Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Problems of a feather flock together

Responding to my post from Sunday, commenter Bob raised the issue of technological efficiencies that make many jobs superfluous. He also mentioned the phenomenon of increasing life expectancy, with a smaller portion of our years being productive ones.

Technological efficiency applies far more in the production of physical things (food, clothes, cars, toys, etc.) than it does to the provision of services. Efficiency in these parts of the economy--greater labor productivity--means that a smaller portion of the population can provide the goods for the population as a whole to use.

Bob made a second point, which was that our lives are getting longer but our productive years aren’t extending by as much. That means that a smaller portion of our population will be in a position to be doing things the economy considers productive. Say, wouldn’t it be handy if the society’s material needs could be met a shrinking share of the population …?

This turns out to have a structural similarity to the issue of the original post. In that case, I argued that there’s lots of work that needs doing but that we haven’t figured out how to pay for it. (Or as I revised myself in my answer to Jason’s comment, we haven’t made the necessarily political decision that we will pay for it.) In this case, we have people who are getting better and better at getting stuff done, and a growing population of people who won’t be in a position to get stuff done but rather will need stuff done for them.

Problem, meet solution.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Just because there’s an increasing population of retirees who need goods and services, doesn’t mean that we will arrange a structure under which they can get those goods and services, and other people can get paid for providing those things. But just as it’s physically possible to do the work that will prepare us for future resource constraints, it’s physically possible to solve this problem as well--it’s physically possible for a society where workers are getting ever more productive to see that retirees (and children) have what they need, and that others are gainfully employed in that work.

Seeing that it happens is a political, and social, and economic problem. If we don’t solve it, it’s because we don’t care to.

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