Economics on the small scale

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Intersection of Anthropology and Economics?

I'm not sure yet about this Intersection of Anthropology and Economics blog.
For instance, take this post about Lifestyle design:

The problem: many millions of people in First World societies will live entire lifetimes without "gainful employment."

The assignment: Create a lifestyle that makes possible gainful unemployment. Build a lifestyle that will involve, express, and otherwise engage someone who will never work.

I'm actually involved in something similar on a small-scale: figuring out how to make a weekly Soup Kitchen volunteer effort into an on-going concern. Volunteering is a lifestyle choice, so if you want to use the talent, skill and work ethic of volunteers, you have to figure out how to make it a productive and worthwhile effort for them. It can't be too much or too little. So (some of) the considerations given are actually on-topic for putting gainfully employed people to work for free for you.

On the other hand, I am violently allergic to the premise:

We are running out of jobs. So says David Heuther in BusinessWeek.

Mr. Huether says manufacturing jobs are at their lowest level in the U.S. in 50 years. (This despite the fact that productivity is at an all time high.) And this is not only an American problem. The loss of manufacturing jobs is happening in 9 of 10 of the top economies (U.S., Japan, Germany, China, Britain, France, Italy, Korea, Canada and Mexico). Yes, even China is losing jobs, 4.5 million of them since 2000! I know. Surely, some of the jobs have migrated to the non-manufacturing sectors. We would expect this in a service/knowledge/innovation economy. We would expect this in a marketplace where consumer tastes and preferences are fragmenting and long tail markets are expanding. But I would be very surprised if nonmanufacturing jobs were making up the difference. I suspect we're still a couple of million jobs shy. Structural unemployment is a fact of our world, and it is a problem that will get steadily worse.

It's true that Manufacturing is decreasing in importance as an employment source, in a similar manner to that of Farming; due to productivity gains more than anything. And structural unemployment is unavoidable. But chronic unemployment is not unavoidable, and it is very dangerous to society.

People need to be able to meaningfully trade their labor for the ability to survive and prosper. that's essentially the definition of 'gainful employment'. A balanced exchange is symbiotic, an imbalanced exchange is parasitic. gainful unemployment is parasitic. gainful unemployment, something for nothing, is practically the definition of parasitic behavior.

Back to the Soup Kitchen example, so long as the volunteers can see a reasonable benefit (e.g., a social safety net) for a reasonable amount of effort, it is not a parasitic use of their labor even though they are not being paid.


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