Back in the late seventies, I saw a TV documentary about life in the future. The documentary (Tomorrow's World*) predicted that, thanks to automation, we would soon spend our days without work, trying to find entertaining things to do. Amusingly, the characters in the documentary seemed to spend a lot of time jumping up and down on trampolines. Occasionally, the characters would stop in the computer room just to check everything was working right.
Instead, we now work harder than ever. What happened?
Faster communications and free markets have invigorated competition, and this has trickled down from the corporate world into our personal lives. We now compete for jobs with people all across the globe. In America, our work ethic is very strong. With a combination of spirit and technology, we have held our own against the competition year after year.
However, on our current course, corporations are becoming superhuman.
As automation improves, corporations will need fewer and fewer workers. In the past, there was always something people could do that machines couldn't. Within 30 years, machines will be able to do absolutely anything a human can do. It won't be a sudden transformation. I predict that in about 15 years, a machine costing $100K will be able to do what 90+% of employed people can do. People won't be able to compete, at least not for significant amounts of money.
In 2020, if you want to start a business (assuming you have capital), you're going to build a business-to-business (B2B) corporation. Consumers won't have any money, so B2C business models will be unattractive. You'll make a lot more money if you can service corporations. The economy will be made up exclusively by corporations. These corporations will own their own natural resources, the means of production, and humans will be increasingly irrelevant to the economy. The few owners of these companies will be fantastically wealthy. Everyone else will have no significant income and no capital.
This could spell disaster. Yet, with social change, we might see a new renaissance.
If we can harness this productivity for the good of all people, we will largely free ourselves from work, and usher in an age of art, philosophy and prosperity. It won't be easy, least of all for the United States.
One controversial solution is to tax corporations and corporate owners and provide everyone with a basic income. This might be $25K per year. Not much? It may be more than you think. With corporations completely automated, the cost of goods will be relatively small.
The idea of paying people for nothing sounds perverse. What is the incentive to be better than we are? This is a fair question. How do we incentivise self-improvement? What will people do without work to fill their days? It's not an easy question to answer.
Ironically, making a transition from work might be hardest for Americans. Our work ethic is so strong that life without work is almost inconceivable to us.
*Man, this takes me back.