Tribal Economy

Just listened to NPR's Planet Money on "the Past and Future of American Manufacturing."  It was quite a distressing podcast lamenting the loss of manufacturing jobs, wondering how good but unskilled laborers would fare in the future where manufacturing is about finesse and programming, not stamina.  The host, right after being told he would never be hired to program NC milling machines, wondered how the show's protagonist, a hard working aggressive young mom named Matty, could ever get uptrained.  The fearful conclusion was she wouldn't.

It's ironic how Adam Davidson worried about Matty's future, right after being told he himself also had no chance at that job either. I don't think getting everybody "trained up" to operate an NC mill is either needed or practical. We really do need only 1/100 as many combine drivers as scythe swingers. What an astounding efficiency gain! As they poignantly illustrated, there's tragedy here, because the machines have CREATED value, so overall life for everyone should be easier,, not tougher. Nor do I believe is it as simple as, "well there're are more of us now so the times are just as tough as ever."  Here's an illustrative fable.


Thor paused, sweating.  His log was the biggest and he was in front, but he didn't need to rest.  The stop was because Ting the chief had just showed up on the crest of the next rise leading 4 of those strange new animals, "horses."  What would happen now?

The tribe was half way through their annual migration. Each year, the women built travois' and hauled the family's tent and few goods some 200 miles from the rich timberlands up north down to the arid grasslands.  The men hauled timber.  These logs were prized material to make bows & tentstakes among the hunter gatherer tribes of the south, and they'd trade food and furs that made the trip a productive annual event for the Ting tribe.  Some rich chiefs even had astounding "tents" made entirely of tree slabs stacked close, to keep out every whisper of icy wind.  They were luxuriously comfortable: the demand for the tribe's product seemed limitless.

Now old Ting had horses. He was even riding one.

"Thor," he said, looking down at his strongest haulsman while the others came up , variously puffing or wheezing according to their exertions and the ambition of their load, "things are gonna change around here."

"How, lord Ting?"

"We've got horses now.  We don't need all you men pulling.  A horse can haul as much as 3 men, and feeds itself along the way, so your job ends right here, on this hilltop.  From now on, your wife will ride, you can pull her travois with the tent on it."

"I can go twice as fast pulling that little thing.  Who'll keep up with me?"

"Well," Ting said, "the horses will be heavily loaded, so we won't go faster, but instead we'll just have more logs to sell.  If you get too far ahead each day, maybe you can do a little fishing, or nap.  Whatever."

~ ~ So, that's how it COULD have gone.  But as you know, on that day Ting instead left most of his tribe to fend for themselves. He had a horse and that made him rich and put the rest of the tribe out of business.  That pretty much set the pattern for the rest of history.

Why doesn't the largess of our technological advance translate into a more idyllic lifestyle for everyone?  

It's easy to do the "energy balance" and see that tools, animals, machines and oil have each multiplied our ability to get things done. These should have the effect increasing the potential leisure and comfort, supporting a greater population, or some combination of those. That we always choose option #2 seems like a problem in our programming.

Even if we preferred leisure over consumption, there is still a problem of distribution.Everyone needs to benefit from the technological improvement, but ownership tends to concentrate, as the return on investment allows Ting (and nobody else) to buy another horse. Would stock ownership allow the little guy to buy a small piece of the technology? Why hasn't that worked.?

If ancient Norse beer technology advancements doubled yield, why couldn't everyone just have two?  It seems a simple calculation, but maybe it's the problem as well. First of all, everybody has to increase their consumption to keep full employment or, in the case of items with intrinsically limited demand (ok so not beer, but there must be something...) the technological advancement, whether the horse or the automated brewery, brings a reduction in employment as a nominal consequence.

 The benefit is the commodity price drops thanks to lower labor, but what's the laborer supposed to do?  You obviously can't put the reduced price genie back in the bottle, nor is dragging logs by hand any longer a viable livlihood. You can't compete with a horse just as John Henry couldn't compete with a steam hammer. Is a requirement for growth the consequence of advancement?  Cold bloodedly, in the absence of consumption growth, starvation will eventually balance the labor market to the need. More hopefully though, assuming constant GDP (same number of logs dragged) a pair of hands has been idled, that's potential to create more wealth for us all to share. That's if we can gracefully repurpose and retask the displaced individuals, but why not?  Humans are flexible creatures. Maybe now Thor will carve totem poles the plainsmen can afford to buy since logs are cheaper. This is growth.Is there a problem?  Well, maybe. Another stable balance would involve MORE plainsmen consuming all the logs that could be supplied even with horses. Everybody's still pulling for all they're worth.  Subsistence, only more of it. This scenario need only arise if we wastefully expend every technological windfall in the name of more human mass until (see Collapse of Complex Societies) we are dependent on all the latest gizmos just to get by. Problematically, it seems the natural outcome.


  1. Answer: it has, to some extent, translated to a more idyllic lifestyle. Compare standard working hours today to the sweatshops of late 19c and early 20c America. Problems come in when we continually demand more and more innovation; greater speed in all transactions; and more and more toys and products than anyone really needs; and all the while the population keeps growing. Corporations cannot attract investors unless they are continually creating new "value," and hence profits for shareholders. There's no way to keep up with this without working our tails off. Further, if a machine puts someone out of work, we tend to blame the worker. We live in a money economy now; few people have the option to "live off the land" that Thor might have had. The average worker is at the mercy of corporate whims that are far beyond anyone's comprehension. Thor can't go fishing or hunting for money, but he has to pay his heating bill somehow. "Get a job, dude," is easier said than done. It's definitely a lot harder than hunting and fishing (assuming that the game and fish are still plentiful).

  2. <3 and xxx to Panjandrum, however this.

    It's not all wine and roses out there. How come we haven't achieved the utopia of Walden II? We've hot 100x efficiency gains...

  3. The labor movement is responsible for our relative largess over China. I do believe it might be time to finally read Marx!

  4. bah, my comment didn't post?? I'll write something less ramble-y when I've had coffee...

  5. Trying to be respond a little more directly to your points...
    First, I substantially agree! (My first riposte didn't show that.)

    Trying to think about this, carefully I'd like to dissect some phrases. "Demand innovation" is one. I don't think it's demanded, but rather applauded. My simple example can illustrate, can't it? All tribes will have to use horses, else scrape by on a smaller proportion of the market's limited (if elastic) lumber budget. So price pressure rewards innovation. If you want to think of that as an indirect demand, that's fine.

    As for "more toys" that's increased consumption, of beer, pepsi, iThings etc. This is a way to spend the machine-given leverage I refer to. (Leverage, literally the force multiplier, comes from innovation generally, but I like to personalize my metaphor to machines or even oil: energy incarnate.) In some other post I calculated we get (consume) 10kW each here in the USA. That's about a dozen horsepower, and it's 24x7. That's a lot of work at your disposal. Anyway it's hard to hate iThings, since they represent luxury. If you don't WANT stuff, you could choose leisure instead. Buy ONLY beans, recreate ONLY with books: it's an easy choice, if rare. The consumerism creates jobs which is a way to share wealth, so maybe that's good. Back to the fable where Thor makes art, a discretionary consumable. That's a good thing, I think.

    "Money economy..." I can't blame that: that's shooting the messenger.

    "No option to live off the land." Now you're in tall cotton. Why don't we have that option? Because we MUST farm with combines because we MUST have 40 bushels / acre to feed everyone. Gina loves to imagine a rustic family farm, (so do I) but that's a megaluxury available only to wealthy American dilletantes. Still it's the right essential question: why can't we partake of some of the automation & live a happy if simple life? For me the reason is always population. Somebody else is hungry out there and they'll work hard (harder than you want to) for their bread. Tainter's book suggests civilization itself will collapse for this reason, though he doesn't blame it on population, per se.

    Last, if you owned the machine, you'd say it machine frees you from work, vs takes your job! It comes down to who the machine works for, eh? This is capitalism. I have some thoughts on IP here, but that's another long rant. I'll just say somehow "fairness" ought to be a priority and leave it at that. Thor's still willing to work, it's just that his old job doesn't pay a living wage any more. It can't, and that's nobody's fault. That, at least is one small insight I've had here. Still, he shouldn't have to starve, but he might and I'm working hard to find rationalization why/how he won't have to, or how to encourage less people to take naps instead of forcing us all to pull for all we're worth, all the time, else die.

  6. Xenophon, I don't mean to have censored you. Sorry, & please try again.

  7. Okay here we go:

    What about Sven who's job it is to feed and stable the horses? Or Thorina who Sven subcontracts out to till her field 'cause his isn't big enough to grow enough hay? Or the metal they now have to import for saddle/bridle components? The folks who have to mine that metal in some other country, the smiths who forge and form it? etc etc etc. I'd argue that the overall efficiency actually went *down* with a true accounting of 'idle' hands. One has to order a new plow, wait for it to arrive by boat, learn how to use it, etc before even touching the soil, and it'd take years and years of plow efficiency to make up to the supply-line *inefficiency*.

    Beer is a great example -- these numbers are what I recall from the book Natural Capitalism. For each TON of bauxite that is mined (in say, Australia), that's shipped to a smelting plant in, typically, England. It's reduced by more than half weight-wise to make raw billets of Al. Those are shipped to other European countries where they're rolled and trimmed (more waste) to sheets. Those are shipped to the US where they're made into cans with roughly 80% loss of material from the raw Bauxite if I recall correctly...cans are shipped to Coors...filled, then shipped to houses of folks who drink shitty beer. Homebrewing is *way* more efficient!!

    My point is, that with new technology there are almost *always* global inefficiencies, even if local efficiency goes up. I'd hazard a guess that today worldwide employment is UP overall, and there's tons of room for simple increases to efficiency or developing technology with an eye toward efficiency.

    whoa, ramble-y! sorry.

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