Highlighted Selections from:

Technological Unemployment, Leisure Occupation, and the Human Project


DOI: 10.1007/s13347-014-0166-7

Floridi, Luciano. “Technological Unemployment, Leisure Occupation, and the Human Project.” Philosophy & Technology 27.2 (2014): 143–150.

p.144: Solving the economic problem, however, is coupled to a second problem, which Keynes, with remarkable acumen, called ‘technological unemployment’. This too has always been part of the human project:

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 economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem [emphasis in the original text].

-- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.145: For there is a third problem envisaged by Keynes as the really permanent one and as a direct consequence of technological unemployment. It is the most significant component of the human project. Let me call it the problem of ‘leisure occupation’: Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature—with all our impulses and deepest instincts—for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose. […] 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 [my emphasis]. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.147: In the leisure society, the risk is that there will be countless people bored and demotivated, undecided about what to do with their free time, their days at school, their weekends, their vacations, their bank holidays and their retirement. We may turn into ‘idle creatures’—as Flavius describes them in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—who ‘being mechanical, […] ought not walk upon a labouring day’. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.147: Call this the ‘resource problem’. In other contexts, Keynes thought that solving the ‘resource problem’ was possible and worth striving for. I agree unreservedly. A society in which a minimal degree of financial independence and social welfare is guaranteed to all citizens will finally shift the existential problem of purpose from disoccupation (unemployment) to inoccupation. But for this to occur, the problem of inequality will have to be solved. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.148: There is then the ‘political problem’. As idle creatures, we may transform a potential ‘liberal and leisure society’ into an actual ‘illiberal lazy society’, in which the Biblical ‘painful toil’ is replaced by shallow entertainment as the ultimate source of existential distraction. It may seem a merely philosophical point, or even a problem worth having. But underestimating the risk of political distraction means being less able to explain (and hence find an answer to) why a society’s economic growth may not be followed by any liberal and democratic improvement. ‘Bread and games’ (panem et circenses) has been a successful strategy of political appeasement and diversion whenever power has had the means to afford it. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.148: Solving the economic problem through technological unemployment, sustainable growth and fair redistribution of wealth, in order to arrive at a liberal, democratic, leisure society, in which education helps people to use their time (stay in the educational system), make the most of it (highly qualified skills for the increasingly specialised jobs) and enjoy it (abilities to find occupations and appreciate one’s leisure): this is the blueprint not for utopia but for the human project we have been pursuing for a long time and that is worth all of our efforts. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.148: On March 13, 2014, speaking in Washington, DC at The American Enterprise Institute—a private, conservative and not-for-profit institution for public policy research—Bill Gates identified the same problem analysed in 1930 by Keynes:

MR. GATES: […] Software substitution, you know, whether its for drivers or waiters or nurses or even, you know, whatever it is you do. […] Its progressing. And that’s going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set. And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.

-- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.149: Gates treats technological unemployment as something that needs to be avoided at all costs. It is a philosophy that sees painful toil and not leisure occupation as humanity’s destiny. Keynes had already replied to this view two generations ago:

I believe that this is a wildly mistaken interpretation of what is happening to us. We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption.

-- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.149: And once technological unemployment becomes the problem, then the solution becomes that of preventing it or mitigating its consequences at all costs. So, coherently, Gates argues against raising the minimum wage and in favour of a shift from a progressive income tax to a progressive consumption tax:

MR. GATES: […] I do think tax structures will have to move away from taxing payroll because society has a desire to have employment. Of all the inputs, you know, wood, coal plastic, cement, there’s one that plays a special purpose, which is labor. And the fact that we’ve been able to tax labor as opposed to capital or consumption, you know, just shows that demand for labor was good relative to other things. Well, technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. […]

MR. BROOKS: So aligning the incentives in our economy to move away from taxing labor, moving to something like a progressive consumption tax is just a smart thing to do to stimulate – to have an economy that’s better aligned?

MR. GATES: Well, I think economists would have said that a progressive consumption tax is a better construct, you know, at any point in history. What I’m saying is that it’s even more important as we go forward because it – the distortion – I want to distort in the favor of labor. And so not only will we not tax labor, things like the earned income tax credit, you know, when people say we should raise the minimum wage, I think, boy, you know, I know some economists disagree. But I think, boy, I worry about what that does to job creation. The idea that through the income tax credit you would end up with a certain minimum wage that you’d receive, that I understand better than potentially damping demand in the part of the labor spectrum that I’m most worried about. […] And the idea that consumption should be progressively taxed, I think that makes a lot of sense. People have tried to do that by doing particular taxes on luxury goods, some things like that. That’s very – not very effective. It’s sort of picking favourites type things. But yes, consumption should be progressively taxed. And we should understand the consumption. Inequality of consumption is more an injustice than a number in a book is.

MR. BROOKS: So inequality of consumption is the real inequality we should be worried about. I suppose you’d also say that inequality of opportunity is that which is the greatest affront to dignity. I think I’m sort of paraphrasing.

MR. GATES: Yeah, no, I agree with that.

-- Highlighted aug 29, 2014