Posts Tagged ‘work’

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Special mention

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desaparecidos

Toym Imao, “Desaparecidos (Memorializing Absence, Remembering the Disappeared)” (2015)*

In international human rights law, a “forced disappearance” occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization (or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization), followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law.

The most infamous forced disappearances have occurred in Spain (during and after the Civil War), Chile (after the coup by General Pinochet in 1973), Argentina (during the so-called Dirty War from 1976 to 1983), and the United States (as part of the so-called War on Terror).

Now, Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers (pdf) is attempting to carry out a forced disappearance of poverty.**

The aim of the Council’s report is to make the case for “expanding work requirements among non-disabled working-age adults in social welfare programs.”*** In order to do so, the authors of the report attempt to show that (1) there is a large pool of non-disabled  working-age adults who are currently beneficiaries of the three major non-cash welfare programs (Medicaid, food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing assistance) who can and should be put to work, (2) independence or self-sufficiency is undermined by participation in government anti-poverty programs, and (3) government assistance to the poor has become outmoded because poverty itself has virtually disappeared in the United States.

We’ve seen all these moves before. As Jim Tankersley and Margot Sanger-Katz explain, the numbers of adults who are beneficiaries of welfare programs but not working are likely exaggerated. For example:

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated this year that three-quarters of food stamp recipients work within a year of participating in the program. That report suggests that Americans often use assistance programs as bridges to a new job, after they have lost previous employment.

The administration’s numbers may be particularly exaggerated for Medicaid. Under the Affordable Care Act, many states expanded their Medicaid program in 2014 to include more childless adults whose incomes bring them close to the poverty line. But the report examines adults who were enrolled in Medicaid in 2013, before the expansion, when most adults who were signed up were either pregnant women, the parents of young children or adults with extremely low incomes.

According to the council, about 53 percent of adult, non-disabled Medicaid beneficiaries worked less than 20 hours a week. Using a different set of government data from 2017, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 62 percent of such people had full- or part-time jobs. Another 18 percent lived in a household with another working adult. Council officials say the data set they drew upon, while older, is a better measure than the one Kaiser used.

Then there’s the argument about the extent of poverty in the United States. While the government itself reports that poverty is still a large and persistent problem within the United States (since according to the official definition the poverty rate in 2016 was 12.7 percent, and the rate according to the Supplemental measure was 14 percent), the Council chooses to redefine poverty in terms of consumption (based on the work of, among others, Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan).

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And, voilà, poverty is disappeared!****

Finally, they invoke the shibboleth that expanded work requirements respect and reinforce “independence” and the “dignity of work.”

Back in 2012, I suggested we need to contest the meaning of dependence:

In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules.

We can also deconstruct the term by turning it around: why is receiving non-cash benefits from the government a form of dependence but cash distributions of the surplus—to large corporations and wealthy individuals—supported by a wide variety of government programs, is not?

As for the so-called dignity of work, I can only repeat what I wrote just a couple of years ago: what advocates of getting people back to work

choose to overlook or ignore is that, in a world in which the majority of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else—in which, in short, labor power is a commodity—there’s no necessary honor or dignity in work. It’s a necessity, born of the fact that people need to earn an income to purchase commodities to sustain themselves and to pay off their debts. And the most likely way to earn that income is to sell their ability to work to a small number of other people, their employers, who in turn get to appropriate and do what they will with the profits.

As I see it, the attempt to disappear poverty is actually a thinly disguised effort to discipline and punish the poor and to convert everyone—poor and non-poor workers alike—into a giant machine for producing surplus for the benefit of a tiny group of employers and wealthy individuals.

Perhaps we need to follow the example of the mothers of Argentina’s “desaparecidos,” who 40 years later are challenging the government’s attempt to erase the memory of those terrible years and put the brakes on the continuation of trials. In the case of the poor working-class today in the United States, we need to make sure they and their deteriorating conditions of life are not disappeared and that a real anti-poverty program—a radical change in economic institutions—is enacted.

 

*The forty-three figures in the art installation by Toym Imao represent those left behind by victims of forced disappearance. Empty and hollow, each figure represents a year since Martial Law was declared in the Philippines. Instead of portraits and picture frames, the figures hold empty niches, signifying death, the lack of closure, the emptiness, the hollow feeling, and the gut-wrenching pain those left behind must deal with.

Absence remains an open wound. But despite it, the desaparecidos remain present in our hearts and minds. Despite efforts to eradicate their existence, they will never be forgotten.

**Kevin Hassett (Chair, from the American Enterprise Institute, who was appointed by Trump and approved by the Senate in a 81–16 vote on 12 September 2017), as well as Tomas Philipson and Richard Burkhauser (both appointed by Trump), are the members of the current Council of Economic Advisers.

***Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin offered up his state to approve work requirements for Medicaid benefits. Once Federal Judge James E. Boasberg rejected the Department of Health and Human Services’ approval of Kentucky’s plan, Bevin announced that he would deprive Medicaid patients of dental and vision benefits, effective immediately. The Trump administration has just revived its efforts to let et Kentucky compel hundreds of thousands of poor residents to work or prepare for jobs to qualify for Medicaid.

****This comes just after the United Nations Human Rights Council published the report by Philip Alston, its Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, according to whom

The United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world’s wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation. Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated and its higher education system leads the world. But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live.

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The goal of mainstream economists is to get everybody to work. As a result, they celebrate capitalism for creating full employment—and worry that capitalism will falter if not enough people are working.

The utopian premise and promise of mainstream economic theory are that capitalism generates an efficient allocation of resources, including labor. Thus, underlying all mainstream economic models is a labor market characterized by full employment.

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Thus, for example, in a typical mainstream macroeconomic model, an equilibrium wage rate in the the labor market (Wf, in the lower left quadrant) is characterized by full employment (the supply of and demand for labor are equal, at Lf), which in turn generates a level of full-employment output (Yf, via the production function, in the lower right quadrant) and a corresponding level of prices (P0, in the upper quadrants). If the money wage is flexible it is possible to ignore the top left quadrant, because, in that case, the equilibrium real wage, employment and output are Wf, Lf and Yf, respectively, whatever the price level. With flexible money wages, the aggregate supply curve is independent of the price level and is represented by YFYF.

That’s the neoclassical version of the story. The Keynesian alternative is that the aggregate supply curve is relatively elastic below full employment and the wage rate is fixed by institutions, and therefore is not perfectly flexible. In such a case, aggregate demand determines the level of output, which will normally fall below the full-employment level.

And so we have the longstanding argument between the two wings of mainstream economics—between the invisible hand of flexible wages and the visible hand of government spending. But, equally important, what the two theories of macroeconomics have in common is the ultimate goal: full employment. In other words, both groups of economists presume that the aim of capitalism is to generate full employment and that, with the appropriate policies—free markets for the neoclassicals, government intervention for the Keynesians—capitalism is capable of putting everyone to work.

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But the argument also goes in the opposite direction: capitalism works best when everyone is working. That’s because capitalist growth (e.g., in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita, the green line in the chart, measured on the left) is predicated on the growth of the labor force (the the red line, measured on the right).

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Mainstream economists also argue that a low work rate is an important cause of low incomes and high poverty. They argue that, when considering different policy interventions for this population—including improving educational attainment, raising the minimum wage, and increasing the number of two-earner families—the most beneficial intervention for improving incomes is to assume that all household heads work full-time.

Finally, mainstream economists argue that, in addition to increasing incomes and decreasing poverty, work has an additional benefit: it gives people dignity and a sense of self-worth. The idea, as articulated for example by Brad DeLong, is that having a job gives workers an honorable place in society, which presumably they are deprived of if they receive some kind of government assistance—whether in the form of payments from one or another anti-poverty program or a universal basic income. “Just giving people money” (according to Eduardo Porter) disrupts the incentive to work and undermines the “social, psychological, and economic anchor” associated with having a job.

That’s why there’s such an intense debate these days over the participation rate of U.S. workers. Even though the unemployment rate has fallen to historically low levels (and now stands at 3.8 percent), the lack of participation—whether measured in terms of the labor force participation rate (the blue line in the chart) or the employment-population ratio (the red line)—remains much lower than it was a couple of decades ago.* According to mainstream economists, that’s why rates of growth in output and incomes have slowed. There simply aren’t enough people working.

Once again, there’s an ongoing discussion among mainstream economists about the causes of that decline and what to do about it. More conservative mainstream economists tend to focus on the supply side of the labor market and the unwillingness of workers to make themselves available—mostly because they’re benefiting from some part of the social safety net (such as disability insurance, welfare, or government health insurance). Liberal mainstream economists also worry about the supply side (especially, for example, when it comes to women, who might not be able to work because they don’t have adequate childcare) but put more emphasis on the demand side (for example, the elimination of specific kinds of jobs based on international trade, automation, or the effects of economic downturns). Underlying this debate is a shared presumption that more people working will be better for them and for the economy as a whole.

Even portions of the Left accept the idea that the goal is to move toward more work. Thus, for example, both modern monetary theorists and Bernie Sanders argue in favor of a government job guarantee. The idea is that, if private employers can’t or won’t make the decisions to hire workers and create full employment, then the government needs to step in, as the “employer of last resort.” Again, the presumption—shared with those in both wings of mainstream economics—is that the goal of the current economic system and appropriate economic policy is get more workers to work more.

The utopianism of full employment is so entrenched, as a seemingly uncontested common sense, it’s difficult to imagine a different utopian horizon. But there is one, which emerges from at least three different theoretical and political traditions.

In the Marxian tradition, more work also means more surplus labor, which benefits all those who manage to get a cut of the surplus—but not workers themselves, who fall increasingly behind their employers and others in the small group at the top. That’s because, as employment increases, more workers are performing both necessary and surplus labor. Therefore, even assuming the rate of surplus extraction remains constant, the total amount of surplus created by workers increases. But, of course, the rate itself often increases—for example, as a result of competition among capitalists, who find ways of increasing productivity, which tends to lower the amount they have to pay to hire their workers (as I explain in more detail here). So, what appears to be an unalloyed good in the mainstream tradition—more jobs and more workers—is an economic and social disaster from a Marxian perspective. More workers produce more surplus, which is used to create a growing gap between those at the top and everyone else.

Then there’s the broader socialist tradition, which attacked the capitalist work ethic and claimed “The Right to Be Lazy.” Here’s Paul LaFargue back in 1883:

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her”).

Today, in the United States and around the world, the capitalist work ethic still prevails.

Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

And there’s a third tradition, one that directly contests the idea that participating in wage-labor is intrinsically dignified.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche (in his 1871 preface to an unwritten book, “The Greek State”), the dignity of labor was invented as one of the “needy products of slavedom hiding itself from itself.” That’s because, in Nietzsche’s view (following the Greeks), labor is only a “painful means” for existence and existence (as against art) has no value in itself. Therefore, “labour is a disgrace.”

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.

And if slaves—or, today, wage-workers—no longer believe in the “dignity of labour,” it falls to the likes of both conservatives and liberals to ignore the “disgraced disgrace” of labor and create the necessary “conceptual hallucinations.” And then, on that basis, to suggest the appropriate government policies such that the “enormous majority [will], in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”

Nietzsche believed that, in the modern world, the so-called dignity of labor was one of the “transparent lies recognizable to every one of deeper insight.” Apparently, neither wing of mainstream economists (nor, for that matter, many today on the liberal-left) has been able to formulate or sustain such insight.

Contesting the utopianism of full employment with a different utopian horizon creates the possibility of imagining and creating a different world—in which work acquires different meanings, in which the distinction between necessary and surplus is redefined and perhaps erased, and for the first time in modern history workers are no longer forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else and achieve the right to be lazy.

 

*The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the labor force participation rate as the share of the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population either working or willing to work. Simply put, it is the portion of the population that is currently employed or looking for work. It differs from both the unemployment rate (the number of unemployed divided by the civilian labor force) and the employment-population ratio (the ratio of total civilian employment to the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population).

 

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The history of capitalism is actually a combination of two histories: it’s a history of employers attempting to hire workers and develop new technologies to make profits and expand the reach of capitalism; it’s also a history of workers banding together to improve wages and working conditions and imagine ways of moving beyond capitalism.

The World Bank’s World Development Report, currently in draft form, comes down firmly on the side of employers and their historical role.

The theme of the 2019 report is the “changing nature of work.” As envisioned by the reports authors,

Work is constantly being reshaped by economic progress. Society evolves as technology advances, new ways of production are adopted, markets integrate. While this process is continuous, certain technological changes have the potential for greater impact, and provoke more attention than others. The changes reshaping work today are fundamental and long-term, driven by technological progress, globalization, shifting demographics, urbanization and climate change.

Beneath the typically lofty but vague rhetoric, the two trends that haunt the report are the increasing gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else and the jobs that will be eliminated with the use of automation and other labor-saving technologies—leading to “rising concerns with unemployment, inequality and unfairness that are accompanying these changes.”

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So what does the World Bank recommend for beleaguered workers, who are falling further and further behind the tiny group at the top and whose job prospects are threatened by new technologies?

Here, the World Bank reveals which side of history it’s on. It goes after the kinds of protections workers have long fought for, in both developed and developing countries, but which the world’s employers consider onerous and that make the price of labor power too high. In particular, the World Bank focuses on “high minimum wages, undue restrictions on hiring and firing, strict contract forms” that make workers both costly to hire and difficult to dismiss. In other words, the World Bank recommends exactly what employers have always wanted: flexible labor markets.

Rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets.

That’s what the World Bank offers to the world’s employers (“flexibility”), coupled with an empty promise to the world’s workers (“more dynamic labor markets”).

But, as even the World Bank recognizes, such changes would leave the world’s workers even more destitute than they are right now. That’s why they shift the focus to a discussion of a a “new social contract. . .to promote fairness and equality of opportunity for people and firms.”

Possible elements of hypothetical social contract could include: (i) creating jobs; (ii) investing early in human capital; (iii) taxing platforms and superstar firms; and (iv) introducing basic income guarantees.

Once again, it’s exactly what private employers want—more workers with additional skills, a redistribution of monopoly rents, and a minimum income for their workers—as long as employers themselves don’t incur any additional costs. Employers retain their control over the surplus, and therefore over both jobs and workers. And the changes proposed by the World Bank promise them even more surplus as they use new technologies and change the nature of the work that is done for them.

What remains intact in choosing the employers’ side of history is that work, however much it is envisioned to change, is still done by employees for their employers. Governments and the rest of society are then charged with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess left by employers, including the dearth of required jobs and the mass of workers who are too impoverished and insecure to satisfy their own needs.

The idea that the worlds of technology and work are quickly moving far beyond the control of employers—well, that’s the side of history the World Bank remains incapable of comprehending.

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Special mention

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Cumil

Students are much too busy to think these days. So, when a junior comes to talk with me about the possibility of my directing their senior thesis, I ask them about their topic—and then their schedule. I explain to them that, if they really want to do a good project, they’re going to have to quit half the things they’re involved in.

They look at me as if I’m crazy. “Really?! But I’ve signed up for all these interesting clubs and volunteer projects and intramural sports and. . .” I then patiently explain that, to have the real learning experience of a semester or year of independent study, they need time, a surplus of time. They need to have the extra time in their lives to get lost in the library or to take a break with a friend, to read and to daydream. In other words, they need to have the right to be lazy.

So does everyone else.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what Paul LaFargue argued, in a scathing attack on the capitalist work ethic, “The Right To Be Lazy,” back in 1883.

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her”).

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Today, nothing seems to have changed. Workers (or at least those who claim to champion the cause of workers) demand high-paying jobs and full employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiw to Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official unemployment rate has declined in recent years, the labor-force participation rate in the United States has fallen dramatically and remains much too low.

Mainstream economists and their counterparts in the world of politics and policymaking—both liberals and conservatives—never cease to preach the virtues of work and in every domain, from minimum-wage legislation to economic growth, seek to promote more people getting more jobs to perform more work.

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This is particularly true in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the “work ethic” remains particularly strong. The number of hours worked per year has fallen in all advanced countries since the middle of the twentieth century but, as is clear from the chart above, in comparison with France and Germany, the average has declined by much less in America and Britain.

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Today, according to the OECD, American and British workers spend much more time working per year (1765 and 1675 hours, respectively) than their French and German counterparts (1474 and 1371 hours, respectively).

But in all four countries—and, really, across the entire world—the capitalist work ethic prevails. Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

That’s the utopian impulse inherent in the right to be lazy.