Archive for May, 2012

Category Errors

May 18th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Work

I’ve argued on various occasions that in the quest for full employment, we ought to be less obsessed with maximizing job creation and more concerned with making it easier and better to not be employed.

The most persuasive argument against this view is that unemployment is really bad for people, and they don’t like it, and therefore it’s very important to minimize its incidence. This analysis at VoxEU by three European economists initially seems like it’s going to validate that perspective. They write that while “people adapt surprisingly well to changes in their lives”, the unhappiness produced by unemployment is an exception: “the life satisfaction of the unemployed does not restore itself even after having been unemployed for a long time.”

However, the authors go on to ask why the unemployed are so persistently unhappy, and in doing so they clarify an ambiguity that always arises when the effects of unemployment are discussed. Is unemployment bad for people because the experience of working is good for them, or because unemployment carries a powerful social stigma? (Leaving aside, of course, the most obvious reason for the unpleasantness of being jobless—being broke.)

The answer to this question has important political implications. If work is inherently life-improving, then job-creation schemes—even of the useless hole-digging variety—are more desirable than simply handing money to the unemployed, which would risk leaving people isolated, dissolute, and cut off from meaningful activity. If, however, the negative impacts of unemployment are primarily due to social stigma, then it would be more helpful to combat the ideology that equates working for wages with contributing to society.

The VoxEU column attempts to pry apart these two views about work using survey data from the German Socio-Economic Panel. The clever approach is to look at the change in self-reported life satisfaction among people who move from being unemployed to being retired. The authors observe that “[e]ntering retirement brings about a change in the social category, but does not change anything else in the lives of the long-term unemployed.” Yet they find that the shift from being unemployed to being retired brings about immediate and dramatic increases in happiness, even when controlling for other factors:

The average life satisfaction of a long-term unemployed male living in a partnership and with average personal characteristics (e.g. state of health and income) rises by approximately 0.3 points on a life satisfaction scale from 0 to 10. If he was actively looking for a job before retiring, his average life satisfaction even rises by nearly 0.7 points, and even more so if he experienced several unemployment spells in the past. Women who became unemployed for the first time shortly before retiring hardly benefit at all from retiring. However, if they had been unemployed several times during their life, their life satisfaction also rises considerably when they retire, by as far as 0.9 points if they were actively looking for work prior to retiring.

A comparison may help appreciate this observed rise in life satisfaction. The experience of a marriage causes a mere 0.2 point increase in average life satisfaction (see Lucas et al 2003). This comparison shows how strongly long-term unemployed people benefit from the change of their social category while retiring and the associated relief from not having to meet the social norm of being employed anymore. This underlines the importance of identity for individual wellbeing.

The unemployed become happier, it turns out, as soon as they stop thinking of themselves as workers. This result suggests that the harm caused by unemployment has a lot to do with the way we, as a society, regard the unemployed. We treat paying work as a sure mark of a person’s worth, even though this conviction has no coherent rationale.

An immediate political application of this finding is as a rebuke to those who like to call for raising the retirement age for Social Security in the United States. With unemployment still high, and older workers in particular struggling to find jobs, the easiest way to immediately raise the well-being of Americans would be to lower the retirement age.

For those of us who write about politics and the economy, there is a bigger lesson. Liberals and even leftists constantly repeat the mantra that unemployment is bad for people, and therefore job creation is an urgent necessity. I’ve done it myself at times. But in glibly repeating this formula, we unwittingly help to reinforce the stigma of unemployment. My anti-work themed writings, like my recent Jacobin essay on the politics of getting a life, are my tiny attempt to contest this picture of the world.

I got a touching email from a reader the other day, thanking me for that essay, and for reinforcing his conviction that the rejection of work is more than just childish or lazy. But, he said, his one attempt to share the article with a normally open minded friend resulted in scorn and dismissal, leaving him “afraid to broach the subject with anyone else”.

The stigmatization of the unemployed feeds that fear, and the fear reinforces the stigma. In the short term, job creation may be a necessary response to our immediate crisis. But the longer term project is to disconnect waged work from its associations with material well-being and with social prestige. With respect to the material side, I’ll just keep quoting André Gorz: “the distribution of means of payment must correspond to the volume of wealth socially produced and not to the volume of work performed.” But studying the unhappiness of the unemployed demonstrates that it’s not only the means of payment that need to be redistributed, but the sources of social esteem as well. This is why post-work politics is simultaneously a demand for policies like the Basic Income and an ideological campaign against the hegemony of the work ethic.

Two Faces of Austerity

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

It’s far to soon to say what the elections in France and Greece mean for the future of austerity in Europe. François Hollande may turn out to be a meek Sarkozy-lite—or he may be pushed in that direction by the German government, the bond markets, and the European Central Bank. Greece, meanwhile, is still in a state of flux, although the rise of the radical-left Syriza is encouraging (even as the sectarianism of the Greek Communist Party is dispiriting.) Greece may be looking at another round of elections, and the rise in support for the fascist Golden Dawn party suggests that things could get dangerous if the left isn’t able to come together in coalition. In any case, I’m certainly not the one to make expert pronouncements on all this, and I’d direct you instead to my Jacobin comrade Seth Ackerman.

I hope Hollande is right, and “austerity can no longer be the only option”. Whatever else it ultimately achieves, the resurgence of the European electoral Left has provoked a defensive response from the propagandists of the austerity faction, who have raced to denounce the foolish notion that our problems can be solved in any way other than by sadistically punishing ordinary people while further enriching the financial elite. The dumbed-down mass market version of this comes, naturally, from David Brooks:

The recession grew out of and exposed long-term flaws in the economy. Fixing these structural problems should be the order of the day, not papering over them with more debt.

There are several overlapping structural problems. First, there are those surrounding globalization and technological change. Hyperefficient globalized companies need fewer workers. As a result, unemployment rises, superstar salaries surge while lower-skilled wages stagnate, the middle gets hollowed out and inequality grows.

Then there are the structural issues surrounding the decline in human capital. The United States, once the world’s educational leader, is falling back in the pack. Unemployment is high, but companies still have trouble finding skilled workers.

Singing from the same hymnal, but for the highbrow crowd, we have Raghuram Rajan:

With the aid of technology and capital, one skilled worker can displace many unskilled workers. . . .

Not all low-skilled jobs have disappeared. Nonroutine, low-paying service jobs that are hard to automate or outsource, such as taxi driving, hairdressing, or gardening, remain plentiful. So the U.S. work force has bifurcated into low-paying professions that require few skills and high-paying ones that call for creativity and credentials. Comfortable, routine jobs that require moderate skills and offer good benefits have disappeared, and the laid-off workers have had to either upgrade their skills or take lower-paying service jobs.

Unfortunately, for various reasons—inadequate early schooling, dysfunctional families and communities, the high cost of university education—far too many Americans have not gotten the education or skills they need. Others have spent too much time in shrinking industries, such as auto manufacturing, instead of acquiring skills in growing sectors, such as medical technology.

There is an odd dissonance in these accounts, however, one that’s more obvious in Rajan’s version than in Brooks’. First, we are told that the stagnation of wages and the disappearance of jobs is an unchangeable structural fact: globalization and technology dictate that the demand for labor will be split between a handful of high-skill, “superstar” jobs and a mass of menial, poverty-wage service work. Yet we are also told that we face a deficit of “human capital”, implying that adequate education is all that anyone needs to escape the trap of unemployment or low wages.

There is an odd sort of Lake Wobegonism in this prescription, in which everyone gets to be above average in the labor market. This is, perhaps, a style of argument well-suited to appeal to Americans, who believe they can all become millionaires and never get sick. But we are given no reason to suppose that an investment in education will change the sort of labor demanded by capitalist enterprises. Just because everyone is qualified for high-skill “superstar” positions doesn’t mean that we can all inhabit those positions; someone still has to fill all those “low-paying service jobs that are hard to automate or outsource”. Ceteris paribus, more education is just a recipe for more PhDs on food stamps. It’s also the setup for another round of zero-sum, beggar-thy-neighbor neoliberalism, in which countries, localities and social groups fight to take the good jobs for themselves while foisting the bad jobs off on somebody else.

A simple solution to this problem, of course, would be to compensate those forced into the bad jobs by transferring lots of money from the “superstars” to the low-waged. But I suspect that suggestion would provoke Brooks or Rajan to go all Edward Conard on us.

Philosophically, the Brooks and Rajan essays are interesting for the way they awkwardly combine an old-fashioned style of conservatism (the poor will always be with us, accept your lot) with a more modern form of inclusive neoliberalism (accept deregulation, and you too can be rich!) By itself, the first style of argument is simply intolerable to modern sensibilities, but the crisis has rendered the second increasingly implausible. Together, however, the two arguments add up to nonsense.

The simplest response is that self-styled critics of “structural” economic problems are not being structural enough. The existence of a hyper-polarized wage structure is not a fact of nature but is itself a structural problem, and one that has been facilitated by specific policy choices. What we need is not “human capital” but a shift away from protecting rentiers and toward strengthening the bargaining position of labor.

New Works and Anti-Works

May 4th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion, Work

I’ll blame my recent silence on the fact that I was moving again—as of Tuesday, I’m back in the Grand Duchy. Clearly either the spirits of the Haymarket martyrs or the exploited employees of British Airways were punishing me for traveling on Mayday, because I ended up spending the better part of 24 hours waiting in lines, being redirected to unexpected cities, and having my luggage lost. Consider that lesson learned.

I’ve once again managed to return to Europe just as things are getting interesting in the U.S., with Occupy-aligned activists pulling off some impressive Mayday actions. But you can get plenty of reporting and analysis on that from Jacobin honcho Bhaskar Sunkara, from his new perch at the In These Times “Uprising” blog.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a few new things appear recently that I haven’t mentioned here. I neglected to plug the latest issue of Jacobin, which is full of great stuff as usual. It also includes my essay on post-work politics, centered around Kathi Weeks’ book The Problem With Work, which I’ve mentioned here before. See also Mike Beggs on “Keynes’ Jetpack” and Tim Barker reviewing James Livington’s Against Thrift, which cover closely related themes.

In addition, I’ve had a couple of other things appear. There’s an essay for the most recent New Inquiry on intellectual property, which covers familiar blog themes but hopefully in some new ways. And a radio interview with Doug Henwood, where we discussed sex, work, and related topics. What these all have in common is that someone edited them, so they’re bound to surpass my usual output in clarity and precision.

Something relevant to the anti-work themes of the Jacobin and Henwood links is this recent post from John Quiggin about “housework in utopia”. He makes the point that if some kinds of drudgery can’t be automated out of existence, we can still promote “social norms that frown on unnecessary crap-work.” This gets to one of the core points of Weeks’ book, and of my review: when it comes to perpetuating the work-based society, the ideological power of the work ethic is at least as important as the technical possibilities of production.

I was happy to see Quiggin point out that “Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.” I look forward to the day when “a freshly ironed shirt would attract the same kind of response that is now elicited by a fur coat or an ivory brooch”. Of course, there’s a danger in taking the stereotypically male position of being cavalier about contemporary standards of neatness, since it leaves one open to the critique Belle Waring mounts here. Maybe I’m just reproducing a patriarchal fantasy in which somebody else does the dishes.

But I’ll take the risk—defending the right to be a slob is just another aspect of defending the right to be lazy. As I note in the Jacobin essay, the argument Lafargue makes in the linked essay is that the glorification of unnecessary work has often been an ideology produced and perpetuated by elements of the working class itself. He was talking specifically about wage work, but the same point applies to unwaged work. As Weeks points out in her book, the modern work ethic combines an injunction to compulsory wage labor with a “family ethic” of compulsory household labor.

Historically, it has been men who have done most of the wage labor (though this is less and less the case), and women most of the household labor (depressingly, still mostly the case). So it isn’t surprising that we see more defenses of the inherent worth and dignity of wage work from men, and more defenses of the necessity of unwaged work from women. We shouldn’t take either case at face value. Both waged and unwaged work contain much that is truly necessary for the reproduction of society and the maintenance of a decent standard of living. But they are also forms that sustain huge amounts of senseless or destructive labor, which exists only to reproduce capitalism, patriarchy, and the work ethic itself.

Quiggin makes a general point that I think bears on all discussions of the social and economic meaning of work:

For any of the tasks we think of as housework, there are four possibilities I can think of,

(1) we can do it ourselves, as a crappy chore

(2) we can do it ourselves, as an enjoyable and fulfilling avocation

(3) we can do it using a technological solution that involves little or no labour

(4) we can contract it out to a specialist worker, who may in turn either (a) enjoy the work or (b) find it just as crappy as we do

This applies not only to “housework” but to all work, waged and unwaged. Quiggin contends that the only objectionable possibilities are (1) and (4b), and I tend to agree. Those two bad options basically correspond to two inseparable aspects of degrading and alienated labor in capitalism: unpaid household labor and involuntary wage labor. Options (2), (3), and (4a) correspond roughly to the communism in which “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want”, the slavery of the machine” on which “the future of the world depends”, and capitalism between consenting adults. Somewhere in the intermingling of those three, you’ve pretty much got my utopia.