around in a zero-sum-game rather than creates new value in the economy[ii]. Lawyers in the USA either cynically game the legal framework and litigate for the sake of revenue or push for more legal complexity to ensure a steady stream of fees extracted from businesses that are compelled to be compliant with the law.

This argument might be both persuasive and contain a large amount of truth within it, however this behaviour and subsequent oversupply of Lawyers in a nation such as the USA[iii] (and arguably many more Western nations), is because the State has created the conditions for such abuse and perverse incentives. The legal monster wasn’t created to fulfil some philo-political need or to maintain a mythical illusion of work, but to serve the interests of the agents that gain from such an environment; uninspired self-interest can explain the existence of ‘bullshit jobs’ in rent seeking professions rather than a carefully crafted platonic illusion.

Stories of public sector waste and irrational working practices might also highlight the existence of jobs that in a more economically focused environment such as the private sector, would have been downsized as soon as it became apparent a job was superfluous. However, public sector management have slightly difference incentives and constraints compared to private sector managers. In the absence of profit or equity value incentives measuring success, the public sector often creates targets and compliance to display its own measure of success. These targets and compliance duties may sometimes be both pointless and wasteful but exist to meet the demand of bureaucratic directives and interests.

Private Sector managers in multinational corporations also have incentives and interests to maintain bloated departments. A larger departmental budget and headcount might translate into commanding a greater salary, bonus or prestige for supervising a large department. Lost within a behemoth, it is difficult to notice fat on each of the firm’s muscles. Empire building exists across economic society, the difference is the set of incentives and constraints facing each agent, this is a significant creator of real ‘bullshit jobs’.

Businesses are also bastions of inefficiencies and distracted attention. Focus on achieving or maintaining profitability sometimes overlooks operational savings from reducing headcount and few businesses have the resources, time or permission to conduct detailed studies of value creation of each job within the firm. Therefore jobs that are no longer producing value greater than their cost can exist for some time. However even when management is incompetent and slow in recognising dead weight within a firm, eventually the scythe of redundancy will swing upon the unproductive workers, or the firm will go out of business. Either way ‘bullshit jobs’ eventually die, it just a matter of time.

Conclusion

Graeber’s thesis is useful in reigniting the debate between the definition and desirability of social and economic value; the meaning of those values is contested, ever changing and often surprising. Therefore discussing the economy and world of work along such lines can help us understand what we might want from our economic system today and in the future, this is a prerequisite for us to build a new or alternative economic society.

However, Graeber overplays his confidence that bullshit jobs exist to serve some ideological function, when the reality of existing ‘bullshit jobs’ is explained by more mundane reasons as explored above.

The ‘bullshit jobs’ thesis also obscures how value is created and sustained within capitalism, by dismissing a number of jobs as no value ‘bullshit’ it ignores the necessary technical investigation into the dynamic and varied way value is produced by work within capitalist relations. The long term effect of this might be to render technical thinking on value as a capitalist fiction or propaganda, rather than a real obstacle that will have to be wrestled with if an alternative economic system is to ever emerge or be designed.

In closing, Graeber has produced a fun mental exercise, one which on a narrative sense is very persuasive, but one which probably makes thinking about value creation lazy and fashionable to sloganeer on instead of investigate as to whether there can be any social scientific truth to how value is created or the claim that ‘bullshit jobs’ exist.

[i] http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

[ii] Pp163- 173, Utopia for Realists – And How We Get There (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), Rutger Bregman

[iii] https://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/the-lawyer-surplus-state-by-state/?_r=0

The Automated Unemployment Panic

There is much fear about Artificial Intelligence and automation in the workplace; popular books such as ‘Rise of the Robots’, ‘Inventing the Future’ and ‘The Economic Singularity’ are proliferating and all cover the forecast that robots might produce waves of unemployment in the already post-industrialized West.

Amidst this forecast, the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) has become popular amongst left and right thinkers as a potential solution to mass automated unemployment and help our society transition to a form of ‘post-work’ economy. Much of the rhetoric on this topic could be described as alarmist; the robots are coming very soon and we will all be left stranded in a radically different working landscape without suitable restructuring and policies (such as UBI) to deal with the consequences.

Technological unemployment does occur, but the prominence of the ‘coming of the robots’ thesis has once again ignited imaginations across the political spectrum, this fear may be overstated and there are a number of things to consider as to why it may be an economic panic rather than a certain or probable future.

This is not a new fear

The same fears, debates and rhetoric existed 40 years ago, if you watch BBC Horizon’s 1977 episode ‘When the Chips are down’ and updated the terms of reference contained within the episode, you could transpose the programme to 2017 and not notice. Fortunately we have 40 years of history to provide evidence that mass unemployment did not occur due to the rise of the microchip and machines. The economic landscape has radically changed since 1977 in the UK due to a variety of factors, but automated mass unemployment was not a significant factor at play. People were made unemployed, but mostly due to a change in political leadership and industries in the UK disappeared due to outsourcing, however new industries emerged and grew the workforce.

The economic reforms of the 1980s, outsourcing manufacturing and the microchip produced an increase in material wealth and opportunity in the UK. However, this was not evenly distributed across the geography of the country; many single industry towns experienced structural unemployment for many years, with some even suffering from this today. Though this occurred due to a political decision (or lack of) not to rectify or compensate for this change in the British economic landscape. The experience of localised (longer term) and national unemployment (shorter term) was not inevitable and nor was it the fault of technology, it was fundamentally a human decision.

The industrialisation of Britain in the 19th Century should also give us pause for thought. In 1750 the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture production has been estimated at 75%. Between 1750 and 1850 a combination of mechanisation, emerging agricultural capitalism, enclosures and new techniques in farming (such as the use of phosphate) increased yields on less land, reducing the need for as many humans to till the fields to feed the population[i].

By 1850, approximately 22% of the population was still employed in agriculture- a remarkable decline in employment in that sector- meaning many agricultural workers became unemployed from their traditional agricultural jobs and removed from their traditional lands. They did not starve on mass, they migrated to cities where new industries began to emerge; this is known as the industrial revolution[ii].

There was political turmoil associated with the process of industrialisation; the breakup of agricultural communities; the enclosure of the commons and the experience of new exploitative and dangerous industrial environments gave birth to the labour movement and resurrected proto-socialist and socialist ideas. However, despite being at the mercy of the newly emergent bourgeoisie, people did not experience mass unemployment for long due to the industrial revolution’s technological innovation. The post Napoleonic-war depression was arguably to do with post-war readjustment on the continent and an overproduction in Britain leading to a collapse in prices and economic crisis in the Western world. Economic historians may wish to challenge on this interpretation, but I do not think technological progress was the key cause of this dislocation.

The past does not indicate future performance, but the experience of the industrial revolution and subsequent effect of labour displacement does provide evidence and a useful historical case study to refer, to assuage fears of a similar revolutionary change in the economy today. Technological unemployment did occur but history has shown that is should not necessarily be considered a long term problem for capitalist economies. The resulting implementation of the ‘Corn Laws’ might provide an interesting historical parallel to the risk of falling prices as the result of automation and increases in productivity, but that arguably is a more classic economic conundrum rather than a unique experience that we might face in the 21st century.

Busts and mass unemployment have occurred at various times, but so far, technological unemployment has been a small and partial factor in those moments of crisis at best, never yet the key causation.

Businesses will take time to automate

Capital is expensive, do not be fooled that it isn’t because there is a cash glut in the global economy; it remains expensive because of opportunity cost, risk and probable returns on investment (ROI).

Capital has an opportunity cost for the lender/investor, as it can be used in a variety of ways with differing returns and risk. Stumping up money for a business comes with the risk that the business may go bankrupt and be unable to repay the capital, or produce a return that pales in comparison to other, safer options, that could have been alternatively be chosen. Even businesses that have raised capital, only to grow and become successful, can sometimes find that the equity they traded for initial investment is expensive on exit.

All this together (and a lot more that has been left out), means capital is expensive and this reduces the appetite to raise capital, lend capital, give away equity and replace labour (who can just be fired, as and when the need arises) with machinery (which is a sunk cost that depreciates with time). Businesses do raise capital and invest in new opportunities and technologies, but it is tempered by conventional business acumen and this will not disappear but be ever present in our economic landscape.

Furthermore, if we are about to experience an exponential increase in the use of artificial intelligence and robotics in business, then we should expect that new technologies employed in production processes will quickly become obsolete. Thereby increasing the risk of misallocated capital expenditure; managers and businesses pay a heavy price for getting this wrong. Any business that substitutes its workforce one day for an army of robots the next, might find the capital investment in that technology has quickly become substandard compared to the competition who held out a little long and has bought the ‘next generation’ of robots.

This will make it harder to calculate and be confident in forecasting a return on investment for CapEx; for the question of when to and what generation of robotics to invest in, will slow this process down. New technologies are first paid for by the richest people or companies, and usually are regarded as substandard after a short period of time. An example of this is the first iPhone’s; they were prohibitively expensive, difficult to use, lacking wider infrastructure to complement it and fundamentally they were a poor product.

The richest in society bought them because they could, which provided apple with immediate return on the high research and development costs of creating the first iPhone. Then the cost started to fall and the product improved in subsequent generations until it became affordable and user-friendly enough for it to be a genuinely mass consumed product.

The same will be true for industry, the large multinationals will and have been the first to use cutting edge robotics in production, but it will take time for the robots to improve their performance and become affordable for the majority of businesses.

Therefore it will likely be the economics of capital investment, coupled with the risk-averse nature of many businesses that limits the innovation and growth within commercial deployment of AI and robotics. There will be a ‘grace’ period, long enough for business, people and policy to change, plan and adapt to a more automated economy.

Furthermore, businesses are typically inefficient; their primary focus is on the next quarter and current financial year. Contrary to popular perception, most businesses do not turn a profit and find is difficult to do so. The likely experience of automation in the majority of businesses and sectors will probably reflect that of the IT revolution in the 1990s, which even now, has yet to be fully completed. All businesses now use computers, but tour most businesses and you might observe that their IT infrastructure and operational procedures haven’t progressed as much as expected.

Industries with more straightforward production processes have already automated production; the big monopoly businesses in various sectors that have the capital and incentive to automate in order to protect their leading position in the market. Small and Medium Enterprises simply do not have the strategic slack, capital or certainty to engage in a process of rapid automation; competing in the current business climate will take priority, leading to a much slower uptake of robotics in the workplace.

Unlimited Demand

Economics is the study of how scarce resources are produced and distributed amongst a population, despite effectively producing an abundance of basic human needs, the UK continues to produce more goods and services that stretch beyond satisfying those basic needs.

One might point out that in a capitalist economy of private ownership, a person or group of people cannot really live a self-sufficient lifestyle outside of capitalism due to private ownership of land and the mean of production, therefore the majority of the population have to continue to engage in wage labour. This point cannot be overlooked, but it does not explain away our seeming desire for more goods and services beyond our basic human needs.

As traditional manufacturing shrank in the last 40 years, the service economy has grow in its place and it has found there is sufficient demand amongst the population to eat in restaurants, be entertained, drink in pubs and be served coffee in exchange from money. The material gains coming from cheaper production and goods due to outsourced manufacturing has produced a surplus of wealth which has been diverted into providing more services in the UK. A similar effect might occur from the productivity gains of a more automated working environment, thereby creating new industries and work opportunities for all.

It appears as if there is no limit to our demand, and as technology reduces costs we will likely see more opportunities to work will become viable and serve some previous unmet demand. The rise of services such as Uber -merely an aggregating app- has seen the emergence of a new supply of private car hire drivers, meeting a demand that always existed but was kept in check due to licensure and regulation of traditional taxi services. Companies such as Taskrabbit are capitalising on the market’s demand for ‘someone else’ to do everyday chores that previously people did themselves.

New industries and opportunities to work are emerging all the time, these may carry with them their own economic and political significance, such as the precariousness of employment within the so-called ‘gig economy’, but there appears ample evidence that there is much work to be done today and this will not decline in time for tomorrow.

Even if we take the belief that we will very shortly see a paradigm shift in AI and robotics that creates affordable and sophisticated robots that can do previously unmanageable tasks, there will remain gaps where it is either safer, easier, more acceptable or cheaper for human labour to do.

Previously unimaginable opportunities for work will quickly emerge to respond to people’s increasing material wealth surplus as a result of accelerating automation, perhaps in forms that make it impractical or expensive to automate in the near future. This may be a different type of work than we have previously seen, but there is no reason to assume there will be no ‘work’ to do that can be monetized in typical capitalist economic relationships.

It is our own desires and the structure of capitalism that can continually create the supply of work to fulfil unmet demand. Capitalism has and continues to be a dynamic and transformative force 200 years after it became the leading economic system in the world, it would take a brave forecaster to suggest that increasing automation in the 21st Century was the factor that tripped it up and finally dug its grave.

Workers are people and people adapt

The experience of this lag in automation in the majority of the business ecosystem will buy time for the current workforce to prepare for change. It is unlikely that many current workers will be doing the same job, for the same company, in ten years time. Therefore if a job is under threat of automation, with an expected lag on automation being implemented, then we should expect that the majority of current workers will have experienced one of the following: promoted into management; undergone a career change; re-skilled in anticipation of changes or have left the labour market completely, thereby reducing the risk of technological unemployment.

Young workers entering the labour market in the future will likely have different skills, knowledge and expectations compared to the current workforce. We can observe this change now, with near universal computer literacy among millennials. The next generation of the workforce will not be shocked by a changing labour market and will likely be expectant of what skills may be required within it.

The argument here is not to downplay the ethical or political objections to what the next (or current) generation of workers are facing, but to point out that they will have different interests compared to now, act in their own interests and may respond to the challenges in an unexpected form. The economy is never static and nor are workers, we will not know how the workforce will respond to increasing automation until it happens and we are limited in our knowledge and confidence to forecast how they might react.

Millennial’s so far have adapted to the current labour market, reducing their expectations of a ‘job for life’ and responding in their own interests to a labour market that requires constant updating of skills and job movement. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of a political reaction (no matter how small or great the chances of success), but often people normalise their experiences and acceptance and stability finds a new equilibrium.

Meet the real problem, same as the problem

The real cause for concern are issues that have already revealed itself to us; problems surrounding house prices, asset ownership, income inequality, the decline of the middle class and growing pension liabilities. Older generations of workers managed to secure homes, pensions and other assets, whatever their profession in the past, while younger workers (even those in traditional middle class professions) today are increasingly finding it difficult to save up for a home while rents are increasing due to a housing shortage.

The difference though, is that while older workers have homes and are asset rich and cash poor, younger workers are materially richer than their parents were at a similar age. The minimization of manufacturing and ‘jobs for life’ through outsourcing has led to a surplus that we now all enjoy. Hand-me-downs and little discretionary spending on consumer goods or toys was common place in the homes of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, even in wealthier middle class households. Today, even a minimum wage worker has at their disposal a powerful computer in the shape of a phone in their pocket and their own personal cinema through innovations such as online film streaming. This is a stark contrast in material wealth to the past and should not be easily forgotten.

This increased material wealth is perhaps the saving grace for our current economy; workers can still enjoy technology and increasing access to cheap entertainment despite their precarious position in the labour market and lack of access to assets. As these current young workers move into middle age we will see the next 20 years looking very different compared to the last 20 years, but the battlefronts are likely to be fought around house building, pension liabilities and government spending rather than a new age of mass unemployment.

The political reaction to this could just as easily take a right wing manifestation as a left wing one; people tend to become more fiscally conservative as they age due to changes in incentives and interests, large parts of which will remain despite the likelihood of reduced asset ownership in the future. We simply cannot forecast with any certainty how workers will react to a middle aged experience that very different from their parents’ generation.

This does not inevitably translate into a revolutionary moment; there will be consequences if these problems are not addressed but revolutionaries of left and right may be disappointed in how familiar the political alignment of the population will be in the future, there is a fair chance that the political landscape will look much like it does today and workers end up contented in adapting to this new economic landscape.

Conclusion

The challenge therefore is tackling existing issues such as the restriction on the housing supply and incentivising more geographically even economic development rather than the overstated coming of automation in the workplace creating sudden mass unemployment.

This is not to say that there will not be localised disruption and experiences of large unemployment in specific geographies, but this will likely be the exception, not the rule. Nor will there be a lack of a political reaction to navigate as class divisions and differing political preferences are an ever present feature of a democratic capitalist society. However, the 21st Century is a different country to the world of the late 1970s and early 1980s, workers and work, are more mobile which may mean these experiences are easier to resolve compared to the past.

In ten years time, the middle aged workforce will be made up of workers who entered the labour market with ICT skills and very different expectations of working life compared to workers 50 years of age and more. They will expect to be flexible and attuned to change as the norm in their career; they will be used to changing jobs frequently and respond to the conditions around them. People and the economy will adapt. Therefore this fear of automated mass unemployment is probably much overstated and so too, are the policy ‘solutions’ that are suggested by many thinkers as ‘necessary’.

Long term technological unemployment for the population is a possibility, nothing is certain in human affairs, but we must ask ourselves if it is more likely to occur in this wave of automation and associated productivity gains, compared to previous eras of technological revolution.

We may want to trial or implement ideas such as UBI for a variety of reasons or because we have certain political preferences; but this should not be offered up with such certainty as a solution to automated mass unemployment, as it is likely it is a ‘solution’ in search of a ‘problem’.

[i] http://faculty.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/papers/prod2002.pdf

[ii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/agricultural_revolution_01.shtml

 

The History of Future Visions

The concept of the future is one of the most imaginative things people have ever dreamt of. It has inspired great works of fiction, political theory, film, art, theatre and the social reality we find ourselves in the present.

A historian of the future appears oxymoronic, but within past visions of the future, a time period’s fears, hopes, politics and social reality is revealed. Visions of the future are often informed by projecting trends that exist or are perceived to exist in the present that the vision is formed in, our present is in part framed by past visions of the future.

The science fiction genre is one of the best sources of insight to discover the history of the future. Science fiction writers, as a group, are typically more politically, technologically and economically attuned than other groups of writers. Science fiction is a favourite genre of literature among political animals for this very reason.

The 1960s is a watermark for a change in attitude towards the future in science fiction and in existing reality. The 1950s produced sci-fi that paralleled the ‘golden age of capitalism’ of the time, the increasing wealth and consumerism of the west, the beginning of the space age. The vision of the future in the 1950s was hopeful and aspirational, both capitalist and communist visions of the future were bold and largely optimistic. This is born out in the science fiction of the time and reflected in the political treatise produced by both sides of the political spectrum, not quite undeterred by the growing threat of nuclear annihilation or the revelation that much of the world did not have it so good.

Then the 1960s happened. Colour television began to broadcast the rest of the world directly into people’s homes, bringing many people closer to the realities existing outside of their economically improving societies. A counter-culture began to flourish; radical critiques of western capitalism began to inspire the minds of young people to see beyond their own increasing comfort and view another vision of the present that existed elsewhere.

Neo-Malthusian fear about population, resource depletion and later environmental degradation, is perhaps the most influential vision of the future in the 1960s that many today subscribe to in some form or another.

Harry Harrison’s book ‘Make room! Make room!’ later the source material for the film ‘Soylent Green’ and John Brunner’s novel ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ are two novels that attempt to explore this fear. Projecting a plausible-although later debunked-vision of the future where the political and economic systems cannot serve an ‘over-populated’ planet. These works of fiction were written in the background of a booming population around the world and increasing visibility and mobility of these newly minted people.

The butterfly expert and ecologist Paul Ehrlich raised the alarm to the mainstream in his 1968 book ‘The Population Bomb’; forecasting that much of the world was going to starve, many thoughtful people took the idea seriously and so too did policy makers.

India’s forced sterilisation programme in the late 1960s and early 1970s intensified, causing pain, loss of freedom and suffering to millions, and sometimes death. Former U.S. Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, then in 1968 serving as President of the World Bank declared that population growth was a threat on the same level as nuclear war and helped shaped the misallocation of aid resources and focus towards population control than real health and economic problems. The real cures to poverty and population growth; development, economic progress and wealth creation were overlooked and the wrong diagnosis provided the wrong medicine.

Yet the world’s population did increase, the population increase rate in India began to fall, the green revolution brought an abundance of food, and famines that later occurred were driven by human actions of war and improper functioning economic systems and logistics than by the ‘natural’ Malthusian trap. The Neo-Malthusian vision of the future did not happen; although the policy prescriptions and attitudes associated with it did the best it could to become self-fulfilling.

Therefore the 1960s were a turning point from optimism to pessimism about the future in the West, the grim attitudes and creaking economy of the 1970s owes itself to the change of attitude about the future. Only until the 1980s was there a counter-revolution back towards optimism.

As a counter-balance to a pessimistic vision of the future failing and causing grave harm can be found in the exhilarating possibilities of a new world, a new man and a new age: the communist revolution of 1917.

Long dreamt by socialist or proto-socialist radicals in political treatise, science fiction provided also provided a vision of this future. William Morris’s 1890 novel ‘News from Nowhere’ and Alex Bogdanov’s 1908 ‘Red Star’ both provide plausible visions (excusing the setting of Mars in the case of Red Star) of how a communist society would function. They portray a radical new type of society that could and should be created by humankind in the here and now. These were fundamentally optimistic books and dreamed of a new age for human society.

The October revolution of 1917 was one of the most incredible moments in history; people took up arms to overthrow the Tsar and ruling class and won, all the while dreaming of a future of freedom, peace and prosperity. This year marks 100 years since that fateful event and it is hard not to find the visions and hopes of that revolution as inspiring and appealing, but this is dampened by the knowledge of history.

The events and causation of the descent of the USSR into tyranny and economic mismanagement are varied and still debated to this day, but few deny the degradation and suffering that was a consequence of that vision of the future.

The bold promises and ambitions of the revolution and the communist idea convinced people to continue to support and implement communist policies, in the hope that it would deliver the vision, but this only prolonged the suffering.

The communist vision of the future and its actualization has so far failed to liberate humanity from oppression, want or the drudgery of work and instead doubled down in restricting freedom, shortages and dreary work wherever it has been conceived in reality.

The October revolution did begin the ball rolling that new political systems and forms such as communism, socialism and fascism could replace the tired models of quasi-feudalism and liberal colonialist capitalism. Despite the catalogue of horrors and failures we now know through our study of history for those alternative political models, we should not forget that they all were conceived as an optimistic solution to the perceived and real shortcomings of the status quo. The period of time from 1917 until the Second World War had a radical view of the future, both left and right believed in a change of paradigm, only as time went on did the fever for those radical ideas subside.

Today many visions of the future focus on the possibilities of information technology, its great potential and its grave threats; many thought leaders talk of a coming ‘technological singularity’ and revolution, many sceptical writers forecast domination by machines or coming political upheaval through automated unemployment.

There appears not much of a sceptical middle ground, with silicon valley techno-optimists proclaiming the dawning of a new age from humanity and techno-pessimists forecasting that humanity will shackle itself to a future of tyranny that has been warned about by science fiction authors of the past. Political visions of the future are less certain and coherent than previous ages, capitalism offers no vision of the future, just more of the same just perhaps a faster version, there is no great architect of a new-capitalism, and the left talk of a vague concept of post-capitalism without ever providing a blueprint. This might change, but we have to steer those discussions to a more fruitful destination.

What will future historians make of our present visions of the future? How we conceive of the near to medium term future will mark our present for the rest of history and will undoubtedly inspire the visions of those of us who will deliver the future before us. In the eyes of the historian of the future, our conceptualization of the future is a reflection of our own times. The probability of forecasting the future correctly beyond one year to eighteen months is low; it is unlikely that anyone will be exonerated by history as a clairvoyant.

However, our dreams make us who we are and our visions of the future will lead us down one path and not another. It is paramount we conceive of what may come wisely, both overconfidence and overly-pessimistic visions bring costs, as evidenced by past failures of future visions. I do not know the future, but I know that humans create it influenced by their belief in what the future would and should look like.

The future has a history and it is us, now.

Sceptical Optimism

Sceptical Optimism

This blog is fundamentally focused on the future. The future of economics; business; politics; science; technology; education; public policy; culture; thought; cities; transport and sceptical optimism.

The purpose of journalism is to be read, this often means coverage of future possibilities takes a naively optimistic or doom-mongering pessimistic view of a topic area. Calm discussions about technology not being a death sentence for humanity or its saviour has a smaller audience that mainstream news organs can afford.

Those who make a living forecasting do not get paid on results, but on certainties, few who pay the piper want to hear doubt or care too much about the forecasting track records. Forecasting and discussion of the future is entertainment, meaning discussion and debate around pressing issues focuses on the extremes, rather than the most probable or useful.

This is an attempt to identify the real coordinates of what the future might and can look like, dispelling the destructive distractions of over-optimism or arresting pessimism.

The battle over what the world will look like in the future starts with how we conceive of the future. Avoiding the damaging consequences of over-confidence and risk-averse fearful pessimism is a central task to imagine a realistic and positive future.

Errors will be made on this blog, but I hope that through presenting issues and topics through the Sceptical Optimist filter, a better interpretation and analysis can emerge.

Why Scepticism?

The saying ‘if it is too good to be true, it probably is’ is one of the finest pieces of commercial, business and life advice one has ever received.

In the business world confidence is paramount; everyone is trying to persuade you that the future is bright and better than today, yet the reality is that not all can win and the probabilities of the promises being made will come true are less than half.

There are a lot of ulterior-motives, both conscious and unconscious, in the worlds of politics, business and technology. When you are promised a new world without talk of the downsides and risks, you are being sold a product, not a reality.

Scepticism towards these optimistic visions are needed as the positive content is hugely appealing and exciting, but grave risks and unintended consequences lurk beneath each step towards a paradigm shift. This blog will attempt to dampen the over-excited forecasts that we are at the precipice of a new dawn, because we are probably not there yet and confidence can be a dangerous thing.

Pessimistic visions of the future are much more common and often appear intuitive. Forecasters who project doom do not get remembered when they are wrong as much as forecasters of success who spectacularly fail. Pessimism is ever-present, under-scrutinised and more influential than might first appear.

Often disasters are unforeseen, described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb as ‘black swans’ in his best-selling book of the same name, they are risks unidentified. Potential catastrophes identified now tend to be mitigated, the ‘Adams law of slow moving disasters’ is a persuasive argument as to why, we as human, have so far tended to avoid the maximum penalties and costs of problems we have identified years in advance.

Therefore, scepticism towards the prophets of doom is a necessary a priori position for thinking about the future. The catalogue of pessimistic forecasts that did not materialise is legion, yet the same people, organizations and thinking does not subside when reflecting on the poor record of forecasting.

Why Optimism?

In choosing to be a Sceptical Optimist instead of a Sceptical Pessimist I am making a normative assumption about the future. However, I am currently persuaded by the wealth of evidence so far the general conditions of the planet will improve from most people, most of the time.

The late, great and underrated economist Julian Simon sums up the attitude of this blog:

“This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.”

Simon never forecast overly-ambitious future scenarios, but relied on time-tested business economics and sense to see the most probable outcomes of the future. This blog will endeavour to pay its respects to this approach and utilise these tools to conceive of a realistic and probable analysis of future scenarios.

The Blog itself

This blog will contain articles, essays and short blog pieces on news stories, current affairs/business news and topic areas. Pieces will vary in length and focus. I hope that this site stimulates thinking about all the various factors surrounding futurology. This blog will provide political, ethical and philosophical perspectives on topics that usually do not receive that form of analysis and this blog will provide much needed empiricism and business economics to topics that have not yet been pierced by such analysis.

This blog will be unfashionably sceptical, unfashionably optimistic and most importantly unfashionably uncertain about the future.