Saturday 24 September 2016

A world without work

I am running out of things to write about Scottish politics. Maybe it is just that I have written too much. I certainly imagine that my opponents think this. There is a special place in their hearts for me. Eventually they all blow up and say something nasty even if I have never said anything unpleasant about them. I attack the idea, not the person. But Scottish nationalists so identify with their ideology that they treat any argument against the SNP as an argument against Scotland and against themselves personally. It isn’t.

What I have been trying to do with this blog lately is to get people to think clearly about their assumptions.  The only way that any of us can do this is if we question them. There are far too many ideas in the Scotland and the West in general that cannot be questioned in polite society. It makes for very dull and uninteresting thinking. Question everything and say those things that you don't quite dare say. I have an example in a companion piece to today's blog. 

The Left has become intellectually bereft since the fall of the Berlin Wall and has now gone up a blind alley. The foundation is still socialism, but no-one in the world seriously thinks that socialism is either practical or desirable. This experiment has been tested to destruction.  The problem though is this. When Labour supporters were growing up they believed in socialism. Who joined the Labour party to be a Blairite? People become moderates because they realise that socialism wouldn’t work or it won’t get them elected. But they still wish that socialism did work. So they water down socialism and try to make it fit in better with how the market works. This is usually called “social democracy”. But it’s not exactly an inspiring sort of thing. It is for this reason that left-wingers favour Corbyn. At least he is the real deal.

So we are left with a choice. Either we are moderates but insipid and also to an extent hypocrites or we have faith in the true religion, but we have no chance of gaining power. Worse than this though, moderation doesn’t work, because it is still based on assumptions that are false. Watered down socialism is still socialism. The problem still remains. It is contrary to human nature. I work for myself and my family. Everyone else is a stranger. The free market harnesses human nature to make the economy productive and wealthy. Even watered down socialism can never compete with this, because its model of redistributing wealth and hoping to achieve equality will always make the economy poorer. This is not accidental. It’s a feature.

For this reason it is also not accidental that Scotland is poorer than the south of England. The fundamental cause of this is that nearly everyone in Scotland who has influence or who is in power believes in their heart that socialism ought to be true. They dislike business and think that working for the state is more to their liking. They think that the solution to every problem is that the government spends more public money. They think that government planning is the way to achieve economic growth rather than leaving people alone to get on with their own businesses. So long as the SNP remains in power Scotland will always be too poor to achieve independence. As I have sometimes said it’s not Scotland that is too small, too poor and too stupid. It’s the SNP and the Scottish establishment.

There is change in the air. Brexit was part of this. People are gradually realising that socialism or even social democracy will make you poorer. Eventually this idea may even penetrate into Scotland. It will take time. People change their assumptions slowly. But it is becoming blindingly obvious that the devolved parts of the UK that elect left-wing governments are doing worse than those that don’t. This is one of the more tragic consequences of devolution.

But there is the possibility for redemption for the Left. I have spent my whole life disagreeing with left-wingers, but there is an issue that needs addressing and it ought to be an issue for the Left.

Every day I see students on the bus. They go to university for four or five years and then later I see them working in Tesco doing a job they could have done at age eighteen. There was a time when you could leave school after doing your highers and find a decent job. You would gradually work your way up. There was no particular limit to your prospects. Most jobs after all do not require a degree. Unless you are studying something specialist like medicine or law, a bright eighteen year old should be no worse off than a bright twenty-two year old. But those entry level jobs for school leavers don’t really exist anymore. There are huge numbers of jobs created by the UK economy but far too few of them lead to worthwhile careers.

We are training grossly too many students in subjects that will not lead them to employment.  But worse than that, many of the jobs that used to be done by people can be done better by machines. Whereas before a clerk had to tot up figures in a ledger a programme can now do this more accurately and more quickly. A lecturer could record a model first year lecture and put it on video and it could be shown to students all over the world. Some aspects of surgery can be carried out by robots more accurately than surgeons. Many of the transactions in the stock market or currency exchange are carried out better by computers than by people. Who knows if my job will still exist in twenty years’ time or in thirty?  Or your job for that matter. But then we have a problem. How do we determine how much a person will earn in a world where there is likely to be underemployment?

At the moment how wealthy I am is a matter of how much I have inherited and the job that I do. But what if we lived in a world where only ten or twenty percent of the population had high paid jobs? Those who worked for Google or Apple would be fine. They would control the robots. People who owned businesses would be fine. They would employ those who made the coffee or performed other services. But what if there was an abundance of wealth an abundance of food and other necessities, but not an abundance of work. At this point we would have to think of another way of determining who got what.

There are a variety of possibilities. Some suggest that there should be a basic wage which everyone receives whether they work or not. This could then be topped up by whatever work a person chose to do or not do. Could an economy afford such a citizenship wage? At what level could it be set? What would it do to the work ethic if you didn’t have to work? What would it do to efficiency and productivity? Could anyone qualify for such a wage even if they had just arrived here? These and many other questions will need to be addressed by people on the Left and the Right.

We cannot be Luddites. We cannot smash all the computers. But the world of work is changing. Not yet perhaps or not obviously so. But it is clear that between the top 20% and the bottom 20% a whole swathe of formerly well paid jobs will soon cease to exist. Look back a century and more and you will find that jobs that used to be common place are more or less no more. How many coopers do you know? How many smiths? How many tailors? All we have left are the surnames. This will continue to happen. No doubt there will be future jobs that none of us have dreamed of. But this industrial revolution is really different. People are being replaced.

The Left is still debating about a world that rapidly will not exist. Mr Corbyn is stuck in the 1970s and his ideas were obsolete even then. Almost no-one is even thinking about the meaning of the words Left and Right in a world where the whole concept of work is changing and where it will be necessary to find a way of determining who gets what from the wealth of a country. If only 20% earn nearly everything, they will not be able to keep it all for they will be outvoted assuming that we remain a democracy and if not we will be a tyranny of the oligarchs just like in other countries that have given up their democracy. These are important questions. We need a new model of debate. There is a vital role for the Left in this, because it is naturally their issue. But can the Left look forward. Can it cease squabbling? Can it ditch dead Russians and the temptation to flirt with terrorism? Can it cease being wrong about everything and start being right about just one thing.  

Meanwhile in Scotland all our energy is devoted to a question that we already answered and model of government that makes us poorer. We look back to battles fought with swords and pikes and concern ourselves with what is obsolete and in this way don’t even notice that the world has moved on from our obsessions and it is leaving us ever further behind.