If All Goes Well

Why are so many people not working? How are they entertaining themselves?

If robots and computer programs and solar panels and industrial farming can keep billions fed for thousands of years (fingers crossed – it really depends on discoveries yet to be made, and the only guarantee is to actually make those discoveries, which may nto be possible), then most of us may as well just spend all day enjoying pleasant conversation, dance, sport, music, cuisine, sex. Or more realistically, video games and cheetos and internet faux-activism outrage porn, with a side of actual porn.

For the past fifteen years, we have seen both capital-labor substitution and factor-price equalization. Both of these require a reallocation of labor. This is not taking place very quickly. What are the reasons? Some possibilities:

1. Weak incentives for the unemployed to take jobs that require a loss of status or an adverse relocation. Older unemployed people can collect disability. Younger unemployed people can live with their parents.

2. Unusually few fast-growing firms. Perhaps entrepreneurs are not finding ideas that pan out. Perhaps when things pan out they are finding ways to grow quickly without adding thousands of workers (think of Internet businesses).

3. Perhaps the labor-leisure choice is being driven by attitudes about health insurance. If you really care a lot about health insurance, you take a job, even if you think that the take-home pay is barely worth it. The same deal gets turned down by someone who does not value health insurance. With the health insurance component of compensation so high these days, this can be important.

But if you have no economically valuable work, where do you get off asking for high-speed internet and big screen TVs when there are people who could use an artificial lung?

There’s an opportunity for economically cheap (and economically plentiful/worthless) art – billions of authors only reading their own output won’t work, but maybe a million of the greatest can find some meaningful purpose in a materially trivial life. Or maybe art as a merely less-analytical N on N+lurkers conversation. Lightweight fluff. Photoshop tennis. Art from ordinary, useless people.