Posts Tagged ‘labor’


Mike the Mad Biologist [ht: sm] casts doubt on the idea of scarcity. And for good reason:

While they seem to have receded somewhat, a couple of years ago, there were quite a few arguments about the fundamentals of economics (especially macroeconomics) and how to teach them. As an outsider, one thing that struck me as odd was the emphasis on scarcity (e.g., economics is called the science of scarcity). It’s odd because, at least in wealthy societies, there are very few scarce items. We’re definitely not slacking in our ability to produce calories, which arguably for most of human, if not hominin, history was the vital concern.

Mainstream economists, as I teach my students, start with the idea of scarcity—the combination of limited means and unlimited desires. And then, after a great deal of math and a wealth of assumptions, they prove that a system of private property and free markets provides a perfect balance between those limited means and unlimited desires.

But, as I also teach them, the mainstream presumption is that scarcity is universal—both transcultural and transhistorical. In other words, they start with the idea that all human beings, in all times and places, have had to confront and solve the problem of scarcity.

An alternative is to see scarcity as an institutional, historical and social, phenomenon. In particular places, at particular times, the existing set of economic and social institutions makes certain goods and services scarce. Thus, for example, oil is scarce because of the particular configuration of the energy industry, the personal car and truck culture, the government-sponsored expansion of the highway system, and so on. That’s what makes oil scarce. Similar stories can be told about the scarcity of water, arable land, good public transportation, high-quality mass education, and so on. Their scarcity is the product of particular sets of institutions in particular societies.

Why is that important? Because, as against the assumption of mainstream economists that scarcity is always with us (and therefore can’t be changed), the idea that scarcity is an institutional phenomenon means that changing economic and social institutions can change or eliminate scarcities.

The same applies, of course, to abundances. Right now, we’re living in a society that has created a surplus of labor (and, as a result, stagnant wages), which is part and parcel of capitalism’s law of population. If we get rid of capitalist institutions, then we can create a new law of population, one in which the labor workers perform and the value they create are not turned against them.

The myth of busyness?

Posted: 28 September 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,


I’m certainly sympathetic with the questions Stuart Whatley [ht: ja] raises about the “lifestyle” associations of many popular busyness theses and the attempt to “avoid politics in search of some larger, elusive truth to succor the navel-gazing curiosity of the higher-income professional class they’re targeting.”

And there’s certainly an important distinction to be made between what we might call the conspicuous busyness of the small moneyed class and the real busyness of the many who attempt to juggle low-pay jobs and moonlight in the so-called sharing economy.

But neither the busyness studies commentators nor critics like Whatley identify one of the key sources of busyness in our lives, which has nothing to do with the latest technologies: the fact that we work part of the time for ourselves and an ever-growing portion of time for someone else.

It’s that unpaid labor that makes so many of us busy. We often complain about being busy in our nonwork lives (e.g., when we have to pack our own groceries, drive our kids to school, or learn how to install and use new apps). But we then ignore how, when we work, we’re doing so only part of the time for ourselves, for which we receive a wage or salary. When we’re done with that work (say, the first three hours of an eight-hour day), we continue to work (for another five hours)—but now we’re working not for ourselves, but for someone else. We’ve already created enough to compensate for our pay. The rest of the work we do is unpaid; it’s time spent working, the fruits of which someone else is able to appropriate.

That’s why we continue to be busy, on the job. We teach students or produce car parts or create new apps for many more hours than is necessary to make up for what we’re paid. The rest is unpaid labor.

The busyness of performing surplus labor is anything but a myth.

My Notre Dame colleague and friend Ben Radcliff restates his case for increased happiness. The key? The decommodification of labor.

As Radcliff sees it,

First, when people become commodities they become subject to pitiless market forces beyond their control. They face a world characterised by chronic insecurity, since the market for the sale of their labour is, like the market for any commodity, subject to uncontrollable fluctuation.  People become dependent on forces indifferent to them, or to any individual. As the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen put it in The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990), ‘the market becomes to the worker a prison’. To survive and try to flourish, people adopt the values and norms of the market prison – competitive individualism, egotism, a focus on short-term material gain. In practice, these values detract from a satisfying life.

Commodification has another, equally destructive aspect. When people are reduced to commodities, they lack the ability to make moral claims on society. Just as we have no moral responsibility to bushels of wheat or consignments of mobile phones, we have no moral responsibility to workers who are conceived of as commodities, labour units instead of people. Not only is a commodity without a right to a job to begin with, it certainly has no right to paid sick days or vacation time, to pensions or healthcare, or to protection against arbitrary dismissal, to say nothing of a guaranteed severance package or similar redundancy benefits.

Rather than being treated with dignity and respect – as valued members of a community whose work contributes to the general good – workers as commodities are merely another factor of production, no more worthy of considerate treatment than the machines they manipulate.

Therefore, he recommends a series of changes—a real social safety net, stronger unions, and so on—that he considers to be essential to move in the direction of decommodifying people and of increasing happiness.

If he’s right—and I think he is—why not just accept the logic and eliminate wage-labor entirely?

I don’t know if it’s the promised land. However, if people were not forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else, they (and all of us) would certainly be a whole helluva lot happier.


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It’s the beginning of the semester and so, in Topics in Political Economy, we’re starting with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

One of the first topics of discussion was Smith’s distinction between productive and unproductive labor. On the very first page, he invokes the difference between the two forms of labor as one of the key factors determining the amount of wealth (what today we refer to as GDP per capita):

According therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it, bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion.
But this proportion must in every nation be regulated by two different circumstances; first by the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied; and, secondly, by the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed. Whatever be the soil, climate, or extent of territory of any particular nation, the abundance or scantiness of its annual supply must, in that particular situation, depend upon those two circumstances.

Smith returns to the issue in Book 2:

There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing.

As I explained to the students, Smith was worried about the extent to which national income, especially the surplus, was used to expand the number of productive laborers (the “labor of the manufacturer”) or, alternatively, consumed by wealthy individuals in the form of unproductive labor (“menial servants”). The former would increase the wealth of nations; the latter would not.* The contemporary example I used was the productive labor utilized in producing goods and services vs. luxury expenditures on art and real estate.**

The students (at least some of them) didn’t buy it.

I suspect at least part of their suspicion of the distinction was their prior training in neoclassical economics, in which the distinction between productive and unproductive labor was dissolved (and which, in recent years, finds neoclassical economists attempting to define the productiveness of the labor involved in FIRE—finance, insurance, and real estate).***

What Smith and contemporary neoclassical economists agree on is both a definition of and a focus on economic growth. It’s a key part of the legitimacy of the “pact with the devil” that is central to capitalism. Wealthy individuals (and the corporations they own and on whose boards of directors they sit) get control of the surplus but they have to use it to employ the population and provide for their “necessaries and conveniencies.” If they don’t, and use it instead to purchase art, real estate, and other luxury goods, they put into question the legitimacy of that pact.

In recent years, economic growth has been very slow. But 1-percent incomes and their luxury consumption are growing, while median household incomes and workers’ wages are stagnant.

That’s a situation that would have worried Smith.

*Marx took over the distinction between productive and unproductive labor from Smith but then transformed it. For him, labor was productive to the extent that it produced surplus-value; all other labor (e.g., the labor of corporate managers as well as that of person servants) was unproductive labor.

**According to Laurence D. Fink, the chairman of BlackRock Inc. (the world’s largest asset manager),

“The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art….. and I don’t mean that as a joke, I mean that as a serious asset class,” said Fink. “And two, the other store of wealth today is apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London.”

***Their suspicion might also be influenced by a belief in trickledown economics, that is, the idea that whatever investments and purchases wealthy individuals make will eventually trickle down to the mass of workers.


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