Among all sciences, economics is the most followed because it studies the process by which societies become richer. Although there are many theories attributing economic growth to a host of factors such as political stability, deregulation or the strength of the property regime, there is a consensus that it ultimately originates from innovation and technological progress. This is because the best way to increase production is for workers to have access to better machines.
In this essay, I will go one step further and try to argue that the only determinant of long-term economic growth is time, or more specifically, the time that craftsmen and inventors can take away from their daily activity to create new tools and equipment.
In a sense productivity begets productivity in a virtuous cycle. On a micro level, workers who have more time to invent new tools become more productive, need to work less and, as a result, have even more time to invent even better tools. On a societal level, societies that are more productive dedicate less time to the production of necessities, such as food, and can have a larger proportion of their population be dedicated thinkers (i.e. engineers, researchers …).
Chapter 1: The Stone Age and Never Ending Trips
For the first 100 000 years, humans were nomadic, and the vast majority of our time was spent tracking wild game and foraging for food. Although, the more brilliant members of our primitive societies found time, probably around the campfire, to craft weapons that allowed for the extermination of both the mammoth and the Neanderthal, these constant trips were less than ideal for inventing the tools that could significantly boost economic output.
Chapter 2: Agriculture and the Great Settling Down
Economic growth rate really picked up when humans finally settled down in cities and developed agriculture. Instead of spending their days hiking, we were now able to take time to think while literally watching the grass grow. In the five thousand years after the adoption of agriculture, the economic output of sedentary civilizations in China, West Africa, Egypt, the Middle East and the Americas grew much higher than in the previous 100,000 years.
Workers deciphered the solar cycle which helped them boost agricultural output, crafted pottery which help them store and transport the extra output, developed writing which helped them transfer ideas across generations, and built large cities where they could share ideas.
Chapter 3: Candles and the Enlightenment
Up until then, economic growth was spurred by mastering basic engineering. We learned how to design bridges, build boats and plan complex irrigation systems. However, although we dabbled in philosophy, medicine and astronomy, humans did not solve truly abstract problems since these ideas usually reveal themselves after hours spend alone at night with one’s own thoughts.
This all changed in the 13th century with the mass production of the Tallow candle, which originated in England and spread throughout the world, and the associated fall in the price of interior lighting. Before then, clean burning candles were very expensive, and few families other than the wealthy could afford to burn them at home.
As a result of inexpensive indoor lighting, we were no longer bound by the solar cycle and could spend the night inventing new tools. While it took six millennia, from the Sumerian Empire to the Middle Ages to learn basic engineering, it only took five hundred years after the mass proliferation of indoor lighting for, among other discoveries, Arab scholars to make breakthroughs in medicine and European physicists to control electricity. These discoveries further boosted economic output by improving the health of the workforce, allowing for mass communication to coordinate production and using chemical processes to build new materials.
Chapter 4: Robotics and the Labor Free Economy
We entered an unprecedented era of economic growth in the 19th century with the invention of programmable computers. As mundane production tasks are increasingly outsourced to machines, today, we have the time to solve highly complex problems and invent incredibly fine-tuned and efficient tools. Workers are using this extra time to pursue more technical degrees in order to learn how to invent even better tools and processes. As result of this virtuous time-production cycle, an average American has access to goods and services that, only a few centuries ago, kings could only dream about.
Thanks to technological advancement resulting from having more time to innovate, economic production will rise. However, as robotics becomes more efficient, machines and artificial intelligence are replacing humans in a host of industry, and as a result the demand for labor will soon fall precipitously. The only force that can reverse this exponential economic growth is a mob of dissatisfied workers destroying those very machines. The challenge that governments now face is, therefore, to find ways to allocate the ever growing economic output to the hoard of unemployed workers in a fair way.