How to Employ and Cope with ‘Surplus’ Humans
[Continued from Part I]
What shall be done with “Homo Surplus”—economically and ecologically “useless” people?
Or is that an unhelpful, perhaps dangerous misconception, or an avoidable development that smart and humanistic policies can prevent or address?
Setting aside my cautions about the misconceptions associated with the concept of “surplus humans” presented in Part I, “’Surplus’ Humans: Do They Really Exist?”, and allowing the notion of “surplus workers” in this analysis, it is clear that what we think we should do about such a labor-job imbalance may be strongly influenced by which of the two perspectives we adopt: surplus of humans vs. shortage of jobs.
With the former, the problem is people; with the latter, it’s jobs.
Viewed either as a surplus of people or a shortage of jobs, a supply-demand labor imbalance with fewer jobs than workers may be addressed in a number of ways—even in societies not facing over-population.
However, it is important to note that, despite their numerical equivalence, in all contexts a labor surplus and job supply-shortfall differ dramatically in their connotations and implied correctives.
Should we reduce the surplus, or increase the supply?—a decision with very divergent consequences for the two options.
How to Deal with “Homo Surplus”
The following are possible ways to deal with such job supply-demand imbalances, irrespective of whether in any real sense there are any “surplus humans”:
1. Abandon the goods-and-services employment paradigm: This means that we stop classifying jobs exclusively as creating, distributing or otherwise supporting only goods or services, and that we find other useful things for people to do to “justify their existence” as something more than expendable “useless eaters”, as famed playwright George Bernard Shaw infamously urged.
It also means either employing people for something other than the creation of economic utility or that economic utility should be defined more broadly than in terms of the production, maintenance, distribution, marketing, etc., of goods and services. What could that possibly be, since “usefulness” seems virtually synonymous with “economic utility and exchange value”?
One possibility is implementation of radical individual self-sufficiency that re-defines “justification” of one’s existence, not as service and contribution to the economic, social or ecological community and Fabian socialist or Marxist “greater good”, but as a kind of Robinson Crusoe quasi-economics—no economic “goods”, no “services”, distribution of these, etc., and no permanent ecological damage produced by each and every otherwise “surplus” human. In this way, useless eaters can become self-sufficient, even if not useful, eaters. Simply put, this Crusoe model means pulling, feeding and ecologically managing one’s own weight, rather than more broadly “contributing to society”.
Through such self-sufficiency, otherwise economically surplus humans, i.e., those who cannot “contribute”, become non-surplus, by definition, in virtue of the irrelevance of the “goods and services”, exchange-based criterion of superfluity in a self-sufficiency-based non-economic framework.
2. Decouple population-driven production and consumption: One disincentive to population control is that more people means more consumption, more production, more business and more profits—i.e., more growth of everything. This is why we find ourselves challenged to combine zero population growth with continuous economic growth, despite faith in the mantra of “increased productivity and efficiency” per worker.
One way around this might be to decouple production and consumption, so that more of one does not mean more of the other. For example, isn’t it possible to absorb “surplus” workers by downsizing consumer needs of the workforce and adopting a job sharing scheme? Since 48% of the U.S. is obese, eating less, yet better, and driving less while bicycling more, would be a good start.
True, this may trigger a sag in aggregate consumer demand, with deflationary Keynesian repercussions for individual and aggregate consumer spending, namely rippling declines that adversely impact employment and bloat inventories. On the other hand, if the economy allocates more to non-consumables, e.g., national infrastructure, such a decline might be offset.
3. Utilize emigration, delayed parenting and better birth control: The equilibrium-focused idea of reducing the surplus population, e.g., by emigration, postponement of parenting, or better birth control, to levels that better match the available jobs seems reasonable.
But it is opposed by the argument that the attempt to reduce the size of a population can easily throw out the consuming baby replacement population and emigrating consumers and the jobs they support along with the bathwater pool of [potentially] surplus labor.
This would be tantamount to population reduction at the cost of deflationary consumption reduction, which would perpetuate a population of surplus—i.e., unemployable—humans within the smaller population.
On the other hand, these policies can work regionally, if not globally, when there are surplus imbalances. One country has “too many” workers, e.g., not enough jobs and widespread unemployment. A second has too many unfilled jobs and a shrinking population. In that scenario, of course, emigration is one solution.
However, for this to work globally, to reduce global population, emigration would have to be off-planet, e.g., to Mars.
4. Use technology to increase per-person or per-machine productivity to support a larger surplus population: This is a commonly cited way to allow and support an idle population in a style ancient upper-class Athenians enjoyed, thanks to their slave population.
Of course, like the Athenians, this liberated population, even if idle from the economic production standpoint, would not drop out from the consumer, cultural, spiritual, scientific, intellectual, artistic, moral and other perspectives.
Historically, the agricultural surpluses created by the broader freeman agricultural revolution freed up minds and hands from farm-field labor to devote themselves to other profitable pursuits and fields, including those not limited or related to commerce.
Similarly, the industrial revolution liberated women from much of the drudgery of housework to enable them to redirect their energies into other domains, while the automobiles it spawned improved overall family logistics, especially time-on-task allocations.
Hence, it is to be expected or at least hoped that our robot, AI, software and other automated slaves will support the non-employment endeavors of our surplus and liberated humans—at least until the automata become our masters.
A “Made in Japan” Solution?
Ironically, robotics may also provide a solution to the challenge of a population deficit, as well as of a population surplus. It’s not hard to envisage an economically vibrant Japan thriving well into the future, despite a shrinking population, by not only replacing its surplus or missing human workers with robots, but also by earning huge positive balances of trade by exporting even more robots.
That would sidestep the steep cultural and economic challenges of resorting to vast expansion of immigrant labor. It has been estimated that given Japan’s stupendously low, non-replacement birth rates and aging population, by the end of the 21st century the population of Japan will, absent some massive cultural, bio-engineering [e.g., cloning] or policy intervention, contract by 50%, to half of the current 113 million.
So, it seems likelier that, at least in Japan, the robots will be supplementing instead of or in addition to supplanting humans.
5. Create new consumer needs and wants: In keeping with the spirit, if not the cogency of the opening suggestion that limitless needs and wants will always spur jobs, fabricating new needs and wants through advertising or governmental campaigns can absorb excess labor—much as it has since the post-WWII dawn of the age of over-the-top consumerism.
One problem with this is that to the extent that such needs are fabricated, resources are wasted or at least not optimally allocated or reserved for better uses.
6. Make population increase financially difficult, population decrease financially necessary: Historically, poor societies have had more children per couple than advanced industrial societies—in part, as a hedge against high infant mortality rates and parental poverty in post-retirement.
However, my guess is that reversing the trend toward higher incomes associated with economic development is unlikely to cause in G20 countries a reversion or regression to the earlier norm of bigger families
That’s because the costs of feeding, educating and medically tending those additional mouths, minds and bodies in advanced economies probably will not proportionately decline to levels remotely resembling the low costs in historically undeveloped societies characterized by low distribution costs, limited “value added” to products, etc.—unless the entire culture and economy reverts to a pre-industrial state.
Of course, this approach can spawn the China 1-child problem: the risk of eventual labor shortages and an aging workforce to be supported by a shrinking youthful workforce.
7. Expand labor-intensive employment: Given the relative inefficiency of labor vis-à-vis machines and money in creating wealth, this is unlikely to offer a workable solution—unless, of course, over-population creates such strains on capital and industrial infrastructure that key components collapse, e.g., the post-peak oil industry, plunging the world into a pre-industrial lights-out man-and-ox state.
Ironically, that would amount to a self-correcting problem, as the surplus population that causes the problem solves it by hugely expanding demand for labor to replace lost machines and fossil fuels.
8. Expand redundant employment: This is a method employed in some emerging economies, e.g., having five times as many sales staff on a retail floor than is necessary—tantamount to sacrificing efficiency and productivity for survival.
Not terribly efficient, but perhaps eminently practical—at least in the short run.
9. “Cull the herd”: This is the “apocalypse equation” dystopian solution and scenario many fear is unfolding or about to unfold. From this viewpoint, governments, either begin to actively depopulate the planet, or allow, through inaction or worse, infrastructure collapse, social instability, chronic mass misery and violence to do the job more slowly and painfully.
The conspiracy-and-catstrophe-minded warn that such massive depopulation may be accomplished by accident or design through a combination of toxic GMOs, contaminated vaccines, dangerous cell phone and other microwave radiation, longevity-bashing sugar over-dosing, engineered starvation, chem trails or puzzling international inaction on Fukushima-type catastrophes.
Equally unnerving, from a gloom-and-doomer perspective, are calls for a world population under 1 billion [e.g., a widely cited limit of 300 million allegedly recommended by CNN’s Ted Turner in 1996, which he more recently has declared should be about 5 billion].
Coincidentally and scarily for the rest of the world, 300 million is approximately the population of the U.S., a little less generous than the goal of a 500-million upper limit inscribed as a “commandment” on the mysteriously donated, some say occult Stone Henge-ish “Georgia Guidestones”, situated less than 100 miles from CNN’s Atlanta headquarters in Turner’s childhood state and spookily resonant with Shaw’s draconian mindset.
Included among the coping strategies for the sake of completeness and despite its simplistic, albeit dark appeal, “culling the herd” is not likely to be an easy sell to anyone except those who can pull it off and escape it themselves…at least for a while.
10. Colonize other planets: Private enterprise will, in all likelihood, increasingly exploring this, if NASA, China, India and Russia don’t. In any case, if shipping Homo Surplus to distant or nearby planets by the millions proves not to be feasible and Earth descends into Apocalypse Equation Mad Max chaos, at least corporate and government colonist cadres will have a great “Plan B”…
…Make a discreet B-line to Mars or beyond.