The End Of The Glorious Future

by Carl Hegelman

In the future we will all sit around telling each other stories

At boarding school in the 1960s we had to go to evensong every Sunday. A few prayers, some chants and responses, four hymns, a couple of Lessons, the Nicene creed, a sermon and — at long last — the benediction (“The Lord make his face to shine upon you”). The sermon was the main variable in determining how long it would be before we could all go back to our Houses for supper. To make it more exciting and to help while away the tedium, there was sometimes a pool on how long the sermon would last. If the preacher was one of the staff — the Chaplain, the Headmaster (d. 1998), or the young Chemistry master, Dr. Kitwood (d. 1998) — the boy with the stopwatch had to be on his toes because the bets were tightly grouped around their known averages. Tom Kitwood was everybody’s favorite because he was quick — usually about nine minutes, sometimes as short as seven. The worst sermon in history was given by a visitor, a fat lay preacher who, aptly enough considering he was from the Gas Board, droned on for a record-breaking 45 minutes. The best was the Dean of St Paul’s, whose sermons were quite long but enormously entertaining, more like a standup routine.

There was one particularly memorable sermon which was a sort of TED-speech speculation about what the future would be like for us boys when we grew up. The theory was that machines were becoming so sophisticated and efficient that nobody would have to work more than a few hours a week. The machines would do everything, and the main problem would be maintaining social order because of the devil finding work for all the idle hands. This was an idea which resonated loudly in the teenage brain: I seemed by good luck to have stepped onto Planet Earth at just the right moment, at the dawning of a Golden Age. Strains of a heavenly choir singing.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it wasn’t a new idea, even back then. The aristocrat, pop philosopher, mathematician, conscientious objector, Wittgenstein-keeper and horn-dog Bertrand Russell wrote In Praise of Idleness in 1932:

Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war [WWI, obviously]. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since.

And (actually echoing Benjamin Franklin about 150 years previously):

If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment.

That was about 15 years before the invention of the first electronic computer (ENIAC, UPenn, 1946). By 1965, the brothers Paul and Percival Goodman (co-authors of “Banning Cars From Manhattan”, 1961) were claiming that we could cut back our working hours by 95% and still, in principle, satisfy our basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. That was about five years after the first microchip patent was filed, about 20 years before people started using PCs in any numbers and 30 years before Amazon. Productivity has taken giant steps. Granted, we have about twice as many mouths to feed globally (or 1.6 times as many in the US), but still we should all be doing about an hour a week by now.

So what the hell happened? Some 45 years have gone by since The Sermon and people are working longer hours for a living standard which, but for the invention of the microwave oven, would actually have gone downhill. What good is all this productivity? Where is Paradise on earth? Why didn’t it work out the way the preacher said?

There’s a hint from a recent piece in the Financial Times entitled “Goodbye, American dream”:

… the annual incomes of the bottom 90% of US families have been essentially flat since 1973… having risen by only 10% in the past 37 years… Over the same period the incomes of the top 1% have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the multiple is above 300.

This is a complicated question with no easy answer, but in the end it probably works like this: when somebody invents a new machine, he’s not thinking, “This is going to be great for mankind, people can finally have time to write novels”. What he’s thinking is: “I’m going to be rich”. Even if he doesn’t think that, the guy who gives him the money to build his machine does. Not saying that’s bad; not saying it’s good; just saying, in his place you would probably do the same.

Patents are filed. The machines get built. Productivity goes up. A couple of guys get rich. For the rest, life stays the same, except for the ones who got laid off because of the super-efficient new machine. So it turns out Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is, after all, attached to a pickpocket. To put it a bit more formally: the benefits of increased productivity go to capital, not labor.

You can see the long-term problem here. Uncle George pays working stiffs to operate the machines. The machines turn out stuff. The stiffs who get paid to work machines buy the stuff, and Uncle George takes his profit and gets richer. But the more efficient the machines are, the fewer stiffs there are with paychecks to buy the stuff with. In the end, even Uncle George is going to feel the pinch.

It’s probably not a system that can work forever. I mean, just for instance, what happens when machines have got so efficient you don’t need anyone to operate them? If there are any jobs left that can’t be done by machines, they will be service jobs — butlers, footmen, chauffeurs, scullery maids, toadies and givers of blowjobs — for Uncle George. Also, bodyguards and a strong police force to protect him from irate stiffs. And there’s the problem: eventually, the peasants revolt.

Of course, George does have a way out: move the machines to China. There’s a lot more stiffs needing stuff over there, and a lot more stiffs to work the machines (for less money, too). George doesn’t really care whether it’s a Chinaman or a Chattanoogan who’s making him rich. It’s not a super-long-term solution, but it’s good enough for his lifetime.

There have been a few attempts to solve this problem in the past. Communism. Socialism. They didn’t really work. Various utopians have come up with some suggestions: a Brit by the name of C. H. Douglas, aided by Ezra Pound (yes, that one) and Buckminster “Geodesic Dome” Fuller, thought we should have a sort of National Corporation which pays every citizen-shareholder a GDP dividend. Milton Friedman, who everybody assumes was a straight-up conservative, thought everyone should have a minimum income, with a Negative Income Tax for people below the level. Quite a few people have suggested just cutting working hours so you have more people working for fewer hours — spread the poverty more equally, effectively.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know we’ve got a problem and somebody had better figure it out.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face to shine upon you,
And be gracious unto you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.

Carl Hegelman (a pen name) is a corporate bond analyst and a connoisseur of leisure.