Before I go on with this blog, I'm going to insert a brief coda to my post on Wells's This Misery of Boots (1907). It's common enough to test Wells's technological predictions against later developments: to set his representation of aircraft, tanks or genetic engineering (say) against what actually came to pass. It might be worth doing this with other aspects of Wellsian speculation, too.
In This Misery of Boots, Wells identifies a real specific problem that speaks to a real general problem. In the UK climate we cannot do without footwear. Footwear, though, is too expensive, and so, Wells notes, everywhere ‘people are badly, uncomfortably, painfully shod, in old boots, rotten boots, sham boots’. This is true even though there are in the UK plenty of raw materials to make boots, and plenty of idle people, many of them unwillingly idle, to provide the boot-making labour. For Wells, this renders the problem of ‘boots’ twofold: the problem of the control of the means of production, and the problem of the organisation of labour. He illustrates this by quoting a letter from an (unnamed) labouring man:
I am a railway man, in constant work at 30/-. per week. I am the happy, or otherwise, father of six healthy children. Last year I bought twenty pairs of boots. This year, up to date, I have bought ten pairs, costing £2; and yet, at the present time, my wife and five of the children have only one pair each. I have two pairs, both of which let in the water; but I see no prospect at present of getting new ones. I ought to say, of course, that my wife is a thoroughly domesticated woman, and I am one of the most temperate of men. So much so, that if all I spend in luxuries was saved it would not buy a pair of boots once a year. But this is the point I want to mention. During 1903 my wages were 25 shillings and sixpence per week; and I then had the six children. My next-door neighbour was a boot-maker and repairer. He fell out of work, and was out for months. During that time, of course, my children's boots needed repairing as at other times. I had not the money to pay for them being repaired, so had to do what repairing I could myself. One day I found out that I was repairing boots on one side of the wall, and my neighbour on the other side out of work, and longing to do the work I was compelled to do myself.Wells looks around him, and sees ‘great stretches of land in the world, with unlimited possibilities of cattle and leather and great numbers of people, who, either through wealth or trade disorder, are doing no work.’ So he asks this question: ‘Why cannot the latter set to work and make and distribute boots?’
Now: we can say that various places in the twentieth-century tried Wells's standard-model old school socialist solution—viz., taking collective control of the means of production and orchestrating labour according to a centralised plan—and that it didn't work out so well. I don't want, here, to get into the ins and outs of this, although there are a great many ins, and a large though smaller number of outs. But the failure of State Communism, broadly speaking, leaves the problem of Boots untouched. We might thumbnail Wells's issue as follows:
1. Boots are a necessity.
2. Under the free market, poor people cannot afford boots.
Since  simply reverts us back to , this becomes a small version of the same feedback loop that applies across a range of necessities. You can see why people in 1900 thought Revolution both inevitable and imminent—the inescapability of this ongoing loop must, surely, provoke it to short-circuit, which is to say, to a violent outburst by the poor. And you can see too how a Wellsian socialist would look at that particular loop and say: the weak link is the ‘under the free market’ element. Change that, and you break the cycle of misery.
That's not what happened, though, as we all know. Instead what happened was—again very broadly—that poor people became able to afford boots. Boots became relatively cheaper compared to even the low earnings of the poor. This was because productivity increased to a startling degree, which resulted in greater purchasing power across the board.
I love the typo in the header to that chart (it's from here, incidentally): chickens get cheaper, but proofreaders not, I suppose. Anyway: this does not mean that poverty has been abolished, of course: indeed, as Thomas Piketty exhaustively shows, the global gap between rich and poor has been getting steeply worse since 1975, and is now at crisis levels. But it has meant that Wells's specific problem of Boots was solved without revolution. Robert Fogel [The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100 (Cambridge University Press 2004)], Stanley Lebergott, [Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press 1993)] and others discuss the way steep improvements in productivity have transformed modern life. In 1900 the amount of individual consumption that might be bought with one hour of work amounted to roughly $3.00; this had increased to roughly $22 by 1990 (both numbers measured in 21st-century dollars). One striking stat from Lebergott: ‘a U. S. worker today earns more (in terms of buying power) working for ten minutes than subsistence workers, such as the English mill workers that Fredrick Engels wrote about in 1844, earned in a 12-hour day.’ We might say that this has more to do with the relative cheapening of goods than the relatively enrichment of workers—although when you put it like that you can see that those two positions are, in many respects, versions of one another.
How did it happen? The orthodoxy of free marketeers is that it's competition that drives down prices. Wells would not have been persuaded by this, not least since in 1900 the market for boots had been a zone of unregulated competition for centuries, and people still couldn't afford boots. No: the real-world narrative that actually took us all from This Misery of Boots to This Joy of Boots had much more to do with the rapid technological innovations of the 20th-century, both in terms of new materials and manufacturing processes, and in terms of greatly increasing the efficiency with older manufacturing processes. This leads to the virtuous circle where giving poor(er) people more income expands the economy—because such people are more likely to spend their extra income—in a way that giving rich(er) people more income doesn't, because they're less likely to spend extra income.
The puzzling thing is that Wells, whom we tend to think of as the prophet of new technology, didn't intuit this, or anything like it, as the solution to his Boot problem. Why not, I wonder?