Your Question: A World Without Work

02 October 2017

We had a great response from listeners to our recent show, A World Without Work. Katherine B in Berkeley had a number of fantastic questions, so I asked our guest, Juliana Bidadanure, as well as our hosts, Debra and Ken, to respond to their favorite one.

Thanks, Katherine, for the great questions! And if you have a question for a guest or our hosts, send it to and we might just feature it here on the blog.

Katherine: Culturally, Americans do not respect or care for poor or/and disadvantaged people. Most white people think that poor equals lazy, without recognition of context of the status of people of color. Look at the public schools and prisons. Do all people imbed the notion of education is important? Manditory voting is important? Healthcare is important? Public infrastruction is important? Habitable housing is important? White people AND people of color do not equally value the importance of these in building a stable country.

Debra: It's true that race is implicated in the weak welfare state that we have in America. And beyond race, American individualism many people blame the poor for their condition. The idea that we are all in this together, that all citizens deserve the resources for full membership in society—resources such as those mentioned in this comment—healthcare, decent housing and schools, public infrastructure—is contested. There have always been those who have resisted an expansive idea of citizenship and sought to deny benefits and services to the poor unless the poor could pay for them. There have always been those who have argued that the poor are “undeserving”—responsible for their own predicament. (One strength of the universal basic income proposal discussed on the show is that it seeks to circumvent questions of who deserves help and instead offers a social dividend to all.) But there are other currents in America as well. The labor movement fought for basic protections from risk and insecurity, and other social movements have argued that we need to expand the meaning, and prerogatives of citizenship.

Katherine: Americans do not vote in significant numbers and cannot therefore compel legislators to benefit the greater population of Americans.

Juliana: I agree that voting turnouts being so low is a bad sign to the extent to which americans enjoy democratic control over legislators and corporations. But I think voting should never be the only means through which politicians are held to account. Workplace democracy, strong social movements and organized labour are very important routes towards a more democratic society too. But to do all this, we also need more free time—time to learn more, find solutions and get organized. Ensuring people have access to a basic income so they can work one job instead of two, or devote weeks or months to political activism if they wish, could be part of the solution!

Katherine: Rich people do not want to share. Look at the named institutions. Named because rich people give enormous amounts to the institutions to name them. How do these rich people get so rich? Some of them get rich because they exploit other people via lowest wages possible for their workers, saving money by contracting out the work to contractors, not improving their rental properties, etc.

Ken: People clearly get rich in many different ways. Not all wealth is ill-gotten. But however it is gotten, whether through fair economic competition or through nefarious means, sure you’re right that people are not necessarily inclined to share their wealth out of the goodness of their hearts. We shouldn’t overstate the case, some rich people are, in fact, quite inclined to share the wealth. Lots of  rich people give lots of money to philanthropic causes of a vast variety. And while some of it may be completely ego-driven, not all of it is. There are many very wealthy donors who give anonymous gifts. And sure, some people want their own names on things, but if the thing that is named after them does good work, who are we to begrudge them a little ego-gratification?

Still, behind your question lurks a deeper worry. When technology eliminates or at least radically reduces the demand for human labor—whether physical labor or mental labor— that may make some people very very rich and other people very very poor. And what do we do about that? Well, that’s one place where UBI—Universal Basic Income—might come in, as we talked about on the show.

But perhaps your question is about incentives. What  would incentivize the very rich to spread the wealth to the very poor—since they don’t really do that so much now, at least not happily?

So let’s think about that. Here’s a basic fact, the rich can’t get rich if there is nobody to BUY what their machines produce. It really doesn’t do much go to produce things, if there aren’t people to consume the things you produce. Robots may someday replace much of PRODUCTION, but there’s little to no chance they they are going to replace human CONSUMPTION.

So how do we match consumers and producers in a world in which the demand for human labor is either reduced or eliminated. Once that happens you won’t be able to sell your labor to support your consumption. So how do you support your consumption?

Here’s an idea. Maybe we will move away from a money economy altogether—sort of like in Star Trek. You ever notice how nobody ever has to PAY for anything in Star Trek? That’s because they have solved the problem of scarcity. And money is basically a way to allocate scarcity through the mechanism of price. In Star Trek, nothing seems to have a price. You want something, you don’t go out and buy it, you just punch a code into a replicator or a holo-deck and boom—a shiny new object or experience is yours basically for free.  So maybe we are in for a future like that. Then the difference between rich and poor would just evaporate.

Frankly, I can’t really see how we get from here to there, though.  Unfortunately,  money and markets are probably here to stay for the foreseeable future. So if we’re going to have to find some way for people to have money to support their consumption.  If they aren’t going to get it by the sweat of their brow or brain, then they have to get it by some other means.

And you’re right, it’s very unlikely that mere charity will do the trick. But I think it’s more a matter of self-preservation, because like I said before, no consumers means no producers. So I wouldn’t really worry about the rich hoarding absolutely everything for themselves.

You could still worry that the same is true now—that the ability of the producers to get rich depends on the consumers being able to afford what they produce. And that STILL doesn’t stop many of the rich from being hoarders of their wealth. Well, that’s sort of true. But it’s one thing to hoard in a economy in which, say, 4% are unemployed and many more under-employed, but hoarding would be a lot more sub-optimal in a society with 45% unemployment. We’d all just get poorer and poorer together as less and less got consumed and eventually produced. We would need to spread the wealth in order to make the economy work at all. And that’s why we’ve got things like progressive taxation, even now. Sure, people argue about rates of taxation and how progressive taxation should be. But I doubt you’ll find anybody who isn’t just an utter fool saying an economy can work without any spreading of the wealth. The Republicans may prefer trickle down economics to progressive taxation. But from their point of view, that’s just another way of spreading the wealth.

Final point, nobody pays taxes out of the goodness of their hearts either. We use the power of the government to FORCE them to pay taxes. You could of course worry that rich people own too much of the government too—and there is unfortunately truth to that. But that just means that if the robots take our jobs, we’d better make darned sure they don’t take our government too. The good news is that if we have more time for more leisure and need to do less labor, we can spend more of our time on politics and on making sure we keep the rich from seizing too much control. That way, those of us who are out of work, can force the rich to tend to our needs!

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 4, 2017 -- 11:42 AM

I made a previous remark

I made a previous remark/comment which may have sounded flippant. It was, in essence: work is something we do when we would rather be doing something else. As things stand in this quadrant of my life, working is not a practical option for me now. Therefore, I learn how to do things for myself that I never had to before. Saves quite a bit of money, and, as long as the ensuing products meet current and/or future needs, the savings gained and knowledge attained are well worth the efforts. A degree of self-sufficiency is not readily obtainable for many persons. There are the usual suspects fostering this dilemma: fear of failure; fear of ridicule; and that age-old ambition-killer, laziness. Economies are designed for hierarchy, and there is a place for every person who seriously wants one and is willing to make the necessary preparations to become successful. It is regrettable that race became and remains a factor in this discussion. But I suppose that given our history, diversity and homogeneous population, there was no other probable outcome. Ask Nate Silver. He is a dabbler in probabilities and might have some insights on this matter. Our tax structure is symptomatic of the problems faced by large countries: the larger the population, the greater greater the need for expansive government and gigantuan revenues, (gigantuan is like ginormous, but different...) Philosophy asks a lot of questions. Economics raises many more. The trolley problem is only one of many. But, then, you knew that.