The global GDP, or GWP, has been on the rise since the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago. The upward march was slow for much of the history of human civilization, rocketing upward after the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is still accelerating today, growing faster than ever before. Some of the increase in humanity’s global productive output is tied to our growing population which, in that same timespan, went from being measured in the low millions at the dawn of civilization to 7.4 billion today. But, not only has the GWP been on the rise, so has the GWP per capita, meaning that the average human is a more efficient producer now than in the past, and all evidence indicates that the average human of tomorrow will be even more efficient.
It is no secret that technology is the preeminent driving force behind this rise in human productivity. In prehistoric times, people did not even have a full array of simple machines, and things as rudimentary as building a mud brick house, fashioning a metal spearhead, or writing with ink were out of reach for the people of the time. Gradually, technology improved, and people were able to build the Pyramids, equip entire armies with metal swords, and fill vast libraries with volumes painstakingly penned and transcribed by learned scholars. People, armed with ever-improving mechanical tools, were able to leverage their labor, multiplying the strength of their bodies many times to hoist up great monuments, some of which still stand today.
In more recent centuries, the ability of these mechanical apparatuses to do work was itself multiplied, by swapping out feeble human labor for stronger power plants. Rivers supplied kinetic energy that powered mills, inventors designed steam powered engines that could lift and move goods by the ton, and electricity spread to the entire industrialized world, supplying power on demand derived from energy-rich sources far stronger than even the strongest person’s back.
This march in technology has gotten us where we are today, a world whose GWP is about 200,000 times higher than it was at the outset of the agricultural revolution circa 10,000 BCE. In the same time, the human population has swelled from around 4 million to approximately 7.4 billion, an increase of 1,850 times. In other words, the average human productivity has gone up by a factor of more than 100. The average worker today is worth over 100 workers from 10,000 BCE.
Logic and empirical evidence suggest this growth in productivity will continue to hasten, and in some distant future, a worker will be worth 100 of today’s workers, or 10,000 ancient workers. We can attempt to estimate when this will occur by looking at productivity growth in recent history, starting at the outset of the industrial revolution around 1850. At that point, the GWP was about $360 billion and the global population was 1.262 billion. Today, the GWP is about $80 trillion, and the population is 7.4 billion. We compute from these figures that the GWP per capita has risen by a factor of 37.8 in a little more than 165 years. If we assume that we are on a path of exponential growth in productivity since the Industrial Revolution, fueled by technological progress, then we can project forward to speculate that a worker in 2223 will be worth as much as 100 workers in 2016, or about 10,000 ancient workers. Continuing with the same projections, we find that, as of year 2392, one worker will be more productive than the entire human population of 4 million in 10,000 BCE.
To put this into perspective, if we assume the workers who built the Great Pyramid were approximately twice as productive as the workers of 10,000 BCE, and it took 100,000 people 20 years to build the Great Pyramid, then one person, armed with the technology of the late 24th century, could accomplish this same feat, alone, in one year. A team of 12 could do it in a month. Can you imagine working by yourself to build the Great Pyramid? Can you imagine designing the pyramid, planning the site, quarrying the stone, cutting it, transporting it, and putting all 91,000,000 cubic feet of it together, by yourself? This is the direction human productivity is heading, and, given recent technological advances, it could come even sooner than the 24th century. The question this naturally provokes is, do we need billions of new Great Pyramids cropping up every year?
In order to answer this question, let us turn back to the modern world, to draw a less abstract example from our culture. Progressive-minded people talk of raising the minimum wage as a way to advance society, and point to disparities between the rise in worker productivity and worker wages, pointing to how more jobs are needed and how workers should have a bigger share in the gains in productivity that technological progress has afforded us all. “Flipping burgers” has long served as a synecdoche for low wage work, and McDonald’s is the iconic burger chain of the modern era. McDonald’s employs some 420,000 people across its 36,525 locations, implying that, on average, it requires 11.5 people to operate a McDonald’s. In 2223, then, we can expect, given that one person will be as productive as 100 people today, a single human being will be able to operate 8.7 McDonald’s locations. We cannot precisely predict what this arrangement will look like, but we can imagine a scenario by which one technician oversees, on average, 8.7 automated McDonald’s facilities, with robotic labor doing the actual burger flipping.
How do we plan for this eventuality? Will we need 100 McDonald’s stores for each one we have today to accommodate the workforce, to give people the jobs they allegedly crave? Or, do we simply give that one worker 10 or 50 or 100 times the wage of today’s workers, so that the worker enjoys a bigger share of the gains in productivity we expect to see by then? If so, what about all those other people? Are they just out of luck? It is readily apparent that today’s model, that of increasing minimum wage and creating more menial jobs to accommodate minimum wage workers, is not sustainable in an era of automation. This trend will not be limited to McDonald’s. What about the people driving the trucks that supply the McDonald’s retail locations with food? In theory, one “trucker” in 2223 will be able to oversee a fleet of 100 trucks. And, what about when the McRib needs to be advertised yet again? One marketing wizard of 2223 will be able to do the work of an entire 100-person marketing department today.
We already see the changes around us. Grocery stores have automated checkout options. My robotic vacuum is operated with the push of a button, sparing me from spending an hour vacuuming. Social media multiplies one person’s voice and marketing power by a factor proportional to the number of followers that person has. Cars with driverless and driver-assist options are already on the road. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see where these trends lead, and the outlook is not good under 20th century labor paradigms, where wages are tied to labor. Because, the answers to the previous questions are “no.” We do not need 100x more McDonald’s. We do not need to pay one person the wage of 10, 50, or 100 people. We do not need billions of new Great Pyramids. We can get by with just the one Great Pyramid, and we could probably do with fewer McDonald’s, to be honest.
Automation, and the ever-escalating GWP, will make traditional forms of human labor less relevant. In fact, humans will start to get in the way. If you have been stuck in rush hour traffic in a major city, then you know we already do get in each other’s way. Do all those people need to be rushing off to work in a world where our human labor is needed less, and, with continued advances in information technology, our onsite presence, even less than that? A wage-based workforce is not sustainable, and if this antiquated model of human social structure is not updated, it can only lead to further disenfranchisement of the unemployed and working class. We have to divorce labor from income or, at least, rid ourselves of the idea that a person has to work to live. We simply do not gain anything by forcing billions of people to work to survive when that work can be done by a scant few people leveraging their efforts with sophisticated tools.
A popular solution to this conundrum is basic income. The central premise is that people should be entitled to a basic wage even if they don’t work. If they want to work for income over and above the basic income, they, of course, can look for work, but their work is not strictly necessary for their well-being. Ambitious or lucky people can still get rich under this system, but the unlucky, those unable to work, or those who are not motivated by a desire to accumulate wealth, at least, will not live a life of poverty. This is likely the simplest, most plausible method of facing up to the reality of our accelerating GWP per capita. Why have a working class if work is not necessary? If our global ability to produce reaches such soaring heights, people will be more valuable as consumers of all of this production than as laborers getting in the way of efficient production. Basic income spares us from searching for ways to have people do suboptimal, menial tasks to ward off mass disenfranchisement, and spares people from having to work jobs that strip them of their time and energy, resources they could likely put to more productive use educating themselves, being creative in ways unrestricted by money, or by just relaxing. Any of these is certain to make them happier and more personally enriched than being forced to work in a job they don’t like that the world doesn’t even need.
If we have learned anything from the debacle of minimum wage since its introduction, it is that inflation quickly renders a minimum wage obsolete, and that minimum wages do nothing to allow workers to capture a fair share of the gains in productivity. I propose, then, that once a basic income level is established, that it be tied to per capita GDP (or some other, perhaps more-useful metric, of economic growth), which will ultimately converge to per capita GWP for nations around the world, as more Third World nations are modernized and come to enjoy average income levels and standards of living in line with that of the First World. This sets up a system for tomorrow that is feasible to implement today, that helps people now, and expands the leisure class of tomorrow. Why should a life of leisure be limited to a small minority in a world where production could grant a life of plenty for all? In the distant future under this paradigm, there will still be two classes: the extremely rich and the even richer. I’m sure that will come with its own problems, but I find it highly unlikely that they will be as onerous as the problems associated with poverty and despair.
The hardest part of basic income is implementing it. Several challenging barriers lie in the way. The most significant is the way we think about ourselves and our world. The indoctrination that we have received for centuries that people have to work, that we don’t want any free riders taking advantage of everyone else’s labor, is a powerful force to overcome. Perhaps it made sense in bygone eras (or perhaps it never made sense). But, now, and even more tomorrow, it hurts more than it helps to require people to work. We will all be better off if we let the robots do their jobs without people getting in the way, and for those millions of people to serve, instead, as the consumers of said robots’ labor.