Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Working for Fun and/or Profit

I'm going to go out on a limb here and jot down some thoughts about national economics, a field in which I am almost completely ignorant. (I hope nobody who knows anything reads this. Or if you do, then I hope you can give me some good answers.)

A common idea that I find strange is the politically motivated wish to create demand for something, be it goods or labour. "The consumers must be made to buy more stuff", or "We must create jobs". Create demand? But demand is bad, right?. Demand means a lack of something. The less demand, the better, everybody already being content. Buddha knew that.

Well, I realise that's a naïve perspective. Goods or labour of course come down to the same thing: a demand for goods creates jobs that increase employment. And increased employment allows consumers to buy more stuff if they can be persuaded that this would be a good idea, thereby increasing demand. Unfortunately, this also leads to currency inflation, so apparently you must always cynically keep a few percent's unemployment to keep the currency stable.

But what does this mean from my own or anybody else's personal perspective? I'm an individualist, not some chaplinesque part of the great societal machine. I don't buy stuff to stimulate the economy, just the stuff I need or want. In fact, I dislike buying things and try to buy as little as possible. Consumerism and advertising is just dumb, an affront to anybody's intelligence, and disastrous for the ecology in the long term.

As for creating jobs, come on! Where's the pride in going to work if you know it's just created to stimulate the economy? My main reason to work is my own enjoyment and the sense that I contribute something valuable to society. My skills are abstruse and impractical, so there's not much demand for them, but I spend my days doing things I enjoy and people who share my interests seem to like the results. If I really ran low on money, I'd get some semi-menial job to pay the rent and "put food on my family", but so far that hasn't been necessary. I have inexpensive tastes and habits.

This is connected to the idea of a citizen's wage, where everybody would be paid a minimum wage by the state. I'm not sure that this would change things greatly in practice. Unemployment is of course a drag, but regardless of whether people have jobs or not, it's always a matter of the rich supporting the poor. Either the poor work for the rich and get paid survival-level wages, allowing the rich to increase their wealth, or the poor are unemployed and get survival-level welfare money from the state, taken as taxes from the rich. (Or, in my somewhat unusual case, the rich set up research foundations to feed poor scholars.) A citizen's wage would just make this reality more evident. But it would give people more spare time, I guess, to "do whatever common people do", like the corn dole in ancient Rome. Panem et circenses.

From my perspective, it really wouldn't be a step forward if every unemployed Swede were given a boring job in the widget manufacturing industry so he could make money to buy more widgets. Anyway, Swedish factory workers can't compete with south-east Asian ones who work for peanuts just to stay alive. But Sweden's an extremely affluent country. As Douglas Adams put it:
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question, 'How can we eat?' The second by the question, 'Why do we eat?' And the third by the question, 'Where shall we do lunch?'"
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