Fuller and Schumacher talk about work

March 18, 2015

We’re in a cozy club for heroes, somewhere beyond the ether. Inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller and economist E. F. “Fritz” Schumacher are discussing things back home.

Fritz: (a tall, merry man, with a slight German accent) They seem to be stuck. Everything is high-tech, like smart phones and automatic checkout stations at supermarkets. Scarce materials that poor people fight over wind up in the landfill, and the supermarket furloughs its cashiers, all for the sake of share prices and the pockets of those who got in on the ground floor. The only thing left for a young fellow to do is train himself to be an engineer or programmer in service to some dull thing that doesn’t feed, clothe, or house anyone.

Bucky: (stocky and bald, with thick eyeglasses and a staccato down-east accent) Planned obsolescence is a dangerous strategy. I have no argument there, but changes in production that reduce the number of workers is a good thing. People who are out of work should take advantage of the situation to do the things needing to be done, that nobody else seems to notice.


Fritz: That sounds nice, but it doesn’t make the house payments or diaper the babies. Where do those unemployed workers get the space, tools, and training? It’s a lucky person who can do useful, satisfying work.

Bucky: My own story proves it’s possible—in fact, inevitable—that the universe will provide the tools and materials for people doing what’s necessary. I kept every bill and cancelled check, every note scratched on the back of an envelope to document that.

Fritz: Yes. You called yourself “Guinea Pig B” and the archives are your “Chronofile.” They’re at Stanford, right? I’m sure some academic will sort it all out one day. Let’s agree to disagree on whether the universe provides for the virtuous. The vast majority of displaced workers don’t meet your standard.

Bucky: It’s important to understand that there ought to be no life-support problems for people without jobs. I commissioned a geologist, François de Chadenèdes, to figure the dollar cost of the time, heat, and pressure it takes nature to produce a gallon of petroleum. Ultimately, we will have to pay that, and every gallon is worth over a million dollars. The daily commute squanders untold wealth, so it makes sense to give people who don’t create wealth a handsome pension to stay home. People would compete for unpaid positions.

Fritz: (chuckles) And automatic machines would do the real work. Look, if somebody’s out of work, he or she is desperate, not just materially, but because that enlivening, nourishing thing that work provides can’t be replaced. What people need—in the same way they need bread and sleep—is work that contributes goods and services for a becoming life and lets them learn to be good at some craft.

Bucky: Craft can be very satisfying, but mass production is absolutely necessary for seven billion people to survive and thrive. Craftsmen can’t supply everything needed quickly enough, and machines work with a quality and consistency no human can match.

Fritz: Don’t belittle the satisfactions of craft. The goods you see as necessary are necessary because they give certain satisfactions, but why not try to get those satisfactions by using the fewest goods possible? And if it satisfies to make the goods, that’s important, too.

Bucky: You see the craftsmen’s cars each burn a million dollars in fuel on each commute.

Fritz: I coined the phrase “Buddhist economics,” based on consulting I did in Burma, where I learned to meditate and picked up a little Buddhist philosophy.

Bucky: I heard that you called it “Buddhist” because people wouldn’t buy a book about Christian economics.

Fritz: That too. But a Buddhist economist would call it a failure to satisfy human wants from far away. People can work near where they live, and make things for their neighbors. Earth has had more than a century of mass production. I can tell you from experience that Burmese are less stressed than the British—or, they were 60 years ago when I was there—and the British are less pressured than the Germans or Americans. Obviously, technology reduces the kinds of work that connect us with life, other people, the landscape, plants and animals, and self, while the kind that it increases is soul-killing, brute stuff.

Bucky: People go to war because their livelihoods are threatened. They should design artifacts that reduce the cost of production. Society would become wealthier, with the wealth spread around. People would quit being scared, and stop attacking each other.

Fritz: You don’t install multi-million dollar robotics unless you’re already rich and mean to stay that way.

Bucky: Wealth will increase to the point where it makes sense to spread it around. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “If we can afford some unemployment in the interest of stability, we can afford to give [the unemployed] the goods that let them sustain their accustomed standard of living.” Technology will make the rich so wealthy that they’ll share.

Fritz: Rich, indeed! That “stand[s] truth on its head by considering goods more important than people, and consumption more important than creative activity.”

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