Monday, May 15, 2017

Is Paid Wage Labor Really Worth It?

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Writing in his two-volume masterpiece, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth Of Nations,  Adam Smith envisaged a market society of individual proprietors: butchers, bakers, printers etc. all of whom would be self-employed and not dependent on performing wage labor under a single employer.  Abraham Lincoln was no different, stating in an 1859 address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society:

"The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while and - at length- hires another beginner to help him".

In other words the beginning job taker may work under wage labor himself but ultimately becomes an employer of others.  Thus the takeaway that even well into the 19th century wage labor was seen as only a temporary step to individual entrepreneur.    Today, many who've lost their wage jobs are also attempting this route, but alas- because of the competition - too many are failing.  Most tragically, the yearly glut of degree-holding younger job seekers has pushed many into the unskilled labor force - including as Starbucks baristas and retail clerks.

A lot of other systemic factors contribute too, including lack of guaranteed health care for self-employed folks - so that they now have to gamble they won't fall ill or have a serious accident under Trump Care.  Then there is the scale of initial investment needed, often making it a huge risk even to operate a franchise.

As opposed to Lincoln's era then, establishing a small business today is simply too fraught with risk for too many Americans, who still rely on their employers for health insurance and long term income. And that's assuming they can even get the level of pay and benefits needed.  Too many Americans now, including amongst the Trumpies, are forced to patch together a precarious existence and income from freelance gigs, using Uber, 'TaskRabbit' etc.  Or being an adjunct prof - who has to ply his teaching trade at 5 or 6 different universities.

WSJ columnist William Galston in his May 8 piece ('An Econ Mystery: Why Did Wages Flatline"') makes an even more cogent case for avoiding wage labor, but alas, offers no solutions how to escape it. This is despite the fact, as he points out "the labor-force participation rate which nudged above 67 percent in the 1990s, stands at only 62.9 percent today".

So what's happened? Well, for one thing much less investment in paid work, human labor. As I noted already (April 14), automation is grabbing more and more jobs, citing the WaPo article (4/ 8) by Jeff Guo,  'Robots Take Production Up Another Notch'

"Industrial robots alone have eliminated up to 670,000 American jobs between 1990 and 2007, according to new research from MIT's Daron Acemoglu and Boston University's Pascual Restrepo."

But in addition there is the Neoliberal dynamic explained by William Wolman and Anne Colamosca in their 1997 work, 'The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital And The Betrayal of Work'.  The authors argue that the modern Neoliberal state has no interest in human labor, paying it properly, or re-investing. It is capital that takes precedence, hence business is only invested in its own aggrandizement and proliferation at the expense of citizens. A key indicator? The magnitude of investment by corporations in stock buybacks as opposed to labor investment.   Since 2009, U.S. firms - entrenched in their own myopic interests- boosted capital investment by only 43%, dividends by 67% and stock buybacks by a whopping 194%. This according to Jason Thomas of Carlyle Group. In addition, rather than investing in new plants for new jobs, businesses have squandered $2 trillion on mergers and acquisitions .

Galston in his WSJ piece is clear on the trends:

"Firms have gains they could share with workers, but they have chosen not to do so. Even in occupations where there companies complain of labor shortages, there is scant evidence they are responding by raising compensation."

So one arrives at the question of whether paid labor is even worth pursuing anymore, or - to use the refrain of James Livingston - a historian at Rutgers: "Fuck work!".  Livingston takes up this theme in his new book, 'No More Work: Why Full Employment Is A Bad Idea.'.  His arguments are corroborated and reinforced by a similar work by Elizabeth Anderson of the University of Michigan: 'Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don't Talk About It).

I mean think about these titles before even considering the respective content (for which the general theme in each case is that corporations now rule our lives as opposed to the government).  Think this is preposterous? For most workers entering wage labor at a corporation it's no joke. They are warned by finance columnists (like Jill Schlesinger) that they had better take down any anti-capitalist or controversial blogs or posts on news forums before going to that interview. (Some of the material such as I've written on 'Brane Space' would prevent most from even getting in the door for that interview, because employers now Google you first).

Then there are the other warnings, i.e. to remove all "controversial" photos, images etc. from one's Facebook pages. Also, any comments, writings that might be construed as anti-free market, or espousing any kind of "aggressive" environmentalism, or activist protests including climate change tracts.

If one is "lucky' enough to then get hired by "Corporation One", the extensive contract terms in fine print (sometimes given by HR depts.) let you know you are under constant surveillance. That includes all your outgoing (and incoming ) emails read by the boss and oh yeah - your keystrokes recorded as well as time consume for any bathroom breaks. If you have to take a crap - as one boss once confided to a friend at a radiotherapy software company "Make sure you're wearing Depends if you have overtime..")

But it doesn't stop there. In today's proto-fascist corporate work environment where ten million bosses channel Donald Trump, they can dictate how underlings wear and style their hair, when they can eat, how often drug tests are imposed, and the right to rifle through belongings in your desk any time they want. These tyrants can also require their slaves.....errrr, workers, to complete - as endurance test for entry - lengthy questionnaires concerning off-hours alcohol consumption, exercise habits as well as childbearing intentions.  The real howler here? The number of conservatives and Right wingers who whine and moan about "government intrusion" in our lives but are quite okay with a hotshot corporate CEO doing it to them - daily.

So much for any "rights". Meanwhile, Americans are daily fed the codswallop that "work builds character", "work will give you meaning", "work will give you satisfaction"  and other hogwash. Surely, if any of those tropes was true it ought to be possible to work full time in the 'richest nation on Earth" and not have to apply for food stamps or Medicaid. But we all know that's not the case and it isn't because those affected are "lazy" or "lack, ambition". They have plenty of ambition, there just aren't the quality jobs available to provide ample support - including to afford decent housing.

For these reasons, Livingston - like me- believes the cockeyed aspiration to "full employment" is misplaced and in the wrong direction. With automation and shrinking available quality jobs - along with too many people chasing them, it makes more sense to implement a "universal basic income" (UBI) to correct the course.  A start in that direction meanwhile would be to lower the maximum number of hours that comprise a "full work week". The French have already done that, capping the work week at 35 hours.  

A recent WSJ editorial (May 8) didn't like that, carping:

"Successive French presidents have failed to undo the 1999 35-hour workweek law amid militant union protests"

But the French are correct, because on its face the 35-hour week (in the context of a still "full employment" era)  enables more workers to be hired. It also paves the way for further lowering of paid wage hours as automation and other (economic efficiency) forces exert their unstoppable attrition on wage labor.  The next step, at some point, is the implementation of UBI.  The trick is to get politicians and other academic elites to use their heads and get going sooner than later, when it may be too difficult. This is especially as global population continues growing to the point of tripling (by 2050) from what it was 50 years ago.

The two authors cited in this post - Livingston and Anderson - make clear that no one should bemoan the demise of paid wage labor. It has already stolen too much in the way of time from families and caregivers, even while we've ceded an unconscionable amount of our energy in making wage work the primary conduit for our liberty and morality. In the end, all we've done is sacrifice our time and humanity to an entrenched Corporatocracy and its overpaid CEO henchmen.  Insisting the companies can improve our "work-life balance" misses the point, according to the authors, and is too timid. The cold hard fact is that corporate employers hold the means to our well being and currently have the law on their side.

Livingston's recommendation is blunt:  Instead of idealizing work and making it the linchpin of our society he asks: "Why not just get rid of it?"

Something to ponder.

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