Monday, November 26, 2018

The 'Dangerous Fantasy of a Jobs Guarantee'? - Then Pass Universal Basic Income!

In yet another conservo think tank permutation, some of us have now beheld the "American Institute for Economic Research' - whose denizen Max Gulker scribbled a recent WSJ op-ed entitled 'The Dangerous Fantasy of a Jobs Guarantee' (Nov. 15, p. A23), writing:

"Forget for the moment about 'Medicare for All'. A proposal is gaining steam on the left that would overhaul the U.S. economy in a far more radical way. Known as a federal job guarantee, the plan would require the government to provide work on demand to any American at a minimum wage of about $12 per hour, plus full benefits/"

Yes, so what? Twelve bucks an hour works out to about $1920 before any taxes. Apply those, and the take home pay is down to around $1600.  That is still less than paying every work- displaced American a monthly UBI stipend of $2,000 (tax free).

Gulker's problem with the plan (laid out by Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand), is the cost ($543 billion)  and the objective to "find work for more than 10 million" and for a $12 minimum wage, especially "given 41 million workers currently earn less than the program's $11.83 minimum wage". Gulker also kvetches that "their projections are based on an historically low unemployment rate."

Gulker also claims (ibid.):

"Beyond its cost, the job guarantee would turn the fundamental logic of work on its head. Generally, people work for employers, whether private organizations or government agencies,  because employees add enough value to sustain their wages and still benefit the employer. 

But is this really true? Not according to Michael Robbins, whose Nation article (' Looking Busy:The Rise Of Pointless Work', December, p. 33) ',  argues forcefully that most work today is "bullshit" make work,  "determined by a system, e.g. capitalism. of abstract compulsion".   To bolster his case he cites the work of David Graeber ('Bullshit Jobs: A Theory'), i.e.  that we exist amidst a "proliferation of pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working".    Graeber's work basically collects a trove of anecdotal accounts in which the respondents describe how they have to "look busy" much of the time, just to clock in time to get paid their often pathetic wages.  Thereby Robbins notes, Graeber's book "offers us an engaging - albeit at the same time tremendously disheartening portrait of labor in 21st century capitalism"

Example:  One woman's job was to go around demanding IDs and proof of income from temporarily sheltered homeless folk, so her unit could claim back the housing benefit.  If the necessary paperwork wasn't provided, the homeless were kicked out by the caseworker.

Another example: A museum guard whose entire job was to protect an empty room. To ensure his vigilance he was forbidden to read or even text on his cell.

Robbins himself cites his own post-college job as a paralegal temp, doing data entry for  a corporate law firm.  He earned "a little over minimum wage" and when all caught up with his spreadsheets he'd surf the web.  When a co-worker spotted him on one occasion, he blabbed at Robbins self-righteously: "You're not getting paid to surf the web!"    Robbins then ruminated on his "rebellious" actions in the piece (ibid.):

"I was just trying to reclaim a little of my time from those who were stealing it. After all, I still had to sit in that depressing room and fill out enough spreadsheets to keep from getting fired.  My co-worker was simply expressing an assumption so commonplace that it hardly ever needs to be articulated: Your time does not belong to you."

Then Robbins cites Andre Gorz' example of factory workers whose wages were cut by a certain set of innominate owners to subsistence level - to the point workers had to put in even more time just to survive. In Gorz' take: "Productive activity began to be cut off from its meaning, its motivation and its object and became simply a means of earning a wage."

This cynical take, interestingly, is given credence in a WSJ Exchange piece (p. B1, Nov. 24-25) citing a Powerpoint presentation by analyst Dan Lyons released in 2009 by Netflix exec Reed Hastings.  The bottom line of the presentation?   "Hard work isn't relevant, only results" and "no matter where you work and how well you're doing your job is never secure."

In other words, your wage labor, your "productive activity" is divorced from any real meaning, or basis for real motivation (other than to collect the wage).

If this is true, then Gulker's complaints hold no water. "Sustaining wages" just becomes a matter of make work to please a given employer or owner to get whatever he deems are "results". Whatever productive activity is alleged to exist in the job lacks any meaning, time quantum to achieve  or rationale for any enduring motivation. In this case, it really doesn't matter if we have a lifetime guarantee of jobs, given most lack any meaning anyway.

Where I do concur with Gulker is when he writes (ibid.):

"The program's administration would present numerous opportunities for corruption, such as businesses bribing government  officials for free labor."

Of course, this has already been going on in the 'welfare to work' domain as per a Baltimore Sun report in 1998.(Detailed and explained in my book, 'The Elements of the Corporatocracy')  That report  showed millions of folks on welfare receiving barely two -fifths of the then  minimum wage to work for Maryland  businesses - basically almost free labor.  So, Gulker's worries are really that the workers affected under the new plan won't be indentured servants like the welfare to work folks.  He's barking at the "waste" from business corruption, which again, is a symptom of capitalism and a screwed up greed philosophy, e.g.
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Another Gulker bitch is that "a federal job guarantee would harm the overall labor market."

What he really means is that the usual "unemployment rent" the Federal Reserve  enlists. i.e.  to ensure enough workers are unemployed - to keep wages low and employers happy - will not exist.  This is the labor surplus,  which enables employers and businesses to dictate terms to workers, instead of the other way around. Well, true, it will no longer help employers or greedy capitalist owners exploit them, i.e. pay dirt wages and next to zero benefits.

Of course, given all  this I'd argue it's probably preferable just to use the earmarked funds - e.g. the $543 b - to implement a universal basic income (UBI) system and pay people - mainly those displaced by AI or robots, to do whatever the hell they want.  Maybe some wish to paint, so let them. Others may wish to tutor neighbor kids in math or musical instruments, so they can do that. Others may just wish to meditate and that's ok too. Or doing absolutely nothing, a sacrilege in a Calvinist, capitalist society predicated on the value of work, an aspect Gulker jumps on when he scribbles: "Public policy should help people not make them lifelong dependents."

Well, uh yeah, provided it doesn't make employers dependent on being lifelong masters and exploiters of workers' time!

But the main point missed by Gulker and his cohort, is that the aim - whether of UBI or the D-Senators prescription - is to reduce economic inequality, not to givve employers or companies a supposed  "value" excuse  to "support wages."

As Guy Standing write in his latest blog entry:
Social Wealth Funds to Universal Basic Income: the Precariat Age Demands Far-Reaching Solutions to Dismantle Mass Inequality

"Historically, every progressive surge has been propelled by the demands of the emerging mass class. Today’s progressive transformation must, therefore, be oriented to the precariat, driven by a strategy that appeals to enough of all its factions to garner adequate strength. Unlike the proletariat, which sought labor security, the progressives among the precariat want a future based on existential security, with a high priority placed on ecology—environmental protection, the “landscape,” and the commons. By contrast, when confronted by a policy choice between environmental degradation and “jobs,” the proletariat, labor unions, and their political representatives have given “jobs” priority.

The precariat is a transformative class partly because, as it is not habituated to stable labor, it is less likely than the proletariat to suffer from false consciousness, a belief that the answer to insecurity is more labor, more jobs. In the twentieth century, mainstream commentators believed that putting more people into jobs and for longer was a progressive strategy—that doing so offered people the best route out of poverty. It was a trap into which many on the left fell.

For hundreds of years, the idea of putting everybody in jobs would have been regarded as strange. The ancient Greeks saw labor as being unworthy of the citizen. Their society was hierarchical and sexist, but their distinctions between labor and work, and between leisure (schole) and recreation, are vital for defining the good life. 

Being in a job is to be in a position of subordination, answering to a boss. That is not a natural human condition nor an emancipatory one. In the nineteenth century, being “in employment” was a badge of shame, often referring to a woman reduced to being a domestic servant. In the early years of the United States, wage laborers were denied the vote on the grounds that they could not be independent if they were not property owners.
A transformative politics should promote work that is not resource-depleting and encourage leisure in the ancient Greek sense of schole, the pursuit of knowledge and meaning, rather than endless consumption. That points to the need to reconceptualize work, to develop a new politics of time, and to decommodify education so that it revives its original purpose of preparing young adults for citizenship. Most fundamentally, such a politics must promote a new income distribution system because the reimagining of work depends on it."

With which I fully concur. I've also  - in previous posts- described ways such non-resource depleting work might be achieved.  For example, in my Feb. 5 post on productivity and the GDP  as a useless barometer, I noted:

 "A 2015 Forbes article highlighted how 40 million family caregivers in the U.S. are putting their own careers on hold to provide unpaid care — sometimes for decades.   The estimated  total value of the care has been put at nearly $1 trillion."

This also reopens the argument of Andrew Yang to see UBI more as a social investment  stipend, where we ask citizens to consider doing service work or care work in return for this stipend - say of $2,000 per month for life. As one reviewer  (WSJ, 'The Cure For Poverty?' July 10, p. A13).of Yang's relevant book describes the difference:

Care work would include parenting or home schooling of young children, assisting aging parents or helping a friend with mental or physical disabilities.  Service work would focus on much of the nonprofit and volunteer groups - leading after school activities, guiding tours at parks or collecting oral histories from elders in their communities,

So we  earmark up to  $1 trillion to all those caregivers or service workers - currently getting nada-  as permanent wages. Where would we get the money? Standing's solution for getting the funds entails:

'The income from using commons resources should belong to every commoner equally. Accordingly, the tax system should shift from earned income and consumption to taxing commercial uses of the commons, thereby facilitating their preservation. Levies on income gained from using our commons should become major sources of public revenue. This means such measures as a land value tax, a wealth transfer tax, ecological taxes such as a carbon tax, a water use levy, levies on income from intellectual property and on use of our personal data, a “frequent flyer levy,” and levies on all income generated by use of natural resources that should belong to us as commoners.
Fed by these levies, a Commons Fund could be set up as a democratic variant of the sovereign wealth funds that exist in over sixty countries. Then, the questions would become how to use the funds in a transformative way. The Fund should be operated on proper economic lines, adhering to investment rules geared to socially beneficial forms of capital, taking into account ecological principles and tax-paying propriety."

At the end of the day the task of all these writers (Robbins, Standing, Glaeser et al)  is to try to break us out of the conditioned capitalist mind mold that only wage work has meaning, and if you're not doing it you're some species of bum. The epitome of this is when at social occasions, for example, the inevitable goofball approaches you asking "What do you do?"   Which means, as Robbins points out, "How do you earn a living?"  Adding:

"And this is so even when there is no social need for everyone to be working all the time."

Hence, in this  context, the very question becomes insipid and vacuous. Somewhat akin to frosh goofballs at their first college social asking peers,  "What's your major?"  Indicating a total lack of imagination, creativity or originality- and further being locked into a fixed mental mold. Why not instead, approach someone at a party or social gathering and ask: "What sort of interests do you have?" It's vastly more intelligent and doesn't reveal one to be a money-obsessed,  one dimensional capitalist drone.

See also:

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