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Why would anyone invest in creating more work?

In writing about Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth earlier this week, I speculated that hoping for lots of work in healthcare, teaching, and other services might seem perverse. To be fair, caring for the sick, educating the young, and maybe even ensuring that tourists have a good time are pleasant enough ways to spend the time compared to any number of other things that people have done for work over the centuries. Yet I can’t help seeing something odd about the idea of designing an economy with the goal of creating work.

I may have been influenced by contemplating a recent Conversation article arguing that “people need to see the benefits from local renewable energy projects and that means jobs”. But given a choice between Technology A that required more work and Technology B that required less, all else being equal, why would anyone choose the one that required everyone to do more work?

Obviously all else is not equal in the particular case of renewable energy projects, since there are environmental reasons to prefer renewable energy over other sorts. And many who argue for other sorts of energy do so because they themselves claim to be protecting work in coal mines and on oil fields. The point is that both sides seem to be asking for investors and communities to put money into projects that will result in the community doing more work—yet nobody buys cars, computers, etc., in the hope that they’ll be more work than the previous version.

Had I been in a mood to write a comment on the Conversation article at the time it was published, I might have asked the authors if they could consider some way of distributing the benefits of their renewable energy projects apart from making work for people. Even if one accepts that employing people is a fine way of distributing the benefits of a project to those people, it’s not immediately obvious what incentive an investor would have to buy into a project that required him or her to purchase a lot of labour over one that didn’t. The article does mention ownership of the projects in passing, but only really asks what anonymous corporate owners might do to get the local community on side.

Science Fiction and the Economics of the Future was my attempt to answer a similar question, but I wrote that essay thinking about a how society as a whole might distribute wealth in a world where no one went to work. The question here is how a community would attract investment and distribute its benefits without telling community members that they all have to go to work and investors that they need to be paid.

I don’t have a ready answer to this question; even the ideas in Science Fiction and the Economics of the Future are theoretical proposals on which little empirical data exists. Without any sign of a government ready to implement a universal basic income, a job guarantee, or even reduced working hours, it might be interesting to know whether and how a community could do it for themselves.

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