Archive for March, 2012

The Problem With (Sex) Work

March 27th, 2012  |  Published in Feminism, Politics, Work

As I said in an earlier post, my essay in the forthcoming Jacobin is structured around a review of political theorist Kathi Weeks’ new book The Problem With Work. It’s a timely and interesting book that effectively ties together a number of my preoccupations: the critique of wage labor, the deconstruction of the work ethic, the demand for shorter hours, universal basic income, the politics of the non-reformist reform. More than most other writers on these topics, however, Weeks connects all of these issues to feminism.

One of the benefits of making this link, which I wasn’t able to cover in my essay, is that it gives you the analytical tools to understand sex work correctly. I’m continually enervated and depressed by the way Leftists will unthinkingly throw around stuff like this:

Or, to take another example, there was the incident where some right-wing nut called Elizabeth Warren a “socialist whore” a few months ago. People whose politics I respect mostly treated that phrase as a bit of laughable word salad. But I’ve actually known a few socialist whores in my life, and they’re good comrades! And as I noted recently, the right-wing connection between the threat of socialism and the threat of loose sexual morality is not an arbitrary one.

I was talking recently to an old friend and former editor at the late, lamented $pread Magazine, and she noted that many sex worker rights activists have little experience even interacting with the traditional Left, so reluctant are most leftists to come anywhere near their issues. She also lamented the unfortunate state of the debate over sex work, which tends to be reduced to two equally inadequate positions: a patriarchal moralizing that treats sex work as a uniquely awful form of exploitation in which women can only ever be regarded as victims, and a panglossian libertarianism that revels in sex work as a source of independence and self-expression while glossing over its less glamorous aspects.

The first perspective produces legislative atrocities like the proposed New York City bill that would have penalized taxi drivers for transporting prostitutes. The second perspective can neglect the coercive and violent parts of the sex industry, which are real even if they tend to be misrepresented as the entirety of sex work. But the real problem with a lot of the more exuberant pro-sex work arguments and their anti-sex work counterparts is a bit more subtle: the issue with sex work is not the sex, it’s the work. As Canadian writer and sex worker Sarah M. puts it in an article at the rabble.ca website:

[T]o call sex work degrading, as if that’s news, is to deny that all jobs are degrading . . . Conversely, that these jobs are degrading doesn’t automatically make sex work empowering. It just makes it unexceptional. “Jobs” are degrading because capitalism is degrading, because waged work is degrading. . . . Sex workers don’t want to make prostitution “a job like any other.” It’s already our job. As long as welfare and minimum wage work, which are neither consistent nor sustainable, are the only other options, we will continue to do sex work — legally or illegally, in the open or hidden, safely or in dangerous places, depending on the other factors that determine how we do our work. Because work is about money.

The basic problem that afflicts many pro- and anti-sex work arguments is that they take for granted the desirability and legitimacy of wage labor in general. They are caught up in an ideology that says that work is supposed to be a source of meaning and dignity in life. They are therefore committed to either stigmatizing sex work as an illegitimate and particularly dehumanizing kind of work (if they oppose it) or endorsing it as being just as dignified and fulfilling as any other job (if they support it). Weeks sums this up perfectly in this passage from The Problem With Work:

Feminist analyses of sex work offer an illustrative example of the limitations of certain efforts to claim the title of work when that also involves making use of the legitimacy conferred by its dominant ethic. Introduced originally as a way to intervene in the feminist sex wars, the label “sex work” sought to alter the terms of feminist debate about sexual labor (Leigh 1997). For example, as a replacement for the label “prostitution,” the category helps to shift the terms of discussion from the dilemmas posed by a social problem to questions of economic practice; rather than a character flaw that produces a moral crisis, sex work is reconceived as an employment option that can generate income and provide opportunity. Within the terms of the feminist debate about prostitution, for example, the vocabulary has been particularly important as a way to counter the aggressive sexual moralizing of some in the prohibitionist camp, as well as their disavowal of sex workers’ agency and insistent reliance on the language and logics of victimization. The other side, however, has produced some comparably problematic representations of work as a site of voluntary choice and of the employment contract as a model of equitable exchange and individual agency. More relevant to our topic here, it is important to recognize how much of the rhetorical utility of the label “sex work” stems from its association with conventional work values. For those involved in sex worker advocacy, the term can serve not only as a way to foreground the economic dimensions of such labor practices, but as a way to insist on their essential worth, dignity, and legitimacy, as—in the formulation of one advocacy group—“service work that should be respected and protected” (quoted in Jenness 1993, 67). I do not mean to deny the vital importance of these efforts, only to point out that they often tend to echo uncritically the traditional work-ethic discourse. Thus the prostitutes’ rights group COYOTE (“Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics”) may succeed in calling off one of our old tired ethics, but in the process of doing so, taps into and reproduces another. The approach usefully demoralizes the debates about the nature, value, and legitimacy of sex for wages in one way, but it often does so by problematically remoralizing it in another; it shifts the discussion from one moral terrain to another, from that of a suspect sexual practice to that of a respectable employment relation.

I’m in favor of legalizing all forms of sex work for adults—not because I think it’s necessarily such great work, but because I think being a legal worker is better than being an illegal worker. The sex work “abolitionist” position makes about as much sense to me as reacting to Foxconn by calling on China to ban factory work. But perhaps it’s the troublesome “remoralizing” of work that Weeks identifies which is at the root of the uneasiness that pro-sex worker positions provoke in some Leftists. A lot of left-wing critiques of sex work, particularly in private conversations, strike me as the bad conscience of reflexively upholding the work ethic, rather than a coherent account of sex work in particular.

Not only does sex work destabilize the work ideology, it also conflicts with a bourgeois ideal of private, monogamous sexuality that also remains widespread on the left. If you want to oppose sex work without opposing work in general, you’re forced to fall back on some normative claim about what counts as normal, natural sexual relationships. This is closely related to the tendency to fall back on a naturalized conception of “the family” as the subject of society and politics, as in one of my least favorite names for a progressive political party ever, the “Working Families Party”.

Laura Agustin has an interesting discussion of the status of sex work in an essay for The Commoner. She notes that much discussion of contemporary sex work assumes that the most natural form of sexual relation is one that is mediated only by love or passion rather than by money or any other form of instrumentality. She then observes that no sexual relationship is ever so simple, and that the imbrication of sex with money and exchange has a long history. This is hardly foreign to American culture, as anyone who’s familiar with “The Millionaire Matchmaker” is aware. But Agustin observes that “[i]n societies where matchmaking and different sorts of arranged marriages and dowries are conventional, the link between payment and sex has been overt and normalised, while campaigners against both sex tourism and foreign-bride agencies are offended precisely because they see a money-exchange entering into what they believe should be ‘ pure’ relationships.” Against those who would lament the corruption of such “pure relationships”, she says that:

I see no postmodern crisis here. Some believe that the developed West was moving in a good direction after the Second World War, towards happier families and juster societies, and that neoliberalism is destroying that. But historical research shows that before the bourgeoisie’s advancement to the centre of European societies, with the concomitant focus on nuclear families and a particular version of moral respectability, loose, flexible arrangements vis-à-vis sex, family and sexuality were common in both upper and working-class cultures (Agustín 2004). In the long run it may turn out that 200 years of bourgeois ‘family values’ were a blip on the screen in human history.

She goes on to say:

For some critics, the possession of money by clients gives them absolute power over workers and therefore means that equality is impossible. This attitude toward money is odd, given that we live in times when it is acceptable to pay for child and elderly care, for rape, alcohol and suicide counselling and for many other forms of consolation and caring. Those services are considered compatible with money but when it is exchanged for sex money is treated as a totally negative, contaminating force—this commodification uniquely terrible. Money is a fetish here despite the obvious fact that no body part is actually sold off in the commercial sex exchange.

While I agree that no good can come of treating the commodification of sex as though it’s qualitatively different from the commodification of other aspects of human relations, I can’t be quite so sanguine on the implications of commodification in general. I am, after all, on record expressing my doubts about the indefinite expansion of both wage labor and commodification. However, the problem I would identify does not have to do with the exchange of money itself, but with the power relations within which it is embedded. I’m inclined to return once again to Erik Olin Wright’s concept of “capitalism between consenting adults”, which he invokes as part of his case for a Universal Basic Income:

When Marx analyzed the process of “proletarianization of labor” he emphasized the “double separation” of “free wage labor”: workers were separated from the means of production, and by virtue of this were separated from the means of subsistence. The conjoining of these two separations is what forced workers to sell their labor power on a labor market in order to obtain subsistence. In this sense, proletarianized labor is fundamentally unfree. Unconditional, universal basic income breaks this identity of separations: workers remain separated from the means of production (these are still owned by capitalists), but they are no longer separated from the means of subsistence (this is provided through the redistributive basic income grant). The decision to work for a wage, therefore, becomes much more voluntary. Capitalism between consenting adults is much less objectionable than capitalism between employers and workers with little choice but to work for wages. By increasing the capacity of workers to refuse employment, basic income generates a much more egalitarian distribution of real freedom than ordinary capitalism.

It’s undeniably true that many sex workers, if they had access to another source of income, would either leave the sex industry or demand better conditions for themselves. But the same could be said of supermarket checkers or factory workers. And that, ultimately, is the only argument against sex work that I think holds up: it’s work, and work is often terrible.

King of all (Internet) media

March 14th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

As someone who compulsively woke up early to watch Al Jazeera English cover the Egyptian revolution last year, I’m surprised and pleased to now find myself with an op-ed running on the AJE website. Blog readers still get my ideas fresh and hot out of the kitchen, though—the column expands on something I wrote back in January about SOPA, intellectual property, and related issues.

Meanwhile, it looks like that Bloggingheads appearance is getting around. Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for highlighting our discussion of Obama’s awful civil liberties record, in his post on the administration’s shameful role in the imprisonment of a Yemeni journalist. Although I do have to object to being called a “liberal”.

The Change is Too Damn Fast

March 13th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, xkcd.com/386

Matt Yglesias has responded to me, although in a way that sort of misses the point I was trying to make.

Part of his post is given over to reiterating the position that increasing the amount of housing stock in desirable cities would be a correct and egalitarian thing to do, even if it inconveniences some of the incumbent owners and residents. Let me emphasize that I agree with this. But he goes on to speculate that I hedged my position because it “makes [me] feel icky to embrace deregulation”, as though my critique were a symptom of an affective disorder.

That really isn’t the point. I’m actually quite a bit farther toward the left-neoliberal “deregulate and redistribute” end of things than many of my comrades on the Left. My argument—which was meant as a self-critique of my own tendencies as much as Yglesias’—is that we need to be attentive to the people’s legitimate objections to rapid change, which complicate any project that wants to substantially rearrange the existing order.

Yglesias doesn’t really respond to my argument that his overall deregulatory project tends to make life more volatile, when stability is itself a value to a lot of people. What he does say, in response to my comment that “there’s no a priori reason to say that the desire to have a stable, predictable life or job or neighborhood is less valid than the desire to maximize economic growth”, is that:

The question is not whether some fixed pool of people should give up stability in exchange for more money. The question is whether the incumbents should be asked to give up some stability for the sake of other people who are currently excluded from the opportunities the incumbents enjoy. My answer is that yes they should. That we should work toward plentiful housing not merely for its own sake, but precisely for the sake of equality.

The language of “incumbents” and “insiders” plays a central role in the neoliberal critique of regulation, whether in land use or in the labor market. And it’s an argument I have some sympathy for. One of the things that most irks me about progressive nostalgia for the post-New Deal golden age is the way it elides the exclusions—of non-whites, of women, of non-union members—that made up the other side of stable high wage employment for the white male breadwinner.

But if an analyst portrays the issue merely in terms of a few insiders and an excluded mass, then he sets himself too easy a task. It’s not just rich owners of San Francisco real estate who benefit from some kind of “insider” status. Many of us are insiders, whether due to rent regulations or union membership or occupational licensing. In any particular case, it’s easy to set this up as a matter of egalitarianism and access. But generalized across the entire economy, what this amounts to is everyone (or most people) losing stability to some degree, in return for everyone having more freedom and access. There can be a tradeoff between equality and stability, and my point was simply that it is a tradeoff. And it’s the unwillingness to jump into the whirlwind of market relations that I think drives some of the revulsion at Yglesias’ political project from certain quarters.

People want, and have always wanted, institutions that protect them from the pressures of the market. Even if one would like people to act as perfect left-neoliberal subjects—obeying the dictates of the profit motive by day, enjoying their generous transfer payments by night—the historical evidence is that people rarely behave that way. This argument is basically drawn from Polanyi; here is how the deregulators of an earlier age are criticized in The Great Transformation:

Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was dis­carded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social conse­quences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The ele­mentary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undi­rected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely re­-teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the an­cients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth.

Polanyi’s argument wasn’t merely a normative one, but an analysis of history. He argued that industrial society was characterized by a “double movement”, in which efforts to subordinate society to the self-regulating market were met with the “self-protection of society”. This entailed efforts to impose limits on the market’s control over the “fictitious commodities”: labor, money, and, yes, land. It should be noted that Polanyi believed that the cataclysmic changes wrought by capitalism—the enclosures, the industrial revolution—were on balance good things for humanity. But he believed that someone needed to stand athwart history yelling “slow down!”:

A belief in spontaneous progress must make us blind to the role of government in economic life. This role consists often in altering the rate of change, speeding it up or slowing it down as the case may be; if we believe that rate to be unalterable—or even worse, if we deem it a sacrilege to interfere with it—then, of course, no room is left for intervention.

When it comes to the abundance-stability tradeoff, Yglesias and I are more on the same side than not—I’m ready to move in the direction of abundance, relative to the status quo. But we still have to take into account the disruptive impact of removing someone’s “insider” protection—whether it’s a restrictive zoning ordinance or an occupational licensing scheme. The insiders have be either persuaded, bribed, or coerced into giving up their privileges. And since a large proportion of Americans are “insiders” in one or another part of the economy, figuring out how to strike this balance has major implications for the democratic legitimacy, achievability, and feasibility of the project Yglesias is advocating. Which is why I spend so much time talking about ways to counteract the volatility of life in contemporary capitalism—like, for instance, the basic income—without reproducing insider-outside dynamics.

Technological Grotesques

March 12th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

My Twitter feed is alive with the sound of indignation about an ad agency at South by Southwest that is using the homeless as human 4G wireless hotspots. The idea is that you see a homeless person with a t-shirt reading “I am a 4G hotspot”, and then you pay them a small fee to get online. There is definitely something unsettling about this, but there is also something a bit off about a lot of the reactions I’ve been seeing to it. I’ll get back to that in a bit, after a detour through a familiar theme.

The blog post announcing the initiative is full of gobbledygook about “charitable innovation”, and it’s very unclear about whether this project is supposed to be a profit-making business venture, a charity project, or some utopian neoliberal combination of both. Whatever it is, there’s something undeniably creepy about it, in the way it turns people into infrastructure—e.g. “I am a hotspot” rather than “I’m running a hotspot”.

It’s also, naturally, an opportunity for people to project their anxieties about the desirability of capitalist “innovation”. But the homeless-as-hotspots plan highlights a point I’ve been trying to make about technology. Technical change comes in two forms, one that is designed to more intensely exploit labor, and one that is designed to replace labor. Which one will dominate depends, in large part, on the condition of labor itself.

In a recent post, I framed this in largely Marxist terms. But I want to return, for a third time, to the mainstream economics version of the same argument, which I still think hasn’t gotten enough attention. The work I draw on is a paper by Daron Acemoglu, “When Does Labor Scarcity Encourage Innovation?”. It was published in the Journal of Political Economy, and an ungated version is here. It includes lots of mathematical formalisms, which I’ll admit I only barely followed; my years of taking calculus are well in the rear-view mirror. But the core of the argument is easily understandable.

Acemoglu is attempting to reconcile two different stories about the interaction between labor supply and technological change. Standard economic growth models posit that when labor is scarce and wages are high, adoption of new technology will be discouraged and growth will slow. But there are a variety of arguments to the contrary. Robert Allen has argued that the industrial revolution took off in 18th century Britain because of the high price of labor there relative to other parts of Europe, which encouraged the invention and use of technologies that substituted machinery and energy for labor. The “Habakkuk Hypothesis”, meanwhile, claims that the U.S. grew faster than Britain in the 19th Century because labor was scarce (and therefore more expensive) in the U.S., which in turn encouraged mechanization and other labor-saving technology.

The contribution of Acemoglu’s paper is to contextualize these arguments in a general framework in which there are two kinds of technology: labor saving and labor complementary. In economic jargon, a labor saving technology decreases the marginal product of labor, while a labor complementary technology increases it. This means that with labor saving tech, businesses need to use less workers, while with labor complementary tech, they need more workers. This then leads to Acemoglu’s conclusion about the reverse causal process: what is the effect of labor scarcity (and high wages) on the adoption of technology? From the paper:

The main result of the paper shows that labor scarcity induces technological advances if technology is strongly labor saving, meaning that technological advances reduce the marginal product of labor. In contrast, labor scarcity discourages technological advances if technology is strongly labor complementary, meaning that technological advances increase the marginal product of labor. I also show that, under some further conditions, an increase in wage levels above the competitive equilibrium has effects similar to labor scarcity.

So here’s a riddle: which form of technology should we prefer, labor saving or labor complementary? Labor saving technology is consistent with high wages and tight labor markets. But it also, of course, leads to less jobs overall in the sectors where it is deployed. Which brings us back to the homeless people with hotspots. Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that this is a legitimately profit-making business venture rather than a weird kind of charity. (And note that even as charity, the project depends on its consumers viewing it as a kind of legitimate business, a way for the homeless to engage in “productive” labor.) Putting hotspots on homeless people has to count as a labor complementary technology. From the standpoint of the wireless company, the marginal product of a homeless person’s labor is much higher (i.e., it’s non-zero) once you’ve figured out that you can attach hotspots to them. So if you think that it’s bad when machines replace human labor (which is not what I think), then this is just the kind of technical change you should prefer.

But labor complementary technology doesn’t necessarily look so great once you’re face-to-face with the kind of labor it complements. In this case, it relies upon the existence of a cheap and exploitable labor force—something that’s obvious when you’re looking at a homeless person in a creepy t-shirt, less so when you order from an online retailer. And here’s where I think a lot of the outrage over homeless-people-as-infrastructure goes wrong.

I don’t recall seeing a lot of complaints about the problem of homelessness in Austin prior to this story. Which I don’t mean as some kind of “gotcha”—the world is full of horrible things, and it’s neither possible nor particularly helpful to try to talk about all of them all of the time. But to get up in arms about an ad agency exploiting the homeless as wifi routers strikes me as a peculiarly half-assed form of outrage. If they weren’t walking around as billboards for wireless service, Austin’s homeless and poor would still be homeless and perhaps a bit more poor. The fundamental problem here is not exploitation, but the condition of possibility for that exploitation, which is the fact that there are so many poor and homeless Americans in the first place.

“The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all”, goes the old adage from Joan Robinson. Then again, says Marx, “to be a productive laborer is not a piece of luck, but a misfortune. In the short run, labor complementary technology may employ more people, which is better than them not being exploited at all. But in the long run, the jobs thus created tend to be terrible, and our real goal ought to be to channel technical change toward labor saving innovation.

This leaves us with the question of what the homeless of Austin can demand, if not the right to be walking 4G hotspots. Fortunately there is a simple solution to that. There’s nothing (economically) stopping us from just giving people cash; and as the housing activist Max Rameau likes to say, the cause of homelessness is that people don’t have homes, and we have plenty of those. So imagine what would happen if this pool of cheap, easily exploitable labor wasn’t available. A company that wanted to sell 4G wireless services might have to invest in more transmitters to fulfill demand. Or perhaps they would deploy robots to roll around the streets selling wireless access! This would not employ as many people, since it’s more a labor saving than a labor complementary technology. But it also wouldn’t create the grotesque spectacle of fellow human beings serving as pieces of infrastructure.

My Bloggingheads Debut

March 11th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion

If you enjoy the writing of me or Mike “Rortybomb” Konczal, you’re sure to love staring at our big bald white heads as we jabber about politics. Behold, my first appearance on bloggingheads.tv, as Mike’s guest on the new Roosevelt Institute series “Fireside Chats”:

We get into the state of the left, capitalism’s inherent tendency to crisis, the basic income, labor and automation, and of course, Star Trek. I’m not too experienced in doing stuff in this format, but I think it turned out OK. Thanks to Mike for inviting me on—there aren’t a lot of liberal think tank folks who would think to have a kook like me on as their first guest.

In other news of radical socialist media domination, my comrades at the Democratic Socialists of America had a brief moment of fame on the Daily Show:

I think DSA national director Maria Svart acquitted herself well, especially in contrast to “Trotskyist From Central Casting” and libertarian nutball Wayne Allyn Root.

The Rent is Too Damn High

March 9th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics

I’m quite upset that Matt Yglesias came out with an ebook called The Rent Is Too Damn High before I had a chance to use that title for one of the iterations of my rentier-capitalism arguments. That aside, the book condenses a number of themes that will be familiar to regular readers of Yglesias’ blog—in particular, his advocacy of the virtues of urban density, and his condemnation of the thicket of local regulations that bias the United States away from dense development. Mike Konczal has a bunch of interesting things to say about it, which I’ll try not to repeat. (Though on his last point, regarding the state’s role in gentrification, I’d add that Neil Smith’s work is worth a look.) In lieu of a full review, here are two things that struck me as I read the book.

All that is solid melts into air

Mike criticizes the limitations of Yglesias’s analysis of rent control, and points us to JW Mason’s great post on the subject. The basic point is that rent control isn’t just about prices, it’s just as much about stabilizing neighborhoods and reducing turnover. But it doesn’t surprise me that Yglesias misses this, because the omission is symptomatic of a larger weakness in his style of analysis.

Toward the end of the book, after recounting the virtues of allowing new, high-density development, Yglesias remarks that:

In the real world, of course, people tend to resist change and want to use whatever levers are at their disposal to resist it, oftentimes disregarding the greater costs to society at large. Fortunately, state and federal officials have tools at their disposal to counteract this tendency.

The problem, here as elsewhere, is that in the tradeoff between social stability and aggregate material prosperity, Yglesias appears to assign stability a value of zero. If people “tend to resist change”, then this is simply an obstacle to be overcome by “state and federal officials”. The ideal type of society that’s evoked here is a perfectly frictionless world of market transactions, one that fully realizes Marx’s comment that under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air”.

This is the utopia I find to be implicit in Yglesias’s writing in general—not just on urban development, but also on unions, or on occupational licensing, for example. It’s the basis for a particular version of left-neoliberalism, in which a perfectly efficient and deregulated market exists alongside a very redistributive social democratic state, but a state which only moves money around ex post rather than penetrating into the concrete workings of either production or exchange.

That vision assumes that it’s desirable to subject all of life to the whims of the market, in return for a higher standard of living. But whether or not such a tradeoff is politically or economically feasible, there’s no a priori reason to say that the desire to have a stable, predictable life or job or neighborhood is less valid than the desire to maximize economic growth. It’s not that Yglesias’s line of critique is totally wrong—I agree that NIMBYism and fear of change is often an impediment to desirable policies, and I agree that people with generally Left politics often betray a confusion about these issues. But while it’s not desirable to just freeze our current cities and neighborhoods as they are, it’s unreasonable to simply dismiss the desire for stability out of hand. To take this to its reductio ad absurdam, I don’t think most people—or probably even Matt Yglesias—would want to live in a world where we all had to change jobs and move to new apartments every few weeks, even if such an arrangement would make us materially richer.

Mutations of the property form

The other thing that caught my eye was a brief remark Yglesias makes about our evolving understanding of property rights. I’ve written on this topic repeatedly in the context of intellectual property law, noting how the concept of property that forms the basis for IP is very different from the one that applies to physical property. Following the economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, I emphasize the way that physical property rights are supposed to be about what you can do with property in your physical possession, while intellectual property rights entail the ability to tell other people what they can or can’t do with their copy of some general pattern or idea that you own the rights to. But as Yglesias notes, the politics of urban development suggest a related evolution in or attitude to property rights in real estate:

. . . over the past several decades, there’s been a revolution in our understanding of what property rights entail. We’ve switched from a system in which owning a piece of real estate means you’re entitled to do what you want with it, to one in which owning a piece of real estate means you get wide-ranging powers to veto activities on your neighbors’ land.

There’s evidently a formal resemblance here, but I’m not yet sure whether it reflects some deeper connection. The parallel is suggestive, however, since it was the classical economists’ treatment of property in land that gave rise to the theory of rent, which would later be applied to intellectual property. This relates to something else Mike Konczal brought up, harking back to his and my earlier speculations about the increasing importance of rentiers in a post-industrial economy.

I don’t have anything very thought out to say about this yet, but it’s interesting that both in both its landed and immaterial guises, the rentier form of property seems to give rise to this post-individualist conception of property rights. The connection, perhaps, could come from the notion of oligarchical wealth defense. Both land use regulations and intellectual property protections tend toward conserving not just one’s ability to use a plot of land or a piece of information, but to maintain its economic value.

In Defense of the Tramps

March 8th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Work

Today is International Women’s Day—an event that was inaugurated by socialists, even if actual socialist men aren’t always so good about embracing its spirit.

My IWD resolution is to work on infusing Jacobin with more feminism and more women writers—our score on the second count unfortunately ranks with some of the worse offenders on this list. As to the first, here’s something from Kathi Weeks’ The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. The entire book is excellent, and I’ll be writing more about it in a future issue of Jacobin. In this passage, Weeks cleverly uses the figure of the “tramp” to connect the linked oppressive disciplinary functions of the work ethic and the family ethic.

The partnership between the work ethic and the family ethic is sustained in and through a variety of cultural forms. One can see this interconnection operating behind the interesting coincidence of labels marking the male and female version of the tramp. The figure of the male tramp, seen as a threat to social order and values, figured prominently in public discourse from the late nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, when the word also came to designate a negative moral judgment on modes of female sexuality (Rodgers 1978, 226-27; J. Mills 1989, 239). What interests me here is how the tramp functions as a disavowed figure in both work and family discourse, how a similar controlling image marks in comparable terms the boundary between the normative and the abject.6 Contrary to the central tenets of both the work ethic and the family ethic, the tramp is in each usage a figure of indulgence and indiscipline. Both male and female tramps are wanderers who refuse to be securely housed within and contained by the dominant institutional sites of work and family (see Broder 2002). Both are promiscuous in their unwillingness to commit to a stable patriarch, as shown in their lack of loyalty to an employer or to an actual or potential husband. The tramp is thus situated against legible models of both productive masculinity and reproductive femininity. Given that the accumulation of property was supposed to be one of the central benefits of a disciplined life of wage labor, and respect for property a cornerstone of the sanctity of marriage, both male and female tramps violate yet another set of fundamental social values. Each is a potentially dangerous figure that could, unless successfully othered, call into question the supposedly indisputable benefits of work or family and challenge the assumed naturalness of their appeal (see Higbie 1997, 572, 562). Just as male tramps, these “villains on a stage of toilers and savers’ threatened to inspire otherwise compliant workers by their “shameless rebellion against all work,” the figure of the female tramp threatened the ideals of sexual propriety and women’s roles at the heart of the bourgeois family model (Rodgers 1978, 227). Though the language of the tramp may have fallen out of use, the basic offenses that the label identified continue to be registered under and regulated by means of more contemporary controlling images. The racialized figure of the welfare queen, in which the supposed violations of both work ethic and normative family form are distilled, is one of its most injurious reiterations.7

Something to think about as we endure this endless and infuriating “sluts on birth control” debate.

The Scourge of Overemployment

March 1st, 2012  |  Published in Time, Work

The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation. (Marx, Capital)

Nearly three years since the ostensible end of the recession, the United States is still beset by over 15 percent underemployment—millions of Americans who would like to work full time and either can’t find jobs, or can only find part time work. We know from a large body of research that unemployment and underemployment have many negative consequences, not only financial but physical and mental. But this plague of underemployment exists alongside the corresponding problem of over-employment.

Our pre-eminent scholar of overemployment is the criminally obscure labor economist Lonnie Golden. In the broadest definition, overemployment happens whenever people are working longer hours than they say they would prefer. In a paper from a few years back, Golden gives a narrower definition: “workers’ inability to obtain reduced hours despite a willingness to proportionately sacrifice income.”

Overemployment is difficult to estimate precisely, because it is dependent on the wording of survey questions and the precise definition used. Jeremy Reynolds, the leading sociologist of preference mismatches in working time, reports in a recent paper that more than two thirds of workers would like to work fewer hours than they actually do. This was in response to the question “If you could work just the number of hours in paid employment that you would like, how many hours per week would that be?” That wording is highly unusual because it asks about a specific ideal number of hours, rather than just the general desire to work “less”, and because it does not say anything about a proportional reduction of income.

The lowest estimates of overemployment come from the U.S. Government’s Current Population Survey, which asks people if they “given the choice, (would) opt for more income and more hours, less income and fewer hours or the same income and hours?”, and gives an overemployment rate of around 7 percent, even during recessions. Golden, in the paper linked above, surveyed eight other studies and found a range of estimates of the overemployment rate, from as low as 14 percent to a high of around 70 percent. None of those surveys asked for a specific hours target, while some of them specified that a reduction in hours would be linked to a reduction in income.

The assumption that reductions in hours should be linked to reductions in pay is in some sense a political one. It’s not common now, but demands like “thirty hours work for forty hours pay” have a long history in the labor movement. Asking for a cut in hours with no cut in pay is, in the end, just another way of asking for a raise.

But what’s really remarkable is that even when it’s presented as a pure trade-off between time and money, so many workers say they prefer fewer hours. Curiously, economists have chosen not to pay attention to this gross distortion of the labor market. Golden identifies the macro-economic causes of overemployment by analogy with theories about underemployment:

  • Structural Overemployment due to “structural incentives inherent in labour-market-related institutions or work organization that lengthen hours demanded per worker.” For example, the American system of employer-provided health insurance means that there are large fixed costs to hiring new workers. So it is cheaper to demand more hours from existing workers than to hire new workers, which creates a bias toward overemployment.
  • Cyclical Overemployment when “hours demanded per worker are rising faster than workers’ desired hours”. Economic analysts look to increases in hours worked as a leading indicator for increases in hiring in the future, and this should be regarded as a kind of cyclical overemployment.
  • Frictional Overemployment due to “barriers to full, perfect information among employers about their employees’ preferences and among worker applicants about job requirements and alternative jobs.” As someone who would generally prefer to take raises in the form of increased time rather than increased income, I can attest that it’s difficult to figure out whether and where such jobs exist.

In terms of politics and public policy, clearly the most significant factor is the structural one. And while liberals have worked tirelessly to kill off zombie tales about structural unemployment, there’s good reason to think we have a long-standing problem of structural over-employment.

If anything, the analysis of survey data understates the problem of overemployment. A worker’s preferences, after all, aren’t purely exogenous to their situation; they may “prefer” to work more because they feel it would be advantageous given their social and workplace context, but changing the context can change the preferences. In another paper, Golden and Morris Altman describe several factors that can shape worker preferences:

  • Signaling in the workplace. Workers may feel that they need to stay in the office as long as their co-workers, even if this extra time is not actually productive, in order to win promotions or avoid layoffs; this is sometimes referred to as “presenteeism”. It can lead to a straightforward collective action problem: most workers would be happier at a shorter-hours equilibrium, but cannot get there unless all of them move together.
  • Consumption of positional goods. Economists like Robert Frank have argued for the importance of “context externalities”, in which you judge the value of your consumption relative to those around you. This leads to an escalation of spending as everyone tries to make sure that their car, house, etc. are better than those of their neighbors. This higher spending creates a need for higher income, and hence a preference for longer hours. The result is a different kind of collective action problem, this one located in the consumption sphere rather than at the point of production.
  • Adaptive preferences. Even if the demand to work more hours is initially just an imposition from the boss, worker preferences may adapt over time. This can be a purely psychological process, but it also has a material dimension. If you work all the time, you will tend to pay for things that you otherwise might have done yourself: child-care, housecleaning, cooking, and so on. Once you become used to living this way, you need a higher level of income, and thus prefer longer hours of work, than would otherwise be the case.

Another explanation for the evolution of preferences is originally due to Ed Glaeser, et al:

  • The Social Multiplier. This is just the idea that leisure time is more valuable when one’s friends and family are also not working. Glaeser invoked this idea to explain the lower annual working hours of Europeans, relative to Americans.

Collective action problems in the formation of worker preferences can be overcome if workers can coordinate with each other, either by collectively bargaining through labor unions or by imposing state regulation on the labor market. Strongly enforced overtime laws with low thresholds can discourage presenteeism. Robert Frank has proposed progressive consumption taxes to dissuade the consumption arms race. And the existence of a social multiplier would mean that once a lower-hours equilibrium is established, the increased value of non-work time will tend to reshape worker preferences in the direction of shorter hours. Thus in combating overemployment, we will also tend to move society toward a lower-commodification equilibrium. (As discussed here and here).

Talking about overemployment in a jobless recovery might seem to confuse the issue. Is our problem that people should be working more, or working less? To steal a line from JW Mason, perhaps “some should do one, others should do the other”.