Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How Many People Do We Need?

Just to be clear, this is not a post on population control, exactly. Rather, I am forced to wonder what is going to happen to the vast majority of mankind when civilization only depends upon the productive work of a few of us.

Why am I worrying about this? In this post, Walter Russell Mead boldly challenges the complacent thinking that the 'developed world' has reached some sort of pinnacle, and reminds us that from the perspective of the future, many of our fundamental institutions are likely to look downright awful. He cites a few examples in the quote that follows:

Much of today’s production that doesn’t take the form of mind-numbing, repetitive work in factories comes in the shape of mind-numbing, repetitive work in offices. Government, corporate, legal and non-profit bureaucracies suck up inordinate amounts of human time and talent. It is not at all clear that the output is worth it — or to put it another way, we should be able to get equal or better results with less work. Information technology offers increasing opportunities to transfer more and more of the routine scutwork of administration over to machines, setting the office drones free to do more rewarding, more socially useful things.

Moreover, our bureaucracies are not just cumbersome time and creativity sucks; they are expensive as well. Federal, state and local government can become significantly cheaper as we strip out the layers of bureaucracy, dispense with work rules developed in some cases back when carbon paper ruled the world, and restructure patterns of organization and management that date back even farther. People who like low taxes and people who like on big government can agree at least that by systematically making government cheaper we can have all the government we need at rates we can afford.

All very true, but do you notice one common thread? All of these reforms imagine fewer people doing the work done by many today. I'm sure Mead would contend that freeing up these people from drudgery will allow them to create, innovate, and add new value to the economy, and that's true. But increasingly, those innovations will require far fewer people to grow them than the great businesses of the past. In manufacturing, men are replaced by robots. In services, the personal touch is replaced by the convenience of online ordering. In entertainment, fewer and fewer people chase the same experiences provided by the same few musicians, writers, and artists. I can even point to the relative traffic of Mead's blog versus my own as another example: the better thinkers get the traffic and the links.

We have 10% unemployment now, and maybe close to 20% underemployment. However, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the wealthy have recovered quite nicely from the recession, and seem increasingly to be detached from the concerns of their middle-class countrymen.

Historically, innovation has always had positive effects throughout society, from top to bottom. There have always been disruptions (Mead even cites the destruction of the family farm a century ago), but overall change has been for the good. And in all likelihood, it will be in the future, as well. However, we might be moving towards a future where a few people live lives of meaning, creativity and success, while the majority draft along in their wake, doing the jobs that can't be automated or living off of the charity their success allows. I'm not sure if this is likely, but I'd ask this: where are the middle-class jobs of tomorrow going to come from?

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