Post Scarcity Series, Part I

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real,
his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic
cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will
have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
                                                                                   ~ John Maynard Keynes 1931

Post Scarcity was a new term and concept that caused me to question the possibility that poverty could virtually be eliminated.  If possible, how might that fit into a Christian view of the world and creation?  Terms like poverty, inequality, flourishing, globalization, free trade, capitalism, socialism, are constantly in the news and subject of both economic and political debate.  Post scarcity is a relatively new concept, one that is described as ‘when most goods and services can be produced in great abundance with minimal human labor (certainly physical labor) so that basic human needs become available at little or no cost.’  Other than on Star Trek or in other utopian or futuristic articles, the concept has been roundly dismissed.  But could society actually be getting closer to worldwide abundance?

In the Westernized societies, few adults go hungry or are without shelter if they seek it.  The exceptions are in areas of war or poor governance causing distribution issues.  In the USA, the economy is producing enough to trade to foreign countries but also to support 45 million non-working poor via the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  Obesity and many related illnesses have become far greater health concerns than hunger or starvation.

As I view historical family pictures, I can find few obese relatives as they all appear to be relatively thin. Throughout history most people were thin and malnourished, leading to shorter life spans than the longer life spans that are now the norm; and life spans continue to expand in most countries.

In addition to a free market-based MBA, my thinking on economic matters has been influenced by personal experiences–including observing my parents’ lives, listening to their stories, and heeding their advice.  Before modern-day birth control, very large families and late-in-life pregnancies were not uncommon.  My father was 46 and mother 44 when I was born in 1946 (yes, that makes me 70 years old).  As a result, I had firsthand conversations with parents who dated using a horse and wagon in Chicago, married before the depression, and raised a family of five over a few decades, ending in the 1960s.  They were the majority of the population then, what would be called the working class by today’s standards.

Most of that earlier population, except the very few wealthy, lived in small houses with a single restroom.  Refrigerators replaced ice boxes; indoor plumbing replaced outhouses; hot and cold running water became widely available; air conditioners, radio, television, automobiles, computers and cell phones, and airplane travel became available to most working people.

Dad worked six days per week into his sixties, mom never worked outside of the home, nor did she drive a car.  Vacations were a luxury that did not come until they were in their sixth decade of life.  They never asked for assistance or received any governmental support.  Yet, I never missed meal, although the meals were quite basic: mainly potatoes, breads, canned vegetables and fruits—unless in season, accompanied by small portions of meat.

While reading about post scarcity, I happened upon a 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which suggests that free trade and capitalism may lead to a 15-hour work week by 2030 for his grandchildren.  I had only read that Keynes was a socialist economist so I was surprised to read the following:

My purpose in this essay, however, is not to examine the present or the near future, but to disembarrass myself of short views and take wings into the future.  What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence?  What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren? …

We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come–namely, technological unemployment.  This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour….

But this is not so true of the absolute needs—a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented.

We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter—to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible.  Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while.  For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us! (Keynes, 1930, pp. 1-5)[i]

Keynes’ prediction of a “fifteen-hour work week by 2030 for his grandchildren” (p. 5) is less than 15 years away.  Is it possible that work will change and our time will be spent differently?  We see wide “technological unemployment” at every turn.  Will taxi and truck drivers be replaced in our lifetimes?  Robots have replaced most manual workers in manufacturing, and farming is done by giant machines requiring few workers.  Restaurants and stores are continuing to use more kiosks in place of people.  These are issues I would like to address in a series of future blogs focused on our post scarcity world.

What are your thoughts?


[i] Keynes, J. M. (1930). Possibility for our grandchildren. Retrieved from http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf

 

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