The Economics Of The Jetsons


Earlier today, Annie Lowrey drew our attention to the fact that George Jetson enjoyed a nine-hour workweek—thee hours a day, three days a week. Mike Konczal rightly connected this to JM Keynes’ essay on “The Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren” (PDF) highlighting the consequences of a super-abundance of material prosperity. It raises, I think, a number of interesting issues.

First, for the kids who don’t know, The Jetsons are a middle class family living in the early 2060s and originally depicted in a television program from the early 1960s. George is married to Judy Jetson, a full-time homemaker who’s assisted by a robot maid named Rosie. They have two kids and enjoy high material living standards. Essentially imagine a world in which productivity grows by an average of 2.5 percent per year for the next fifty years and Mr and Mrs Jetson have chosen to take the cumulative 418 percent increase in income by reducing hours worked to one quarter of present-day standards rather than vastly increased consumption.

That seems like a valid choice. But what happens to income inequality in this kind of world? Imagine another couple, the Hardworkers where both parents put in a 30-hour workweek and their combined household income winds up being 20 times that of the Jetsons. Do we need to redistribute income to George & Jane? Or is the fact that their absolute living standards are high the relevant issue?

And what about a rock star like Jet Screamer?:

You can imagine two different equilibria here. One is that maybe with so many people able to comfortable support themselves on nine-hour workweeks, that entertainment is done entirely on an amateur basis. Maybe Jet Screamer earns $0 from his music, and instead works three days a week at a nursing home to earn a living. He performs music because it’s fun and because he enjoys the groupies.

But my suspicion is that people will still want to hear live performances of popular musicians. And in the world of the 2060s, the total income of potential concert-goers will be dramatically higher than is the case in 2011. That’s not just because of the increased wealth at the frontier in the USA. You also need to imagine population growth, and substantial continued “catch-up” growth from the developing world. And yet it’s still not going to be possible for Jet Screamer to perform live in multiple cities simultaneously and physical space that’s proximate to Jet Screamer is inherently scarce. The result is that Jet Screamer is going to be become unimaginably wealthy relative to a middle class family like the Jetsons.