Keeping Up With The Jetsons

One of the most intriguing by-products of the Cold War was America’s ideological response to the Soviet “propaganda” of an ideal communist society; the construction of a distinctly Western utopia, in the not-so-far future of the 1960’s, in which American capitalism and its associated social characteristics are immediately recognizable but which nevertheless consists of a leisurely life for all that is not dominated by labor or the pursuit of monetary wealth.

One of the most notable pursuers of this ideal was, perhaps surprisingly, Walt Disney; his belief in a technologically driven, pseudo-capitalistic utopia is explicitly peppered through many of the old rides in his theme parks, and was in fact the key motivator for the development of EPCOT (or as it was originally called, the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) before it got cannibalized into a theme park. And although his attempt failed, it was a relatively cogent effort, consisting of two key ideological foundations; 1) that technology—and not politics—is the key mechanism by which mankind can eventually relieve itself from labor and drudgery, and 2) that the Western way of life in the 1950’s and 60’s (unquestionably superior to the alternative, by obvious implication) was itself enabled by capitalist-driven technological innovation. Now, I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Mr. Disney’s ideology—that could be its own documentary, as I’m sure it is already—but I’ve included two pieces of Disney media from the 60’s that make the point very obvious.

Exhibit A: Rex Allen narrating a portion of the (General Electric-sponsored) Carousel of Progress ride at Disneyland, providing a very succinct description of his view for the future of America and mankind.
Exhibit B: Walt Disney, near the end of his life, talks about the EPCOT project and its motivation. Note the explicit references to “American free enterprise”.

But the most explicit attempt at constructing a vision of a utopian American future for mass consumption within the framework of Western capitalism in the 1960’s, was (in my opinion) The Jetsons. Although far less popular than their prehistoric counterparts, The Jetsons provided a simplistic view every Saturday of what the ideal future should look like for Americans; filled with technological gadgets that would make every previously onerous task or errand easy, and labor is rendered effectively trivial relative to 2023 standards (George Jetson is stated to work a “couple of hours a week” tops). In spite of this, there are no significant social changes to the family relative to the standard of the 1960’s; money still exists and is discussed in spite of the existence of food replicators and all kinds of other gadgets, and George Jetson is still considered the “working head of household” even though the amount he works, and what he actually does as part of a workday is completely trivial (pushing two buttons exactly once, except when specifically needed by the plot of an episode). Sure, this can be explained away as being required for the show to relate to the average 60’s American family, but that’s also basically the point; the Jetsons provided a relatable view of a distinctly American, technologically driven utopian future that the average family of the 60’s could look up to.

Exhibit C: The introduction, and a brief clip, of the Jetsons (with original Colgate bumper). The show had a borderline obsession with emphasizing that everything in the future would get done with the push of a button; something Disney also emphasized in his Carousel of Progress.

As we in the West enter a new Gilded Age, that sort of utopia seems almost farcical, a small cultural remnant of a bygone age of futuristic techno-driven optimism. But the persistence of this kind of thinking throughout the U.S. suggests a question; is it actually possible to construct a Jetsons-type utopian future in Western society, driven entirely by capitalistic economic incentives and technological improvements, with minimal (if any) political interference? Let’s simplistically consider it through an enormous, “ground-level” industry in which technology is rapidly making some of its labor trivial; a fast-food restaurant.

Suppose you worked at a fast food restaurant making an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Then some robotics company releases a burger-flipping robot that makes your job “obsolete”; your labor is no longer required to perform the profit-generating function you were previously doing. This robot probably has a very hefty (but finite) cost, surely requiring a large initial investment by the owners of the restaurant, but which will eventually be compensated for by the assumed profits of the company through its sales of food. For the worker, this is an economic disaster; although technology has provided a mechanism for you to have to do effectively nothing to fulfill your profit-generating function, you are also now deprived of the mechanism to profit from this innovation as the owners of the restaurant will certainly fire you. For the owner/s, the robot is an enormous boon; in the absence of occasional repair costs and the initial investment, they will eventually reach a point where they are automatically generating profit without requiring continuous capital investment (in the form of a salary for the worker).

This story would play out (and has played out already) in precisely the same way throughout most automation-vulnerable industries; truckers would lose their income as companies begin to use driverless cargo transport, assembly line workers would be destitute as their work is replaced by robotic arms, etcetera. And throughout all of this technological innovation, the overwhelming majority of American society—the workers—have their quality of life enormously lowered, as they are now deprived of a source of income for the labor they were trained for. In a world with limitless technological innovation, only the owners of these enterprises are able to eventually access the Jetsons-like state of otium promised by Sunday morning TV in the sixties (and the adherents of that kind of thinking today).

The obvious (but perhaps not only) means of fixing this issue rhymes with workers “shmowning the shmeans of production”; the central tenet of Marxist labor movements. But is there an alternative capitalistic path for the average citizen and worker to do so in America without significant sociopolitical changes? After all, if there was a mechanism for such a thing to happen, it would be the hypothetical missing link for a cogent philosophy of social improvement under capitalism; it would be the single greatest piece of ammunition that the American political right could use to tighten its loosening grip on the American working class. One of these hypothetical options to discuss—as it is touted as a key component of American economic success in the present day—is share capital, more colloquially known as “stocks”.

From an entirely theoretical perspective—and one which is in entirely divorced from 20th century reality—stocks appear to be an excellent, straightforward mechanism for redistribution of ownership of the means of production. The owners of the fast-food restaurant discussed earlier could, for example, issue shares to all of its employees; these shares net a portion of the restaurant’s net profit to the laborer/shareowner every so often, and when automation removes the necessity of labor in the restaurant, the additional profit generated by the restaurant (as a result of no longer needing to pay salaries) is converted into these profit “dividends” which are paid out to each former laborer to substitute their income loss. This idea, or an extremely mild form of it, is already par for the course in many software companies; owners of the company will replace portions of their worker’s salary with a significant amount of shares in the company, which (the owners hope) would skyrocket in value later and generate more and more dividends as the company becomes more successful. So what’s the problem?

There are a few distinct issues with this sort of thinking, both from a practical perspective of what the stock market actually is and about how this kind of process can take place without significant political interference. Here’s the two big ones I can think of:

  1. The stock market. The heart of the problem with the concept of share capital as a mechanism of socioeconomic enrichment is the fact that, for “public” companies, shares can be bought and sold by anyone at a stock exchange, independent on their relationship to the labor required for that company’s economic output, for a value that is primarily dependent not on that output but by the consensus-speculated value of buying and selling those shares on that same market. This causes a bunch of obvious problems that only serve to further divide the working class and the owner class:
    • If anyone can buy or sell shares in a company, then those who already have a large accumulation of capital will be able to hog shares in companies independent on whether or not they have provided any labor, or even any meaningful support other than cash, to the company.
    • Because the prices of stocks are determined via consensus speculation through the continuous buying and selling of those stocks, the prices associated with buying these shares will only appear reasonable to the owner class and will be exorbitantly high to the working class.
    • The issuing of shares by a company into a speculative market generates a perverse additional profit mechanism for the company; the sale of the shares themselves. This incentive can cause a company to focus its efforts on increasing the value of any future-issued shares—which, remember, is determined entirely through speculation—rather than actually improving the economic output of the company.
    • As a function of all of the previous factors, dividends are far too low to serve as income replacement. For a concrete example, a “good” share in the US stock market could be said to pay out 5% annually of the price of buying the share (in Wall Street terms, it has a 5% dividend yield). Think about that from a concrete perspective; assuming the price of the share doesn’t change much, since you get 5% of the money you already paid for the share in cash every year, it would hypothetically take you 20 years to break even on your share investment. So why on Earth would anyone invest long-term in the stock market, you may ask? Well, most of that dividend gets reinvested right back into buying shares, hypothetically causing exponential growth of the amount of money you’ll eventually make when you sell those stocks. (Notice that this means that the payout for long-term investors in the market is now not a function of how much they’ll eventually make off dividends, which is at least hypothetically tied to the economic output of the company, but on the speculated price of the stocks generated in part by their stock buybacks).
  2. Share issuance is not determined, or distributed, by the members of a company equitably. Even in private companies that issue shares, the sale of those shares (and who they are sold to) is determined entirely by the owners of the company and not by the all of the workers therein. Unsurprisingly, the workers then have no control over the mechanism by which they could hypothetically gain capital from the company once it is “Jetsonized”, i.e. made independent of human labor.

So, what would the enterprising “centrist” politician of the future need to make American techno-driven capitalism of the future a thing? Well, the above suggests that you’d need to eliminate the stock market entirely, and rely on privately issued shares of companies directly to its employees, that would always have to be distributed to those employees by some sort of political mandate. But this kind of thing would already start to sound a lot less like capitalism, so they’d just have to come up with some fancy euphemism to sell it to the voters. “Collective capitalism”, perhaps? Who knows. All I know is that such a transition, which is sorely needed in my opinion, will definitely not come at the push of a button.

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