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The World in 2096 According to Paul Krugman in 1996
September 21, 2013 1:41 PM   Subscribe

White Collars Turn Blue: "But computers are proficient at analyzing symbols; it is the messiness of the real world that they have trouble with. Furthermore, symbols can be transmitted easily to Asmara or La Paz and analyzed there for a fraction of the cost in Boston. Therefore, many of the jobs that once required a college degree have been eliminated... So enrollment in colleges and universities has dropped almost two-thirds since its peak at the turn of the century. The prestigious universities coped by reverting to an older role. Today a place like Harvard is, as it was in the 19th century, more of a social institution than a scholarly one -- a place for children of the wealthy to refine their social graces and befriend others of their class... While business gurus were proclaiming the new dominance of creativity and innovation over mere production, the growing ease with which information was transmitted and reproduced made it harder for creators to profit from their creations... How, then, could creativity be made to pay? The answer was already becoming apparent a century ago: creations must make money indirectly by promoting sales of something else."
posted by bookman117 (24 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Krugman's 2108 Nobel Prize for Pet Euthanasia will be richly deserved.
posted by R. Schlock at 2:29 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Once governments got serious about making people pay for pollution and congestion, income from environmental licenses soared.

"Once the climate system was substantially destabilized, food costs soared and famine and widespread political instability quickly followed."

Oh, Paul Krugman - there's no problem that the market and liberal intellectuals can't fix, is there?
posted by ryanshepard at 3:10 PM on September 21, 2013


Oh, Paul Krugman - there's no problem that the market and liberal intellectuals can't fix, is there?

Well, he is an economist, so his solutions are going to involve economics.
posted by FJT at 3:33 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wut? I'm already doing white collar work for blue collar wages. Yesterday I was scoring calculus tests and my coworker (she has a degree in Math) excitedly told me about her job application at Costco. It would represent about a 15% pay increase. Then the Project Director announced we would unexpectedly run out of work and have a minimum 6 week hiatus through the end of October. This will reduce my annual gross income as a full-time mathematician to around $14,000.

Note: my employer's new Social Media Policy requires me to identify myself as an employee of that company, however, I don't think they want to be associated with my comments.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:01 PM on September 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


Yeah, basically most of the trends he's bringing up in this essay are already happening around us now. Which is why it's so prescient.
posted by Apocryphon at 4:50 PM on September 21, 2013


Look, people, this is Krugman's psychohistory fanfic, and he frontloads it with "When looking backward, you must always be prepared to make allowances: it is unfair to blame late-20th-century observers for their failure to foresee everything about the century to come. " Such as, you know, a few jetliners slamming into skyscrapers five years down the pike.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:07 PM on September 21, 2013


Such as, you know, a few jetliners slamming into skyscrapers five years down the pike.

Which was predicted by The Long Gunmen earlier that year. So, Chris Carter has one up on Krugman in that regard.
posted by brundlefly at 5:28 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The billions of third-world families that finally began to have some purchasing power when the 20th century ended did not want to watch pretty graphics on the Internet. They wanted to live in nice houses, drive cars and eat meat.

Adding to this: millions of First-World workers like to use their hands to build the physical things that people need to survive. Moreso if they, a) don't get treated like moral degenerates for daring to do something useful with their lives, and b) don't get treated like shit and paid starvation wages.

If there's a good reason why my retired and academic-on-leave neighbours have spent the entirety of the four years I've lived here renovating their houses, it's probably because physical labour is satisfying in the way that "symbol analysis" will never be. It sure as hell isn't because they want to get the job done (or to let me sleep in past 8 on Sunday). I'm not the only programmer who stares wistfully out the window at 4 in the afternoon on Thursday, wondering if I should become a mailman or an arbourist.
posted by klanawa at 5:31 PM on September 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not the only programmer who stares wistfully out the window at 4 in the afternoon on Thursday, wondering if I should become a mailman or an arbourist.

Carpenter, here. Usually around 3:30.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:00 PM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


6 or 12 months of vocational training -- paranursing, carpentry, household maintenance and so on -- pay nearly as much as if not more than a job that requires a master's degree, and pay more than one requiring a Ph.D.

Whelp, there's one that came 100% true 83 years early . . .
posted by flug at 6:45 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not the only programmer who stares wistfully out the window at 4 in the afternoon on Thursday, wondering if I should become a mailman or an arbourist.

Carpenter, here. Usually around 3:30.


Landscaper. By noon.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:48 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Krugman's point about the growing obsolescence of a degree for a living wage is very prescient. A friend of mine graduated in the top ten percentile from Harvard Law. He is currently unemployed, $200k in debt, and has been for the past year. But in his field, there's a glut, because falling wages have meant that now folks you'd never have to otherwise compete with for entry level stuff are sending in their CVs, too. Wages have not risen with productivity in the developed world, and are falling in the developing world. Yeah, a degree might not give you the buoyancy it could have pre-1996.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:44 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Salesman here ... dream of being a programmer by 9:30 each morning
posted by Divest_Abstraction at 8:49 PM on September 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm not the only programmer who stares wistfully out the window at 4 in the afternoon on Thursday, wondering if I should become a mailman or an arbourist.

Carpenter, here. Usually around 3:30.

Landscaper. By noon.

Salesman here ... dream of being a programmer by 9:30 each morning


OK, I admit it. Getting bank to sit on my ass is pretty great. But still...
posted by klanawa at 9:00 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's neat how he predicted Napster.
posted by shii at 9:11 PM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yesterday I was scoring calculus tests and my coworker (she has a degree in Math) excitedly told me about her job application at Costco. It would represent about a 15% pay increase.

I also have a Math degree (more of a CompSci one but long story), and I don't have the self-esteem to apply for jobs at the Costco nearby. I walk past the store every day on my way to the skytrain station, but I can never muster the courage. Costco offers some of the best compensation packages and work environments on the retail scene; legions of people would love to work there. Why would they want me? :(

A couple of times I managed to get into the store... then I chickened out and ate the cheap food. Which was really cheap, so it wasn't a total loss.
posted by fatehunter at 9:22 PM on September 21, 2013


MEEEAAAAT!!@!
posted by telstar at 10:41 PM on September 21, 2013


My wife has about one year of college.* She's a line manager at Costco. Her salary and benefits are very good. We're fortunate that she works for a company that fairly compensates her. It's a great place to work and they treat her well.

But it is still retail. Please don't think that it's some sort of escape for disaffected office workers who dream of doing "real work". She works her ass off alongside her employees, mostly on her feet, dealing with a non-trivial percentage of customers who are ridiculously entitled and condescending.

* - She's smarter than I am. No amount of college closes the gap between one person who has more common sense than another.
posted by double block and bleed at 11:29 PM on September 21, 2013


But it is still retail. Please don't think that it's some sort of escape for disaffected office workers who dream of doing "real work".

I am not an office worker and do not consider office work more (or less) real than retail. Without going into details, my current job is mostly physical labor and can be described as "retail support", with worse compensation and absolutely dreadful hours. I'd like a job at any of the chain supermarkets my company works with - I do know what the work is like, both on the sales floor and in the stockroom, even the freezer - but the competition for those jobs is stiff.

Costco is not one of my company's clients. Everyone has heard great things about it compared to the other retail giants around here, though. We romanticize about it a little bit.

I'm just bewildered that people are still bewildered to hear about college-educated retail workers these days. I wish I were good enough for retail. Many of my coworkers have bachelor degrees and beyond, and only the most capable among us manage to escape... to retail.
posted by fatehunter at 12:15 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the piece:

Today a place like Harvard is, as it was in the 19th century, more of a social institution than a scholarly one -- a place for children of the wealthy to refine their social graces and befriend others of their class.
Given what we saw in that article on Harvard Business School from a couple of days back, I would argue that this is already happening.
posted by the cydonian at 3:53 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The "Information Economy" is the biggest fucking con-job ever perpetrated; it was cover for slashing wages from the get.

It's obvious: we've sold off all the seed corn. Producing real products for real wages was, and is, the foundation that makes everything else possible.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:58 AM on September 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


The "Information Economy" is the biggest fucking con-job ever perpetrated; it was cover for slashing wages from the get.

The sad thing is that the "Information Economy" is still being hawked as our only hope. Training for which is only 50 grand of student loans away.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 5:36 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to me that mid-1996, which many look back on as a pretty sweet time, was at the time being seen at least by Krugman as one of middle class displacement. Also he didn't get that billions of people in the Third World would avidly embrace the very electronic and information goods he thought they'd scorn in favor of meat, cars and McMansions.

Still, he was quite prescient on resource prices. If he'd invested his portfolio along those lines he'd have a pretty penny now.

I am optimistic that we resolve the false dichotomy between extremely expensive years-long education, and jobs requiring, and providing a return on, intelligence. The vast majority of general administration and analytical positions can be carried out by high IQ, average social skill, 18 year olds, and school has nothing on experience as means to qualify one for promotion from those positions to managerial and policy making ones.
posted by MattD at 6:32 AM on September 22, 2013


I am optimistic that we resolve the false dichotomy between extremely expensive years-long education, and jobs requiring, and providing a return on, intelligence.

Indeed. But as long as there's a glut of highly educated degree-holders on the market, employers will prefer them. This, combined with the availability of student loans and higher ed's reliance on those easily-available loans, makes me think that things aren't going to change any time soon.

And that's too bad, because getting at the heart of the problem of either education or unemployment would make a nice dent in solving the other.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 1:56 PM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


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