Stop Digging: The Case Against Jobs

July 25th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, Work  |  11 Comments

[Editors Note: I wrote this a while back, originally for The Activist, but I never bothered to post it here. I'm reposting it now because I have a whole lot more readers than I did a couple of weeks ago, and because I'm going to post a follow-up in the next couple of days.]

Much of the left has, mostly without debating it, coalesced around “jobs” as a unifying political demand. The motivation for this is clear: one of the biggest problems the country faces is that there are 20 million people who are unsuccessfully seeking full time employment. But while it may seem obvious that the solution to this problem is to create millions of new jobs, this is not in fact the only possible solution–and there are major drawbacks to a single-minded focus on increasing employment. For one thing, it may not be feasible to create that many new jobs. Moreover, it’s equally debatable whether, from a socialist perspective, it is desirable to create these jobs even if it is possible.

We should differentiate three separate reasons why it might be desirable to create jobs. One is that a job provides a source of income: we often talk about the need to create jobs when what we really mean is that people need income. Most of the unemployed don’t actually want jobs–that is, they don’t just want a place to show up every day and be told what to do. The real problem these people have is not that they need jobs, but that they need money. We’ve just been trained to think that the only way to solve this problem is to get people jobs.

A second argument for creating jobs, and not just handing checks to people, is that having a job gives a person a greater sense of self-worth than getting a handout. To the extent that this is true, however, it’s largely because we, as a society, treat wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth. The left has historically perpetuated this view, but we should be challenging it. We should point out that there is a lot of socially valuable work that is not done for pay. The biggest category of such work, as feminists have long pointed out, is household labor and the care of children and elders. But today we are seeing the growth of other categories of valuable unpaid work, in everything from community gardens to Wikipedia.

This is not to say that all of the socially necessary labor of society could be performed by volunteers. The third reason to create jobs is that some useful things won’t get done unless someone is paid to do them. But it’s difficult to make the case that there are enough socially necessary tasks out there to make up our job shortfall and also replace the destructive jobs that we need to eliminate.

Some argue that if we could build the manufacturing sector and start “making things” in America again, we could solve our unemployment problem. The reality is that we already make plenty of things, and the decline of manufacturing jobs is due more to technology than to off-shoring. The U.S. economy produces more physical output now than at any time in American history, but with fewer workers.

Public works are another of the usual suspects. Our infrastructure is indeed in a pretty sorry state, but repairing bridges is not going to create 20 million jobs–and in any case, it’s a short-term fix, since eventually we’ll clear out the backlog of neglected infrastructure projects. Then what?

Finally there is the call for “green jobs”, based on the laudable idea that we need to put lots of people to work moving us away from our dependence on fossil fuels. This may be a source of some new jobs, like people making solar panels or weatherizing buildings. But the more common pattern is that old jobs are turning into different, greener jobs. The construction worker is now a green construction worker, and the corporate lawyer is now a corporate environmental lawyer, and so on. These are positive changes–but they don’t create new jobs.

On top of all this, many of the jobs people are currently paid for are socially destructive: forget job creation, we need to do more job killing. Cutting the military budget, reining in the financial sector, and dismantling the prison-industrial complex will destroy many jobs. So, too, would a single payer national health care system: the Republican attacks on Obama’s “job-killing” health care law were lies, but only because Obama’s plan is so inadequate. As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems, we’ll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will “kill jobs”.

What, then, should the left support, if not more jobs? Shortening the work week disappeared from labor’s agenda after World War II, and we need to bring it back. We should also make unemployment benefits more generous in order to ease the pain of joblessness. Ultimately, though, we need to get more radical than that, and move away from tightly linking jobs and income. To reiterate, the real problem of the unemployed isn’t their lack of jobs, it’s their lack of money. That’s why some on the left are coming around to the idea of just giving people money: a guaranteed minimum income, which everyone would be entitled to independent of work.

The objections to these ideas are typically: “how do we pay for it?” and “how do we achieve it?”. Finding the money shouldn’t be a problem where the will of a powerful political coalition is present–the richest country in the history of the world can guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone. But building that political coalition is a harder question. The first step is to admit that the current consensus around job-creation is unworkable, and not really any more “realistic” than the ideas I’ve just proposed. The next step is to highlight existing proposals that are being ignored because of the obsession with job creation. For example, Congressman John Conyers recently proposed legislation to subsidize employers that reduce employee hours, a policy that has been effective in Germany. This is an inadequate policy in many ways, but it’s still a more useful focus than just obsessing about how to create new jobs.

John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths . . . and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again . . . there need be no more unemployment”. One of the things that ought to distinguish socialists from liberals is that we think it’s possible to do better than this. Today, it seems that hole-digging has come to occupy a central place in the imagination of the left. But socialism should be about freeing people from wage labor, rather than imprisoning them in lives of useless toil.

  • jult52

    Interesting post. Joblessness isn’t just connected to poverty but also to anti-social behavior (high crime, low family stability, low education levels). The question is why the US jobless aren’t notably honest, family-oriented and have high education levels (they have all this time to read George Eliot and raise their kids carefully, right?). So that’s the issue that isn’t addressed in your post.

    I’ll provide a related literary reference: in “Brave New World,” the Controller, Mustapha Mond, states that work is now unnecessary but that eliminating it produced so much undesirable behavior (drug use, etc.) that it was re-introduced for the discipline and stability it provided.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    Charles Murray has written a little about the sense of self worth that comes from “being wanted”. In his view modernity (not his choice of phrasing, but works for me) has eroded many of those ways, and the welfare state doing things for us rather than having civil society provide public goods is a primary culprit. He doesn’t explicitly make the point, but since it would seem to be a zero-sum change I suppose the distinction is that one may more easily be a part-time contributor to civil society than public employee. And I think his vision of the good community involves most households having people in the labor force. And in the current context that makes sense, since I believe the unemployed are also less likely to make large contributions to wikipedia or open-source software (most contributors to the Linux kernel are apparently on the job). It’s entirely imaginable to have a future in which a small portion of society are Reihan’s “killers” doing most of the market and non-market work while lots of “chillers” that Arnold Kling likes to talk about just coast. How much does non-market work increase during recessions, particularly among the segments whose employment dropped the most?

  • Bhaskar

    Seth Ackerman replied to the original essay here:

  • Steven

    It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t agree with it. You are absolutely correct that “socialism should be about freeing people from wage labor, rather than imprisoning them in lives of useless toil” – but the answer to this is not to get rid of jobs, but to improve working conditions and worker involvement, ideally by redistributing the means of production if one was to follow a Marxist analysis.

    In one sense, the right is perfectly correct: people generally like to work, as it gives them a sense of purpose. People do not like to be exploited – this is the key difference. A sense purpose is lost if work is insufficiently rewarded or becomes meaningless due to the division of labour. I don’t think the solution is to start handing out welfare checks (the right would have a field day with this one), but to improve working conditions and increase worker involvement.

  • Sandwichman

    Naturally, I’m 99% in agreement. I have just two quibbles but I think their are important ones.

    First, “we, as a society, treat wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth.” I think this is only really true in the negative sense of treating the absence of wage labor as a unique sink of dignity and worth. The “dignity of work”, for many — if not most — workers, consists primarily in pride at having avoided the degradation unemployment.

    My second quibble is about “socialism freeing people from wage labor.” If I could define “socialism” that is how I would define it. But socialism has acquired the aura of state ownership of the means of production, which in my view is capitalism by other means. I would sooner abandon the word, “socialism,” than the objective of freeing people from wage labor.

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  • Jkudler

    Great piece that I am going back to now in light of MLK day. Have you seen this before?

    • Peter Frase

      Thanks, this is a great tip! Going to do a quick post about it.

      • Jkudler

        awesome! i feel so famous. really been enjoying your blog the past few months.

  • Gregory A. Butler

    You lost all credibility the minute you cited racist crackpot Charles Murray as an authority on anything.

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