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Economics question: Theory of Increasing Uselessness
Old 03-11-2015, 03:27 PM   #1
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Economics question: Theory of Increasing Uselessness

I read this a while ago and for the life of me I am having a hard time finding holes in it, at least as a practical explanation of what the long term trend seems to be. Anyone care to have a got at poking some holes?

"A search continues, long quietly underway but now intensified, for ways to keep off the work force people for whom there is no work, or no real work. These are not necessarily lazy, shiftless, or parasitic. They just don’t have anything to do.

Child-labor laws and requirements that people finish high school helped diminish the labor force. Then society told the young that they all needed to go to college, when most of them didn’t, and since the universities served chiefly as holding pens, the quality of education dropped. Universities did however employ professors and administrators. Here was another example of selling at high price something that no one really needed, namely the appearance of education.

Swollen bureaucracies popped up to provide the appearance of work while the purported workers did little that would not better have been left undone. Military enterprise soaked up more people doing nothing that should be done. Exotic fighter planes that would never do anything to justify their existence but bomb remote goat-herds absorbed thousands of engineers and hundreds of billions of dollars. The engineers could as well have been paid for digging holes and filling them in, but this was judged unduly candid.

Finally even these measures ceased to be enough. College graduates began living with their parents and lining up for jobs a Starbucks because there was no need for them anywhere else. Resort was had to outright charity. Thus food stamps, Section Eight housing, free lunches at school, AFDC, and all the other disbursements of free money. Those receiving the free money no longer had any incentive to work even if the opportunity offered. In the cities generation after generation now lived on charity, largely illiterate and in what is never called custodial care. They are simply unnecessary. There is nothing for them to do. So they don’t do anything."

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Old 03-11-2015, 04:10 PM   #2
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Biggest hole is that there are no numbers to back up his claim or to quantify his statements.

Has the labor force shrunk? By how much? Has the military grown in #people? again, how much?

Are college graduates living more at home now? Do more of them work in underpaid jobs than previously? How has illiteracy evolved?

My hunch (and of others) is that long term yes, more and more people are left behind because they are unable to do the kind of work that can only be done humans.

We are slowly automating ourselves out of a job. We kept ahead of the game until now by increasing education and getting people to use their brains instead of muscles (thankfully). But that road is coming to an end, and pretty fast.

Just to throw one statistic out there: there are 3 million truck drivers in the united states. Likely all of these jobs are going to disappear in the next 30 years or so.

Most of that demographic will not be mentally capable of the new jobs that will be available by then (data scientists, software developers, logistics planners, healthcare professionals ..).

So ... what will you do?
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Old 03-11-2015, 04:12 PM   #3
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http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Player_Piano_(novel)

What to do with people when you don't need people.

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Old 03-11-2015, 04:14 PM   #4
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This one is nice too:

Manna, Chapter 1, by Marshall Brain

and free
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Old 03-11-2015, 04:16 PM   #5
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Eh, the last several years of my career all I produced was landfill - don't look at me. My plan is to continue producing landfill, live off my capital, attempt to take advantage of gubmint largess and put my energy into raising really smart kids.
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Old 03-11-2015, 04:19 PM   #6
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I don't know that I agree with the premise. As a Downton Abbey fan I look at the jobs of 100 years ago and think they were make work. Ladies maids, butlers. Footmen.... Industrialization changed the work force and labor market. But there are still jobs in the service sector and doing hard work like working in the girls during harvest. But now we all want to be executives.
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Old 03-11-2015, 04:27 PM   #7
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But there are still jobs in the service sector and doing hard work like working in the girls during harvest.
That is just so wrong...
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Old 03-11-2015, 04:35 PM   #8
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I don't know that I agree with the premise. As a Downton Abbey fan I look at the jobs of 100 years ago and think they were make work. Ladies maids, butlers. Footmen.... Industrialization changed the work force and labor market. But there are still jobs in the service sector and doing hard work like working in the girls during harvest. But now we all want to be executives.
100 years ago the most common job was farmer, not footman. At 30% of the US workforce (down from 50% a mere 150 years ago). Now its around 2%.
Agricultural Employment Since 1870 | Thad Woodman

In medieval times we also had handmaidens to entertain the lady and keep her company. This was possible due to a very high inequality. Question is: do we want to go that route again?

Basically indentured servitude for persons of inherited wealth or the few that actually are productive.

And not saying there are no jobs right now, but they are being displaced by the millions.

Only so many people can bring you your dinner ..
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Old 03-11-2015, 04:50 PM   #9
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Interesting topic. Here is another article along the same lines:

"The question Keynes set out to solve was how humanity would adapt to a world of abundance. “He saw two options,” explains Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. “One was that we could consume ever more goods. Or we could enjoy more leisure. What worried Keynes was that when you looked at how people in the British upper classes spent their leisure, he was not overly enthralled with what he saw.” By and large, we have chosen door number one."

Keynes was, incredibly, right about the future. He was wrong about how we’d be spending it. - The Washington Post
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Old 03-11-2015, 04:53 PM   #10
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There are lots of folks with degrees of questionable economic merit, but I doubt that they are a very large percentage of SNAP, AFDC, or Section 8 housing recipients...


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Old 03-11-2015, 05:05 PM   #11
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That is just so wrong...
OMG - that will teach me to post from my phone while waiting for the kids at school. Darn autocorrect.

I meant to type "working in the fields".
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Old 03-11-2015, 05:07 PM   #12
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OMG - that will teach me to post from my phone while waiting for the kids at school. Darn autocorrect.
Oh well. I just thought it was a reference to the old Spinal Tap tune about working on a farm.
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Old 03-11-2015, 05:37 PM   #13
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At some point, someone needs to take the various factors of production and create something new. We can't sustain an economy by merely selling each other insurance and serving each other coffee.
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Old 03-11-2015, 06:10 PM   #14
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At some point, someone needs to take the various factors of production and create something new. We can't sustain an economy by merely selling each other insurance and serving each other coffee.
Coffee insurance?
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Old 03-11-2015, 06:47 PM   #15
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This one is nice too:

Manna, Chapter 1, by Marshall Brain

and free
This guy grew up down the street from me, went to the same college, and seems like a smart guy. Maybe 100 years from now we'll have more Marshal Brains figuring $hit out and less mindless jobs. I plan on being dead at that point, but it'll certainly be an interesting world by then.

To touch on what you referenced in his Manna, I spent a couple of years of my career working on automated systems to put people out of work (getting rid of toll booths and toll collectors and doing everything electronically). No more no skill laborers (making change is still "no skill", right?). Instead, there are electronics technicians, fiberoptics specialists, system administrators, electrical engineers, software guys developing, doing QA/QC, and operating the system, and all of the second order people designing and building all of the systems that all of the vendors assembled into a fully operational all electronic toll collection system.

It was like Manna - it told the staff when to check the propane tanks on the back up generators, when to cycle the back up generators and for how long, when to check and when to replace the light bulbs, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, etc. All of that coordination takes a fancy computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Jobs, jobs, and more jobs!

At some point it comes down to a business decision as to whether you want to hire a grunt or instead buy and install an automated sensor and then configure it to talk to your CMMS to tell you when something is broken or levels get low or whatever. The former is pretty easy. The latter is much more complicated, though once it works, pretty easy to manage.

It's a lot of work to automate everything just so you don't have to pay some shlubs $9 an hour forever to make sure all the other shlubs throw the right number of quarters into the bucket.

I'm training my kids to be more like the guys figuring out how to automate everything and less like the guy earning $9/hr watching people throw quarters into a bucket. There's the technical side of automating everything and there's a thick layer of soft skills required to get everyone to work together and make $hit happen like it's supposed to.
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Old 03-11-2015, 07:15 PM   #16
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Interesting topic. Here is another article along the same lines:

"The question Keynes set out to solve was how humanity would adapt to a world of abundance. “He saw two options,” explains Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. “One was that we could consume ever more goods. Or we could enjoy more leisure. What worried Keynes was that when you looked at how people in the British upper classes spent their leisure, he was not overly enthralled with what he saw.” By and large, we have chosen door number one."

Keynes was, incredibly, right about the future. He was wrong about how we’d be spending it. - The Washington Post

Great article, despite the Mr. Money Mustache reference at the end.

How did British upper classes spend their leisure back then, talking to each other about FIRE?


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Old 03-11-2015, 07:23 PM   #17
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How did British upper classes spend their leisure back then, talking to each other about FIRE?
Riding horses, hunting things, smoking things, reading things, eating fancy food, and throwing fancy parties.

Probably what a lot of us of small but independent means do today.
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Old 03-11-2015, 08:44 PM   #18
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I'm just curious enough about how this works its way out to hope that I stick around long enough to see - even if that future is a bit dystopian.

Perhaps it was just my natural tendency towards sloth but even in my youth in the 70's I wondered how we could keep getting more efficient without reducing our work hours. I'm always amazed at how many economists don't seem to see this problem but think the full answer to all of our problems is just continual rising growth.

Very interesting conversation.
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Old 03-12-2015, 06:30 AM   #19
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Riding horses, hunting things, smoking things, reading things, eating fancy food, and throwing fancy parties.

Probably what a lot of us of small but independent means do today.
Travel, a.k.a the "grand tour" was also popular Grand Tour - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

And theorizing / philopsophy.

Alot of the upper class people enjoyed themselves with natural philosophy for example, which eventually led to the royal society, and a big boost to science in the UK.
Gresham College and the formation of the Royal Society - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Goofing off begot science
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Old 03-12-2015, 07:09 AM   #20
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To me this sounds like another "these kids today" rant. We have been hearing variations for generations. The only people truly incented to indolence are us FIREd folks. We can afford to live comfortable, unemployed lives. But we depend on hoards of workers in jobs of all sorts to deliver the goods. Otherwise our hard earned fiat dollars would buy us nothing. In the meantime, today's welfare state is not sufficient to encourage much idleness. Food Stamps do not an enticing lifestyle make. The few who find a pittance from the public dole good enough to avoid work would not be very productive in any event.
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