Friday, July 6, 2012

June Jobs and a Basic Income Law

The labor department released its jobs report this morning. About 80,000 jobs were created in the month of June. A very weak showing, 80,000 isn't even sufficient to employ the approximately 120,000 new high school and college graduates entering the labor force each month, let alone the millions of long-term unemployed. As such, the response to this 'news' tends to mostly be one of glum surprise. And while it's in some senses understandable that people should find it depressing, it is hard to understand how people could be at all surprised. Indeed, for decades jobs have been disappearing. Even while Reagan was still sitting in the oval office, Bruce Springsteen sung - in "My Hometown" - that the "foreman says these jobs are going, boy, and they ain't coming back." This observation of Springsteen's was not particularly insightful. He was merely recording what was obvious then, and is obvious still. Jobs are still going, and they're still not coming back. Some are being outsourced, others are being replaced by automation. Just the other day I visited a CVS drug store. The only employee was a security guard. He stood by the door as the customers all dutifully checked out their products with the help of the automated cashiers. CVS is no doubt reducing their labor costs, but this doesn't at all show up in a reduction of their products' prices. At any rate, jobs are getting fewer and fewer. The long-term unemployed are growing more and more numerous. And the status quo's plan seems to be pithily summed up by the slogan employed during Obama's first presidential campaign: Hope.

Mainstream economists were hoping for, and predicting that there would be, a significant upsurge in jobs. And it is difficult to tell whether they really expected there to be such an increase, or those pros of the confidence game were simply feigning expectation - and its shadow, surprise - to keep people hopeful. It may well be that since they do, after all, seem to live in a fantasy world, they really were surprised. They were surprised and now they're glum.

But just as there is really little reason to be surprised, there is little reason to be glum. Those champions of the capitalist system ought to be happy. See, they should say, capitalism is so efficient, we can do so much without even needing to employ people! Indeed, irrespective of the actual exploitation and mutilation involved, industrialization was always sold as a liberating thing - machines would liberate the mass of people from drudgery - or at least liberate them from the drudgery of not having the latest gadget. With this in mind, doesn't it seem to be the case that a profound reversal, or confusion, of cause and effect, or ends and means is taking place in mainstream economic thinking vis-a-vis jobs? For the point of an actual economy is not really to make jobs. In many respects it is to get rid of jobs. Jobs are supposed to be finished at some point. They are the means to an end, not the end in itself. To be sure, meaningful work may be an end in itself, but that is not the same thing as a job. The point of a job is to take care of a task. These days, of course, this is not the case at all. In a capitalist economy, jobs are not ends but means. Consequently, people need to make money - so they come up with all sorts of schemes - jobs - irrespective of whether any good is truly created, or any harm is caused. Why supply people with one well-made fork and ruin the fork market, the thinking goes, when you can sell disposable forks eternally and ruin the world?

Back to jobs. If more and more computers and robots are taking care of more and more of our tasks, well, maybe most people just don't really even need jobs at all. Maybe most people can just be full-time students - whether students of astrophysics or students of tennis, or literature, or music, is immaterial - and they can perform certain, necessary jobs related to their fields of study. We already know that it's far less costly for people to go to university than it is to lock them up in prisons, right? But the point is, it's a good thing if there is less work to do. The only problem that arises is that people need to pay their bills. How will they do that?

As the hygiecratic argument goes, if the health of the people of the world is the supreme law, then that which is counter to the health of the people of the world is against the law. Therefore, society has a positive duty to provide the conditions of health - for it must negate the absence of these conditions. As such, there must be a right to housing, and food, among other things, since these are the most basic conditions of health. That's all fine and good, some may reply, but what should we pursue right away so that people can pay their bills?

As many countries throughout the world are beginning to discuss, one simple way to alleviate just this problem is through the implementation of a guaranteed basic income law. That is, irrespective of whether or not one has a job, one is guaranteed a basic income sufficient to live a healthy life. Implementation of such a law would alleviate the entire problem of there being no jobs. Of course, there are still many things to be done - there are many problems to correct, and transforming the conditions of disease to conditions of health will not happen overnight. But maybe we would have an easier time of creating these conditions of health if people weren't being paid, and compelled, to do them. Indeed, providing a basic income would lessen the likelihood of unethical practices. Mitigating any conflict of interest, the person doing the job would be doing it out of an interest in completing the task itself, rather than out of an interest in making money. The rich, of course, won't like this one bit; it'll deprive them of the rent they extract from every transaction. Fortunately, however, it's not their decision to make.


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