Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Walking To Lunch In Emeryville, California

These pictures show my walk to lunch when I worked in Emeryville, California. Most Americans live in the midst of this sort of cityscape but don't pay much attention to it because they drive everywhere. I am stubborn enough to walk to lunch, even in a city where everyone drives, so I get a good, long look at how ugly it is.

In order to live in cities like this, we are willing to change the world's climate and to go to war for oil.

Walking out of my office, the first thing I see is the freeway and Frontage Road. My goal is the building right across the freeway with the red roof and the signs that say "Public Market" and "Borders Books."

I start by walking past the Holiday Inn parking lot and the Shell Station. Believe it or not, this street is part of the San Francisco Bay Trail, which is supposed to give people the opportunity to walk near the bay and enjoy its beauty.

Be careful crossing, because cars exiting from the freeway usually don't stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk before making the right turn that is not controlled by a stop light.

Walking under the freeway, I see the public art that the city of Emeryville has put there. Here we see two figures holding a sign that says "Emeryville." It is a fitting gateway to the city.

Then I cut through the Denny's landscaping. Note that pedestrians have beaten a path through this landscaping, a sign that the traffic engineers who designed the street system did not think about how it would work for pedestrians.

Then I cut through the Denny's parking lot.

Then I cut through the parking lot of the Wells Fargo building. In the background, you can see the EmeryBay Cafe, which has a couple of tables in front where people can sit and look at the parking lot while they eat.

There is a long wait to cross at this intersection, where the lights are timed for automobile traffic.

Then I cut through the parking lot of a company named Innovative Interfaces. They obviously did not design a very user-friendly interface between their office building and the public realm.

Then I cut through the Public Market parking lot.

Finally, I reach the so-called Emeryville Public Market, with its Borders Bookstore. It is a small island of pedestrians in an ocean of cars, and it has a food court where I buy lunch.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren

In his 1930 essay "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren," the great economist John Maynard Keynes had two contradictory attitudes toward how technology would affect employment.

Looking one hundred years in the future, at how technology would affect his grandchildren, Keynes foresaw a society with more leisure, which would allow people to be more fully human.

All through recorded history, Keynes said, there had not been any great economic improvement. There were ups and downs, but there was not any general trend toward improved production and greater prosperity. "From the earliest times of which we have record - back, say, to two thousand years before Christ - down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth."

But there has been continuing economic progress during recent centuries, because new technologies have made production more efficient, and because capital accumulating at compound interest has been available to invest in those technologies. If production becomes 2% more efficient each year, then output doubles every thirty-five years. A century from now, we will be able to produce more than seven times as much as we do now.

So, Keynes said, "mankind is solving its economic problem." In the past, "the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been ... the primary, most pressing problem of the human race - not only of the human race but of the whole biological kingdom from the beginnings of life." But in the future, "a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes."

When that time comes, "man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem - how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."

Those are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren, but that future is remote enough that it does not influence current policies. Looking at the same decrease of work time and increase of leisure as a current issue, Keynes has a very different attitude toward it: it becomes "technological unemployment ... unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour."

In this view, more efficient production does not give us leisure and freedom. It gives us the problem of unemployment, which we must solve by finding new uses for labor. If new technologies let each worker produce 2% percent more each year, than we must consume 2% more each year, whether or not we want the products we are consuming, purely avoid technological unemployment.

Obviously, we will never have more leisure as long as we believe that, to fight technological unemployment, we must find new uses for labor just as quickly as we economize the use of labor.

After World War II, this attitude toward unemployment became the conventional wisdom. All the developed nations used the methods that Keynes had recommended to "find new uses for labor." Governments built more roads, built more suburban housing, and used deficit spending to stimulate the economy, just as Keynes had said they should to avoid unemployment.

They were so successful at "finding new uses for labor" that the work week stopped getting shorter after World War II. The standard work week had declined from 72 hours early in the nineteenth century to 40 hours during the 1930s. Then the standard work week stopped declining, and it has remained 40 hours for seven decades.

Today, the grandchildren of Keynes' generation have entered the workforce. In a couple of decades, we will have passed the hundred years that Keynes said we would have to wait for a future of leisure. Yet Americans have less leisure today than in Keynes' day: the standard work-week is still forty hours, but many people work longer hours than the standard.

If we are ever going to have more leisure, we need current economic policies that offer us shorter work hours. We cannot keep following Keynes' idea that leisure and freedom are economic possibilities for our grandchildren, but that current policies must create jobs quickly enough that there is not more leisure for our contemporaries.

This approach reminds me of the school in Alice in Wonderland where the policy was always to give the students jam tomorrow but never to give them jam today. No matter how much time passes, it always remains today, and we never get the jam that we were promised.

Quotations from John Maynard Keynes, "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren," in Essays in Persuasion (New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932) pp. 358-373.