This post is a long extract from my essay on The Future of Work written for Future Agenda. The full piece is on Medium.
The current discussion about the future of work seems to be monopolised by the version of the future in which technology destroys jobs. It has gained an air of inevitability, as if it is the only possible future. NESTA’s open minded report suggested that the “robots hypothesis” resonated because it connected “two powerful themes in popular culture: the rapid advance of IT, and the startling growth in inequality.” But there is a problem: it hasn’t happened before.
So it is worth considering reasons why it might just be a phase. The economic historian Carlota Perez has a model of technological development that describes five long waves, or surges, since the Industrial Revolution. Each is around 50–60 years and follows an S-curve pattern; the last quarter of each is marked by saturated markets, diminishing investment opportunities and declining returns. The first part of the 20th century was dominated by the oil and auto surge; the latter part by ICT. The ICT wave is now reaching the turning point at which returns start to fall.
On this model, finance is looking for new opportunities, and although it is too early to say what the next platform will be, and we’re still 10–15 years away from it, it is possible to imagine that the next technological surge might be built around, say, a material such as graphene.
Labour market woes
David Autor concludes that much of “the labor market woes” of the past decade are not down to computerisation, but to the financial crisis and reduced investment (starting with the dot.com collapse) and the impact of globalisation on labour markets. He suggests that many middle-skill jobs will prove more resistant to unbundling than advertised; while computers can do specific tasks, turning collections of tasks into self-contained jobs, and then automating them, requires substantial investment. In the long run, people are both more flexible and cheaper.
One implication is that the question of the future of work may actually be about power in the labour market. This leads to broadly political interpretations of the future of working conditions, ranging from Guy Standing’s formulation of the fragile “precariat”, facing intermittent, insecure work, David Weil’s description of the “fissured workplace”, in which many functions are sub-contracted, and the rise of campaigns for the Living Wage.
I read a couple of things recently that are connected, but perhaps not in a way intended by all of the authors. The first is by Sally Goerner, on the rise of American oligarchy. The second is a paper from McKinsey on capitalism’s short-termism problem.
The Sally Goerner post takes a long view–around 250 years–and positions America’s current political crisis as the latest in a series of 70-90 year cycles in which oligarchy flares up. It follows a familiar pattern, says Goerner, like so:
- Economic “Royalists” infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites.
- Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate.
- The crisis reaches a breaking point; seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change.
- If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse.
- Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new.
I suspect we could map similar cycles in other countries.
The systemic model that sits behind it is this:
“Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. … In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends.”
The EU’s ruling on Apple’s Irish tax affairs is a sign of two different sets of change: the ending of the ICT boom, and the decline of globalisation
Silicon Valley seems surprised, and not for the first time, by the fact that the European Union has a different view of its business practices than it does. Apple is perplexed (even maddened) by the decision of the EU’s Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, that it should pay the same rate of corporation tax as other companies doing business in Ireland–and that it therefore owed €13 billion, perhaps more, in back taxes. Bloomberg explains the issue well.
Google, similarly, has been perplexed by the three separate anti-trust suits that the EU has filed against it. One relates to its advertising business; a second to its shopping service; the third is about whether Google has been giving preferential treatment to both Search and Chrome in its Android operating system.
So what’s going on here? Two separate things: first, it’s about the coming end of the ICT boom that has dominated innovation and culture since the mid-1970s; second, it’s about the limits of corporate power and influence as economic globalisation declines.
In her film The Divide, a documentary adaption of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Katharine Round has taken a fairly analytical book and tell a set of stories around it. This is not a criticism. Film and book are different media, and The Divide works as a companion piece to the book, pulling out the experience of inequality at a visceral level.
Of course the election has moved on, but I just wanted to come back to last week’s “business leaders’ letter” to the Telegraph. That letter, which focussed on corporation tax, and the business response to Labour’s zero-hours proposals, tell us more about business than it does about politics. Here’s a quick guide to four things they tell us.
I’ll admit to being a bit obsessed with Syriza and the Eurozone at the moment (here and here): it is by some way the most interesting development at the moment in both politics and economics. And I’m also interested in the idea that Yanis Varoufakis’ background teaching game theory might have some bearing on the outcome of the talks with the Eurozone, especially now that he has gone out his way, in the New York Times to say that exactly the opposite is true. It’s worth spending a bit of time on this.
I hadn’t meant to come back to Syriza and the Eurozone so quickly, but The Real News Network has a fascinating interview with the German economist Heiner Flassbeck, conducted after the election, where he makes three valuable points. Here’s some extracts and some notes.
1. The Troika is more interested in imposing conditionality than talking about debt.
FLASSBECK: [T]he most important thing is not debt as such, but it is the reforms, the so-called reforms, the so-called structural reforms, where the countries have the conditionality to do something. And whether the debt is now repaid in the next ten years and next 20 years or so is not important. And that is not what it’s all about. What you have to discuss is the conditionality, and this is not covered by Varoufakis’ proposal. …
JAY: So … this is things like lowering the amount of pensions that are paid, the minimum wages.
FLASSBECK: Everything, all the things, the long list of 100 points, including the privatization of the port in Piraeus or things like that, crazy things that have nothing to do with the Greek performance–or not much, at least. Only under a neoliberal ideology it has much to do with the Greek performance. So these things are very important. And there, is far as I understand, the German finance minister said very clearly, no, no way to change that.
So – if this analysis is right – the two sides are much further apart even than the recent coverage suggests. Greece is talking apples, the Troika is talking oranges. But it’s also a sign of the way in which the election of Syriza has changed the game, and the shape of the Overton window. This is one reason why both sides are negotiating in public, as Peter Doyle pointed out in the FT’s Alphaville blog. When you can’t even agree on what the discourse is, the usual channels and the usual forums break down.
2. Since the European debt problem is still being fuelled by German trade surpluses, it’s not going to go away soon.
FLASSBECK: [T]he German surplus of the current account for this year and the official forecast of the German government is, again, 20-30 billion higher than last year. It’s more than 200 billion–a surplus of more than 200 billion, which clearly means, logically means that the German economy, the German politicians are building their whole model of the German economy on more indebtedness of other countries of the rest of the world, including Europe. So they need new debt from the rest of the world of 200 million for this year to get a small growth of 1.5 percent, which is ridiculous….
JAY: Let me just break this down and make sure I’m understanding it … They’re sitting on all this surplus, and what they need to do with it is loan it to somebody. So they need some debtors to pick up this $200 billion.
FLASSBECK: They need debtors. Germany needs debtors more than anybody in the world, because the whole economy is built on this surplus, on this idea that the rest of the world would be debtors and Germany’s always a creditor, which is a foolish idea … Every reasonable economist knows it’s a foolish idea. It’s mercantilism.
Two points about this. The first is that it goes to the heart of the Eurozone’s low-growth problem – it won’t grow until Germany starts buying more. The second is that this isn’t a problem stemming from the financial crisis. It’s a problem stemming from the way in which Germany is choosing to manage its economy. And generally, mercantilism went out of fashion in the 18th century.
3. The only way for Greece to resolve  and  is to build a coalition.
FLASSBECK: [I]t’s a violation of the rule inside the Monetary Union that you should not have macro economic imbalances that go beyond a certain point. The Germans insisted that it should be 6 percent of GDP, but now the German surplus is even going far beyond that. It would be 8 percent of GDP this year. So I would, if I were Mr. Tsipras, I would take this point. I would say, you see, the Germans are violating everything, and the most important thing under the sun, namely, the current account balance–and at the same time, they’re accusing us of violating other parts of the treaties of the European treaty. So who is the biggest violator, and who’s going to play along the rules or against the rules?
JAY: And this is the logic with which you try to build your coalition.
FLASSBECK: I would build my coalition exactly along these lines, and then it would be very difficult for the Germans to argue and to say, no, we don’t care about that; our violations do not count; only yours count. If you then have a strong political coalition, including Italy and France, they could easily, in my view, easily get a majority in Europe against the Germans. … That’s where you have to go.
Of course this makes political sense, but it also requires time; and political time and the time of financial markets run at different speeds. Indeed, you can go one step further here and suggest that the ECB’s intervention last week might have been designed to accelerate the speed of a Greek financial crisis and reduce the time and the opportunities to build such a coalition.
But all of this is a complex and dangerous game.
In his excellent Alphaville post, Peter Doyle reminds us that everyone has the same aims for the euro:
The issue is not that the ECB and Syriza have fundamentally different aims for the euro: both want it; both want it to secure stable sustainable growth area wide; and, to that end, both agree that policy in it has to be designed and coordinated at area level because everyone working “by and for themselves” above pre-set floors and subject to “no-bailouts” has all-too-clearly-and-all-too-utterly failed.
But the eurozone has been so badly designed that the only way to keep it in the air is for everyone to keep threatening to crash it.
It is like a mid-air jumbo jet, flown by a large one-member-one-veto committee, with one wing on backwards. So orthodox procedures (all engines on forward thrust) spell ruin … In that context, the current pas-de-deux is not a matter of “whether the Greeks or the ECB blink first.” It is a case of whether the fallout from the perpetual dance of death can be contained.
And sitting in the middle of the whirling dervishes, of course, is Angela Merkel. As Peter Doyle argues, she could decide that the markets seem relaxed about a Greek exit, and let them go, to discover that the markets have just been quiet because they’ve been momentarily doped with a-trillion-or-so of quantitively-eased Euros. Or she could decide that’s too much of a risk, and over-rule her hawkish finance minister Wolfgang Schaüble – fresh from his defeat on the quantitative easing – to have him cause political mayhem internally.
Merkel always prefers the less risky option. But in this context, it is not clear what that is for her. Thus is her dance with the markets.
Someone said dismissively of Yanis Varoufakis this week
(sadly I can’t find the link) that he resembled a man holding a gun to his head and demanding a ransom threatening to shoot (a bit like the new sheriff in Blazing Saddles). In such a volatile situation, acting crazy may be the sanest thing to do.
The interview was with The Real News Network. You can view it here.
It’s impossible to tell how the stand-off between Syriza, Germany, and the ECB will turn out, and events are shifting daily. But some of the thinking in a Futures Company Future Perspective I co-wrote with the journalist and analyst Matthew Lynn on The Future of the Eurozone helps make sense of the situation. It was published in 2012. It’s clear from re-reading our analysis from then that Syriza, and Greece, holds more cards than many people think it does.
The Future Perspective observed that financial crises are a routine feature of market economies, and followed familiar patterns. “This time” is never different. A diagram outlined the tensions that framed responses to a debt crisis.
The first observation is that in Greece it has taken quite a long time, and some astonishingly adverse social and economic outcomes, for the political dimension at the bottom of the diagram to push its way to the forefront. This is partly because Greece’s mainstream parties chose to align themselves with austerity programmes, as they did elsewhere in Europe. But perhaps we should be surprised instead by the speed at which an opposition party from way outside of the mainstream has come to power: historically, such shifts take a generation or more, not a decade. Podemos in Spain, and Sinn Fein in Ireland, could follow.
In my previous post on Guy Standing’s recent talk on the precariat at Goldsmith’s College, I rehearsed his argument about the economic and political changes that created the precariat, the characteristics of precarious life, and the composition of the precariat. With all of that laid out, he went back again to Karl Polanyi, or at least to his interpretation of Polanyi. He deduces three principles from The Great Transformation that seem relevant to where we are now.
- Every new forward march has to built on the insecurities of an emerging class, and there must be new forms of action. There must be a struggle for recognition (cf Syriza, Podemos) – which needs to be a process of subjective recognition. He argued that Podemos is leading the polls in Spain because it is a precariat party. In Milan, different but similar, the *sciopero social* or “social strike.”
- The second struggle is a struggle for representation in the state.
- The third struggle is a struggle for redistribution. A lot of redistribution is needed: a redistribution of security; a redistribution of the control of time (the precarisat has none); the redistribution of access to quality space (in the face of the shrinking of the commons); the redistribution of access to education (as against standardised training for the labour market; redistribution of financial knowledge and advice; and a redistribution of financial capital (see the discussion of Basic Income below).
Guy Standing has more than anyone else been responsible, as an academic and an activist, for pushing the concept of the precariat into political discourse, through his books – The Precariat (free online), The Precariat Charter, and Basic Income – and his articles and lectures. He was a guest last week in London of Goldsmith’s Anthropology Department and its recently formed Political Economy Research Centre. Anything in quotes, except the definition immediately below, was noted while he spoke, but – in the way of these things – may not be exactly verbatim.
The concept of the precariat, from Wiktionary: “People suffering from precarity, especially as a social class; people living a precarious existence, without security or predictability, especially job security.”
After he wrote The Precariat, Standing was asked to do hundreds of talks around the world. From one of these talks, the idea emerged of a Precariat Charter, timed to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which he described as being “the first class-based demand for rights and liberties against the state,” albeit that the demands were coming from the class of barons. The Charter of the Forests, two years later, was the first ecological charter.