Moving Towards a Judge Dredd Economy?

For those who haven't read the Judge Dredd stories (I'm not referring to the movie), they take place in a dystopian future (other than Star Trek, do sci-fi stories occur in any other kind of future...) where the predominant theme is that, due to technological advances, very few people have jobs, creating huge urban megalopolises (megalopolae?) where crime is rampant.

With that cheery introduction, we note Matthew Yglesias' assessment of the news bidness:

You hear a lot of talk about different kinds of ideas to bolster revenue models or get people to read more. But the reality is that the web makes it easier than ever for someone inclined to read things to read them. With global distribution, the same quantity of readers can be supplied by many, many, many, many fewer writers and editors. America produces far more manufactured goods than it did 40 years ago, even as employment in the manufacturing sector has collapsed. News writing seems to be going the same way for similar reasons. The increased productivity is very bad for people counting on jobs in the sector.

On a much smaller scale, we're seeing this elsewhere: supermarkets and drug stores are using self-operated checkout stations. They seem to be taking hold since they not only save the corporation money, but they are often quicker than standing in line, particularly if you have only a few items.

In Boston, the Public Library has instituted these stations, as well as a self-service reserve book checkout. While I appreciate the time savings (no more waiting to pick up a book while standing in line behind someone who is quoting the Boston Municipal Code in an attempt to avoid library fines--not kidding). But someone has probably lost his or her job with this improvement.

I bring up the library and and supermarkets because there's a very key point: the U.S. still manufacturers stuff--in fact, we manufacture more stuff than any other country. But we use far fewer people to make said stuff.

Somehow, we have to find jobs for these people, and I'm not seeing a whole lot of green shoots (to use a phrase) from either the Congress or the Obama Administration.

Put another way, what happens when technology kills the service sector too?

Finally, to cheer you up even more, here's the job growth during the last decade:


And this shows just how much things have slowed down:

(click here to embiggen)

Judge Dredd, here we come....


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The city of Rome had this problem in the empire and their solution was bread and circuses. Today as suggested by Arthur C Clarke and Asimov it will be bread and Video Games.

"They seem to be taking hold since they not only save the corporation money, but they are often quicker than standing in line, particularly if you have only a few items."

Except that you might also have to stand in line to use them. And waiting behind someone else trying to use one these things is way worse than standing in a regular line, because the actual operation is much slower. Clearly, this is one of those things that benefits the store much more than the customer. Now I just refuse to use them, no matter how many items I have.

it will be bread and Video Games.

Can't you just leave us gamers alone? Go back to blaming rock and roll or something.

Moopheus has a point. I've been stuck behind folks who can't figure out how to swipe a credit or debit card, or how to even scan their items.

Having built POS systems I know how they work, what they are (PC's with various peripheral units like credit card terminals, scanners, and printers) so I don't have any trouble using them.

My main comment though is that in the last decade (Actually it's been going on since the late 1970's) we've seen the wholesale looting of the middle class in the U.S.

This is a very real problem that I've been talking about for at least a decade. Technology makes us so productive that there simply aren't enough jobs to go around anymore and it's only going to get worse. Devotees of the free market like to assert that new technologies will crop up creating new jobs to replace jobs lost. This is partly true. New technologies do crop up all the time. But that doesn't mean they will create enough jobs to replace all, or even most, of the displaced workers. And skills are not necessarily transferable. In fact, because they're new technologies, they require new skills that the vast majority of workers won't be able to learn.

The irony is that this is exactly what the futurists of the early 20th Century promised us. Except they believed it would create so much wealth that people wouldn't need to work, or they'd need to work vastly shortened hours. The prediction was that as leisure time expanded dramatically, people would start investing their time in things that really mattered to them and we'd suddenly find not only a flourishing of the arts, music and literature like none ever before, but also people extending their education and going on to invent even more fantastic technologies.

The reality is that we've seen the rapid contraction of the demand for labor, but we haven't seen the rapid expansion of wealth. Or more accurately I think, we've seen the rapid expansion of wealth, but it has become concentrated in the hands of the very few.

I don't think there's any easy solution. In fact, the only solution that I can see is also the one thing I don't see happening any time soon, if ever. And that's a radical change in the way we as a society see and value work for money. The current view is that work for money is necessary. That without the need to earn money to pay for necessities, then people will become lazy parasites living off the productivity of others. While that's certainly going to be true for some people, I think the vast majority of people want and need to do something productive and constructive with their time and they will do things like volunteering their time, improving theirselves (such as through education) and/or creating in multitudes of ways.

So I think we need to have a guaranteed living wage, or citizenship dividend subsidized by the government where every citizen is guaranteed enough income to not only secure their necessities, but also participate in society in meaningful ways. I don't think we'll ever see that though because it'll require a radical redistribution of wealth, and given the degree to which large corporations and wealthy individuals can affect the political system, erecting such a broad reaching and highly subsidized social welfare system becomes impossible.

@ Leo Check out the books "Beyond this Horizon" and "For us the Living" for examples of such a system and how they would work.

Moopheus has a point. I've been stuck behind folks who can't figure out how to swipe a credit or debit card, or how to even scan their items.

I worked in a grocery store for many years. People said "I can never figure these things out. They're all different."

I wanted to say "No, they're all the same. The instructions are right in front of you and you can't read them."

As to what to do about people not working, I wonder about a system where the most basic needs are provided for everyone, but luxuries must be paid for. You get a roof over your head, decent meals, medical care, etc. But if you want to go to a good restaurant, see a movie in a theater, go on a trip, you need to earn the money to do it.

@6, this problem is one of the reasons that the Amish eschew many modern technologies.

Another example of dystopia where technology replaces the need for workers is Vonnegut's Player Piano.

Marco: Thanks for the recommendations. I'll check them out.

My thoughts match Leo's for the most part myself. If we have more people than work, maybe we should just be working less? Similarly, how do we create an economy _not_ built on growth; but through redistribution of existing wealth to a shrinking population? I'm kind of hoping those books cover that sort of thinking.

By Left_Wing_Fox (not verified) on 06 Jan 2010 #permalink

"Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke."

(Norbert Wiener, c. 1950)

My solution is to pay anyone (any competent adult, obviously) a fee of - say - $5000 to be nonreversably sterilised. It will thin the population of the kinds of people we wouldn't want breeding.

Technically, of course, since it targets a particular people-group (people who need 5 grand right now so bad that they will forego the possibility of ever having kids), it's genocide. But meh.


By Katharine (not verified) on 06 Jan 2010 #permalink

Quite frankly, I WANT technology to reduce the number of available jobs. It creates an impetus for more to open up in areas that require more education and creates an impetus for the population to get educated. At which point, it's swim or sink, fuckers; learn or die.

By Katharine (not verified) on 06 Jan 2010 #permalink

@marco: I've read For Us The Living where they employ a social credit system. It's an interesting concept. Pay people to consume! It's amazing how Bob Heinlein went from that kind of social revolutionary to the proto-neocon he became in his later years. By the way, the history of the social credit movement and how it intersects with that of the boy scouts makes for fascinating reading.

@BaldApe: That's essentially what I'd like to see. A guaranteed minimum wage or citizenship dividend paid to all citizens that would cover food, housing, shelter, healthcare, education, communications (e.g. high speed internet and 3G phones), basic transit needs (not sure how you'd work this) plus just a little bit more. I'd argue that being able to dine out every now and again or see a movie in the theater or attend a play, concert, whatever are as necessary to live a meaningful life as any of the above. Beyond that, one should work for "luxuries" which might be defined as a large house, frequent air travel, having kids (and that's how you reduce the population), yachts, or anything else we might consider beyond the means of a lower middle class lifestyle.

Of course, the problem is that the cost of all of this varies by locality, but then I see no reason why residency in, say, lower Manhattan should be susidized. In fact, that might be a way of reversing the decay of places like Detroit and controlling sprawl (in addition to zoning). You might give people larger dividends for living in undesirable places or moving away from places that are over-populated.

Productivity has increased about a zillionfold over the last two centuries, mostly through mechanisation.

Most of us still have jobs.

Google up "Luddite fallacy".

Once people are rich and educated, you don't need to pay them not to have kids. Quite the contrary.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

toto, (#17)

According to Wikipedia, the Luddite fallacy is a fallacy only at the macroeconomic level. At the individual level, people with decent manufacturing jobs lose them, and unless they are able to acquire the skills needed in higher tech jobs, wind up with much worse jobs.

The other fallacy I often hear is that higher productivity per worker translates into higher wages. Since the early 80s increases in worker productivity have mostly gone to investors, not workers.


In Western Europe, breeding has fallen below replacement rates, particularly among the natives, which is why there is so much concern about immigration and Islam there.

So when worker productivity gets high enough so it takes very few workers to support Social Security the rest of us can 'retire'. I am gonna retire soon anyway so the rest of you please keep working so I can play with the grapes I am planting.

By MissouriMule (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

@toto: Sure, most of us still have jobs. But a single income family is no longer enough to reach a middle-class lifestyle, and increasingly two incomes is not enough either. Furthermore, the ranks of the underemployed have swelled vastly and real income has been declining since 1973. Can we blame this all on productivity gains? No, but it plays a large part. Some of the jobs lost to productivity gains never come back. The question then becomes, "Will new jobs be created faster than old jobs are lost." I think the answer to that is a resounding, "No!"

Additionally, the new jobs that are created are increasingly jobs that depend on a high level of technological expertise that many people may not be capable of attaining. All the retraining in the world isn't going to make them suitable to do those types of jobs. So what do you do with them? Let them starve because they're too stupid to survive? The fact of the matter is that just because someone isn't capable of learning the skills and knowledge necessary to do a particular type of job that says nothing about their intelligence or social worth.

For the same reason, I don't think simply reducing population works either. There's no way of producing babies on demand suitable to fill the types of jobs that will be available twenty years from now and no way of predicting what those jobs might be.


The two main reasons wages have stagnated are out of control health care costs (employers pay but it ultimately comes from the little guys pockets) and our faulty education system, not robber barons. Yes, manufacturing has gone up in this country, along with efficiency, which is a good thing - otherwise we would still use horses vs. tractors for farming.

Re: population growth. We NEED our population to grow, or else you will get a demographic catastrophe like what's awaiting Europe and Japan, and no one will be able to pay for things our aging population needs. Right now, the US replacement rate is below the 2.1 needed for net zero pop. growth, but immigration picks up the slack and we will likely have 1 billion people by 2100 (to the chagrin of the sky-is-falling lunatic sterilization advocates out there, I'm sure.)

Sure, most of us still have jobs. But a single income family is no longer enough to reach a middle-class lifestyle, and increasingly two incomes is not enough either.

I think we should be careful about what constitutes a "middle class" lifestyle. Are you using a norm-referenced definition like, "the median standard of living for a family in 2010"? If that's the case and the median household has 1.5 earners, then no, a single income won't do it. What about middle class meaning "the median standard of living for a household in 1955?"

I suspect that the median income earner in 2010 could purchase about the same set of *comparable* goods and services per year that his counterpart in 1955 could. A car that dies before 100,000 miles, a small house (by modern standards), groceries to cook their own meals (made easier by a full time homemaker), and minimal simple leisure goods.

It's all a matter of perspective and the relative cost of a comparable basket of goods. Agatha Christie supposedly wrote that she had once thought that she'd always have enough money for servants, but she'd probably never be wealthy enough to own an automobile.

Things get a little harder to compare if you look at median lifestyle in 1985 to 2010, especially when you consider that real GDP has roughly doubled and the average person's real income definitely hasn't. There's a larger and larger real skew between the wealthy and the middle class, which probably doesn't help us with our definition of what middle class really means.

By Troublesome Frog (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink

Re #4 not blaming the gamers, just suggesting that its a way to pacify the populace. See City and the Stars by Clarke for how he saw video games as a way of adventure without the risks. Circuses even with gladiators are no match for virtual reality.

Tom #23,

I don't buy it. Real wages have fallen since and as a result of loss of labor union power. Investors have taken a larger portion of the productivity of workers, and the workers can't or won't demand their fair share.

And what rate of population growth do you think is sustainable? Yes our system is addicted to growing populations, but we "need" increasing populations like an addict needs his fix

@Troublesome Frog: Good points. I don't know if I agree with you that a single median income could support a family in the same way that it could in 1955. Do you have any data to support that? I'm not challenging you. I'm genuinely curious.

Either way, I think most people could come to a reasonable agreement about what constitutes a "middle class lifestyle". Maybe not our Congress critters given the health care reform debate debacle, but most people.

There's a larger and larger real skew between the wealthy and the middle class, which probably doesn't help us with our definition of what middle class really means.


Okay, so if reproduction's fallen below replacement rates in developed countries but the world's population is still going up, the logical conclusion is to coax the developing countries to, uh, develop in some way. And stop producing so much people.

By Katharine (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

#26 Baldape

I'd bet you're right, to an extent. But there is a lot of evidence that insurance premiums squeeze wages. This link

has a lot of links to journals like the Journal of Labor Economics (which I don't read) to JAMA (which I have). This is the idea behind the Cadillac Tax, to disuede employers from paying for really expensive plans, that lead to overspending on health. Really, the only group to see wage increases are highly skilled workers, which we need more of, thus more education. I don't know the numbers on investors crowding out wages, but I wouldn't be surprised.

The population growth question is a good one, which I don't have an answer to. It likely will level off (i've read estimates of the world leveling off at 10billion by 2050). With better agriculture tech (yes, including GM) we should get to those numbers somewhat comfortably. Thats a guess though and a big should.

They are. As many countries get richer, they put off having children for a middle class lifestyle (and as women get more enfranchised)

Manufacturing employment as a percentage of all labor has been falling since at least 1900, maybe longer. In the 1990s, washing machine factories grew four times more efficient in machines produce per hour of labor, and there have been similar increases throughout the system. Yes, the nation has gotten wealthier, it's just that most people haven't gotten their mitts on a piece of it. The only way that happens is political action, sometimes backed by violence. Look at the Chartist movement in England. Look at the labor movement in the U.S. from the 1890s. Our current distribution was set up at the end of WWII, and modified to most Americans detriment in the 1980s. (You can actually see the drop median income in terms of share of the per capita GDP.) If Americans want a bigger chunk of the pie, they can demand it, but this kind of thinking is unpopular these days.

Right now, the big luxury is a job. The totalitarian Chinese government is so desperate to give jobs to its citizens, lest they foment rebellion, that they actually give us stuff like HDTVs and iPhones. It's weird when you think about it.

As for population, when women are given the choice, they tend to go for replacement numbers. In some countries, like Japan and Italy, it is much lower than replacement level. We'll have to see how the experiment plays out, especially in Japan, since they bar immigration. Maybe if the population falls enough, and enough housing stock remains, having children might become more attractive.

Looking a the depressing job loss figures this morning, (and contemplating that the stimulus was way, way too small) I realized one way to take care of the losses in manufacturing jobs that result from mechanization.

The government becomes the employer of last resort, and everybody who is able to work has to work to be entitled to housing, food, medicine, etc. Picking up trash, patrolling city streets (where's a cop when you need one?), dismantling derelict buildings, digging holes and filling them in again, whatever. It may not be satisfying work, it won't pay much, but with necessities provided (as I suggested earlier) it keeps people occupied part of the day, and provides a bit of discretionary income to go have a beer after work.

The fly in the ointment is that the money would pretty obviously have to come from taxes on those businesses that profit from not having to employ so many human beings. Trouble with that is that it would just drive even the mechanized manufacturing overseas (at least to some extent) and the whole thing becomes self-defeating.

Of course, once the world has a more even standard of living (from all the manufacturing jobs migrating from one low-wage country to another) then there's nowhere to move the factories to, and the system works. Reproduction rates fall, standards of living go up, those who want to get a good education and get the high paying jobs do so, everybody else keeps busy part of the day and relaxes the rest of the time.

We just won't see it for a couple of centuries. If at all.