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Free Minds & Free Markets

Will the Future Have No Work or Just Less Work?: Podcast

Economist Michael C. Munger argues the sharing economy is the next great economic revolution—and it's already underway.

Cambridge University Press, AmazonCambridge University Press, AmazonImagine it's sometime in the future, but not so far in the future that you're not still putting together flat-packed furniture.

You realize you need to drive some screws into the bookcase or whatever it is you're assembling. Instead of rummaging through your garage or basement for your goddamned electric screwdriver, you tap out "rent a drill" on your a smart phone app. A few minutes later, a package arrives at your door. It contains a drill, you drive the screws, you send the drill back. Total time: 10 minutes. Total cost $2.50.

That's a scenario from Tomorrow 3.0, a new book by Duke University economist and political scientist Michael C. Munger. Subtitled Transaction Costs and the Sharing Economy, it takes a long look at what he says is, after the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions, the third great economic revolution in world history—a revolution that is already well under way.

I talked with Munger about the future of work in a gig economy, the possible need for a guaranteed basic income, and why laws and policies designed to preserve the labor status quo inevitably increase the pace and magnitude of disruption. Co-editor of The Independent Review, Munger also explains how he came to his libertarian beliefs and how he designed the arresting cover of his latest book.

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Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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Photo Credit: Michael C. Munger, Twitter

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  • Microaggressor||

    Less work. That was easy.

  • John||

    You can work less now. You just have to be willing to own less stuff. You could work 20 hours a week now and live better how than 99% of the world did a couple of hundred years ago. Oddly, people don't do that. It is almost as if wealth is a relative thing and people work for reasons beyond subsistence or something.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Finally 100% relevant.

  • Napoleon Bonaparte||

    Yeah, I remember in the 1960s we were told by the year 2000 everybody would have a 20 hour work week. When 2000 arrived, it was more like half the country was unemployed and the other half was working 80 hours a week.

    Tell the economists to fuck off.

  • Don't look at me.||

    When robots can mine the ore, make the metal, design and build more robots on their own, then there will be no work but everything will be free. But they will probably kill us.

  • John||

    That would be true if there were no such thing as positional goods. As long as there is such a thing as positional goods, people will create scarcity even where none exists. In short, the problem of scarcity will never be solved because human nature is such that humans will always create more.

  • ||

    In short, the problem of scarcity will never be solved because human nature is such that humans will always create more.

    Not to assert too much into your statement or position, but there are plenty who believe this to be true in the absence of human nature as well. The definition of positional goods requires scarcity or congestion neither of which are unique to humanity or human systems.

  • John||

    But for positional goods to exist, there has to be some kind of arbitrary value assigned to the ownership of those goods. There is nothing practical or really even logical about positional goods. They are just a way of showing my position in society. I do not see how they could exist without humans to give them value.

  • ||

    I do not see how they could exist without humans to give them value.

    Assuming robots and the networks they form can't value things or do so arbitrarily? I have never understood positional goods to be explicitly illogical, just relatively so.

    In any event, we're not talking about an economic future any of us likely have to worry about.

  • BYODB||


    In short, the problem of scarcity will never be solved because human nature is such that humans will always create more.

    It won't be solved because resources are actually and truly finite so you really don't need to go any further than that.

  • John||

    Resources being finite does not necessarily mean they will be scarce. If the amount of resources available exceeds the total desires of everyone and can be produced for a low enough cost, there is no scarcity even though there is a finite amount of it.

    For example, there is a finite amount of salt in the world. But there is so much of it and salt is so cheap, that there is no scarcity of it anywhere in the world. Literally, everyone can afford more salt than they would ever want or need.

  • BYODB||

    Scarcity is a measure of how finite a good is, so you're not wrong but neither am I.

  • Microaggressor||

    And yet it isn't free. There's still a transaction cost in transporting it to your kitchen. Not even the pipe dream of post-scarcity can overcome this.

  • Flaco||

    Automation will never lead to an end of work, because those with more disposable income will find services to demand that cannot be automated. Compared to fifty years ago, think of how much more of these things there are. Baristas, masseuses, spas, waxing, genius bars, etc. These things barely existed before. And there will be other jobs in the future that we cannot yet imagine.

  • kcuch||

    Baristas, masseuses, spas, waxing, genius bars, etc. These things barely existed before. And there will be other jobs in the future that we cannot yet imagine.

    The job types may have changed, but the reasons have not -- to produce income for consumption. A future in which automation can solve for Maslows survival level at negligible (social) cost would not need individuals to perform jobs. They would masseuse because they liked to massage, they would barista because they liked to serve coffee, wax because they like to inflict unthinkable pain to very sensitve body parts...

    I can't imagine anyone as a hobby showing up at a set time, for a set number of hours, in order to serve coffee to people. They are all trying to solve for Maslow

  • Microaggressor||

    it was more like half the country was unemployed and the other half was working 80 hours a week.

    Labor regulations have a lot to do with this.

  • John||

    A few minutes later, a package arrives at your door. It contains a drill, you drive the screws, you send the drill back. Total time: 10 minutes. Total cost $2.50.

    And I can buy a drill for $20 bucks and not have to screw with that. There is a value to owning something yourself. The obsession with the "sharing economy" is one of the stranger things I have ever seen. Of all the goofball futurist ideas "hey man in the future you won't own anything but just rent stuff when you need it" has to be the sorriest of them all. If you are going to make stupid predictions about the future, can they at least be sexy and interesting like Mar bases or jetpacks or hoverboards or something?

  • Don't look at me.||

    Someone has to own the drill in order for it to be available for rent. I wanna be that guy.

  • John||

    Me too. You can rent tools right now. They just are not delivered to your door. It is so funny that they use tools as an example. Only a couple of real nerds could not understand that the barrier to using a hammer is not just having the hammer but the will and the know-how to use it. People who know how to use and do use tools rather than just pay someone else to use them, likely won't want to rent their hammers.

  • Echo Chamber||

    "Total cost $2.50"
    With what, $0.25 of that going to the guy/gal who delivered it?
    Maybe uber-like delivery drivers and people who pull the grocery items off the shelf for your online order are the new wave of low-skill jobs, but they come with a whiff of serfdom attached

  • John||

    It would be delivered by magic drones. I am not kidding.

  • Drave Robber||

    Drones can deliver all sorts of shit but wake me up when they're able to pick up something. Garbage for starters.

  • ||

    And I can buy a drill for $20 bucks and not have to screw with that.

    I think it's a desire to eliminate (or just obfuscate) transaction costs so that Coase Theorem just makes sense and managed economies can ensue.

    Munger and/or Gillespie aren't even as bright as Ikea is (and Sears was decades ago). They already ship single-use/throwaway hand tools along with the furniture. And for the exceptionally lazy or industrious assembler, you can upsell them on the electric tools.

  • John||

    I never thought about it from the perspective of managed economies. Eliminating ownership and making everyone rent things is a central planner's wet dream. No wonder this nonsense appeals to the hipster doofuses at reason.

  • BYODB||

    This viewpoint exists because people continually try to think of a new way to make communism work without murdering lots of people. I mean, it fails every time but it's at least cute that some of them seem to be learning their lesson since this guy in particular is still using money to pay for the drill without actually questioning how you would get that $2.50 to pay for the rental.

    That's before you get into who makes drills when there's only one drill, or at least far fewer drills. That would mean a drill is probably worth a whole lot more than $2.50. This whole model seems to assume that all production is entirely automated and communally owned or something. A necessary precondition since, if they weren't, the titans of industry would live as gods among men.

    Just more proof that economists aren't immune from the hubris of all other soft sciences.

  • John||

    All good points. Economists biggest problem is that they are terrible psychologists and have a terrible understanding of what actually motivates people. Worse, they make pronouncements about things like the use of tools or cars that involve areas they don't understand or in many cases don't even like. If you ever notice, people like Ron Bailey that are convinced that no one will own their own car in the future and instead rely on fleet owned robotic cars for transportation, readily admit they hate driving and loathe cars. They just assume everyone is just like them and make predictions and pronouncements accordingly. The idea that someone might think differently never occurs to them or if it does the person is written off as an irrational exception.

  • BYODB||


    They just assume everyone is just like them and make predictions and pronouncements accordingly. The idea that someone might think differently never occurs to them or if it does the person is written off as an irrational exception.

    This is the grand secret behind all social and soft sciences in a nice little nutshell.

    Right now it seems that you can get some funding if you somehow relate your bullshit back to 'sharing economies' since they're something of a fad, amusing in both capitalist and communist circles.

    The concept itself isn't new, merely their application which is the central part of this fallacy. It's only 'revolutionary' in it's ease of use, in my view.

  • Paloma||

    Nobody's ever just borrowed a drill from their neighbor?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The future will have different work.

  • Longtobefree||

    A few minutes later, a package arrives at your door. It contains a drill, you drive the screws, you send the drill back. Total time: 10 minutes. Total cost $2.50.

    Plus $250.00 deposit. (refundable except for 10% restocking fee.
    Plus sales tax.
    Plus delivery fuel surcharge.
    Plus driver tip. (or is it drones then?)
    Plus the total time would be more like 4 to 6 hours.

    I think it would be more like delivery pizza.
    I can go online and order a pizza in 5 clicks, including opening the browser. (2 minutes)
    But I always go pick it up instead of have it delivered.
    I saves the delivery fee and driver tip, gets the pizza on my table in 30 minutes instead of 2 to 3 hours (I live one half a mile from the store) Because I pick it up, I can do the final 'quality check' and get the errors fixed right away. And the good side of the technology is that I do not have to speak to the "I deserve $15/hr" clowns unless they screwed up what the computer tells them.

  • John||

    It is more than a bit ironic that a magazine that is dedicated to property rights and the free market can be so in love with the idea of communal ownership. And that is all the "sharing economy" is; communal ownership.

  • Microaggressor||

    Not really. It's just outsourcing, which is a critical aspect of specialization in the market.

    You will still have the choice to own things. This just presents to you another option that suits some people but not everyone.

  • John||

    Sure. And that option has always existed. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is not some kind of life changing revolution either.

  • ||

    It contains a drill, you drive the screws, you send the drill back. Total time: 10 minutes. Total cost $2.50.

    I have a coffee can full of galvanized hex wrenches and reversible standard/phillips screwdrivers that shipped for free with the pieces of furniture they were intended to assemble.

    I own three electric drills (four if you count the press) and I can't fathom why you would employ an electric device to turn screws that you *should* be able to do by hand.

  • John||

    You need the drill to drill the holes if they are not already there. So there is that.

    I can't fathom why you would go to the bother of renting a drill when owning one, and screws and such is so cheap and easy.

  • ||

    You need the drill to drill the holes if they are not already there. So there is that.

    If it's flat-pack and/or ready to assemble, the holes should be pre-drilled.

    I understand the need to drill holes. It's the people who need $10 9V screwdrivers because their wrists are too limp to do much more than screw in a lightbulb and type out "The sharing economy is the wave of the future!" that vexes me.

  • John||

    That makes two of us.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    You realize you need to drive some screws into the bookcase or whatever it is you're assembling. Instead of rummaging through your garage or basement for your goddamned electric screwdriver, you tap out "rent a drill" on your a smart phone app. A few minutes later, a package arrives at your door. It contains a drill, you drive the screws, you send the drill back. Total time: 10 minutes. Total cost $2.50.

    This is the kind of thing that smacks of "Whole meals in pill form!" we got in the '50s.

    Sometimes having a drill in your garage is the best solution.

  • ||

    This is the kind of thing that smacks of "Whole meals in pill form!" we got in the '50s.

    There was a satire piece I read once about how thrifty counter-culturists could read their neighbor's paper for free. You just had to pick it up off their driveway. It went on that it might alert people to your anti-social, anarchist underpinnings so the best thing to do would be to get up early, read the paper, and put it back on your neighbor's driveway before they got it. Ultimately, you could work out a deal with the local paper delivery services where you could do this with a whole host of papers and read the news and be better informed (and even get paid) about geo-politics before anyone else on your block, neighborhood, or city!

    I kinda get the same vibe here. If I'm too lazy to drive the screws myself or go to my garage, why the hell wouldn't I call someone to come drive the screws for me? I'm betting the $2.50 drone tool rental business is at the price point it's at not because all the competition is driving prices down as much as it is novelty niche pricing.

  • John||

    Exactly that. The kind of person who would actually use a screwdriver and screws rather than have someone do the work for them isn't going to rent a screwdriver. And the kind of person who would, wouldn't have any need for one.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I'm betting the $2.50 drone tool rental business is at the price point it's at not because all the competition is driving prices down as much as it is novelty niche pricing.

    *cough*Kozmo.com*cough*

  • Paloma||

    How often does the average person use a drill? Or assemble furniture?

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    How often does the average person use a drill? Or assemble furniture?

    Drill: how about every damn day? Or hardly ever?

    Assemble furniture: whenever I damn well please.

    What relevance do those have to whether or not I should own a drill as a private citizen? What is "the average person"? Actually IDGAF what "the average person" does or doesn't do with drills as long as it doesn't infringe on civil liberties.

    Once you're only renting things, then your subject to the terms of the rental, which are subject to the regulations, and your data connected to the rental is "out there", and your 4A rights will be violated, and you are disenfranchized; a drone just renting a substandard, oft-abused piece of Chinese crap, instead of investing in one good tool you keep for years.

  • Paloma||

    Like Chris and Snoop.

  • Flaco||

    Don't leave me in a Vacant!

  • Flaco||

    Actually, Chris and Snoop used a nail gun. Best scene in the show.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-N_UuImPL4E

  • Shirley Knott||

    For a huge number of items, nearly all the essential / commonplace ones, the price is not the item but the packaging and distribution.
    The 'sharing economy' isn't going to touch that.
    Nor are economies of scale — this is a result of economies of scale, after all.

  • ||

    Nor are economies of scale — this is a result of economies of scale, after all.

    This is a good point. I think Reason could also stand to learn this lesson about 3D printers.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    What're you talking about, 3d printing is going to... wait... I forgot what 3d printing was going to do.

    I do know that the "Steve Jobs" of 3d printing now runs a jewelry shop, so there's that.

  • Empress Trudy||

    Who cares? If half the people starve, so what

  • Flaco||

    Or you can pay the extra $18.50 and own a drill and keep your man card. Having that card just might pay off for you someday....

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    I like owning and caring for my own tools. I say caring for because when you've invested in decent tools, and over many years accumulated them in your own little empire of dirt, you learn the value of good tools, and you look after them. Maybe I'll rent big stuff like a cement mixer or an engine crane but once govt goes full-UK and starts banning ownership/carrying of "dangerous" tools/"weapons" them I suppose we'll all be forced to participate in some kind of tools black market.

  • kcuch||

    I like owning and caring for my own tools. I like it so much I built me a beer-belly roof to protect 'em.

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