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 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](!/michelledean/status/179056846961786882) 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](’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](–en/index.htm), 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](

The time has come for us to civilize ourselves

January 16th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Work

Commenter JKudler [alerted me]( to one of the less well understood aspects of Martin Luther King’s legacy. I knew that MLK had described himself as a democratic socialist, but I didn’t know that he [said this](

> In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

> I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Naturally [I agree](, and I encourage you to read the [whole thing](, which ends on the note I quoted in the title. It’s something to ponder as you go about marking the occasion of MLK day—or, as Ron Paul calls it, [Hate Whitey Day](—in whatever way you find appropriate.

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.

The Machines and Us

October 25th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Work

The lesser depression has called forth a profusion of new and old theories about what’s wrong with the American economy, and what can be done to put it right. As you can see in Mike Konczal’s [topological maps](, these accounts can be broadly separated into “demand” and “supply” side arguments. Within the supply side, there is a subdivision between arguments based on government-induced uncertainty (due to taxation, regulation, policy, or deficits) and those centered around labor productivity. Of these I regard the uncertainty argument as opportunistic [rhetorical hand-waving](, with no real principled rationale; the argument about labor productivity, however, has some real substance behind it.

Curiously, however, the labor-productivity side contains proponents of two antithetical views: one group argues that jobs and income have stagnated because labor productivity is growing too slowly, while others argue that technology has been changing *too fast* for the labor market to keep up. Tyler Cowen’s *The Great Stagnation*, which I’ve [discussed before](, is an argument for the first proposition. A new book provides an argument for the second: [*Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy*]( The e-book, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT, is a cheap and quick read (I call it a book, but it’s really more like a very long article); it doesn’t provide much detail that will be new to people who follow the topic, but it’s a decent introduction to the effect of technology on the demand for labor. It’s accessibly written without being too dumbed down, although it engages in some of the Gladwellese that seems to pervade recent pop-social science, such as the use of cutesy overriding metaphors (grains of rice on a chessboard, in this case). But while its account of the current economic landscape is useful, its ideas about where we should go from here are exceedingly lame.

Some liberals will probably react unfavorably to the book’s whole thesis, because its emphasis on long-term technology and productivity issues threatens to distract attention from the more immediate problem, which is the tremendous shortfall in aggregate demand. The authors themselves are careful to say that they recognize the current demand problem, and that they do not believe that dealing with technological change should be a substitute for short-term measures to increase demand. Nevertheless, some commentators will no doubt be tempted to misuse the argument this way, as President Obama [allegedly did]( when he used productivity-related claims to dismiss the need for additional stimulus.

But people on the left shouldn’t let such foolishness scare them away from understanding changes in technology and labor productivity. Not only are such changes real and socially significant, but they present us with an opportunity to reorient the economic conversation in a more radical direction. To do so, however, we’ll need to assimilate Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s empirical argument, while rejecting their timid and depoliticized policy recommendations.

### Technology and Employment

*Race Against the Machine* is organized around explaining the same empirical reality that confronts every would-be analyst of our economic woes: the stagnation of median incomes over the past three decades, long predating our current joblessness problem. As I [noted recently](, many of the underlying reasons for this stagnation are political, and this is something Brynjolfsson and McAfee don’t discuss at all. But the fact that rising inequality and stagnating labor income have a political context doesn’t mean they aren’t also a function of technological changes: what we have seen in recent decades is a continuation of the disruptive and labor-displacing technical innovation that has always characterized capitalism, but without many of the countervailing protections that labor enjoyed in the heyday of the postwar Keynesian compromise. Brynjolfsson and McAfee do a good job of explaining the way labor markets play out under such conditions.

In contrast to Cowen, they argue that recent productivity growth has been quite good, and that published statistics are likely to under-state the increase in our social wealth. We’re able to provide more goods and services with less and less human labor, which ought to make us materially richer as a society. The basic argument is similar to the one made by Farhad Manjoo in his [recent series]( of articles on automation: computers and robots are rapidly permeating every part of the economy, displacing labor from high- and low-skill functions alike. *Race Against the Machine* gives many examples, from Google’s self-driving cars to automation in Chinese electronics factories to software that can review legal documents. The problem, then, is not stagnation but uneven distribution: GDP per capita has continued to rise rapidly, but median incomes have stagnated, because the gains from growth are now going almost entirely to the very richest.

Three interrelated mechanisms are adduced to explain this lopsided growth: the advantaging of high-skill over low-skill labor, the rise of winner-take-all “superstar” markets, and the increasing returns to capital rather than labor. All three of these trends are facilitated and intensified by rapid technological advances–especially in computers and networks–that are making the skills of many workers obsolete while enriching the owners of capital and a few well-placed workers. Overall, this account of the relationship between technology and employment is the book’s strength, particularly since it manages to avoid two common fallacies that beset such discussions, what I’ll call the “end of work” fallacy and the “end of technology” fallacy.

The end of work fallacy, named for the title of a [Jeremy Rifkin book](, is the mistaken notion that if most of the labor currently performed by humans is replaced by machines, the result will inevitably be permanent mass unemployment at some point in the future. This is a fallacy for two reasons: first, because it ignores the possibility that we could all work less rather than leaving some unemployed, and second, because it assumes that human societies are somehow inherently limited in their ability to concoct new occupations for people to perform. While they ignore the first possibility, Brynjolfsson and McAfee do correctly point out that there is no reason to believe the second; just as we found new jobs for all the people displaced from working in agriculture a century ago, capitalism is no doubt capable of generating novel occupations for those whose jobs are automated in the 21st century (if all else fails, perhaps we can all become the personal servants of the top 1 percent). They frame this as an optimistic vision of our economic future, but I would interpret it somewhat differently: the gradual disappearance of work may not be inevitable, but it is also not something to fear: rather, it poses a major political and cultural choice for human societies centered around the institution of wage labor; I return to this point below.

Arrayed against the end of work fallacy, one often finds the end of technology fallacy, which insists that there is some obvious limit to just what can be automated. I guess this isn’t so much a fallacy as a failure of imagination: as Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out, such pronouncements can look silly within a remarkably short time. As one example, they cite a 2004 book that confidently asserts the impossibility of something like the self-driving Google car. Today, the jobs most resistant to automation seem to be those that require finer-grained types of manual skill, as robots remain crude and awkward when they attempt to manipulate the physical environment. But while it is certainly *possible* that some kinds of automation will never be attained, it’s dangerous to base one’s economic analysis or one’s politics on that belief.

While I find *Race Against the Machine*’s argument about automation generally persuasive, the general theory of socio-technical development that the authors rely on is somewhat questionable. Citing [Moore’s law]( and the futurist Ray Kurzweil, Brynjolfsson and McAfee portray technological development as a process that starts off slowly but then relentlessly accelerates “into the phase where exponential growth yields jaw-dropping results”. But this is a misleading picture of the history of technology. As Charles Stross has [extensively argued](, (and as I’ve [written about previously](, the path of progress within particular technological domains looks less like exponential growth than like a sigmoid curve, in which a middle period of rapid and seemingly exponential growth transitions into a mature plateau of slow progress. It’s tempting, when you’re in the rapid-acceleration phase of the curve, to extrapolate it forward exponentially–but this can lead to extremely misleading predictions. Mid-twentieth century futurists extrapolated the rapid improvements in transportation that they had lived through, and ended up imagining a future with flying cars but not the Internet; anyone who tries to imagine our future without accounting for unexpected and disruptive innovations is likely to be proven wrong as well.

The book’s central claim nevertheless holds up without the dubious assumption of exponential growth. As the authors point out, we are in many ways in the early stages of adopting and integrating the technologies we already have into the economy, and so we can expect much more technological displacement of labor even if Moore’s law slows down. And even if computer processing speed plateaus, some other area, such as biotechnology, will eventually enter the rapid-growth segment of its own sigmoid curve. Hence I generally accept the argument that rapid automation and technological unemployment will be a reality for the foreseeable future, and our societies need to find a way to deal with it.

### The Future of Work

But it’s in the recommendations for adapting to technological change that this book really falls short. The program for winning the future, it turns out, consists of encouraging entrepreneurship and improving education. The former, the authors say, will allow us to discover a bounty of new ways of employing people, through the magic of Hayekian tacit knowledge and Schumpeterian creative destruction. And an improved education system will ensure that the general population has the necessary human capital to participate in this magical new economy. This is a remarkably thin vision, redolent of the kind of popular techno-libertarianism that flourished at the height of the dot-com bubble, and it’s no more compelling now than it was then. Brynjolfsson and McAfee write that “the stagnation of median wages and polarization of job growth is an *opportunity* for creative entrepreneurs”, who can “combine the swelling numbers of mid-skilled workers with ever-cheaper technology to create value”. Aside from the moral gruesomeness of this entrepreneurial paradise built on immiserated and precarious labor, where is the demand supposed to come from to realize all this “value”? This sounds like a recipe for re-creating the bubble economy of the last few decades, where most economic rewards go to capital and the working class props up its buying power with debt.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee do offer a more specific 19-point policy agenda. Some of the proposals are good ideas: reducing government support of the financial industry, decoupling social benefits from employment, scaling back copyright protections, increasing government funding for infrastructure and basic research, eliminating the home mortgage interest tax deduction, increasing high-skill immigration. But much of the rest is the usual grab-bag of neoliberal market idolatry: cut back workplace regulation, reduce taxes, make it easier to fire workers. The section on education, in particular, is just a rehash of the usual education reform arguments: less job security for teachers, longer hours, and more testing (though to be fair, they do at least call for higher teacher pay).

In the end, Brynjolfsson and McAfee don’t even try that hard to make the case that their agenda will actually employ everyone or reverse rising inequality and stagnant incomes–they admit that “not everyone can or should be an entrepreneur, and not everyone can or should spend 16 or more years in school”. But they casually dismiss the one thing that indisputably *would* address the unequal rewards of the contemporary economy: direct redistribution of income. “While redistribution ameliorates the material costs of inequality”, they say in their one mention of the possibility, “it doesn’t address the root of the problems our economy is facing” and “does nothing to make unemployed workers productive again”. There’s an implicit belief here that distributional outcomes somehow aren’t “real” unless they are the result of the private labor market operating in the absence of government transfers. This denigrates the robustness of redistribution as a program: European social democracy, for all its shortcomings, has shown that it’s possible to create an enduring system in which highly unequal market outcomes are ameliorated by government taxes, transfers, and social programs. That’s one reason I’m partly sympathetic to the model of [“globalize-grow-give”]( progressivism, which focuses on remediating inequality through redistribution rather than tight regulation of the labor market: leaving the labor market as it is and then doing lots of redistribution on the back end may not be ideal, but it would be a lot better than what we have now.

But if technology really is dramatically reducing the need for human labor, then we have an opportunity to think bigger and better, getting beyond merely trying to scrape up new skills and new jobs for the displaced proletariat. If you’re a regular reader, you know where I’m going with this by now; as somebody said of one of my earlier renditions on this theme, “we get it–Peter Frase hates work”. Totally missing from *Race Against the Machine* is any consideration that we might take some of our productivity gains in the form of free time rather than income. Nowhere do the authors even contemplate reducing the length of the work week and work year, or accepting a lower labor-force participation rate. Thus, despite constantly reminding us of all the ways in which technology has improved our standard of living and transformed society, Brynjolfsson and McAfee never question the centrality of wage labor in its current form: they never consider that there is any alternative to a society in which everyone expects, and is expected, to spend the bulk of their life as a 40 (or more) hour per week wage laborer, or as a profit-maximizing “entrepreneur”.

Mostly, the immortality of capitalism is just an implicit assumption. But to the extent that this book contains a defense of the wage labor society, it is this: “the value of gainful work is far more than the money earned”, and “forced idleness is not the same as voluntary leisure”. Both are true, and both are reasons why in the short term, a federal jobs program is a [good demand](–and one that’s more likely to revive the economy than any amount of education reform or entrepreneurialism. But the question that *Race Against the Machine* raises is explicitly not about the short term aggregate demand problem, to which some package of monetary and fiscal stimulus could be an adequate solution. If we ever escape from the nightmare of self-inflicted disinflationary contraction, we will essentially be back where we started before the financial crisis–and we will still have to come to terms with the constantly changing balance of labor between human and machine, and what it means for the future of work.

We live in a society in which a huge amount of a person’s status and sense of self-worth is tied up in what they do for money. And the stigma of joblessness, combined with the stresses of job-hunting and dealing with the meager American welfare state, make unemployment a physically, psychologically, and emotionally damaging ordeal. But these aren’t inherent features of the human condition; as another analyst of productivity-enhancing technology [said](

> Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.

“We clearly are *not* pessimists about technology and its impacts”, write Brynjolfsson and McAfee. They add that they considered calling their book “*The Digital Frontier*, since the image that keeps occurring to us is one of a huge amount of new territory opening up because of technological improvement and innovation”. As it happens, I’m not a pessimist either, and I think the Digital Frontier is a wilder place than our intrepid economists imagine. Out there you’ll find the advocates of [work time reduction]( and [guaranteed income]( and [plenitude](, and many others working to build the realm of freedom and abundance rather than keep capitalism’s engine of [artificial necessity and scarcity]( chugging along. The defenders of the current order will keep trying to convince us that in a technologically advanced world of material plenty, more capitalism is still the solution to all our problems; but perhaps it is capitalism itself that is holding us back, and maybe it’s time for that integument to [burst asunder](

The Conservative Leftist and the Radical Longshoreman

September 29th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Work,

Via [Yglesias](, I find to my dismay that some alleged progressives at [Lawyers, Guns, and Money]( are exulting in the failure of supermarkets to replace human checkers with automatic checking machines. Like Yglesias, I don’t think bemoaning automation in this way is helpful. He gives the empirical argument that slow productivity growth hasn’t historically been good for workers, and that too-low wages are probably one of the things impeding the adoption of productivity-enhancing technology. The second is an argument that I [made before](, specifically using the supermarket checkout machine as an example. But now I want to make a broader ideological point about this.

These two posts, the one from [Erik Loomis]( and especially the follow up by [“DJW”](, contain two distinct arguments for the anti-machine position. To take the second and less compelling one first, there’s the claim that maybe being a supermarket checker isn’t so alienating and menial after all:

> Secondly, this line of thinking makes some assumptions that I’m sympathetic to, but can’t entirely get on board with. First, __the assumption that we can theorize about jobs in this concrete and certain way and determine that supermarket checker (and I assume many much worse jobs) are ‘menial’ and we should hope for a world in which humans don’t do that sort of thing.__ I like my early Marx, too, but I can’t get on board with this. I simply don’t think we have the tools to do this kind of universal theorizing about the essential nature and value of this or that job. __People have long found meaning and dignity in all manner of repetitive and uncreative work.__ Others have approached the world of work with indifference; they work to pay the bills and finding meaning and value in other aspects of their lives. Marx, of course, chalked this sort of thing up to alienation and false consciousness and the like, but I’m more of pluralist about what a dignified and fully human life looks like. At a minimum, __I don’t have all the answers, and have a healthy distrust of letting my own tastes and proclivities get in the way of respecting other’s ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms.__

This is reminiscent of my exchange with [Reihan Salam]( from a couple of months ago, and I don’t find this argument any more compelling from the left than I did from the right. I’ll just note that by framing the issue in this way, DJW totally effaces the real nature of work in a capitalist society. To pretend that the existence of many people who work as supermarket checkers reflects their “ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms” is to ignore the reality that for the worker without independent wealth, the only “choice” is between obtaining the wage they need to get by, or starving in the streets. You don’t see a lot of trust-fund kids or lottery winners working as supermarket checkers.

Moreover, there’s no principled rationale here. If the menial jobs we have are good, then why wouldn’t more would be better? we could solve the jobs deficit through a campaign against technology throughout the economy. This would also have the effect of lowering our material standard of living, but to this way of thinking that’s presumably a good thing.

I doubt the LGM bloggers really endorse such a program, though. As I said, I don’t think the argument is based on an ideological principle at all; rather, it’s the result of a pragmatic calculation:

> First, let’s be clear that __this is some deeply utopian stuff.__ This makes third party advocates seem downright practical. We’ve had a modern capitalist economy for quite some time now, in many different countries, and I can’t think of any that have come anywhere close to this, or made it a meaningful priority. Of course __some unpleasant and meaningful jobs have been largely eliminated, and more probably will be in the future, but when this does occur it is almost always with indifference or actual malice toward the eliminated worker__, rather than compassion. And while the overall mix of jobs in a society may improve for the better over time, __it’s virtually never the case that workers in eliminated fields end up better off. If the elimination takes place in a moment of robust employment they may be OK, but for the most part those who lose the jobs are going to be worse off for a good long while.__ Even in the most robust and humane welfare states the modern world has developed, unemployment is generally associated with a decline in living standards, sense of self-worth, and so on.

Leave aside for a moment that this argument sort of implies that no-one should ever lose their job, which is inconsistent with the assumption of a capitalist economy; I’m willing to chalk that up to a sloppy formulation. The general principle being expressed here isn’t unreasonable or irrational: sometimes it’s better to help a few workers here and now than to run off after utopian pie in the sky, and we should be wary of the slippery logic that it’s OK to impose hardship on a few workers for the sake of the greater good. This is the same thinking that’s at work in defenses of [licensing cartels]( that protect some workers at the expense of consumers and excluded laborers, and in attacks on investments in urban infrastructure that [may have the effect]( of pricing some people out of their neighborhoods. These aren’t silly things to be worried about–if you can’t achieve anything positive, you should at least do no harm. And as the left has gotten weaker and weaker, such arguments have gotten more and more plausible. But we’ve reached a point where some people seem to be opposed to any policy at all that imposes a burden on any group of workers.

It’s an attitude that bespeaks an intensely conservative and defensive politics, and one which has internalized the great right-wing motif of the past several decades: there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. To Loomis and DJW, the possibility of a historically novel progressive alternative is literally unthinkable. For them, the only choices are a) an intensification of neoliberalism’s logic of inequality and joblessness; or b) a desperate struggle to hold on to the remnants of the 20th century Keynesian social compromise. Given those options, I’d take the second choice as well.

But I don’t think those are the only options, and moreover I don’t think that in the long run this position is really as pragmatic as it seems. It commits the left to an endlessly reactive, defensive struggle over a shrinking commons, while leaving us bereft of any compelling vision to offer people. And trying to fight off automation won’t be a matter of a few rear-guard skirmishes, but of all-out societal-scale war: see Farhad Manjoo’s [ongoing series]( on the pervasive effect of robotization throughout all sectors of the economy.

That isn’t to say that I’m always opposed to defensive struggles–sometimes that’s the best you can do, and sometimes winning a small human-scale victory is worth compromising our broader vision a bit. But the LGM authors go a good deal farther than this: Erik Loomis’s original post didn’t say that de-automation was a good second best outcome, he said that he was “very glad” to see the self-checkout machines disappear, because they are “a calculated plan by grocery stores to employ less people.” DJW, meanwhile, straightforwardly embraces Luddism. I’m taken aback by a worldview that would make such defensiveness and conservatism central to its ideology. That’s not what the left has been about at its best–and as Corey Robin [explains](, it’s not even what right-wing “conservatism” was ever about.

Left out of consideration in these anti-technology arguments is any conception that increased productivity could be used to benefit the masses rather than the elite. The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only [a phenomenon of the past 30 years]( In the period prior to that, rising productivity went with rising wages: this was the heart of the postwar Keynesian social compact. And in the period prior to *that*, rising productivity went along with a shortening of the working day, through a long series of [bitter struggles]( It’s odd, and a bit sad, to see the LGM bloggers ahistorically naturalizing the left’s weakness, especially given that at least one of the authors I’m discussing is [a college professor](–lgm.doc). I thought it was the professors who were supposed remind us of history, and to cling to impractical utopianism. But to find an antidote to the timid conservatism of the professor, we have to turn to the harebrained utopian dreaming of….dockworkers.

Containerization and automation have drastically decreased the need for human labor in America’s ports, as anyone who’s watched Season 2 of *The Wire* knows. But among some longeshoreman the response wasn’t to resist the machines, but to accept them–[with conditions](

> In modern times, far more than other unions, the longshoreman have used technological change to their advantage. In 1960, the West Coast longshoremen agreed to far-reaching automation that replaced inefficient break-bulk cargo, which relied on hooks to move the cargo, with containerized cargo, which relies on cranes. __In accepting automation, the union recognized that productivity would soar and the number of longshoremen needed would plunge__; there are now 10,500 West Coast longshoremen, down from 100,000 in the 1950’s.

> In exchange, __the union received an unusual promise: port operators pledged to share the fruits of the new automation. Management promised all longshoremen a guaranteed level of pay, even if there was not work for everyone.__ Management also promised to share the wealth.

Bill DiFazio [wrote a book]( about some longshoremen like this in New York, and he makes a case against the view that without wage labor, our lives will lose meanings and we will drift into dissipation. He found instead that the lives of the longshoremen were greatly enriched, as they were freed from dangerous labor and became more deeply involved with their neighborhoods and their families.

Basically, I think this is the deal we need to strike throughout the economy: automation (and relatedly, free trade) in exchange for compensating the displaced. However, the longshoremen were only able to achieve this victory because they occupy an unusual strategic choke-point in the economy. Shutting down the ports can cripple wide swaths of business, and this gives dockworkers a kind of negotiating leverage that isn’t available to, say, supermarket checkers. Which is why I think that the demand to compensate workers for technological change now has to be fought out politically and electorally, at the level of the state, rather than in the individual workplace. That’s the essence of my argument for the [Basic Income]( just like the dockworkers’ agreement, it ensures a level of pay whether or not there is work for everyone, only it generalizes the principle to encompass the whole economy.

You can dismiss that as utopianism if you like. Certainly the call for work reduction and the decoupling of income from employment has been made many times through the generations, from [Paul LaFargue]( to [André Gorz]( to [Stanley Aronowitz]( But the left does itself no favors by remaining in a defensive crouch, clinging to nostalgia for a political order that was rooted in a very different political economy–and which wasn’t even [all that great]( to begin with. Despite what William F. Buckley once said, the right didn’t win by “standing athwart history yelling ‘stop!'”–and on issues where they *did* do that, like racial segregation and gay marriage, they have lost or are losing. The modern right provided an offensive strategy and a grand vision of what was wrong with the society that existed and what had to be done to turn it into something better: [one market under god](

Their dream of unrestrained capitalism, of course, turned out to be a nightmarish fraud. But that’s all the more reason to demand something new and better, rather than merely clinging to what’s left of the old.