Three Works on Abundance and Technological Unemployment: Part One–William Dugger and James T. Peach

William M. Dugger and James T. Peach. Economic Abundance:  An Introduction (Armonk, New York and London, England:  M.E. Sharpe, 2009).

Adam Arvidsson.  “The Makers—again: or the need for keynesian management of abundance,” P2P Foundation Blog, February 25, 2010.

Martin Ford. The Lights in the Tunnel:  Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Acculant Publishing, 2009).

Introduction

I’ve grouped these three authors together because their focus overlaps in one particular:  their approach to abundance, to the imploding requirements for labor and/or capital to produce a growing share of the things we consume, is in some way to guarantee full employment of the idle labor and capital.

They all share, in some sense, a “demand-side” focus on the problem of abundance:  assuming that the prices of goods and services either will or should be propped up despite the imploding cost of production, and then looking for ways to provide the population with sufficient purchasing power to buy those goods.   My approach, which will gradually be developed below, is just the opposite—a “supply-side” approach.  That means, in practical terms, flushing artificial scarcity rents of all kinds out of the system so that people will no longer need as many hours of wage labor to pay for stuff.

I.

I’ll address the book by Dugger and Peach first, since of the three it differs most from the other two.

I’ll confess that, given my past experience with Dugger as a heterodox economist and critic of corporate power, and given the title of the book, the contrast presented by the actual contents of the book was rather jarring.

Based on my past association with the open manufacturing, micromanufacturing and free/open source culture movements, the term “abundance” carries definite connotations.   Dugger and Peach use the term in a completely different way.  Far from the sort of thing I’d expect based on the circles in which I usually see abundance being discussed, the theme of this book is something I’d associate with the politics of the mass-production age and corporate liberalism:  a focus on full utilization of industrial capacity, and on full employment of labor at full-time jobs to enable them to buy the output of that industry.

Dugger and Peach make it clear that abundance refers, not to falling production costs or the reduced amount of labor required to pay for the goods produced, not to the gradual shift of larger and larger portions of our consumption needs outside the realm of scarcity and exchange value, but to equal access—i.e. the equal distribution of purchasing power.  Abundance for these authors has nothing to do with changes in the cost or supply of goods, but means maximizing the output of scarce goods that can be produced with a given supply of productive resources, and then making sure that everybody gets a fair share of the product.

The authors make little distinction between natural and artificial scarcity, aiming not so much at the elimination of artificial scarcity where material abundance is technically possible, as at the amelioration of natural scarcity through the more equal distribution of ration coupons.  How much or little it costs to produce goods, comparatively speaking, is beside the point.  So long as society possesses the material resources to supply a defined range of needs, at whatever cost, and access to the supply of goods and services is equally distributed, abundance exists.

Abundance is the antithesis of scarcity.  Abundance means that everyone has adequate health care, nutrition, education, transportation, recreation, housing, self-expression, and personal security.  Abundance does not mean that goods are free.  Abundance means adequacy, not satiation.  The level of adequacy is not constant, but is relative to the community’s  know-how.  When members learn how to do more, their advance in knowledge lifts the level of adequacy….

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Scarcity, on the other hand, means that some members of the community suffer from inadequate health care, nutrition, education, transportation, recreation, housing, self-expression, or personal security—relative to that community’s level of technology. [pp. 3-4]

This book, in short, defines the problems of “scarcity” and “abundance” in terms that would have been entirely familiar to a Social Democrat or New Deal liberal living in ca. 1950.

In this, Dugger and Peach diverge radically from the focus of the other two writers.  Unlike Ford and Arvidsson, who are both much closer to what most readers of this blog would consider the mainstream post-scarcity milieu, Dugger and Peach treat technological capabilities as mostly irrelevant to the issues of abundance and scarcity.  Technological capabilities are just given.

For most of us reading this blog, that’s almost diametrically opposed to what we’re familiar with as the post-scarcity movement.  For us, abundance and post-scarcity are about the falling capital outlays, overhead, and labor required to produce what we consume, increasing difficulty of capturing value, and economic instabilities resulting from those technological changes.

I get the impression that Dugger and Peach are influenced by Veblen’s The Engineers and the Price System, which likewise focused on the social and institutional barriers to running industry at the technical limits of its output capacity and then distributing the entire output.  The most important task from their standpoint is to solve the problem of inadequate demand, in order to eliminate idle industrial capacity and unemployment.  They accept as normal, for the most part, the mass-production industrial model of the mid-twentieth century, and seek only to remove barriers to disposing of its full product.

For Dugger and Peach, scarcity is a problem of either the incomplete employment of all available production inputs, or the unequal distribution of purchasing power for production outputs.   Their goal is to achieve “universal employment.”

Instead of the natural rate of unemployment or full employment, we propose driving the unemployment rate down closer and closer to absolute zero.  Provide universal employment and the increased production will provide the wherewithal to put abundance within our grasp.

That’s the kind of vision I’d identify more with Michael Moore than, say, Chris Anderson:  a society in which virtually everyone works a forty hour week, the wheels of industry run at full capacity churning out endless amounts of stuff, and people earn enough money to keep buying all that stuff.

But in our existing economy, the volume of stuff produced is mainly a response to the problem of overaccumulation:  the need to find new ways to keep people throwing stuff away and replacing it so that our overbuilt industry can keep running at capacity.  If goods were not designed to become obsolete, and it took much smaller industrial capacity to produce what we consume, some people might view it as silly to think up all sorts of new things to consume just so they could continue working forty hours a week and keep industry running at full capacity.  They might prefer to liquidate a major portion of industrial capacity and work fewer hours, rather than churning out more and more products to earn the money to buy more and more products to keep themselves employed producing more and more products so they could keep consuming more and more, ad nauseam.

In failing to distinguish between natural and artificial scarcity, Dugger and Peach conflate the solutions to two different problems.

When scarcity is natural—i.e. where it costs money or effort to produce a good—then the main form of economic injustice is the broken link between effort and consumption.  Privilege enables some people to consume at others’ expense.  The peasant must work harder to feed a landlord in addition to himself, and the factory worker must produce a surplus consumed by the idle rentier.  The problem of privilege, and the zero-sum relationship that results from it, is genuine.  And it is almost entirely the focus of Dugger’s and Peach’s analysis.  What’s more, their focus on the distribution of claims to the product as a solution is entirely appropriate in the case of natural scarcity.  But natural scarcity and the unjust distribution of scarce goods are nothing new; they’re problems that have existed, in what amounts to its present form, from the beginning of class society.   Their analysis, which treats inequitable distribution of naturally scarce goods as the whole of scarcity, is completely irrelevant to the problem of artificial scarcity—i.e., artificially inflated input costs or prices that embody rents on artificial property rights.  The solution to this latter problem is not to find ways to keep everyone on the treadmill forty hours a week, but to eliminate the artificial scarcity component of price so that people can work less.

The real problem, in short, is not to achieve full employment, but to reduce the amount of employment it takes to purchase our present standard of living.

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