Friday, 27 July 2012

Enough with the Flying Cars, Where did the 15-hour Week Go?

Paul Krugman got in on the flying car lament this week: "If you look at what futurists were predicting 40 or 45 years ago, they somewhat underpredicted progress in IT (except for the artificial intelligence thing), but wildly overpredicted progress in dealing with the material world. Weren’t we supposed to have underwater cities, commercial space flight, and flying cars by now". His tongue was obviously wedged in his cheek, but the point about the difference between IT and material science is significant.

Futurists are clairvoyants. In other words, they use cold reading techniques to pick up clues from the here and now in order to make suggestive guesses, so future predictions tend to reflect contemporary concerns and expectations. In the 60s, underwater cities and space flight were reasonable extrapolations of developing technology and also reflected both the positive New Frontier vibe and concerns about over-population. By the 70s, the Green Revolution had eased the latter and attention shifted to fears about energy (following the oil shock of 1973), environmental stress and social breakdown (as globalisation and deindustrialisation kicked in), with a pervading sense that technology was a double-edged sword and perhaps beyond human control (Future Shock).

Underwater cities found no takers (it's easier to use subsea robots), while space flight has devolved to strip-mining asteroids (the new New Frontier). The problem isn't doing it, but finding a viable reason to do it. Today we speculate about the singularity, bioengineering and immersive virtual-reality entertainment systems, which (I think) reflects a belief that a post-work/post-scarcity world is coming, assuming we sort out limitless energy.

And flying cars? Traffic management is bad enough in two dimensions without adding a third (planes need air traffic controllers, cars don't). And how exactly will the car fly? You can't generate enough speed to produce lift in a 30mph zone, and anti-gravity simply isn't going to happen in this particular quantum universe. The future is probably driverless electric cars and automatic flow management, which holds out the prospect of increased capacity with fewer jams and less pollution. A bit dull, really, but it would avoid the need for Olympic lanes, and it might even reintroduce drink-driving.

The flying car lament is so pervasive that you have to suspect some ideological resonance. The opening title sequence of The Jetsons is significant not because of the flying car, but its use as a way to get to work, drop the kids off at school, and drop the wife off at the store (this was the early 60s, just before second cars became common in the US), a sequence parodied by The Simpsons (with two cars). Flying cars look futuristic, but they're part of a highly conservative worldview in which we still labour for 40 hours a week, the wife might work but is still primarily a "homemaker", and the kids get a high-quality education so they too can progress to full-time jobs.

John Maynard Keynes, in his 1930 essay The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, envisaged a future in which technological advance and the wonders of compound interest applied to capital accumulation would allow us to reduce the working week to 15 hours within 100 years. Despite being a high-minded member of the Bloomsbury set, who went on to become the founding chairman of the Arts Council, he was cautious about prescribing how we should "live wisely and agreeably and well", but chamber music, good books and country walks probably featured. This circumspection lives on among modern advocates, though comments about the "good life" and sustainability are indicative of the moral foundation. We should be honest and cut the value judgements altogether. If you want to spend your days playing on your X-box and reading Heat, then so be it.

Many proposals to reduce the working week present it as a trade-off with growth, i.e. a zero-growth model means shorter hours, and vice versa. I think this is wrong. I suspect we can have both positive growth and shorter hours. The trope of techno-pessimism has been with us a long time. Keynes in his essay opens with "It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress which characterised the nineteenth century is over; that the rapid improvement in the standard of life is now going to slow down". That was in 1930, remember. Since the 1970s, I believe we have been offsetting rapid technological advance by creating supernumerary white-collar jobs at the same time as we have automated or offshored blue-collar ones. This has served to depress productivity growth rates, maintain the standard working week, and has also contributed to stagnant median wage growth.

This strategy can be interpreted as a compact between capital and the middle class. Though the former would prefer to maximise profit and thus accumulation, they need the support of the key electoral bloc to maintain the economic order. Job creation for the middle class is tolerated as a quid pro quo, a form of clientelism. The key difference between Northern and Southern Italy is that "jobs for the boys" (and girls) are mainly through the private sector in one and the public sector in the other. That geographical distinction has become more apparent in the UK over the last 15 years: more hospital administrators in Leeds and more corporate social responsibility managers in London.

As work has increasingly become a token for access to economic rent, ideology has taken on a more moralistic tone centred on just desserts. If you are unemployed, you probably deserve it ("there are plenty of jobs"); if you are poor, it's your own fault ("that's the market rate"); if you're on benefits, you don't deserve them ("they're all cheats"). At the other end of the scale, bonuses are paid for turning up to work and regardless of company performance ("you have to retain the talent"). The 40-hour week isn't necessary for the economy as a whole, but it is necessary to preserve the unequal distribution of work.

If work was rationed, it would be fairer to spread it equally across all those who wish to work, but it would also make sense to not allocate it to those who won't/can't make use of it, as that just wastes an opportunity for someone else. If brussel sprouts were rationed, I'd be happy to forgo my portion for someone who actually likes them. A rationed approach would inevitably lead to a basic income model, i.e. an unconditional living wage for all. This would allow working hours to be reduced to their underlying (real) level of productivity, while maintaining workers income. However, that would also mean paying the feckless, which would cause many to gag (like me with sprouts). In truth, we always pay them anyway. We just humiliate them before we allow them to not starve on our watch.

A 15-hour working week is a lot more feasible than flying cars, but it stands no better chance of being implemented any time soon. To do so would require a more egalitarian approach to work than any mainstream political party seems prepared to advance, largely because of the fear of a moral backlash. The demonisation of benefit recipients is less about reducing public expenditure and more about preserving the loyalty of those in work, so you can expect it to get worse. Unlike future predictions, divide and rule never ages.

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