Time

Robots and Liberalism

December 12th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics, Socialism, Time, Work

People know my beat by now, so everyone has been directing my attention to Paul Krugman’s recent musings on the pace of automation in the economy. He moves away from his earlier preoccupation with worker skills, and toward the possibility of “‘capital-biased technological change’, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.” He goes on to present data showing the secular decline in labor’s share of income since the 1970’s.

He then notes that his position “has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism”, but reassures us that this uncomfortable realization “shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts”. The implication of those facts, he says, are that neither the liberal nor conservative common sense has anything to say about our current predicament: “Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society” . . . won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.”

Meanwhile we have Kevin Drum despairing that the coming decades will be “mighty grim”, as automation means that “the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work”. And we have the Financial Times publishing Izabella Kaminska arguing that “we’ve now arrived at a point where technology begins to threaten return on capital, mostly by causing the sort of abundance that depresses prices to the point where many goods have no choice but to become free.” This, of course, leads to attempts to impose artificial scarcity through new forms of property rights (with dire consequences for growth and prosperity), but I’ve written all about that elsewhere.

What I mainly find interesting is what all this interest in technology and jobless growth says about the limits of contemporary liberalism. We can all hope that Gavin Mueller’s reverie of Paul Krugman dropping LSD and becoming a Marxist will come to pass, but in the meantime his type seems to have no real answer. Nor do those of a more labor-liberal bent, like Dan Crawford at Angry Bear, who laments being called a neo-luddite and scornfully says: “As if widespread use of automated systems was automatically good for us overall”. As if a world in which we hold back technical change in order to keep everyone locked into deadening jobs is a vision that will rally the masses to liberalism.

In its more sophisticated form, this kind of politics takes the form of Ed Miliband’s “predistribution”, which Richard Seymour glosses as a belief that “rather than taxing the rich to fund welfare, the government should focus on making work pay more.” But if the structure of the modern economy is, as Krugman argues, one which depends on increasing numbers of robots and diminishing numbers of people, this project is bound to be either ineffectual or pointlessly destructive of our potential social wealth. The idea that there is something inherently superior, either politically or morally, about raising pre-tax and transfer incomes, rather than doing redistribution, is one that has never seemed to me to be especially well grounded. At times I suspect that it stems from an uncritical embrace of the historically specific white populist identity politics of the working class, and its accompanying fetish for the point of production, that I talk about here.

Not to say I have all the answers either, but here on the crazy Left we at least have some ideas. Ideas that don’t presuppose the desirability of keeping the assembly line of employment going at all costs, pumping out something that we can call “middle class jobs”. Ideas that get back to crazy notions like working time reduction and the decommodification of labor. These days, the unrealistic utopians are the nostalgics for the Fordist compromise, who see the factory worker with a high school diploma and a middle class income as the apex of human emancipation. But as Lenin said, “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself”.

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”.

More Jacobin Content: Working Time and Feminism

January 12th, 2012  |  Published in Shameless self-promotion, Social Science, Time, Work

With all the writing I do about our encroaching dystopia of artificial scarcity and rentier elites, it’s always slightly embarrassing when my writing is trapped behind a paywall. Fortunately, both of my contributions to the new Jacobin have entered the digital commons, now that my editorial on working time and feminism has been posted online. This web version preserves the print and PDF formatting, so it also shows off the work of our fantastic new designer, Remeike Forbes.

My editorial isn’t particularly radical, especially in contrast to the speculative reveries of my main essay in the issue. But I felt like it was worth taking the time to say that if we’re to talk about reducing working time—something that’s a central political concern of mine—we have to be clear that paid work isn’t the only kind, and that reducing time in waged work can sometimes be in tension with equalizing the gender division of labor.

I do wish, though, that I’d said a little more about the institution of the nuclear family, which functions as a kind of unstated premise of my whole editorial. Just after I wrote it, I read this essay by Jenny Turner on recent feminism, which draws out a great point from Toni Morrison by way of Nina Power:

‘Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers,’ Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: ‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community … The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know.’ On ‘unwed teenage pregnancies’: ‘Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can … The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about.’ On how to break the ‘cycle of poverty’, given that ‘you can’t just hand out money’: ‘Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them … I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class.’

What about education? If all these girls spend their teenage years having babies, they won’t be able to become teachers and brain surgeons, not to mention missing out on cheap beer, storecards, halls of residence. To which Morrison, with splendour, rejoins: ‘They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them in my arms and say: “Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.” That’s the attitude you have to have about human life.’

Leaving aside the point about “just handing out money“, which I obviously love, this point about the nuclear family struck me just recently, because I was writing an entry for an academic encyclopedia on the topic of the “24/7 economy”—that is, the fact that 40 percent of employees in the United States don’t work Monday to Friday 9 to 5 jobs, but instead work evenings, nights, weekends, or rotating shifts. Scholars of these “non-standard” work schedules often point out that they tend to make child care logistically difficult, but usually this is posed as a contrast with the “normal” situation of a couple working standard hours. Workers with non-standard hours are much more likely to rely on their relatives for child care, for example; but rather than viewing this the way Morrison does, as an opening onto a more humane and realistic way of organizing care work, it is instead portrayed as a problem and a burden, something which threatens to strain relations between family members.

As long as single and dual parent nuclear families are the norm, it makes sense for the Left to demand policies that at least ease the burden of unpaid work on women, which is what my essay was about. But I’d very much like to reclaim the old socialist-feminist idea that, as Turner puts it, “any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency.” I wouldn’t ultimately be satisfied with reforming the current relations of re-production any more than I just want to humanize the relations of production—the point is to overturn them.

Working Time and Feminism

August 16th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Time, Work

NPR has a nice little feature on parental leave policy in Sweden. This relates to my own research on working time, and I think parental leave is a particularly interesting case when it comes to the politics and sociology of time. That’s because I’ve come around to thinking–partly under the influence of my adviser, Janet Gornick–that the issue of reducing working hours is connected to feminism and gender equality at a fundamental level.

That’s because paid work time isn’t the only working time we need to think about–there’s also the unpaid cooking, cleaning, shopping, care of children and elders, and so on, that’s done for free. This work is still disproportionately done by women. Given that fact, it’s highly likely that any reform that makes it easier to reduce paid working time will inadvertently tend to reinforce the gender division of labor, in which men do paid work and women do unpaid work in the home that is not as highly valued. This moves us away from the “dual caregiver, dual earner” model that I think would be preferable from the standpoint of gender equality.

As things stand now, women will generally be more likely to reduce their hours than men when the opportunity presents itself. Women may then face discrimination in the labor market because employers start to assume that men will work longer hours. This is a concern even in a country like the Netherlands, which has a lot of protections for part-timers and a huge number of part-time jobs, and hence is a beguiling model for shorter-hours advocates like me.

Even if men and women do reduce hours equally, there’s no guarantee that the man will contribute to the unpaid labor of the household even if he’s around. In the long run, the only solution to this dilemma is to figure out how to make men do their share of the housework–which means that to some extent this is a matter of cultural change that the state doesn’t have much control over. Still, getting the guy to spend time in the home is a good start, and so there is still a role for well-designed policy that facilitates reductions in paid working time for everyone.

This brings us back to the Swedish parental leave model: Swedish couples are guaranteed a total of 480 days of paid parental leave, but 75 percent of this is taken by women. The Swedes are aware of this imbalance, which is why 60 of the 480 days are set aside specifically for men, and cannot be used by the woman in a couple. This is a good start, and it seems to be having some genuine impact on the gender division of labor, although it would probably be even better if we could move closer to a 50/50 split.

But since traditional gender roles are a pretty tough nut to crack, more aggressive policy is probably warranted. For instance, this article suggests a policy that doesn’t just replace a man’s wage when he’s on paternity leave, but actually pays more than he was making at his job. I’d be in favor of that kind of approach if that’s what it takes to make us guys take equal responsibility for unpaid work.

And if Don Peck is right that men are likely to face increasing difficulty in the labor market as the transition away from an industrial economy proceeds, then us guys may have no choice but to rethink our relationship to wages and labor.

Against Jobs, For Full Employment

July 26th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Time, Work

Mike Konczal said something on Twitter that pointed out the odd resonance between this Will Wilkinson post at the Economist and the rant against obsessing over “job creation” that I wote for The Activist. Actually, I originally wrote it for the newsletter of the political organization that I’m a member of, the Democratic Socialists of America, and my argument was directed at my fellow leftists who I think sometimes lose sight of our historic criticisms of wage labor as a source of alienation and domination.

Wilkinson, by contrast, is kind of a softcore libertarian. And yet here he is echoing a longstanding commonplace of Marxism:

David Ellerman, one of my favourite challenging thinkers, argues that the employer-employee relationship is more like the master-slave relationship than we are inclined to believe. I know this sounds a little crazy, and I don’t entirely buy his argument. But take a look; he’s on to something. Philosophical questions of self-ownership and the alienability of labour aside, I am convinced that autonomy is profoundly important to most of us, and that the sort of self-rental involved in the employment relation is regularly experienced as a lamentable loss of autonomy, if not humiliating subjection. I think a lot of us would rather not work for somebody else.

This is not really very different from Marx’s account of alienated labor in capitalism. (It is, incidentally, especially hilarious to see this is published by the Economist. It has existed since Marx’s day, and you can actually find passages in Marx’s work where he trashes the Economist for basically the same reasons people trash it today.) I was making basically the same point in my essay:

Most of the unemployed don’t actually want jobs — that is, they don’t just want a place to show up every day and be told what to do. The real problem these people have is not that they need jobs, but that they need money. We’ve just been trained to think that the only way to solve this problem is to get people jobs.

In other words, wage labor sucks, and a lot of people will only do it if the alternative is destitution.

Of course, Wilkinson’s argument differs from mine in important ways. In particular, he conceives of the alternative to wage labor in terms of other kinds of monetized interactions, like “cutting hair for money in a kitchen, or legally making a few bucks every now and then taxiing people around town in a 1988 Ford Escort”, whereas I focused more on socially beneficial activities that are outside the money economy altogether, like taking care of children and writing open source software, and on the inherent benefits of simply increasing everyone’s free time. Hence his policy recommendations, while overlapping with mine somewhat, are focused on deregulation and opening up the informal economy.

I’m not necessarily against deregulating the labor market. But deregulation would have to be paired with a far more robust social democratic safety net in order to ensure that a life outside the control of the boss is possible for everybody, and not just for a small labor aristocracy of people like Will Wilkinson (and me). That’s why my essay talked about national health care, more generous unemployment, efforts to reduce the work week, and ultimately some kind of guaranteed income that allows people to survive outside of the labor market. (As for where the money for this should come from, please see John Quiggin.) Those are the things that make exiting the labor market a real option for the non-rich. And just as importantly, they reduce the risk and uncertainty that’s associated with not having regular, full time employment. As it stands, the downside risk of losing your job is much greater if you’re less educated, less healthy, or have more dependents than Wilkinson does.

I view all of this as an alternative strategy for getting back to full employment that doesn’t rely entirely on job-creation programs. I want to clarify this point, because it wasn’t made well in my original essay, which was constructed to be as brief and inflammatory as I could make it in order to attract as much attention to the argument as possible. I’ve noticed that some people conflated my rant against jobs with an opposition to full employment.

So I should make clear that I’m not opposed to full employment; in fact, I think that achieving and maintaining full employment is of paramount importance if we want to give people the real option of cutting back hours or quitting their jobs. For example, we know that there are lots of people who wish they could work fewer hours, but whose employers won’t let them. And studies like these probably understate the desire for fewer hours because they don’t do a very good job of distinguishing the desire for work from the desire for money. But whatever people would like to do, they don’t have much leverage to negotiate or to find new jobs if they face a millions-strong reserve army of the unemployed. In a high-unemployment environment like the current one, we see people who have jobs being worked harder, but quitting at historically low rates.

However, the demand for full employment is distinct from the demand for jobs in ways that are politically salient. It is important to bear in mind that “full employment” is not just another way of saying “lots of jobs”. It is a piece of economic jargon, a technical term for the situation in the labor market when employers’ demand for labor meets or exceeds the supply of people looking for jobs across all the broad categories of employment. Keeping the economy in this state is highly desirable for working people and for leftist politics, for reasons best explained in the 1940’s by the Polish economist Michal Kalecki, in his important essay on “Political Aspects of Full Employment”:

[U]nder a regime of permanent full employment, the ‘sack’ would cease to play its role as a ‘disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders.

Demands for government-led job creation target full employment by increasing demand for labor in the hopes that this will both soak up surplus labor directly and spur increased private sector demand for labor through the multiplier effect of public investment. However, there is no a priori reason why creating more demand for wage labor should be the only or the primary mechanism of reaching full employment. To the extent that job sharing schemes reduce unemployment by distributing work across more workers, the economy can approach full employment without creating new work in the aggregate. Just as importantly, since the definition of full employment depends on both the supply of and the demand for labor, full employment can be reached by reducing the supply of labor rather than increasing demand.

Why would we want to reduce labor supply? One reason, which I emphasized in “Stop Digging”, is that wage labor is a form of domination that lots of people find inherently unpleasant, and that a lot of what people do for wages is less socially desirable than what they could do if they had control over their own time. But another good reason is that certain political priorities that the left supports for other reasons have the effect of decreasing labor supply. Hence a focus on the labor supply side can help us to ensure that the quest for full employment is not at cross purposes with our other goals.

Take, for example, health care reform. It is generally accepted that there are a certain number of people who would like to retire or otherwise leave the labor force, but who stay in their jobs because that is the only way they can maintain access to health insurance. A program of national health care that successfully guaranteed universal coverage and severed health care from employment would cause these people to drop out of the labor force; all things being equal, this would move the economy toward full employment as these jobs were filled by the unemployed and the total pool of people seeking work shrank. However, this move toward full employment involves no net job creation since it is entirely targeted to the labor supply side.

More generally, any reform that makes it easier to survive outside of employment may have the effect of reducing labor supply, if you believe–as I do and Will Wilkinson does–that lots of people would prefer not to work for wages if they can avoid it. Health care, government-funded child care, social security, welfare, and disability benefits are all steps toward what sociologists of the welfare state refer to as the “de-commodification” of labor power. To the extent that people can get by without working for wages, they are able to avoid commodifying themselves and selling their labor.

Even at the height of an economic expansion, large numbers of people are not participating in wage labor. Among Americans aged 16 and older, about a third are neither working nor looking for work–and this was true even before the recession. Some of these people are so-called “discouraged workers” who want a job but have given up looking for one, but many others are retired, or are in school, or unable to work due to disability, or are taking care of children and elders, or are voluntarily out of employment for some other reason. There are ways that public policy could be used to force many of these people into the labor force. But doing so is in general a right-wing policy goal: for the same reason that full employment is politically good for workers, it is bad for capitalists, and the political agents of capital understand that one way of avoiding full employment while maximizing profits is to keep the supply of labor as high as possible. Which is why Republicans are currently obsessed with increasing labor supply while doing nothing to increase the demand for labor.

“Against jobs, for full employment” seems at first like a paradoxical demand, but I hope I’ve shown that it isn’t. By opposing the narrow rhetoric of job creation, I didn’t intend to diminish the importance of tackling the crisis of the unemployed head-on; I merely wanted to suggest that there are alternative avenues for addressing this crisis that are both more humane and more radical.

De-commodification in Everyday Life

June 7th, 2011  |  Published in Everyday life, Socialism, Time, Work

In his influential treatise on the modern welfare state, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Gøsta Esping-Andersen proposed that one of the major axes along which different national welfare regimes varied was the degree to which they de-commodified labor. The motivation for this idea is the recognition–going back to Marx–that under capitalism people’s labor-power becomes a commodity, which they must sell on the market in order to earn the means of supporting themselves.

Following Karl Polanyi, Esping-Andersen describes the de-commodification of labor as the situation in which “a service is rendered as a matter of right, and when a person can maintain a livelihood without reliance on the market” (p. 22). So long as the society remains a capitalist one, it is never possible for labor to be totally de-commodified, for in that circumstance there would be nothing to compel workers to go take a job working for someone else, and capital accumulation would grind to a halt. However, insofar as there are programs like unemployment protection, socialized medicine, and guaranteed income security in retirement–and insofar as eligibility for these programs is close to universal–we can say that labor has been partially de-commodified. On the basis of this argument, Esping-Andersen differentiates those welfare regimes that are highly decommodifying (such as the Nordic countries) from those in which workers are still much more dependent on the market (such as the United States).

In the lineage of comparative welfare state research following Esping-Andersen, de-commodification is generally discussed in the way I’ve just presented it: in terms of the state’s role in either forcing people into the labor market, or allowing them to survive outside of it. However, from the standpoint of the worker, we can think of the de-commodifying welfare state as giving people a choice about whether or not to commodify their labor, rather than forcing them to sell their labor as would be the case in the absence of any welfare-state institutions. The choice that is involved here is not merely about income. It ultimately comes down to how we want to organize our time, and how we want to structure our relations with other people.

What is ultimately at stake here is not merely the commodification of labor-power, but the commodification of all areas of social life. For based on the institutions that exist and the choices people make within them, we can imagine multiple social equilibria. Social life could be highly commodified: everyone performs labor for others in return for a wage, and also pays others to perform social functions which they don’t have time for. But we could have a much lower level of commodification where people work less, because their cost of living is much lower: they are able to satisfy many of their personal needs without spending money.

To elucidate this point, consider a simplified thought experiment. Suppose you and I live in adjacent apartments. Now consider the following ways in which we might satisfy two of our needs: food and a clean habitat.

In scenario A, I cook my own meals and clean my own bathroom, and you do the same for yourself.

In scenario B, you pay me to cook your meals, and I pay you to clean my bathroom.

In scenario C, I pay you to cook for me and clean my bathroom, and you pay me to cook your meals and clean your bathroom.

This hypothetical is a bit silly, since with only two people involved we could just barter the trade in services rather than paying each other money. But in a more complex economy with many people paying each other for things, the medium of exchange becomes necessary, so I leave that element in place even in this simplified example.

What might make each of these three scenarios desirable?

The advantage of scenario A is that each of us has maximal control over our labor and our lives. I cook and clean when I choose, I eat just what I like, and I will do just enough cleaning to ensure that the bathroom meets my standards of cleanliness.

The advantage of scenario B is that it might be more efficient, if each of us has what economists call “comparative advantage” in one of the tasks. If I’m a better cook, but you’re better at cleaning, then each of us ends up with overall better meals and cleaner bathrooms than we would have had otherwise. The downside, however, is that each of us has now partly alienated our labor to some degree. I have to monitor you to make sure that you’re doing a complete job of cleaning, and you can boss me around if you dislike my food or I don’t have dinner ready on time. What’s more, the only way for this exchange to be fair to both of us is in the unlikely event that you enjoy cleaning the bathroom just as much as I like cooking. In the more likely case that both of us find cleaning much less pleasant than cooking, you get a raw deal.

Scenario C would seem to combine the worst elements of the other two scenarios. There is no efficiency gain, since we are both performing both tasks. And our labor is maximally alienated, since we are doing all our cooking and cleaning at someone else’s command rather than for ourselves.

The point of these examples is that they represent different visions of how the economy might work. Scenario A is the one I sympathize with, and it’s one that motivates many socialists, feminists, social democrats, and advocates of shorter working hours and less consumerist ways of living. Scenario B is more like the traditional vision of 20th century liberal capitalism: by commodifying more of social life, we increase our material abundance but at the expense of living alienated lives as commodified labor.

However, I would argue that a lot of political and economic discourse in the United States is actually dominated by the third scenario, which sees commodification as a good in itself, irrespective of its efficiency or its effect on our working lives. I said above that scenario C didn’t have anything to recommend it, but this is not exactly true. For in a society where labor-power is still commodified and people are dependent on the labor market, it is essential that we constantly create new jobs for people to perform–otherwise, you end up with mass unemployment just like we’re seeing right now. Scenario C is the one that maximizes job-creation and GDP growth, even though it is by no means obvious that it is the scenario that maximizes human happiness and satisfaction.

It’s worth belaboring this point precisely because so many liberals and even leftists take the “high-commodification” equilibrium for granted. Take the example of Matt Yglesias of the Center for American Progress. I write about him often (and once got Yglesiassed in return) because in many ways I find him a more congenial thinker than a lot of more traditional “leftists” who seem trapped in nostalgia for mid-20th century industrial capitalism. But the issue of commodification gets at a core area where we see the world differently.

Yglesias often writes about the fact that industrial employment is inevitably declining for technological reasons, and hence services are bound to make up an increasing share of the employment. This motivates some of his other hobby-horses, such as his crusade against occupational licensing, which he sees as an impediment to creating these needed service jobs. Now, I have no particular attachment to occupational licensing, and on the issue of manufacturing and industrial employment, Yglesias and I are basically in agreement. Where we disagree is in seeing the best future trajectory of the economy as one in which people perform more and more services for each other, for pay. For example:

[T]his is why I’ve been saying that yoga instructors have the job of the future. Nothing in these trends suggests that the actual quantity of janitors is going to increase in the future. If anything, falling demand for office workers implies that the future can have fewer. So is the future a smallish number of wealthy office workers served by an “aristocracy of labor” of unionized janitors awash in a pool of unemployed people enjoying free health care? Presumably not. The people of the future will be richer than the people of today, and therefore will more closely resemble annoying yuppies. Nicer restaurants are more labor-intensive than cheap ones, and the further up the scale you go the more specialized skills (think sommelier) come into play. Annoying yuppies take yoga classes, or even hire personal trainers. Artisanal cheese is more labor-intensive to produce than industrial cheese. More people will hire interior designers and people will get their kitchens redone more often. There will be more personal shoppers and more policemen. People will get fancier haircuts.

It’s easy to mock the idea that the future economy will be based entirely on giving each other haircuts and yoga instruction. But my objection is not that this is implausible–I think it’s entirely plausible, and such a world could even feature a relatively egalitarian income distribution, depending on the bargaining power of labor and the intervention of the state. The real question, I think, is whether this is the only way for things to turn out–that is, is it really true that the yuppie that is richer only shows, to the less rich, the image of their own future? And if not, is it the most desirable outcome?

I don’t want to pre-judge this choice so much as just argue that it is a choice. Whether we end up in a low-commodification, low cost of living scenario A or a high-commodification, high cost of living scenario C will be the result of an interaction between the state and other institutions and individual choices within those institutions. It is thus both a political and a cultural question. Even now, not every country resolves these questions in the same way. In the Netherlands, for example, both incomes and working hours are lower than in the United States, and a good argument can be made that the well-being of the Dutch is at least as high as our own.

This is why I think that the politics of de-commodification in the 21st century will be closely linked to the politics of time.

Eight Hours For What They Will

May 30th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Time, Work

The other day I re-watched John Carpenter’s They Live–which, for the record, is a pretty good satire of Reagan-era America, and deserves to be remembered for more than just that stupid Shepard Fairey sticker campaign. While watching, I noticed something pretty great that I missed the first time through. It shows up after the main character puts on magic sunglasses, which allow him to see that the billboards around him actually contain secret brainwashing messages. Most of these just say things like “consume” and “obey”. But check out the sign in the upper left corner of this picture:

That command, of course, is a riff on an old slogan of the 19th century labor movement, which demanded the eight-hour day using signs like this one:

As David Roediger and Philip Foner remark in their great history of American labor and the working day:

[T]he cry “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation,” acted as more than a common denominator. It embodied . . . the highest aspirations of the working population. It expressed cherised values. . . . In making the eight-hour system the key to equal education for children, to the continued mental development of adults, to the defense of republican virtue and class interest by an enlightened and politically active citizenry, to health, to vigor, and to social life, supporters viewed their demand as an initial step to major changes, not as a niggling reform. (pp. 98-99)

As is well known, the demand for shorter hours mostly disappeared from organized labor’s agenda after World War II, for complex and disputed reasons. The sign I saw in They Live is one consequence of abdicating the postive class argument for shorter hours. By the time the movie was made in 1988, the eight-hour movement’s greatest slogan could come to seem not like a cherished victory of the working class, but rather as a piece of dystopian propaganda. “Eight hours recreation” becomes the command to “play eight hours”, and this “play” is refigured as obligatory participation in consumerist culture rather than the opportunity for political, intellectual and moral development that it signified for the eight-hour campaigners. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that these days long hours are often portrayed as an issue of individual preferences or “workaholic” psychology, rather than the outcome of organized labor’s long political defeat.

I have a feeling this little vignette will end up in my dissertation somehow, although I don’t think I mentioned doing any cultural studies in my fellowship proposal.

Obligatory Google Ngram Post

December 20th, 2010  |  Published in Data, Social Science, Statistical Graphics, Time

It appears that everyone with a presence on the Internet is obligated to post some kind of riff on the amazing Google Ngram Viewer. Via Henry Farrell, I see that Daniel Little has attempted to perpetrate some social science, which made me think that perhaps while I’m at it, I can post something that actually relates to my dissertation research for a change. Hence, this:

Instances of the phrases "shorter hours" and "higher wages" in the Google ngram viewer.

Click for a bigger version, but the gist is that the red line indicates the phrase “higher wages”, and the blue line is “shorter hours”. Higher wages have a head start, with hours not really appearing on the agenda until the late 19th century. That’s a bit later than I expected, but it’s generally consistent with what I know about hours-related labor struggle in the 19th century.

The 20th century is the more interesting part of the graph in any case. For a while, it seems that discussion of wages and hours moves together. They rise in the period of ferment after World War I, and again during the depression. Both decline during World War II, which is unsurprising–both wage and hour demands were subordinated to the mobilization for war. But then after the war, the spike in mentions of “higher wages” greatly outpaces mentions of “shorter hours”–the latter has only a small spike, and thereafter the phrase enters a secular decline right through to the present.

Interest in higher wages appears to experience a modest revival in the 1970’s, corresponding to the beginnings of the era of wage stagnation that we are still living in. But for the first time, there is no corresponding increase in discussion of shorter hours. This is again not really surprising, since the disappearance of work-time reduction from labor’s agenda as been widely remarked upon. But it’s still pretty interesting to see such evidence of it in the written corpus.