Economic Personalities for our Grandchildren

November 18th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Work  |  5 Comments

Given the origins of my blog’s name, I’ve avoided posting on Mondays. But I don’t get paid for doing this, and so this was a misbegotten impulse for the reasons I explain below.

Yesterday I heard two interviews that helpfully recontextualize some common economic arguments about money and motivation, and provide another angle on the discussion of jobs in my last post. The first is with singer Chris Cornell of the recently re-formed Soundgarden, talking about what got him into music:

I got a GED based on Catholic school seventh-grade education, really. I didn’t make it that far. I have all those regrets now. … I just kind of went into the blue-collar workforce at a really young age and discovered music, in terms of being a musician, around the same time. The good news is, I was probably 17 when I knew that’s what I was going to do with the rest of my life, no matter what that meant. Even if that meant that I had to be a dishwasher or a janitor to support being in a band that I love and writing music that I love, I would be happy with that. So I feel fortunate. In spite of my lack of education, I didn’t lack direction.

The second was with the writer Fran Lebowitz, on Jesse Thorn’s show “Bullseye”. After Thorn asks her about the erratic appearance of her work, Lebowitz relates that she loved to write as a young woman, but developed crippling writers’ block once she began to get paid to write. She posits that she is “so resistant to authority, that I am even resistant to my own authority.” She later declares herself to hate work and be incorrigibly lazy, but the earlier comment hints at a more complex explanation. Transforming writing into an economic compulsion seems to have undermined intrinsic motivation, consistent with a long line of research in behavioral economics.

There’s nothing particularly original or shocking about these interviews. We all know that people are motivated by much more than money. Just today, I saw two posts on this theme, from Nancy Folbre on child-rearing and Matt Yglesias on people who take reductions in income in return for job satisfaction. Yet according to the hegemonic common-sense form of economic reasoning, neither of these people should exist. If you want someone to do something, the common argument goes, you should give them a financial incentive. But Cornell isn’t motivated by money, if we take him at his word (and even if he really wouldn’t have kept at it without stardom, there are many others who do.) And Lebowitz is actively de-motivated to write by getting paid for it, illustrating the adage that the best way to ruin something you love is to make it your job.

It’s people like this that I’m thinking of when I say that with reductions in working time and something like a generous Universal Basic Income, we would begin to discover what work people will continue to do whether or not they get paid for it. That’s not to say that all work can be taken care of this way; it’s hard to imagine an inverse of Chris Cornell who takes a day job as a rock singer to fund his passion for dishwashing. But we can at least start asking why we don’t make an effort to restrict wage labor to areas where it actually incentivizes something.

This relates to a topic Mike Konczal brings up in his new American Prospect article, about the debate between proponents of the UBI (like me), and those like the sociologist Lane Kenworthy who prefer policies that are tied to participation in wage labor, like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Kenworthy worries about the disincentive to employment that a UBI would create, but I’m more interested in the way that it would open up space for people to do socially desirable but non-remunerated things (and also to reconsider how we distribute the burden of socially desirable but personally unpleasant work). We already have too much wage labor, from this perspective, so we shouldn’t be so worried about getting more of it. So I agree, in a sense, with Trevor Burrus of the Cato Institute of all people, who says we should champion “a system where productivity allows people to be artists, record store clerks, or even bums.” Of course, Burrus calls that system “the free market”, where I would locate it in something rather different.

It’s because of people like Cornell and Lebowitz, perhaps, that I don’t worry as much as Keynes did, in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, about how people will find ways to use their expanded leisure time. He posed it as humanity’s “permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure . . . to live wisely and agreeably and well”. It’s a theme recently brought up anew by Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and his philosopher son Edward, who return to ancient philosophy’s preoccupation with defining the good life in their fascinating (yet maddening) book Enough. But I ultimately have a lot of optimism about what people are capable of, and I believe a socialist future would, among other things, bring us more music and literature from the Chris Cornells and Fran Lebowitzes than does the system we live in now.