Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

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Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Carleas » Tue Oct 20, 2015 2:47 pm

Zero marginal productivity (ZMP) workers are those who would not increase production if employed. They are those whose labor would not be purchased at any price, and may even be refused even if the buyers were paid to purchase the labor (as when the cost to employ them were non-zero).

Picture a modern car factory. In many cases, adding a new worker will not increase the output of the factory, because a handfull of employees can operate the factory, and new machines can be added without the need for additional workers to operate them.

An economy is a little more complicated than a factory: the factory benefits from outsourcing the human input, so that engineers across the country design the machines and, once designed, they can be plugged in and increase output without needing new human input. So couldn't workers displaced from the factory become engineers? Not always. In many cases, adding a new employee will decrease the effectiveness of other employees (at least over some time period). Training a new employee is costly, and distracts from other work (or from training other employees). This may well be the case for engineering new machines that make cars, because the cost to train an employee to a point where they can contribute to such a project is very high. If a new employee in any industry will decrease the effectiveness of the others by more than they will add in new productivity, they will be a ZMP worker.

There is debate about whether ZMP workers exist in the modern economy. Certainly for most of human history they did not. But as technology advances, the possibility that some workers will be ZMP increases. At some points, some humans will just get in the way of projects already under way. This seems certain if automation continues. And it presents a big problem for policy. What do we do with such workers? Do we just watch unemployment increase? Do we create make-work jobs to keep them busy? Do we provide sufficient welfare to keep them alive? I don't seem most modern policy approaches as particularly well poised to deal with this problem, but it's one we would be wise to consider before it presents itself.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Tue Oct 20, 2015 3:55 pm

Zero marginal productivity (ZMP) workers are those who would not increase production if employed.
Lawyers are a perfect example.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Carleas » Tue Oct 20, 2015 4:48 pm

phyllo wrote:Lawyers are a perfect example.

Not sure if this is serious, so I'll respond to it as if it is.

Lawyers are certainly going to be hit hard by the advance of technology in the coming years. Much of what many lawyers do can already be done better by a machine, but the disconnect between people in law and people in tech seems to make deploying that technology much slower than in other industries (other plausible explanations for the slow roll-out is that 1) lawyers are largely managed by other lawyers, who resent the idea that a machine can replace everything they've done in their career, and 2) lawyers as advocates have expertise in convincing others, and they can make a persuasive (if not sound) case that machines can't actually replace them).

But not all lawyers are ZMP. For one thing, lawyers do a lot of things, so it's hard to lump them all together. For another, a lot of the things that are disparaged as parasitic and unproductive are valuable (which is not to say that there aren't a lot of parasitic and unproductive branches of legal practice).

But the concept of a ZMP worker doesn't apply to industries, but to individuals. It's unlikely that most people working as lawyers will be ZMP workers, at least in the near future. The legal system in the US selects for a constellation of attributes that are valuable in other fields: intelligence, reasoning, discipline, responsibility, communication, research, social skills. Not all lawyers have all these; not all lawyers are above average in any one. But the average lawyer will be above average in most, and so will probably be able to find some form of labor in which they can add productivity, even if the legal industry is largely wiped out by automation (which will happen in the near future).
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Amorphos » Tue Oct 20, 2015 6:42 pm

Even if useless in said fashion, perhaps ZMP workers have societal and other values. For example, a useless worker may have a family who don’t grow up to be useless, they also buy products, and a factory is useless if it doesn’t build what they want.

To function et al, future society may have to employ an entirely ‘useless’ workforce.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Tue Oct 20, 2015 7:29 pm

Lawyers are certainly going to be hit hard by the advance of technology in the coming years. Much of what many lawyers do can already be done better by a machine, but the disconnect between people in law and people in tech seems to make deploying that technology much slower than in other industries (other plausible explanations for the slow roll-out is that 1) lawyers are largely managed by other lawyers, who resent the idea that a machine can replace everything they've done in their career, and 2) lawyers as advocates have expertise in convincing others, and they can make a persuasive (if not sound) case that machines can't actually replace them).

But not all lawyers are ZMP. For one thing, lawyers do a lot of things, so it's hard to lump them all together. For another, a lot of the things that are disparaged as parasitic and unproductive are valuable (which is not to say that there aren't a lot of parasitic and unproductive branches of legal practice).

But the concept of a ZMP worker doesn't apply to industries, but to individuals. It's unlikely that most people working as lawyers will be ZMP workers, at least in the near future. The legal system in the US selects for a constellation of attributes that are valuable in other fields: intelligence, reasoning, discipline, responsibility, communication, research, social skills. Not all lawyers have all these; not all lawyers are above average in any one. But the average lawyer will be above average in most, and so will probably be able to find some form of labor in which they can add productivity, even if the legal industry is largely wiped out by automation (which will happen in the near future).

"Coming years"
"near future"
Lawyers contribute nothing to production now.
Picture a modern car factory.
I did.
A lawyer contributes absolutely nothing to the production of a factory. If anything, the existence of lawyers hinders production of automobiles by bogging down the process with inefficient laws. (Laws 'produced' by still more lawyers.)
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Tue Oct 20, 2015 7:36 pm

Even if useless in said fashion, perhaps ZMP workers have societal and other values. For example, a useless worker may have a family who don’t grow up to be useless, they also buy products, and a factory is useless if it doesn’t build what they want.

To function et al, future society may have to employ an entirely ‘useless’ workforce.
One has to ask and answer the questions : Why do we produce anything?
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Amorphos » Tue Oct 20, 2015 8:22 pm

One has to ask and answer the questions : Why do we produce anything?


Indeed. We produce everything for us, and the margin between the proportion of products and that of the user, is a deficit where the user cannot buy the products. Ultimately a work force which can afford all products as they wish, manifests the ultimate degree of benefit.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Carleas » Tue Oct 20, 2015 8:27 pm

Amorphos wrote:Even if useless in said fashion, perhaps ZMP workers have societal and other values.

I think they do, just not as workers. The concern is that modern political systems don't seem to value individuals who can't be employed. I would argue that they should.


Phyllo, whether an individual contributes zero marginal productivity in law or in coal mining, they contribute zero marginal productivity.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Amorphos » Tue Oct 20, 2015 9:18 pm

The concern is that modern political systems don't seem to value individuals who can't be employed. I would argue that they should.


Indeed. They may be thinking of ways out of that, inventing products or contributing ideas, but what's more important is that they belong to society, have families etc, and the way they are treated is a detriment to society in the greater sense. Then there is cash jobs in construction, and the same people who complain about the unemployed are more than happy to get work done cheap [in what i’ve seen anyhow].

I think the main thing is that products are built for people, and are not self serving only. The amount of people visiting food banks and/or homeless, even around here [oxfordshire] is astonishing for such a rich place.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Tue Oct 20, 2015 9:32 pm

Carleas wrote:
Amorphos wrote:Even if useless in said fashion, perhaps ZMP workers have societal and other values.

I think they do, just not as workers. The concern is that modern political systems don't seem to value individuals who can't be employed. I would argue that they should.


Phyllo, whether an individual contributes zero marginal productivity in law or in coal mining, they contribute zero marginal productivity.

Maybe it's the way that you frame these things. You seem to be so concerned with efficiency, technology, information and markets.

In Japan, you don't kick an employee out of a job when the economy takes a downturn. You find a way to keep him around until things turn around. You recognize the social ties which bind humans together.

America is such a disposable economy. Use things and people and throw them away. Wasteland.

Everybody can be employed. It just takes a bit of effort to figure out how. Society is created for humans, not for markets or machines.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Carleas » Tue Oct 20, 2015 9:51 pm

I don't see how any of what you said responds to the issue I'm raising here. I'm not saying everyone can't be employed, I'm saying that some people won't add to overall productivity through their employment.

Nor am I saying that such workers have no value as human beings because they have no value as workers. I firmly believe that over the next century or so virtually all humans will become ZMP workers as automation begins to contribute more and more to net productivity. It is nonsensical to suppose that the very persons who define value in the first place could collectively be found to be of zero value, so, far from denying human value, I think the existence and inevitability of ZMP workers proves its existence independent from employment or productivity.

But the way society currently operates will not work. And I think there's good reason to think that focusing on employment as the solution will fail (if we really get to a point where workers are net-negative producers, it will tend to reduce net social well-being to try to shoehorn everyone into employment). Better would be to start thinking about how a post-scarcity economy can be run, and how we can transition to one.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Amorphos » Tue Oct 20, 2015 11:34 pm

^^ good points!

As a young punk I lived in a subculture where many didn’t work, my hope is that humans will be fine without work. I think people will be into creative pursuits, which if it were one’s job [like writers etc today], we’d be fine with it. So much of it is in attitude? If made to feel worthless, an increasing future unemployed sector probably wont be positive about it, which I can only imagine will be negative.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Tue Oct 20, 2015 11:40 pm

I don't see how any of what you said responds to the issue I'm raising here.
There are some serious assumptions in your OP. I will list a few that pop out:

- efficiency and productivity is the be all and end all of human existence

- the ones who want efficiency and productivity - large companies - determine what our society should look like

- this is just going to happen in the future because of automation - it hasn't happened yet

- certain people will be a problem


I think all those are flawed.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Tue Oct 20, 2015 11:47 pm

Amorphos wrote:As a young punk I lived in a subculture where many didn’t work, my hope is that humans will be fine without work. I think people will be into creative pursuits, which if it were one’s job [like writers etc today], we’d be fine with it. So much of it is in attitude? If made to feel worthless, an increasing future unemployed sector probably wont be positive about it, which I can only imagine will be negative.
People grow by working. They can get :
- a sense of accomplishment
- responsibility
- mutual obligations
- organize their thoughts and actions
- cause and effect
- belonging
- teamwork
...

The list goes on.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby James S Saint » Wed Oct 21, 2015 4:57 am

Carleas wrote:I don't see how any of what you said responds to the issue I'm raising here. I'm not saying everyone can't be employed, I'm saying that some people won't add to overall productivity through their employment.

The way to insure the greatest productivity is to exclude any and all humans from production endeavors.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Carleas » Wed Oct 21, 2015 2:16 pm

phyllo wrote:
I don't see how any of what you said responds to the issue I'm raising here.
There are some serious assumptions in your OP. I will list a few that pop out:

This post looks a lot like you stopped reading my post after the first sentence. Let me splice your list of assumptions with quotes to show why it comes across that way:

phyllo wrote:- efficiency and productivity is the be all and end all of human existence

Carleas wrote:Nor am I saying that such workers have no value as human beings because they have no value as workers...far from denying human value, I think the existence and inevitability of ZMP workers proves its existence independent from employment or productivity.


phyllo wrote:- the ones who want efficiency and productivity - large companies - determine what our society should look like

Carleas wrote:I'm not saying everyone can't be employed, I'm saying that some people won't add to overall productivity through their employment...the way society currently operates will not work....Better would be to start thinking about how a post-scarcity economy can be run, and how we can transition to one.

phyllo wrote:- this is just going to happen in the future because of automation - it hasn't happened yet

In the OP, Carleas wrote:There is debate about whether ZMP workers exist in the modern economy. Certainly for most of human history they did not. But as technology advances, the possibility that some workers will be ZMP increases.

phyllo wrote:- certain people will be a problem

Carleas wrote:I firmly believe that over the next century or so virtually all humans will become ZMP workers as automation begins to contribute more and more to net productivity.



phyllo wrote:I think all those are flawed.

Fortunately for both of us, they aren't assumptions I've made and they aren't necessary to my point.

phyllo wrote:People grow by working. They can get...

This isn't always true. Makework is demoralizing. People like feeling like they're contributing, and they can see through jobs that are invented for the sole person of giving someone a job. Even actually-productive jobs can be dehumanizing.

And setting that aside, this response fails to balance competing interests. I've presented a problem: some workers (maybe eventually all workers, as James would have it) don't add to productivity, and may decrease net productivity, when employed. One solution is to say, 'we should still employ everyone, because the psychic harm of unemployment is more costly than the loss of productivity.' But that makes the assumption that there will never be a margin where the addition of human labor won't impose costs on society great enough to outweigh the cost of the psychic harm of unemployment (not to mention the assumption that nothing but employment can provide a sense of accomplishment, responsibility, mutual obligations, etc. etc.).

Even taking as a given what I think is a not well-supported assumption that unemployment causes significant individual harms that can only be alleviated by employment, it is still possible, even likely, that a time will come when despite those harms, it is still worse for society to try to arrange for all (or even most) humans to be employed.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Wed Oct 21, 2015 2:43 pm

Flashback to the industrial revolution...

"Child labor is the future of factory production. Adult workers will be unnecessary and they will not be able to find work. We need to get ready for the modern child-labor economy."

We don't need child labor. There are good reasons not to have child labor.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Carleas » Wed Oct 21, 2015 7:05 pm

Can you make that analogy more explicit? Is child labor wrong only because it competes with adult labor? Or is automation wrong because it's exploiting vulnerable robots and depriving them or a more innocent youth?

I don't see how child labor is a relevant comparison to automation.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby brevel_monkey » Wed Oct 21, 2015 7:33 pm

"There is debate about whether ZMP workers exist in the modern economy."


They certainly do, but probably more often in the boardrooms than on the factory floors.

But as technology advances, the possibility that some workers will be ZMP increases. At some points, some humans will just get in the way of projects already under way. This seems certain if automation continues.


I don't agree. Automation of manual processes has been evolving for at least 200 years yet unemployment rates have not progressively risen. The biggest transition was during the industrial revolution. What that showed is that the end result is that a) productivity rises and people start buying more stuff b) jobs start transitioning to higher skill jobs (making, programming and overseeing the machines responsible for automation process)

The most important policy decisions that need to be made are in terms of education and training - we have to make sure that the workforce is able to cope with with the higher level jobs. By and large, the people struggling in first world nations nowadays are those without the skills and training to cope with higher level jobs. UX designers, for example, are massively in demand, as are instructional designers, in the UK right now - there isn't enough people to fill these jobs. This goes for engineers and many other trades too.

because a handfull of employees can operate the factory


Only on the factory floor. They need to buy the equipment from a high tech manufacturer. They need to use software packages to track and control production, to monitor their ever more complex financial operations, and for all sorts of other things, and someone needs to build and maintain those.They need digital marketers, tele-salespeople, and I.T. departments to mange their I.T infrastructure.

If you have any good evidence that ZMP workers are on the rise and that this is causing unemployment, fine, but otherwise its a narrative I just don't buy in to.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Wed Oct 21, 2015 7:37 pm

Can you make that analogy more explicit? Is child labor wrong only because it competes with adult labor? Or is automation wrong because it's exploiting vulnerable robots and depriving them or a more innocent youth?

I don't see how child labor is a relevant comparison to automation.
In both cases, child-labor and automation, someone is assuming that it is inevitable or desirable or unstoppable or necessary. In fact, we choose the society that we construct.

Do we need or want machines to make products for us? Do we want to be passive consumers?

Do we want humans to make products for other humans? Do we want humans to be active and fully involved in the entire cycle of production?

Those are the really important questions.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Amorphos » Wed Oct 21, 2015 8:10 pm

Phillo

People grow by working. They can get :
- a sense of accomplishment
- responsibility
- mutual obligations
- organize their thoughts and actions
- cause and effect
- belonging
- teamwork


It’s equally a relatively childish intellect which requires these things. Like a pat of the head for a dog. I am not saying that’s all it is, and i can see the benefits all the way to festivities to rejoice and share in one’s accomplishments. I am simply observing what it is and saying that humans can live and be in a different way to that, the alternative lifestyle equally has its benefits and deficits.

Remember that communism is a kind of teamwork, and that stifles the individual/ism.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Wed Oct 21, 2015 8:27 pm

It’s equally a relatively childish intellect which requires these things. Like a pat of the head for a dog. I am not saying that’s all it is, and i can see the benefits all the way to festivities to rejoice and share in one’s accomplishments. I am simply observing what it is and saying that humans can live and be in a different way to that, the alternative lifestyle equally has its benefits and deficits.
I find that people who don't work end up being narcissistic and have feelings of entitlement. They are disconnected from the cycle of life. I'm sure there are exceptions but generally...
Remember that communism is a kind of teamwork, and that stifles the individual/ism.
It would seem that way but actually in every implementation of communism, there are individuals who pull the strings and destroy the teamwork concept. That is well demonstrated in Animal Farm - if the pigs were team players with the other animals, the system could work in a reasonable way. Unfortunately they are not, and they exploit the other animals to a degree which is worse than the exploitation by the humans.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Carleas » Wed Oct 21, 2015 9:21 pm

brevel_monkey wrote:If you have any good evidence that ZMP workers are on the rise and that this is causing unemployment, fine, but otherwise its a narrative I just don't buy in to.

Let me start with some evidence that this is looming, although I find the intuitive case quite plausible as well and I'll make that case in response to the rest of your post. I first learned of the idea from Tyler Cowen, who I take to be a reliable source, and who offers a couple datapoints to support the idea that ZMP workers at least temporarily already around:
Tyler Cowen wrote:Keep in mind, we have had a recovery in output, but not in employment. That means a smaller number of laborers are working, but we are producing as much as before. As a simple first cut, how should we measure the marginal product of those now laid-off workers? I would start with the number zero.
...
There is another striking fact about the recession, namely that unemployment is quite low for highly educated workers but about sixteen percent for the less educated workers with no high school degree.

The rest of the post is worth a read (though I admit that, as an academic economist, Cowen's posts are strewn with economic specifics that I'm unqualified to comment on). Also see Matt Yglesias' brief comment to which Cowen is replying, which argues that the workers aren't ZMP, they just aren't where the jobs are and can't get there for one reason or another. That's a fair response, but for reasons I hope to make clear, I think that, even if that's currently true, it won't be true forever.

I also note that Cowen uses "zero marginal product", and I take that to be the correct economic term, my apologies if that caused any confusion.

brevel_monkey wrote:[ZMP workers] certainly do [exist], but probably more often in the boardrooms than on the factory floors.

I may be reading too much into this statement, so if my response is not controversial please ignore it. But just to be sure we're on the same page, I'll offer the point: Rather than identifying industries or types of work that are ZMP, I take the concept to be about individuals with no theoretical value as employees, i.e. there's nowhere in the economy where they could be stuck to increase the output of the economy.

brevel_monkey wrote:Automation of manual processes has been evolving for at least 200 years yet unemployment rates have not progressively risen. The biggest transition was during the industrial revolution. What that showed is that the end result is that a) productivity rises and people start buying more stuff b) jobs start transitioning to higher skill jobs (making, programming and overseeing the machines responsible for automation process)

That's true, but there's a limit. Imagine a world where the average computer is smarter than the lowest-intelligence quintile of humans. In that world, there may be some work where those humans can add to net productivity, but it won't be like it was in the Industrial revolution. A fairly unintelligent human was much more intelligent than the most intelligent machine at that time, so they could contribute raw processing power. But as machines improve their capabilities, that won't be the case, and the last thing on which humans can almost universally compete is already starting to erode.

I think this goes to your point about "education and training," which I agree are important policy concerns (and really, we're several decades behind where we should be in helping people transition into the modern economy). But note that a 10,000 person team won't necessarily design a better UX than a 10 member team. I'm sure there are thousands of people involved in Facebook's UI, but there are billions of users. At some point, all such slots where additional human input improves outcome will be occupied, especially as we start to see things like computer-deigned UIs.

This goes for every realm of human creativity: however many humans it takes to build machines that are better workers than every other human, that's how many employable humans we'll have. I think it's intuitively plausible, given the pace of technological development and the state of modern technology (and given that many gains in automation could be made simply by applying current technologies to every field of human labor) - given the current state of tech and its likely future, it's intuitively plausible that the number of productively employable humans will someday fall below the total world population. At some point, every move that would put a worker into a more productive position will be made, and we'll be left with people with no way to add to productivity because a machine could be added in their place to better effect and at less cost.

phyllo wrote:In both cases, child-labor and automation, someone is assuming that it is inevitable or desirable or unstoppable or necessary. In fact, we choose the society that we construct.

I see desirability as a separate question from inevitability, unstoppability, and necessity. I am arguing for the latter, though I mean inevitability in a non-absolute sense: many catastrophes could wipe out the human population, or set us back technologically, or constrict energy availability drastically, or the like, and in those cases the future I've described would be evitable.

But desirability is what we do with that situation. Is the best answer to gin up a solution that puts the brakes on automation, guaranteeing unnecessary toil for future generations in order to avoid people having too much free time?

phyllo wrote:[I]f the pigs were team players with the other animals, the system could work in a reasonable way.

It's best to take humans as we find them and design our systems with that constraint, rather than to design a perfect system and lament how good it would be if it weren't for all these goddamned humans.
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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby Amorphos » Wed Oct 21, 2015 9:24 pm

Phyllo

I find that people who don't work end up being narcissistic and have feelings of entitlement. They are disconnected from the cycle of life. I'm sure there are exceptions but generally...


I agree they end up like that to a degree. How much of that is due to being ostracised? And because society doesn’t have much to do all day. If we imagine for example the star trek scenario where culture is beyond need and want, and that the technology can create bespoke items as easily as repetitive ones. Much of one’s time would be consumed in non work activities, designing ones homes and products, viewing others art and designs etc. In other words its all about how culture reacts to an inevitable time which is post factory work etc.

It would seem that way but actually in every implementation of communism, there are individuals who pull the strings and destroy the teamwork concept.


This is because we live in a duality, and people will always divide into groups. Communism cannot as it were, undo the fact of individuality.

Either way, that we are being told and virtually forced to be like that, is typical of how the state treats the individual.

In a world beyond manufacturing jobs and much office work, work related responsibility will be a service performed by machines. Ergo the philosophical basis stating ‘you should work’ + ‘it is better for you’ and all that sell sell sell childish capitalist shit [like how they act on the apprentice, be comrades then stab each other in the back duality] will become redundant!

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Re: Zero Marginal Productivity Workers

Postby phyllo » Wed Oct 21, 2015 9:39 pm

How much of that is due to being ostracised?
Have you heard of "the idle rich"? They are not ostracized - they have nothing to do but consume.
Much of one’s time would be consumed in non work activities, designing ones homes and products, viewing others art and designs etc.
So they say. But in reality, people end up doing nothing but surfing the internet and buying stuff that they don't use.
Ergo the philosophical basis stating ‘you should work’ + ‘it is better for you’ and all that sell sell sell childish capitalist shit [like how they act on the apprentice, be comrades then stab each other in the back duality] will become redundant!
The machines will produce products so the sell, sell, sell will still exist and the owners of the machines will have to sell product to pay for the machines and to make a profit.
It's actually the ultimate perversion of capitalism - one guy makes a ton of profit selling directly to the consumer. It used to be that the owner would make a buck, workers would make a buck, wholesalers would make a buck, retailers would make a buck. In the future, only the owner makes almost all the money. Progress? No. Money flows to fewer and fewer people.
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