The Agenda

David Levinson’s Vision of the Future

University of Minnesota economist David Levinson envisions a future in which per capita vehicle travels falls significantly, bringing traffic congestion down with it. The chief driver of this death of traffic is not the emergence of a new transportation technology, though technology certainly plays a role in Levinson’s scenario. Rather, it is the shrinking of the American workweek coupled with new business models which draw primarily on existing technologies. Though written in an understated style, it is quite entertaining. I recommend reading it in its entirety. A few aspects of his vision struck me as particularly notable:

1. Just as it was once standard for U.S. workers to work a six-day week, Levinson imagines that the workweek will continue to shrink. Every-other Friday off (the 5/4 schedule) becomes standard by 2015; by 2020, the standard schedule becomes a 9 hour day with four days a week in the office and 4 additional hours of checking in from home; by 2025, workers are taking every-other Monday off (the 4/3 schedule); and by 2030, the “flipped” office, like the “flipped” classroom, becomes the norm — i.e., workers do the bulk of their work at home, and they come to the office for “interactive collaboration days.”

2. But it’s not just the workweek that will change. The pattern of how we work over the life course will also change. Levinson envisions a world in which almost half the population doesn’t enter the paid workforce until age 30, as firms lose interest in financing training. Instead, most people go through an extended apprenticeship period that can last as long as a decade, combining unpaid internships and attending school online. And most people exit the workforce by age 60, as technological advances reduce the value of older workers.

3. The changing workweek causes the value of office buildings to plummet. As office buildings are converted to apartments, the least desirable of which become home to the 20-somethings toiling away at their unpaid internships (subsidized, presumably, by parents, or sustained by part-time work), residential constructions in the suburbs grinds to a halt, and suburban property values drift down, thus making suburban neighborhoods more attractive to low-income households. Large garages are transformed into stores, workshops, and accessory dwellings as families choose to maintain fewer automobiles. Car-sharing, meanwhile, grows more entrenched as a larger share of the population comes to reside in urban cores. (This has the effect of reducing per capita vehicle trips because while car-sharing eliminates many of the fixed costs associated with vehicle ownership, it increases the marginal cost per trip.)

4. Shopping, once a big contributor to vehicle trips, is transformed as people (and their autonomous agents) order online and have goods delivered; decentralized manufacturing and 3-D printing on-demand, in turn, shrink supply chains

5. Levinson offers many other provocative ideas, e.g., that externality taxes will replace income taxes, that America’s political future will involve a Green-Libertarian coalition government, and that bus-powered urban transit agencies (some of which operate a few legacy rail lines) will be one of the rare profitable branches of government, thanks to labor-saving autonomous driving technology.

I find Levinson’s vision of the future refreshingly unromantic. Though he imagines a “revitalization” of urban cores, it’s hardly a vision of creative class utopias. Essentially, the office market will collapse as the employment prospects of young people deteriorate, and so office towers will be repurposed. The suburbs will grow less affluent, but Levinson allows that they might grow more populous. Indeed, they might also become more interesting, as foreign-born residents form distinctive cultural enclaves. California’s diverse and vibrant San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys will be reproduced across the country, a development that some will lament and that others will celebrate. So this is hardly a pro-urban, anti-suburban take. It’s neither, really. I’m skeptical about the prospect of 60-year-olds exiting the workforce in large numbers, if only because 60-year-olds will presumably be even healthier than they are now, and ongoing advances in combating the onset of age-related diseases will mean that they will be more capable as well. Assuming the government won’t be in a position to subsidize several decades of leisure, these older citizens will have to find some way of sustaining themselves. Of course, Levinson is also positing that housing will grow more affordable in this post-commuting world, so perhaps older citizens will be able to live off of some combination of part-time work and their savings. Levinson’s scenario can come to pass if economic growth remains sluggish or if it accelerates, as technology-driven productivity gains will alter the labor market one way or another. His most implausible notion (apart from the Green-Libertarian coalition, as I have more faith in the collusive cunning of the two-party duopoly) is that society will grow less materialistic as consumers grow more resistant to advertising — like Tyler Cowen, I’d guess that marketing will become more rather than less important — but stranger things have happened.



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