Yes, I'm being a bit tongue in cheek, but there's a serious notion underneath. We need to rethink economics, and I'm even going to outline a different way of thinking about it. I hope my conclusion surprises you: The couch potatoes are more valuable and more human than you think and they actually contribute more to our economy than they are usually given credit for.
Let's start by analyzing economic activity and classifying it into three categories. There is an essential category that keeps us afloat, an investment category that makes things better, and everything else that makes us enlightened human beings. The rest of this post is basically explaining those three ideas and offering a few of the most basic observations, but my real questions are about the numbers. I've been looking for this kind of information for some years, and so far I've been coming up dry. Isn't ANYONE else thinking along these lines? Please point me at the right economists. The comments are open for such purposes!
The essential category includes such things and producing food and clothing and maintaining houses and essential infrastructure. This is what you have to do just to keep life at the current physical level. One way to think about it is as a metric of the productivity of the civilization. A more advanced society will do this more efficiently. Think of it as an average of the total working time. In an advanced society, perhaps the average working time to produce the essentials will be 2 hours per week, and the rest of the economic activity is for other purposes, whereas a relatively less advanced society may require 30, 50, or even 80 hours of weekly work from each individual just to stay afloat. In other words, at some point a society cannot sustain itself because there aren't enough hours in the week, and there are poor and effectively dysfunctional societies that really are dependent upon outside assistance just to attempt to survive.
The investment category includes all of the spending that improves productivity and thus reduces the economic expense of the essential category. That includes things like building better infrastructure or creating better machinery for more efficient factories, but it also includes less obvious things like technical education and even abstract research where the results are years away and quite unpredictable. You can actually evaluate the spending in this category based on the RoI (Return on Investment). The easy calls are cases where you can calculate that developing a certain device will cost a certain amount of money and it will take a known amount of time to make profits that equal that amount of money. Yes, the future is never certain, but some things are relatively easy to predict and the investments in those cases are easy to justify. I actually think this part of the economy should be evaluated in competitive terms. A nation that wants to advance relative to other societies should spend more in this category, for example by tweaking the tax incentives to encourage people to shift more money from the next category...
Now we're ready for the category of everything else, and that's where the couch potatoes enter the picture as representatives of the leisure class. Yes, it's a stereotype with negative connotations, but there really are a lot of economic activities in the leisure class that are represented by the people who watch television or who read books. This category has a lot of interesting attributes. For example, it is divided into a creative and consuming side, and advanced societies have already passed the threshold of maxing out. Let's take a simple example of books: We already publish more new books than any person can possibly read, even if that person was free to spend all of his time reading new books. Another aspect is that the demand on the consuming side is never satisfied. You can only eat so much food or wear so much clothing, but the only limit on your leisure time is the time itself. A related aspect is that many of these leisure goods are not consumed, since the same movie can be viewed by any number of people. What mostly counts in this part of the economy is how people vote with their time. In the example of an advertising-based economy, it really matters to the advertisers if the couch potatoes vote for football or baseball.
Okay, I guess that's enough food for thought. As noted earlier, I've been thinking about these ideas for some years, but so far I haven't found any leads and especially I haven't been able to find any numbers. If you know of such, comments with pointers would be greatly appreciated.
Oh yeah, I better explain the subtitle about humanity... I suspect than an inhuman civilization of machines would skip the third category. It's the humanity, stupid.