How Much Of The Economy Do We Actually Need?
“Earn a living.”
“Get a job.”
Odds are that you have heard these statements before. As an adult, we don’t need anyone to tell us these things. We tell ourselves. But there was a time when each of us heard these ideas for the first time. Do you remember?
Perhaps you heard it after you were asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as if you weren’t something already. You might have responded “I want to play with horses,” or “I’d like to travel to the moon,” or maybe even “I want to help reduce the suffering in the world.” If you were young enough, your adult companions might have admired at your youthful innocence and purity. But if you were close to becoming an adult, the response was probably something like, “That’s nice but you need to be practical. You’re going to have to get a job to earn a living.”
And so we trade in our dreams of healing animals to become a plastic surgeon, dreams of surfing the open oceans to become an investment banker, dreams of simply being in harmony with our environment for the relentless push of doing something to earn a living.
You may feel the urge to stop reading because you know where I am headed with this. I am stoking a wound inside all of us living in Western society – the time each of us realized that either directly or indirectly, we were going to have to support ourselves by selling something to someone in order to survive. I know it hurts. I have the wound too.
This wound hurts even more because of its ramifications. Think about it. The reason some people do not have food to eat, the reason there is no cure for the ebola virus, the reason why we recycle fashion and design machines to break down just fast enough not to piss off the customer is because every time we do we enable someone else to “earn a living.” But when do we stop to ask the critical question and, more importantly, come to the natural conclusion that we simply don’t need everyone to “earn a living” anymore?
Think about the activities performed by our ancestors and people living tribal cultures. When they were not playing or acting leisurely, nearly everyone would be engaged in activities that were directly related to the survival of the group with food production being the primary focus. Surely, with all our modern technological advances, we should be able to accomplish what our ancestors were able to – meeting the basic human needs for all – with far more ease.
When the United States declared their independence in the late 1700s, ninety percent of Americans earned their living by growing food. The remaining ten percent were left to be the shopkeepers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, bankers, and all other professions. Today, less than one percent of the population is involved in food production, putting the vast majority in the position of needing to think of some new thing we can get people to buy. Instead of realizing the gift that automation could bring to the entire human race by alleviating the need to “earn a living”, we kept the charade of forcing people to invent new ways to do it. So what are some of those ways we are earning our living today?
Joel Comm made $400,000 by building a mobile app, the iFart that creates farting noises at the push of a button. Gary Dahl made $15 million in six months by selling pet rocks and Richard James made $250 million on his slinky invention. Jessica Vanessa figured out she could make more money making “twerking” videos online than she could educating children. The world spends over $500 billion every year trying to convince people that they need these new products and services, almost twenty times the cost of alleviating hunger. In light of the fact that 17 million children in the United States do not have enough food to eat, these kinds of stories of “earning a living” should stimulate some serious questions. Why must we continue to slave away at unnecessary jobs creating superfluous goods and services when our brothers and sisters can’t even get enough food to eat?
I don’t mean to be insensitive here. Everyone living in Western society is under a very real pressure, even if artificially manufactured, to earn a living. Not only does our survival depend on earning a living but it also influences, whether we like it or not, the respect we receive and, for many, is intimately linked to their self-worth. But set that aside for a moment and ask yourself this question.
Is what I do to “earn a living” really needed by society? In other words, could society get by without whatever I produce? I can honestly say that I have never held a job that was crucial to human survival. That is not true for everyone but I suspect if we are honest with ourselves, most of us would agree. What then is the purpose of our economy, if it is not to meet the needs of all people?
Well, our economy has a purpose. It is to maximize gross domestic product (GDP), a measurement of the sum total of all goods and services exchanged for money. The higher this number gets, so goes the theory, the better and happier our lives will be. This is the fundamental assumption underlying our programmed response – the need to earn a living – to how we spend our precious, limited time on this beautiful spaceship floating through the galaxy.
So how much of the economy is really needed? Well, it turns out that food production and distribution comprise about five percent of the overall economy. Energy production and distribution is just over three percent, most of which goes towards fueling the transportation of all these superfluous goods and moving us back and forth to our jobs designing, marketing, financing, manufacturing, shipping them. Even at its current levels of catastrophic waste and price gouging, the health care industry is just seven percent of GDP. What else do we need? The Internet? 0.3 percent. Veterinary services? 0.1 percent. When you add it all up, only fifteen percent of the economy is needed to meet our basic needs (and probably much less due to all the wasteful practices designed to increase revenue).
So if we only need fifteen percent of the economy, what makes up the other eighty-five percent? Amazingly, finance, insurance, real estate, rental, and leasing comprise nearly twenty percent of GDP. None of these services meet any real or tangible human need, but rather are part of the economic game we have invented. Another twelve percent of GDP are professional and business services, which exist to help people or companies design, market, finance, manufacture, and ship all those goods that help us to “earn a living.”
One could argue that we need the manufacturing (twelve percent) and construction (four percent) sectors of the economy as well. However, there is so much excess operational capacity of all the machines that we have already produced that we could easily find ways to share them. In fact, we already are. And given that there is five times the number of vacant homes as there are homeless people, we probably could stop building new houses too.
By looking at what comprises GDP, we can see that most of the economy is unnecessary and only exists due to this antiquated notion of the need to justify our existence in terms of what we can produce that others will buy. Not only that but all of this excess production and consumption (and the apparent need to secure the resources needed to keep it going) is the main driver of climate change, inequality, war, and all the other forms of depravation and suffering in the world. All of this to fuel an economy that we don’t even need? What are we doing?
There really is so much work that needs to be done. It just isn’t the kind where it involves creating something to be consumed. We certainly need people to start growing food locally, to begin restoring damaged ecosystems, to spend time nurturing and raising children to become adults capable of dealing with their emotions in healthy ways. But you just aren’t going to convince a bank to loan you money to do these things. The banks will only do that if you will give even more money back to them. This highly limits the scope of what our economy can do.
We need an economic revolution – one that allows us to meet the needs of the entire world, not just those who managed to find a way to “earn a living.” Whereas two hundred years ago, it took nine out of ten people to work to provide enough food for the rest, today one out of a hundred can do the job. Through automation, we have been able to drastically increase our productive capacity while decreasing the human labor required in achieving it. So ingrained is this concept of “earning a living” that was a necessity throughout human history that we have failed to recognize that we could just stop, and instead share the increasingly small burden of providing material needs to all. Instead, we carry on with inventing new ways to “earn a living”.
“Earn a living.” What an interesting phrase. You must do something to earn your life. Your life is not something given to you, but rather something that must be justified by your contribution to it, measured in the form of income earned. As I sit on my porch and watch deer jump the fences people erect to protect their “property” and the squirrels gather the nuts that have freely fallen on the ground, I wonder if we will ever wake up to the reality of our situation, that we have already created an abundant world capable of providing for every human need. All we must do now is, collectively, to realize it.