"The End of Work"
Jim Blair

The End of Work
by Jeremy Rifkin
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995 Subtitle: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post- Market Era.

This book is 293 pages, with an additional 37 pages of notes and a 6 page Bibliography. It is divided into a introduction and 5 parts. The first four are about how things are bad and getting worse. But part 5 (Dawn of the Post Market Era) sees hope for the future in the very forces that are blamed for making things bad in the first 4 parts: technology.

Reading this book reminded me of when I read Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, "Player Piano", while in high school. Published in 1952 (before the transistor!) it was about a future world where computers and automation have so improved the efficiency of production that very few people need to work, yet all the goods that anyone could want are easily produced. But it is not a happy society since people haven't adjusted to life not centered on work.

Say vs. Marx

Early on Rifkin presents two conflicting theories of increased productivity: those of Jean Baptiste Say and of Karl Marx. Marx predicted that greater productivity will result in greater profits for the capitalists and less need for workers, thus higher unemployment, lower wages and ever worse conditions for workers. Until they eventually revolt and seize control of the means of production.

Say claimed that supply would create its own demand: not for a particular good, but in general. That is, if someone produces a million size 12 left shoes, there may not appear a demand for them, but the ability to produce new goods will create the demand for them. Increased productivity will generate new, currently unknown needs. And the price of the new goods will fall until people can afford them. There was no demand for TV or computers until they were invented, mass produced and affordable. But there has long been a demand for entertainment and communication.

These both lead to and reflect the two different ways of viewing technology, automation and productivity gains. To some (Marx and Rifkin) these are bad because they cost jobs. The purpose of the economy is to create jobs so people will have the income to buy the things they want. In this world view, industrial societies were lucky that just when efficiencies in agriculture made it possible for fewer farmers to grow enough food to feed many more mouths (thus reducing jobs on the farm), factories came along and provided the former farmers with jobs making new things. But we may not be so lucky this time, when automation makes factory workers so efficient that like farmers, only a few will be needed. And it is not limited to conventional factories: he gives examples of dramatic productivity gains in some service industries (like insurance) that have resulted from the use of computers.

To those who believe Say, the adjustment to fewer farmers and the coming adjustment to fewer factory workers is not a lucky accident and a future problem, but just the result of changes in the things people want, as a result of the productivity gains from technology.

It's not just here and now

This is not just a current & future problem. The book quotes the 1925 Wagner Committee of the Senate about how workers were going to lose their jobs to machines. He thinks this disaster was blunted by the change in the American public from "thrift and parsimony" to "the new economic gospel of consumption". You can claim that in the great depression of the 1930's maybe Marx had it right: production potential sitting idle because people could not afford to buy the products. But walk into any Wal-Mart today and see the stacks of goods and masses of people buying them, and it should be clear that Say was the prophet. But because of his premise, Rifkin is compelled to describe the country and the world as bad and getting worse, and various problems as growing, all because of technology.

College grads used to be able to get the top jobs and sit at the top of society. Now many cannot. But then only a few went to college, and now many more do. Everyone can't be in the top 5%. And just what kind of a job does a major in gay history or women's studies prepare you for?

Chicken or egg?

And which is the cause here: did the `gospel of consumption' appear just in time to rescue us from technology, or can't you as easily claim that people were thrifty when goods were rare and expensive, and they became wasteful and gratification oriented when goods became plentiful and cheap?

This problem of cause and consequence appears all through the book. Rifkin notes a correlation between crime and family disintegration and claims that automation caused the job loss which caused the family breakup, leading to the crime increase. He never considers the possibility that teen single mothers raise children who are likely to drop out of school and turn to gangs and crime instead of jobs. And that high crime drives business and thus jobs from an area. Is it true that "crime doesn't pay"? If so, high crime areas will be poor. And lack of conventional family rather than automation, is the cause. You have only to look at the Tiger Nations of Asia to see that modern technology and stable conventional families can exist together.

How can he do it?

He (correctly) describes the role of science fiction in influencing thinking about the future and conditioning people to accept technology. He manages to give a history of SF from the 1880's to WWII, without ever mentioning either Hugo Gernsback (Amazing!) or John W. Campbell (Astounding!!). He also has a discussion of Artificial Intelligence without ever mentioning Alan Turing (a real Test!!!). And later a section is on the displacement of "top-down decision making" by "problem solving teams", but he never combines the letters T,Q and M, or refers to W.E. Deming. I would not have thought any of these feats possible, but Rifkin does them all!

Biotechnology, and new technology generally

Consistent in his opposition to technology, Rifkin was one of the first opponents of rBGH, the hormone which makes cows give up to 20% more milk. But he also recognizes and objects to the environmental harm done by cows. I would think he would like to see 20% fewer of them.

But far more than efficient cows, biotechnology and genetic engineering is the gateway to a revolution as dramatic as the change from hunting to agriculture or on to industry. And like many "new" things, it is a return to the past in some ways. Just as the early radios were crystal sets, later replaced by vacuum tubes, which came full circle when the tubes were replaced by transistors, so biotechnology offers a return from industry back to agriculture. It offers a future where much that is manufactured today can be grown. This can be much more eco-friendly than factories, with their smoke and noise, and need for structured input of materials and time. You might read Damon Knight's story "The Natural State" on this point.

We could be near a future where our material needs grow on trees, our houses grow like trees, and digital technology provides our information. Think of the ecological advantages of information from the net vs the printing and distribution of books, newspapers, and magazines. And e-mail over snail mail. The final part of my signature is partly an attempt at humor, and partly a serious commentary on information technology.

And yes, there will be adjustment problems. Just as when farm labor declined. People will need to have an identity that is not just with a job. He correctly targets volunteer work (thousand points of light) and the Third sector as hope for the future. But while he supports less work per week, he objects to the rise in part time jobs. Go figure.

Post-market or post-industrial? EITC and VAT

The final section refers to the coming Post Market Era, where he tries to outline an adjustment to a world of greatly increased productivity. But while he thinks the economy will move "beyond" the market, I think it more likely it will move "beyond industry" in the same sense that it has moved beyond agriculture (but not the market) in the past century. Rifkin is still struggling against part-time work and wants a higher minimum wage, and wants health care tied to employment. These are all an impossible attempt to cling to the industrial society past.

He does comment favorably on the various "minimum annual income" plans from the Left and the "negative income tax" from the Right. And here is the key to the post industrial future. The model should be the "negative income tax" proposed by economist Milton Friedman in the 1960's and revived later as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

The EITC is seen by some as being "too expensive" now because it is thought of as being in addition to AFDC, food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies, agriculture price supports, etc. Once it is seen as instead of these programs (which should all be abolished), EITC will be recognized as a real bargain, and the basis of the post industrial society. For an interesting (although strange) story of life in such a society, read the short novel "Riders of the Purple Wage" by Philip Jose Farmer. The "purple wage" is a sort of EITC or minimum base income everyone in the society gets. They can just `ride the purple wage' or earn additional income in a mostly "underground" economy.

In a discussion of taxes, Rifkin favors the Value Added Tax (VAT) as used by many countries (a sort of sales tax). But he seems to want it in addition to an income tax, as in Europe. I think that in the "post industrial society" it will be all but impossible to tax income fairly since most of the economy will be "underground", a trend that is growing now. Have you seen the various studies which show that even now the people classed as "poor" spend about twice their "listed" official income per year? This is largely due to the underground economy: it extends from the poor to the rich and will grow dramatically in the future. The income tax misses it but VAT taps into it.

Where did all the leisure go? Did it get stuck in traffic?

Much as I think Rifkin is wrong about the evils of technology and the world wide poverty today compared to the past, (stemming from his backing of Marx over Say), he does raise an interesting question. With all the automation and technological advance since WWII, if it is good, why aren't we rich, and why don't we have more leisure time? I will give my answers.

Why aren't we rich? I think that for the most part we are! We just don't realize it because it happened slowly enough that we "adjusted" to it. Much like the frog to the heated water. I'll write a separate essay on this someday: were the "good old days" really so good? But there is the added complication: with more free trade, the benefits of technology are being spread to the 3rd world as well, not just to the industrial nations. So we are not as rich as if we had kept it all to ourselves.

But what about our leisure time? Where did it go? Aren't we working more than in the past? Shouldn't we be working less now? Maybe its hard to estimate our wealth compared to the past, but there are 24 hours in a day now as then, and the normal work day and week are as long now as in the 1950's. This is a harder question to answer. I have seen contradictory figures on actual hours worked, but it clear to me that there has been no dramatic decline. It seems to have stayed about the same for most people.

One factor here. Most people seem to have less leisure now, in part because of time spent commuting to work! Since WWII people have been moving ever farther (on average) from their jobs and this, combined with ever more congested roads, has resulted in more time spent (wasted?) commuting. Maybe computer networks will help with this someday.

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