I wrote recently about the High Level Equilibrium Trap in which China had fallen to in the modern era. Point was that Chinese labor and infrastructure was just efficient enough so that developing new machinery was never worth the trouble. Not to say they didn’t invent machines, but they never caught on, in a similar fashion to Classical Europe which we know was full of cool gadgets which the Graeco-Romans just couldn’t be bothered to use. Accumulation of capital makes less sense when you’re banging Thracian slaves in your Tuscan villa since puberty.
A famous anecdote is that China had automatic spinning wheels for hemp already in the 14th century, but after the introduction of cotton it fell into disuse. The funny thing is that instead of trying to develop something similar for cotton fibers, they just went back to hand spinning and never bothered automatic a process that had been automated for centuries. They just didn’t bother. Or in modern parlance, the incentives just weren’t there. Also see this story about why firearms never went mainstream in China: their bows were good enough.
This piece of history is universally acknowledged as a bad thing, as machines are good, more productive, and the inability to develop machines is a bad thing, a very bad thing as the subsequent history of China shows. People have this idea of China as being both an awesome ancient civilization and a huge modern powerhouse, which it sort of is. But it is also the biggest agglomeration of idiotic tacky annoying peasants the world has ever seen. I can really see how these guys didn’t bother developing automated cotton spinning. S.A.M. Adshead had this story of how the brutal Mongol invasion utterly devastated the cosmopolitan and innovative Song civilization, and when the Ming came up from the ashes, a deep shift happened where population moved back to the countryside, were tied to the land, and commercial life was kept to a minimum, producing a new culture of provincial, isolated, hugely fertile farmers which kept to themselves.
Fuck this shit
All that has is changed though, and China has bought into the new worldwide urbanized technological civilization from the West. Nothing to do with the old High Level Equilibrium Trap. In fact it’s gone to the opposite side with astonishing speed. Just read this news yesterday. Translation is mine:
Big Cities Labor Shortage Goes Chronic: No workers even for 500 yuan a day.
Right now the proportion of female workers in the construction sector is growing, and the age structure of the workers is shifting upwards, with some workers pushing over 60 years old. In tradition labor exporting regions, the idea that “working odd jobs is disgraceful” is has appeared, making young people unwilling to work in construction.
The article goes on with small company owners repeating the age-old lament: “People used to work for peanuts, but now they refuse! What has the world come to! My BMW uses a lot of gasoline dontcha know?!” Apparently some companies have started offering up to 700 yuan a day (USD 115) during harvest season, else they can’t attract any peasants to work for them. The article goes on talking about the high prevalence of bosses refusing to pay wages in the *very* lightly regulated Chinese construction sector, and also the broader trend for young people to dislike blue collar get-hands-dirty jobs. Kids today all want to be businessman, be their own boss, and working a dirty job plus the risk of not getting paid is not worth the higher wages. “We came here to make some money and go back to the village, but in the end we became urbanites, or at least our kids did. But they refuse to work in this sector, because they don’t want to make money, they want recognition and respect.”
Or in other terms, they want status.
All of this would be great and grand if it wasn’t the case that youth unemployment is a big problem in China. As it is everywhere else. Which doesn’t make much sense a priori because developed countries have low fertility, ergo fewer young people, ergo less supply for what supposedly is more or less constant demand. Alas in the labor market it is not only about supply and demand. Confused economists come up with confused concepts that they themselves don’t understand too well, like “sticky wages”. Which is close but not quite it. A better name would be “sticky status”, or more accurately “sticky self-imagined status”, where young people refuse to work not because they are offered too little money, but because the jobs that exist don’t confer the status that they believe they are entitled to.
The history about the High Level Equilibrium Trap sounds quite foreign to our ears, we who live in an era where automation is the talk of the town, and everybody predicts the doom of human society after the billionaires automate every job out of existence, depriving the common people of an income, and what is worse, of status. While it’s easy to blame the greedy plutocrats, and I’m on the record for doing so, one also has the impression that that can’t be the whole story. What if it’s the other way around? The High Level Equilibrium Trap theory says that China didn’t develop industrial machinery because it had plenty of skilled and cheap labor, so it never had a need to. Which means that it is the supply of labor that drives the development of machinery. So if today, the incentives for development of machinery have sky rocketed to the extent that everybody is in a rush to build machines that do away with any human input at all, perhaps the reason is that human input just can’t be found, because people are refusing to work.
A common reaction to the recent articles on the Dire Problem as Moldbug named it, is that it doesn’t make much intuitive sense. There is no reason that the market can’t find jobs for people, there will always be stuff for people to do. And that’s quite correct. In China, where the willing-to-work-for-peanuts generation and the entitled generation coexist, you can find people who stick protective films on smartphones for a living. There’s always stuff to do if you are willing to do it and be annoying in pushing people to pay you for it. It doesn’t even need to be like Cheap Chalupas or WRM envision, a return to a Victorian era of plutocrats employing dozens of servants for every minute task. In a society that places value in labor, people would find stuff to do. But the zeitgeist today is that people don’t want to work. And I don’t say that as a patronizing complaint, I very much avoid labor as much as I can get away with. Given the incentives, all human behavior is rational by definition.
The smart conservative reaction against complaints about labor shortages is to ask for wage increases, as Steve Sailer often does. Ron Unz, who not by chance is patronizing (I hope generously) Steve Sailer in his new website, has taken the argument to the end and is putting his own money into arguing for a 15 dollar minimum wage. To which libertarians, with their characteristic cluelessness, say this:
Libertarians don’t get that the Sailerite argument for high wages is an ethnic one. If you’re forced to pay 15 dollars an hour, more whites will be willing to work for that money, so the incentive to hire Mexicans ceases to exist. The overt case for minimum wage is that greedy bosses should share more of their wealth with their employees. The covert reasoning is that higher wages means low productivity people should move out of the place. But libertarians actually think diversity is good for the economy.
But back to the point, what if the Sailerite argument is obsolete. Maybe it’s not about money anymore. The combination of low fertility, feminism and inequality make children enjoy a high standard of living, which gives them the illusion of high status, but a status that is never enough now that women have access to their own income and state patronage. And high inequality makes it worse by skewing the threshold for alphaness that women find acceptable, and feeding the all too common lottery-mind where everyone is obsessed with trying to make it Big and join the overclass, and making a normal, quiet living is no longer worth it.
Of course all this dysfunction feeds on itself, demotivated workers making companies more annoying, uninterested men making women more uppity, unambitious masses making rich people less generous, etc. A giant clusterfuck sized vicious cycle that drives the fertility rate lower still. But the tech companies haven’t gone anywhere, and what can they rely on if not robots? The Romans amused themselves to death. Maybe we are amusing ourselves into Skynet.
And robots will see it that we are kept amused.