Social Science

Economic Personalities for our Grandchildren

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

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.

Hostess and the Limits of the Private Welfare State

November 16th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

Hostess Brands, maker of the Twinkie, announced its liquidation today. This provoked a wave of now-more-than-everism, as both liberals and conservatives rushed to use the company’s failure as a testament to their longstanding hobbyhorses.

To the Right, of course, the end of Hostess is just another great opportunity to bash unions. Although perhaps it’s a sign of progress that even Fox News decided to soft-pedal this line, talking up the conciliatory position of the Teamsters while blaming the recalcitrance of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union for the closure. The idea that this is all about greedy unions is idiotic beyond belief, but sadly something we apparently still have to talk about. So if you don’t believe me you can go read Sarah Jaffe or Diana Reese.

A line I’m seeing from liberals, meanwhile, is that this is another case of private equity vulture capitalism ruining the American dream. Hostess Brands was under the control of a couple of hedge funds, as is the style these days. And so one line of argument is that Hostess could have been a perfectly sustainable company with good paying jobs, if only those short-sighted PE guys hadn’t showed up to loot it. A typical example of the genre is this from Laura Clawson at Daily Kos. Mark Price puts it more pithily on Twitter: “Private equity runs up debt, takes out fees and investment in capital goods declines leading to cost disadvantages.”

There’s no question that this is part of the story. The usual antics seem to be at work here, like levering up the company with debt and giving big pay raises to top management even as the business was going under. But Hostess had big problems even before the hedge fund guys showed up. Part of it was that on the marketing side, people just got less interested in eating Wonder Bread and Twinkies, and Hostess never managed to come up with any successful replacement products.

Moreover, the structure of the company’s labor costs is not a completely bogus issue either. The main issue, as it often is in these cases, isn’t wages but benefits, especially for retired workers. When Hostess went into bankruptcy earlier this year, Pensions & Investments reported that seven of its eight largest unsecured creditors were union pension funds, and that the company faced $130 million per year of required contributions to these plans. And like all American companies that offer health insurance, they faced rising health care costs due to U.S.’s uniquely irrational and inefficient system of privatized health care. It’s absolutely true that these benefits were negotiated fair and square, and the workers have every right to them. But promising future benefits without worrying too much about how to pay for them is a problem for a lot of companies, and it was a way of pretending to continue the Fordist compromise of labor-peace-for-rising-wages long after it had become inoperative in reality. Continuing to fight on this terrain will always put labor on the defensive. It’s worth noting that the Teamsters’ own position already included significant concessions on pensions.

It may or may not have been possible to keep servicing all these obligations while keeping the company profitable, under more enlightened management. But keeping Hostess in business so they can give people good pay and benefits to make Twinkies seems like exactly the style of small-minded Keynesian hole-digging that I criticized in “Against Jobs”. These workers deserve universal health care, a good pension from Social Security, and dare I say it, even a Universal Basic Income to support them while they try to find other jobs. The fact that we depend on a privatized welfare state where all these things are tied to jobs is bad for workers and bad for the country. It feeds into the problem Ashwin Parameswaran discusses in this post, a quixotic search for “a stable system where labour and capital are both protected from the dangers of failure”, one which “inevitably breeds a fragile and disadvantaged working class” that is fragmented into groups of protected insiders looking to protect their status, rather than act in solidarity as a class. I can’t recommend that post enough if you, like a lot of people I interact with, have any affinity for the project of “somehow recreat[ing] the golden age of the 50s and the 60s i.e. stability for all.”

Another reaction I’ve been seeing is “I don’t feel bad about Hostess failing, but I feel bad for these workers”. That’s more than a passing ambivalence, it’s a deep contradiction in our labor politics. I don’t care much about Twinkies one way or the other, but there are plenty of other areas where Leftists definitely need to be comfortable with being job-killers: coal-mining, say, or debt collection. In support of that agenda, we need to be thinking not just about creating or protecting jobs, but about the kind of expansive welfare state that Bhaskar Sunkara and I talked about recently at In These Times. The de-commodification of labor may be off the agenda right now, but we desperately need to bring it back.

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.

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.

Manufacturing Stupidity

April 17th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Work

I don’t usually write about education. I don’t have any special expertise or knowledge about it, and anyway, fellow Jacobin writers Andrew Hartman and Megan Erickson are on the case. But this story (via Slashdot) touches on some of my more typical themes.

The linked post is written by Rob Krampf, a science educator in Florida who found some serious problems when he was trying to develop practice materials for fifth grade students preparing for the state’s mandatory science test, the FCAT. This is one of those so-called “high stakes tests” which are the idol of the education reform movement and the bane of left-wing education critics, because they are used to dole out financial incentives or penalties to schools. But the trouble with these tests goes beyond the standard criticism of testing-focused education. In the test questions Krampf received from the state, many of the “wrong” answers turned out to be just as correct as the supposedly “right” ones. This led to an exchange with state authorities that should be read in its entirety, for the dark comedy if nothing else. Here, however, is a representative sample from the FCAT:

This sample question offers the following observations, and asks which is scientifically testable.

  1. The petals of red roses are softer than the petals of yellow roses.
  2. The song of a mockingbird is prettier than the song of a cardinal.
  3. Orange blossoms give off a sweeter smell than gardenia flowers.
  4. Sunflowers with larger petals attract more bees than sunflowers with smaller petals.

The document indicates that 4 is the correct answer, but answers 1 and 3 are also scientifically testable.

For answer 1, the Sunshine State Standards list texture as a scientifically testable property in the third grade (SC.3.P.8.3), fourth grade (SC.4.P.8.1), and fifth grade (SC.5.P.8.1), so even the State Standards say it is a scientifically correct answer.

For answer 3, smell is a matter of chemistry. Give a decent chemist the chemical makeup of the scent of two different flowers, and she will be able to tell you which smells sweeter without ever smelling them.

While this question has three correct answers, any student that answered 1 or 3 would be graded as getting the question wrong. Why use scientifically correct “wrong” answers instead of using responses that were actually incorrect? Surely someone on the Content Advisory Committee knew enough science to spot this problem.

I’d just add that you could probably find scientists who’d call 2 a right answer as well (survey a random sample of listeners about the prettiness of birdsongs, and voila…) This would be embarrassing enough if it were merely a sloppy oversight. But when he asked for an explanation of this bad question, Krampf received the following justification:

Christopher Harvey, the Mathematics and Science Coordinator at the Test Development Center told me:

“we need to keep in mind what level of understanding 5th graders are expected to know according to the benchmarks. We cannot assume they would receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states. Regarding #1 – While I don’t disagree with your science, the benchmarks do not address the hardness or softness of rose petals. We cannot assume that a student who receives instruction on hardness of minerals would make the connection to other materials. The Content Advisory committee felt that students would know what flowers were and would view this statement as subjective. Similarly with option 3, students are not going to know what a gas chromatograph is or how it works. How a gas chromatograph works is far beyond a 5th grade understanding and is not covered by the benchmarks. As you stated most Science Supervisors felt that student would not know this property was scientifically testable. The Content Advisory Committee also felt that 5th graders would view this statement as subjective. We cannot assume that student saw a TV show or read an article.”

Here we have the ideology of testing reduced to its fatuous essence. The ritual memorization and regurgitation of a decreed list of “facts” is the paramount value, superseding all other goals of education. We simply “cannot assume” that a student might “receive instruction beyond what the benchmark states”, that they could “make the connection to other materials”, or that they “saw a TV show or read an article.” Not only does the FCAT not assume these things, it actively penalizes them. The test is not merely indifferent but actually hostile to any understanding or learning that happens outside the parameters of the testing regime.

Krampf’s commenters continue to pile on; a reading teacher reports tests full of “bad grammar, incorrect spellings, and questions that simply made no sense”. You might ask what sort of system could produce the kind of pathological rationalization for these errors that I quoted above. Another commenter refers to “a culture of bureaucratic ass-coverage”, which lends credence to David Graeber’s claim, which I discussed the other day, that much of the apparatus of late capitalism has degenerated into a sclerotic order dominated by “political, administrative, and marketing imperatives”.

A slightly different question, though, is what sort of society can tolerate this kind of dysfunctional education system? I’m not a rigorous structural functionalist—that is, I don’t think every social phenomenon can be explained in terms of the role it plays in optimally reproducing the social order. But I’m enough of one to think that as a rule, the behaviors that are encouraged by a society are those that are useful to it, or at least not actively hostile to it. Capitalism is unusually hospitable to sociopathy, for example, because the sociopath approaches the ideal-typical personification of capital itself. Conversely, capitalism is an unfriendly place for those of us who tend to prefer time over money, because this is in tension with capital’s need for ceaseless expansion.

One might think that capitalism requires workers who know how to do and make things, and that therefore our elites would not complacently accept the emergence of Florida’s regime of enforced stupidity through testing. There is a narrative of cultural decline to this effect, still available in both liberal and conservative packaging. According to this lament, America neglects the proper education of its populace at its peril, as we allow ourselves to be eclipsed and out-competed by better-educated, more ambitious hordes from abroad. This is a reassuring argument, in a way, because it presumes broad agreement about the purpose of education: to produce a society full of practically skilled workers, capable of at least enough critical thought to do their jobs.

Critique from the left tends to spend its time condemning models of education that are narrowly focused on the instrumental task of creating a new generation of obedient and productive workers. Megan Erickson’s essay, for instance, worries that under the influence of self-styled reformers, “social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by . . . glorified vocational training”. But a farce like the Florida science exams fails even at this narrow task. A population raised to take the FCAT will be ill-prepared to be either engaged citizens or productive workers. Can the ruling class really be so inept, so incapable of producing the proletariat it requires?

An alternative explanation is the one I’ve explored in my writings on the disappearance of human labor from production—most notably, in “Four Futures”. My analysis of the political economy (recently summarized and seconded by Matt Yglesias) is that we are experiencing a slow transition from a capitalist order in which accumulation is based on the exploitation of labor, into a “rentist” order based on rents accruing to land or intellectual property. Such a society is not, in my view, functionally compatible with the ideals of broadly-distributed critical thinking or practical work skills.

In a rentist order, an increasing percentage of the population becomes superfluous as labor—but they are still necessary as consumers. For reasons of ideological legitimacy and political control, the fiction that everyone must “work” is maintained, but work itself must increasingly be pointless make-work. What kind of populace is suited to this habit of passive consumption and workday drudgery? One that accepts nonsensical and arbitrary rules—whether they are the rules of endless work or endless consumption. Students who learn to answer the questions the testing bureaucracy wants answered, irrespective of their relationship to scientific knowledge or logic, will be well trained to live in this world.

Krampf’s description of the Florida science testing dystopia is a grim vindication of something I wrote in an old post about the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy. I think of that post as kind of a lost chapter in my “rentism” series—I wrote it just after “Anti-Star Trek” and intended it as a follow-up, but it’s been read by orders of magnitude fewer people. I hope you’ll go read that post, but my general critique was that Judge portrayed stupidity as being inherent and genetic, even though the logic of his own movie suggested that stupidity is socially produced.

And mindless, bureaucratized testing is exactly the sort of system fit to produce the citizens of our future idiocracy. The mentality required to correctly answer the questions on the FCAT is a mentality suited to a world of pervasive marketing and advertising, in which reality is reduced to a postmodern nominalism of disconnected slogans. The students who unthinkingly repeat the assertion that smell and texture are not scientifically testable will grow up to confidently inform you that they water their crops with Brawndo—it’s got electrolytes, after all, they’re what plants crave!

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.

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.

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”.

A Victory at Foxconn

February 22nd, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

A recent article in the New York Times reports an encouraging victory for the workers at Foxconn, the gigantic Chinese manufacturer that makes products for Apple and many other companies:

The announcement by Foxconn, which said that it would raise salaries as much as 25 percent, to about $400 a month, came after an outcry over working conditions at its factories. In recent weeks, labor rights groups have staged coordinated protests in various countries after reports that some of Apple’s Chinese suppliers operate harsh, abusive and dangerous facilities. To stem criticism, Apple hired a nonprofit labor group to inspect the plants it uses.

It seems that this move came in response to the efforts of the workers themselves—including the martyrs who committed suicide in protest against Foxconn’s labor practices—and increased awareness among consumers. Mike Daisey’s report for This American Life, in particular, deserves credit for raising consciousness. This victory, if it holds up, is an encouraging example of how trans-national labor solidarity can work.

In a follow-up, however, the Times carefully avoids the class struggle at the heart of this story: as Ned Resnikoff observes, the story goes through remarkable linguistic contortions to avoid ascribing agency to the Foxconn workers themselves. We are told that for higher wages to be sustained, companies “must convince consumers in America and elsewhere that improving factories to benefit workers is worth the higher prices of goods.” The fate of Chinese workers is thus placed in the hands of corporate marketers and beneficent consumers rather than, say, the workers themselves.

Mobilizing consumers has its place in a labor organizing campaign, but I’m dubious that the altruism of atomized consumers on its own is a durable basis for increasing wages. The market is simply too good at obscuring the true relations of production, except when rare instances like this one break into the open; ethical consumerism can easily be subverted by companies that sell a false sense of moral purity by marketing themselves as virtuous capitalists. A better model for the role of consumers in labor struggles are things like the California Grape Boycott, which was initiated and led by the United Farm Workers.

There are a couple of other interesting things about the Foxconn story, which actually ties together a lot of my preoccupations. One thing to note is that in this case, the struggle over time was at least as important as the fight over money. In addition to higher wages, Foxconn is pledging to reduce overtime—the punishing 14-hour days and 7-day weeks have been reported as a major factor behind the wave of suicides. Given how much of 19th Century labor history in the West was devoted to the fight over the working day, it’s not surprising that the same struggle is being recapitulated in China.

The other thing that jumped out at me is the last paragraph of the Times story, which is tacked on almost like an afterthought:

And worried that the old model is dying, Foxconn has announced plans to invest in millions of robots and automate aspects of production.

Just last week, I wrote a post where I described the relationship between worker bargaining power and technical change as follows:

Suppose, for example, that employers had to pay much higher wages for work outside of standard hours, for irregular schedules, and for last-minute re-schedulings. In the short run, this would increase the income of some workers, which is good. It would also make employers more reluctant to use employees in this manner, unless it made them enough money to pay the higher wages. But in the long run, it would create stronger incentives for employers to simply use fewer workers, perhaps by replacing their labor with machines. This might sound like a dystopian scenario in itself—we win higher wages, and the end result is that we just get replaced with robots! But the alternatives are, in my view, even worse.

If Foxconn follows through on its wage and hour concessions, and on pledge to automate, it will fulfill this dynamic perfectly.

Moreover, this case demonstrates that the disappearance of human labor in manufacturing is not just a rich-country phenomenon, and the data suggests that Foxconn is not anomalous. Recently, Felix Salmon came up with data showing that the absolute number of manufacturing jobs is declining, not just in the United States and other rich countries, but even in China. Some of this may be a result of production shifting to even lower-wage countries, but it also lends support to my longstanding contention that the most important story behind deindustrialization is technological change rather than outsourcing. If even China isn’t growing manufacturing employment, this suggests that the global economy is going through a gradual transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, much as rich countries made the transition from being predominantly agricultural to a stage where farming only makes up a tiny percentage of jobs and GDP. Going back to a manufacturing dominated workforce doesn’t seem much more plausible—or, when you think about it, much more desirable—than reverting to a situation in which most people worked on farms.

That’s not to say manufacturing doesn’t matter. Jared Bernstein had a good post the other day that describes the ways that a strong manufacturing sector benefits a national economy. But direct job creation is only a minor component of the case for manufacturing, and the declining employment in the sector means that a revival of manufacturing is unlikely to play a large role in reducing the unemployment rate. Matt Yglesias gets to the central issue here:

But even in China, job growth is coming primarily from the service sector. It’s not a nation of factory workers and it likely never will be. But China has been de-ruralizing very rapidly. And it turns out that one way to characterize the “good old days” of rapid income growth in the United States is as not a move to factories but off of farms.

To Yglesias, this implies that growth in the service sector is the key issue for global economies in the future. But to take this a step further, one way to characterize what is happening in the United States today is not a move to the service sector but out of manufacturing. And it’s true that, if you want the aggregate amount of employment to grow in step with the growth of the population, you are committed to creating a whole lot of service jobs. But as I have argued before, this implies a strong normative judgment about the socially-optimal level of commodification.

As Ursula Huws has pointed out, the creation of service sector jobs often entails “a socialisation of the kinds of work which are also carried out unpaid in the home or neighbourhood”, things like “health care, child care, social work, cleaning, catering and a range of personal services like hairdressing.” Insofar as people experience these tasks as unpleasant drudgery, it is desirable to reduce the need for them to performed unpaid—particularly since unpaid work is done disproportionately by women. But just as in manufacturing, there are more and less labor intensive ways of replacing domestic labor. As Cat Valente observes in her fascinating post on gender-biased technological change in Japan, innovations that reduce the need for household labor can be at least as significant as iPhones or assembly-line robots. This is the alternative to the system in which one privileged group of workers hires another group of workers for the domestic tasks they no longer have time or inclination to perform.

To what extent do we deal with de-industrialization by turning more and more of human activity into paid work, and to what extent do we try to decrease the total amount of wage labor by reducing the work week and allowing people to spend more time out of the labor force? That is one of the key questions facing us in the 21st century, as the jobs that currently form the basis of our economy begin to disappear.