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Dystopia in the Outlook Section

Sunday's Outlook section had two pieces outlining pretty dystopic scenarios. The first was a back-to-the-land manifesto from someone who's building a self-sufficient farm in rural New Mexico in order to protect against the inevitable chaos of peak oil and resource wars and trade disruption and general technological collapse. I've never really understood that thinking. If humanity goes all state-of-nature, having a lush and self-sufficient farm is as likely to make you a target of the desperate many as a member of the privileged few. If trade doesn't survive peak oil, property rights probably won't do any better.

The second piece is by Gregory Clark, and it outlines something I worry quite a bit more about. Technological change, he says, will only accelerate. Whatever worries you had about outsourcing to China and India, that's "may be only a brief historical interlude before the great outsourcing yet to come -- to machines." In recent years, wages for America's unskilled have stagnated, and there's no real reason to think they'll pick up. "We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers," Clark writes, "and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man."

"How do we operate a society in which a large share of the population is socially needy but economically redundant?" Clark asks. "There is only one answer. You tax the winners -- those with the still uniquely human skills, and those owning the capital and land -- to provide for the losers." Clark doesn't argue in these terms, but his conclusion is that only socialism will be capable of saving capitalism. "In the end," he writes, "we may be forced to learn to live in a United States where, by stealth, 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need' becomes the guiding principle of government."

Melancholy Elephants, a story by science fiction writer Spider Robinson, explores this topic pretty effectively. I thought his treatment was really profound when I was young and now think it's didactic and overly blunt. But it's still smart. Sort of like a Kilgore Trout novel. Robinson argues that we'll need some way to preserve human dignity in an economy when human beings are fundamentally unnecessary. As such, a large portion of the population will live on subsidies and handouts but register as professional artists. They won't be professionals in the sense that their work will earn money, but in the sense that they'll be able to lay claim to a pursuit that gives their life meaning and their days structure.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 10, 2009; 1:47 PM ET
Categories:  Taxes  
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People who end up working in lower-wage services won't be so bad off if there are accompanying social services to make up for their lower incomes such as health, higher education assistance, transportation, well-planned communities, and affordable housing. And other countries have made this work too. So we should fear not the brave new world but we should be very concerned about whether our political system can accomodate these changes. The biggest long-term challenge right now seems to be that Americans are very badly informed and many don't understand basic aspects of the political economy (e.g. demanding better education and other services but opposing very small tax increases to pay for them).

Posted by: phillycomment | August 10, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

When I was a kid I read the Asimov stories about robots. I decided then that eventually people whose jobs were replaced by robots would eventually be in favor of socialism.
I had now idea powerful corporations would become in the meantime, or how sophisticated the corporate media would be in persuading to people to vote against their own interests.
Now I thing more in terms of "Blade Runner" than "I Robot".

Posted by: patrick27 | August 10, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Other interesting point though is that not only to individuals not realize the value of a proper balance between social services and freedom for private enterprise but investors and big corporations don't get it either. If we had resolved this health insurance business decades ago, U.S. consumers would have higher incomes to spend on stuff that corporations make. Regressive economic policies don't just hurt individuals, they hurt businesses as well because you need people with rising income to support rising consumption. But if you read the Wall Street Journal or talk to some business folks, you realize that the U.S. business community is a long way away from realizing this. I really can't figure out what the problem is.

Posted by: phillycomment | August 10, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

There's a been a lot of good criticism of Gregory Clark's piece circulating on the internets, but another one I can think of is that--in a world in which robots do all the menial labor that humans used to do--those goods and services must be extraordinarily inexpensive, since they are being made so efficiently. I mean, if a bunch of robots can be churning out Nike shoes 24 hours a day, that means that Nike's--or a comparable shoe--must be available for a fraction of today's cost.

So, in other words, the thing that Clark seems to not be factoring in is that the baseline quality of life in this robot world will be far, far better than how it is now. A "poor" person in this future world may very well be enjoying the goods, services, and amenities that we associate with today's middle class (say).

Posted by: thedavidmo | August 10, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I agree it's an intriguing idea to contemplate. I tend to be a tad more optimistic, but there is a serious question to asked about the sociological and economic concerns of such a "post-post-industrial" economy. My original comment got way too long for here so I wrote it up here:

"Melancholy Elephants" sounds eerily too similar to Brooklyn for my tastes.

Posted by: AgnosticTheocrat | August 10, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Clark's nostalgia for the 1950s forgets how closed off the unskilled labor market was back then. Plenty of those jobs were not available to women or minorities, and immigration was far more limited. He's also an economic nationalist; I wonder what's happened to unskilled workers' wages in other countries during that period.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 10, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Personally I prefer Fuller's version of future humanity where there's a certain class of people who are provided for engineers. I don't think the world is lacking for art, frankly, but one person figuring out how to create a motor from alternating electric current with magnets is worth providing salaries to quite a lot of people. I think we largely underestimate our talents, combine with the absence of purpose for just about everybody.

Posted by: dugmartsch | August 10, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

do you think the author of this back to the land manifesto would like his own reality show?

just a few thoughts....
what does the author of the article mean, when he says he is investing in green tech?
oftentimes, folks who pursue the lives of off-grid ranchers are fortunate enough to have the financial resources necessary to create this kind of lifestyle, and a safety net in the event that it doesnt work out.

this option is initself, something of a luxury.
this lifestyle doesnt come cheap, initially.
it is good to be able to maintain a healthy, albeit "green" portfolio, for when one no longer enjoys the harsh winters with the onset of arthritis, and the experience starts feeling more like an interesting chapter in one's life.
citydwellers turned rural landowners often have the money, to, as the author writes, "shlep" into the city for things......especially medical care, and the amenities that come in handy, that the city~dwellers continue to provide.
you dont see too many folks doing the off-grid life for very long, if they can only afford to live in a yert.
oftentimes, this kind of lifestyle can edge into a way of living that can become increasingly paranoid.
and the author is quite correct to try and" become friends with your neighbors."
not all the folks out in the remote areas of the southwest are creating waldenesque farms for themselves.
for every pastoral, waldenesque ranch, there is more often than not, a neighbor with eight rusted, ancient cars in the field and a farm of old tires and rusted machinery, who is not playing a hopi flute and harvesting pinyon nuts.
it generally takes a substantial amount of money to create an off-grid life that you will persist in after a couple of snowfalls.

the good news is, that in the san luis valley, in alamosa, colorado, x-cel and sun edison have begun building highly efficient photovoltaic solar power plants, in the midst of oil and gas exploration country!
who knows how all of this will work out.

and it does seem to be a wonderful, rich and interesting lifestyle. it would be interesting to see if the author is still there in ten years.
one thing is for sure....had the economy not taken this downturn, his neighbors wouldnt be living in yerts in the next pasture, he would be listening to the sound of earth moving machines plowing up the fields of new mexico for tract housing communities! new mexico was experiencing an explosion of "adobe" style condominium communities with "lovely" native american names...and it was appearing that there would be less and less land for experimental lifestyles that wasnt in view of a giant walmart or mccdonalds with turquoise and sunset colored trim.

Posted by: jkaren | August 10, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

This is all kind of apples-and-oranges thinking.

It has one foot firmly in the idea that there isn't enough to go around, that not everybody can have everything, and therefore the rewards must be linked to birth or effort.

The other foot imagines a future in which there is more than enough to go around, thus, most people can't get a job with which to earn any of it.

It doesn't get much more dystopian than that. Damned if you do and damned if you don't!

In reality, an economy centered on people, rather than the needs of corporations, would have no trouble finding work for anyone who wanted to work- and in those circumstances, a culture of plenty, rather than poverty, would be something to be thankful for, not sorry about.

Posted by: serialcatowner | August 10, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

You quote Clark saying "There is only one answer. You tax the winners -- those with the still uniquely human skills, and those owning the capital and land -- to provide for the losers."

One past American political party -- the "progressives" -- favored simply eliminating the losers (and even potential losers). See Theo. Roosevelt's excellent letter describing the process (lawfully implemented in Virginia until 1979 and in Oregon until 2003) at

Such eugenics laws must be a fair and just, because scientists suggested them, people embraced them as correct, a majority of legislators voted for them, a duly elected executive implemented them, and competent courts approved them.

Seems we all forget about THAT solution.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 10, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

More recently, Iain M. Banks explores a far future where technology has eliminated scarcity in his "Culture" novels. Banks' vision of universal plenty only works, though, if limitless growth is possible, granting space and time for technological improvements to outpace both population growth and the human race's homicidal impulses. How likely is such an outcome?

Posted by: FearItself | August 10, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Not terribly well thought out, but the answer is....agriculture. Gore has described the suburbs and exurbs becoming rings of small scale, sustainable farms around urban areas, very similar to what I saw in Taiwan. This is exactly right. Such labor intensive, small scale farms would probably have to be subsidized, but I'll bet that well designed systems of localized production and distribution would require far less propping up than the perverse and destructive agribusiness we have now. So, some might say, we're back to feudal era serfs and lords? How about returning this country to its roots as an agricultural society, where growing healthy, sustainable food and crops is respected for the honorable profession it is - in fact, the basis of the modern world. We could get started on hemp production as replacement for fossil fuel technologies...but when discussion arises concerning low skilled labor, the answer is obvious.

Posted by: sblaisdell | August 10, 2009 10:21 PM | Report abuse

This idea is the basis of Ted Kaczynski's manifesto:

Posted by: wldowning | August 11, 2009 7:51 AM | Report abuse

I am less concerned by the far future depicted in the Clark article than the near future. He raises several issues, and I am much less concerned by the tax one. The key issue it seems to me is the technological drive to require skills based on symbol manipulation and to compensate individuals who have them much more highly than those who don't. He then dismisses education as a mechanism for imparting those skills. I think it is probably true that up to two-thirds of those kids whom are failed by our education system could acquire the skills needed with a great investment in the necessary resources (more than paying teachers, but finding out how to make cultural shifts from those that dismiss the value of education to a shift that prizes it. If we shift the proportion of those without symbolic skills we will make "unskilled work" much more remunerative. We can automate hamburger flipping and call centers, but not, I think, those jobs which require human contact. Why can we educate 95% of all Koreans and not 95% of all African-Americans or rural whites? The answer is we can.

Posted by: jmwolgin | August 11, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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