The Last Resort in Economics

Kurt Vonnigut's novel, "Player Piano," is about a robot economy in which machines have replaced most human labor. In a robot-run economy income would go to people who own robots, and to people who own resources, but with very little need for human labor there would be very little wage income. Without a share in ownership most workers would be left without any income.

industrial robots at work

Without economic growth machines would have caused unacceptable levels of unemployment long ago. The consumption growth that stops automation from causing unemployment became  unacceptable once the scale of the human resource consumption reached levels high enough to upset the delicate natural systems we depend on. We need a conservation ethic, because we must become a light burden on our host, the planet earth. To have a sustainable economy the old work-ethic must share importance with a new conservation-ethic.

We could use durability to conserve,  which combined with population stability would allow vast wealth to be inherited with very little production or consumption. Our use of increased durability to cut the consumption needed to provide wealth will prove to be a very important innovation. Vast wealth without high consumption requires a foundation of durability. We only have what we haven't consumed yet.

We lost our perspective when we replaced the proper economic goal of providing goods and services with the foolish goal of providing jobs. Jobs should return to being a just a means to provide goods and services. We should do all the needed work and not do any busy-work, any unneeded jobs, or any jobs can could be avoided by doing them right the first time.

Why must we expect all income to be derived from work? Isn't unearned income from inherited wealth respectable? What about the income from robot labor? If we dislike unearned income maybe we don't really believe in capitalism. The last resort in economic imagination is unearned income, except for those who would imagine anything to keep it all for themselves.

Entitlement might be seen in all ownership. Holding a title to any asset that yields an unearned income stream, like owning a robot, a factory, a forest, a house, a toll road, or a mine, is an entitlement. Getting welfare is also an entitlement that has a moral standing at least as high as the ownership titles that were derived from stealing all the land from the natives and the proud ownership based on using virtual slaves to harvest the free wealth of nature.

Getting wages for work should never end anyone's right to a basic unearned income... why demotivate work by cutting the unearned income of those who work? The amount of minimum income could be varied to stabilize wages, and allow us to do only the work that is needed instead of producing too much to stay busy.

If we finally end wage-dependence instead of consuming as much as possible to create jobs, then wasting resources to stay busy would be unnecessary. If we care for our futures or for our descendants we must all become conservatives instead of consumers, turn away from high-consumption economics, and accept inheritance, conservation, and unearned income.

Barry Brooks