Are we headed for a Downton Abbey economy?

by John MacBeath Watkins

We've discussed the Star Trek "replicator economy," but what if a world with little labor needed to support life gave us a "Downton Abbey" economy?

I watch little television, but I recently caught a few shows of Downton Abbey, and was struck by the way it emphasizes the lives of the servants.
Longleat House, an English stately home

Now, it's an odd thing, but even though there are more people descended from servants than from nobility, a great deal of literature talks mainly about the people who hire (or, in the case of Gone With the Wind, own) servants rather than about the lives of the servants.

And given the growing inequality in our society, chances are that more people will be working as servants in the future.

We face a future in which less and less of human activity pays well enough to support life, and we will find ourselves pushed into the remaining professions. What those professions will be depends in part on what the distribution of wealth is. In a society with greater equality than the one we have, we might make our livings by entertaining each other, or as the saying goes, taking in each other's washing. In a society with greater inequality, we will take in the washing of those better off than us.

My grandfather, Amos Watkins, was a farmer descended from and English gardener and a maid from Scotland, who met while working at an estate near London.  He told me the family's morbid joke: "There are two kinds of people in this world, those who are good to their servants and those who aren't."

Because if you are a servant, you didn't count as a person. Which is why they emigrated to America, where their son was able to work for himself as a farmer. (Amos never owned most of the land he worked, so I suppose he'd be called a tenant farmer.)

His maternal grandfather, John MacBeath, had worked for himself, first in a fishing and crofting village that no longer exists, because life there was too hard, later operating a ferry at Inverness (actually a row and sail boat small enough that if it needed to move a cow across the Inverness, the cow had to swim behind while tethered to the boat.) At some point, it became a better deal to leave the poverty of 19th century Scotland and become a servant in England, though my great-grandmother had a strong personality and no doubt chafed at being anyone's servant.

The economic problem is, while most parts of the economy are not going to see a reduction of marginal unit costs reduced to near zero, they are seeing unit labor costs drop. At the time of the American revolution, the most common professions were farmer and sailor. Farming, forestry and fishing now employs about 0.7% of our workforce, according to the CIA World Factbook. The same source shows that in Afghanistan, more than 78% of the population works in these trades. Our remaining farmers are far more productive, not just per hour, but in most cases, per acre.

Such productivity is part of the reason we are more wealthy than the Afghans are. And what happens when you don't have people working in one sector is, they go to work in another. It wasn't hard to get people to trade backbreaking work on a farm for working in a factory or an office, but what is the next step? Expert systems are making inroads into formerly well-paid, professional work like that done by lawyers, but we will probably still have to pay for legal advice. 
What will remain will be "high touch" professions in which the attention of another human being is a big part of the transaction.Commanding the attention of others is the ultimate luxury, the one served by all classes of conspicuous consumption.

Thorstein Veblen was writing during the previous high point in inequity in the U.S., christened "the gilded age" my Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Veblen noted that the rentier class spent money on things people would notice, things not necessary to human life, to demonstrate their economic power. This prompted the invention of another term, "invidious consumption," that is, consumption intended to provoke envy.

I've been around boats most of my life, and I see this every time I'm on the water. The smaller the boat, the more it gets used, and the more fun people seem to have with it, so what's with all the huge powerboats loitering at the dock? Their owners value having them more than using them, because of what they symbolize. I recall seeing a man in his 60s making a rare appearance on his big motor yacht with a bikini-wearing woman in her 20s at his side. The women I was with were close to the age of the man, and bridled against the sight, so I made them feel better by saying, "so what if the man wants to go boating with his daughter?"

Men with a trophy wife on their arm are trying to provoke envy. This makes youth and beauty fungible. If the woman in the bikini chose to become a trophy wife, she could gain a life of wealth and ease, and if she divorced well, she could get a hunk to drape on her own arm, and provoke envy for both her wealth and her hunk. If she made her own fortune, the boy toy would only make people respect her less, so beautiful young men find fewer opportunities to advance by marrying well.

Many women, and many men, would not want to marry for money because they consider it demeaning; it is a subservient role which one would not have to serve in a more equal relationship. Even servants, for the most part, do not wish to be subservient in their domestic arrangements. Perhaps this was especially so in the world of Edwardian England, when people like my great grandparents were lucky to have such a good job as to be a servant.

How much more comfort do the people of the Crawley family gain from hiring a second footman at Downton Abbey? Footmen were chosen for looks, and performed duties that were of little importance, but they gave the place a look of class. That's part of the logic of having servants. They are not just there to do things you'd rather not do yourself, like mucking out the stables, they are also there to be your entourage, to make you feel important.

That's going to be the last job technology cannot do. In an unequal society, it is the job much of the population will have to do. That's what a Downton Abbey economy would look like.