He Works Hard (But Not Always For The Money)

University of London economist Guy Standing has championed universal basic income since the 80’s. In Basic Income:  A Guide For the Open-Minded (2017), he tackles the argument that UBI is flawed because recipients don’t work for it.

“A remarkable number of commentators and social scientists lose their common sense when it comes to talking or writing about work. While every age throughout history has drawn arbitrary distinctions between what counts as work and what does not, ours may be the most perverse.

“Only in the twentieth century did most work that was not paid labour become non-work. Labour statistics persist in this travesty. ‘Work’ is counted only if it is for pay, in the marketplace.”

For example, he says, it’s the same work to walk the dog whether you do it yourself  or pay someone else to do it, but the former doesn’t count. If it did, it would add up to a lot:

“In the U,K. — and it is similar in other countries — the unremunerated economy (caring for children and the elderly, housework, voluntary work in the community, and so on) is estimated to be worth well over half the size of the money economy.”

Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test does work that counts and work that doesn’t; either way, he works hard:

“In a speck of a village deep in the Finnish countryside, a man gets money for free. Each month, almost €560 [about $640] is dropped into his bank account, with no strings attached.

“He’s a human lab rat in an experiment that could help to shape the future of the west.

“Until this year … he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself … The Finnish [workfare system] was always on his case about job applications and training.

“[He was in the same position as] an unemployed Finn called Christian [who] was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums [picks]. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping.

“Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.

“So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Järvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as ‘poor.’

“Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children.

“All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.”

Compare his situation to that of Florian Dou, one of France’s “yellow vest” protesters, who has no UBI safety net:

“At the bare bottom of Florian Dou’s shopping cart at the discount supermarket, there was a packet of $6 sausages and not much else… “My salary and my wife’s have been gone for 10 days,” he lamented.

“How to survive those days between when the money runs out and when his paycheck arrives for his work as a warehouse handler has become a monthly challenge. The same is true for so many others in Guéret, a grim provincial town in south-central France.

“In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?”

That last comment — “going out this weekend” — is a moralistic hot button among UBI foes. Again from Guy Standing:

“More generally, there is a moralistic presumption that poor people, especially those receiving benefits, should not be spending money on anything but the bare essentials, denying themselves even the smallest ‘luxury’ that might make their lives less miserable. As Marx pointed out in 1844, ‘every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need seems a luxury.’”

Standing also exposes a related presumption:

“It is often claimed that giving cash to those in need is misguided because people will spend it on alcohol, cigarettes, and other ‘bads’ rather than on their children and essentials such as food, clothes, and heating.

“Obviously, this is a thoroughly paternalistic line of attack. Where to draw a line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Why should a rich person have the freedom to buy and consume whatever the state bureaucracy deems a ‘bad,” but not a poor person?”

Good vs.bad, work that counts vs. work that doesn’t, necessities vs. luxuries…  the UBI debate is littered with polarities and prejudices. Suppose the cultural pendulum swings all the way to a state of “total work” — what would that be like? We’ll find out next time.

The Rentier Economy — Primer Part 1

rise of the rentiers

As we saw last week, the original Monopoly game — then known as The Landlord’s Game — offered a choice of two different games, one played under “Prosperity” rules and the other under “Monopoly” rules. The post-WWII economic surge was a real-life Prosperity game:  it generated a rising tide of economic benefit that floated all boats across all social classes. The surge peaked in the 1970’s, and since then the Monopoly rules have increasingly asserted themselves, resulting in, among other things, stagnant employee compensation (except for the top 10%) and rising returns to capital owners — the lion’s share paid in the form of rents. The latter reflects the rise of a “rentier economy.”

First, we need to define “rent”:

Economists use the term ‘rent’ in a special way. For them, rent refers… to the excess payment made to any factor of production (land, labor, or capital) due to scarcity.

The scarcity factor that gives rise to rents can be natural, as with the case of land.

But rents can also arise from artificial scarcity — in particular, government policies that confer special advantages on favored market participants.

The Captured Economy:  How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality, Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles (2017).

And “rentier”:

A rentier is someone who gains income from possession of assets, rather than from labour. A rentier corporation is a firm that gains much of its revenue from rental income rather than from production of goods and services., notably from financial assets or intellectual property. A rentier state has institutions and policies that favour the interests of rentiers. A rentier economy is one that receives a large share of income in the form of rent.

The Corruption of Capitalism, Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Guy Standing (2016)

Economists didn’t see the rentier economy coming. They especially didn’t foresee how government policy would create it. The following is from The Corruption of  Capitalism:

John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the mid-twentieth century, famously dismissed the rentier as the ‘functionless investor’ who gained income solely from ownership of capital, exploiting its ‘scarcity value.’ He concluded in his epochal General Theory that, as capitalism spread, it would mean the “euthanasia of the rentier,” and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity value of capital:

“Whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital… I see, therefore, the rentier aspect of capitalism as a transitional phase which will disappear when it has done its work.”

Keynes was mistaken because he did not foresee how the neoliberal framework built since the 1980’s would allow individuals and firms to generate ‘contrived scarcity’ of assets from which to gain rental income. Nor did he foresee how the modern ‘competitiveness’ agenda would give asset owners power to extract rental subsidies from the state.

Eighty years later, the rentier is anything but dead; rentiers have become the main beneficiaries of capitalism’s emerging income distribution system.

The old income distribution system that tied income to jobs has disintegrated.

And this is from The Captured Economy:

The last few decades have been a perplexing time in American economic life. Following a temporary spike during the Internet boom of the 1990’s, rates of economic growth have been exceptionally sluggish. At the same time, incomes at the very top have exploded while those further down have stagnated.

As a technical matter, rent is a morally neutral concept. ,,, Nevertheless, the term ‘rent’ is most commonly used in a moralized sense to refer specifically to bad rents. In particular, the expression ‘rent-seeking’ refers to business activity that seeks to increase profits without creating anything of value through distortions to market processes, such as constraints on the entry of new firms.

Those advantages can also take the form of subsidies or rules that impose extra burdens on both existing and potential competitors. The rents enjoyed through government favoritism not only misallocate resources in the short term but they also discourage dynamism and growth over the long term. Their existence encourages an ongoing negative-sum scramble for more favors instead of innovation and the diffusion of good ideas.

Economists have had an explanation for the latter trend, which is that returns to skill have increased dramatically, largely because of globalization and information technology. There is clearly something to this explanation, but why should the more efficient operation of markets be accompanied by a decline in economic growth?

Our answer is that increasing returns to skill and other market-based drivers of rising inequality are only part of the story. Yes, in some ways the US economy has certainly grown more open to the free play of market forces during the course of the past few decades. But in other ways, economic returns are now determined much more by success in the political arena and less by the forces of market competition. By suppressing and distorting markets, the proliferation of regulatory rents has also led to less wealth for everyone.

To be continued.

 

On the Third Hand Cont’d.

working robot

Will the machines take over the jobs?

In a recent TED talk, scholar, economist, author, and general wunderkind Daniel Susskindl[1] says the question is distracting us from a much bigger and more important issue:  how will we feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves if we no longer work for a living?:

“If we think of the economy as a pie, technological progress makes the pie bigger. Technological unemployment, if it does happen, in a strange way will be a symptom of that success — we will have solved one problem — how to make the pie bigger — but replaced it with another — how to make sure that everyone gets a slice. As other economists have noted, solving this problem won’t be easy.

“Today, for most people, their job is their seat at the economic dinner table, and in a world with less work or even without work, it won’t be clear how they get their slice. This is the collective challenge that’s right in front of us — to figure out how this material prosperity generated by our economic system can be enjoyed by everyone in a world in which our traditional mechanism for slicing up the pie, the work that people do, withers away and perhaps disappears.

Guy Standing, another British economist, agrees with Susskind about this larger issue. The following excerpts are from his book The Corruption of Capitalism. He begins by quoting Nobel prizewinning economist Herbert Simon’s 1960 prediction:

“Within the very near future – much less than twenty-five years – we shall have the technical capacity of substituting machines for any and all human functions in organisations.”

And then he makes these comments:

“You do not receive a Nobel Prize for Economics for being right all the time! Simon received his in 1978, when the number of people in jobs was at record levels. It is higher still today. Yet the internet-based technological revolution has reopened age-old visions of machine domination. Some are utopian, such as the post-capitalism of Paul Mason, imagining an era of free information and information sharing. Some are decidedly dystopian, where the robots — or rather their owners — are in control and mass joblessness is coupled with a ‘panopticon’ state[2] subjecting the proles to intrusive surveillance, medicalized therapy and brain control. The pessimists paint a ‘world without work.’ With every technological revolution there is a scare that machines will cause ‘technological unemployment’. This time the Jeremiahs seem a majority.

 “Whether or not they will do so in the future, the technologies have not yet produced mass unemployment… [but they] are contributing to inequality.

“While technology is not necessarily destroyed jobs, it is helping to destroy the old income distribution system.

“The threat is technology-induced inequality, not technological unemployment.”

Economic inequality and income distribution (sharing national wealth on a basis other than individual earned income) are two sides of the issue of economic fairness — always an inflammatory topic.

When I began my study of economics 15 months ago, I had never heard of economic inequality, and income distribution was something socialist countries did. Now I find both topics all over worldwide economic news and commentary and still mostly absent in U.S. public discourse (such as it is) outside of academic circles. On the whole, most policy-makers on both the left and right maintain their allegiance to the post-WWII Mont Pelerin neoliberal economic model, supported by a cultural and moral bias in favor of working for a living, and if the plutocrats take a bigger slice of pie while the welfare rug gets pulled on the working poor, well then so be it. If the new robotic and super-intelligent digital workers do in fact cause massive technological unemployment among the humans, we’ll all be reexamining these beliefs, big time.

Finland flag smaller

I started this series months ago by asking whether money can buy happiness, citing the U.N.’s World Happiness Report. The 2018 Report was issued this week, and who should be on top but… Finland! And guess what — among other things, factors cited include low economic inequality and strong social support systems (i.e., a cultural value for non-job-based income distribution). National wealth was also a key factor, but it alone didn’t buy happiness:  the USA, with far and away the strongest per capita GDP, had an overall ranking of 18th. For more, see this World Economic Forum article or this one from the South China Morning Post.

We’ll be looking further into all of this (and much more) in the weeks to come.

[1] If you’ve been following this blog for awhile and the  name “Susskind” sounds familiar, a couple years ago, I blogged about the future and culture of the law, often citing the work of Richard Susskind, whose opus is pretty much the mother lode of crisp thinking about the law and technology. His equally brilliant son Daniel joined him in a book that also addressed other professions, which that series also considered. (Those blogs were collected in my book Cyborg Lawyers.) Daniel received a doctorate in economics from Oxford University, was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, and is now a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. Previously, he worked as a policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and as a senior policy adviser in the Cabinet Office.

[2] The panopticon architectural structure was the brainchild of legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. For an introduction to the origins of his idea and its application to the digital age, see this article in The Guardian.

Whatever Happened to Working For a Living? (Cont’d.)

“Politically, every transformation has begun
with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age.”

– Economist Guy Standing

Last time, I quoted at length from economist Guy Standing’s analysis of how the notion of working for a living has historically fared under the social democracy and neoliberalism economic models. Prof. Standing believes that, as a result of the developments chronicled there, a new class system now dominates the working world. Again, I’ll quote from his book The Corruption of Capitalism (2016):

“Globalization, neo-liberal policies, institutional changes and the technological revolution have combined to generate a new global class structure superimposed on preceding class structures. This consists of a tiny plutocracy (perhaps 0.001 per cent) atop a bigger elite, a ‘salariat’ (in relatively secure salaried jobs, ‘proficians’ (freelance professionals), a core working class, a precariat and a ‘lumpen precariat’ at the bottom. The plutocracy, elite, salariat, and proficians enjoy not just higher incomes but gain most (or an increasing part) of their income from capital and rental income.

“The three classes below them gain nothing in rent. Indeed, increasingly they pay rent in some form to the classes above them. First, there is the shrinking proletariat, relying mainly on labour in stable, mostly full-time jobs, with schooling that matches the skills their jobs require. The precariat, which ranks below the proletariat in income, consists of millions of people obliged to accept a life of unstable labour and living, without an occupational identity or corporate narrative to give to their lives. Their employers come and go, or are expected to do so.

“Many in the precariat are over-qualified for the jobs they must accept; they also have a high ratio of unpaid ‘work’ in labour — looking and applying for jobs, training and retraining, queuing and form-filling, networking or just waiting around. They also rely mainly on money wages, which are often inadequate, volatile, and unpredictable. They lack access to rights-based state benefits and are losing civil, cultural, social, economic and political rights, making them supplicants if they need help to survive.

“This precariat is all over the world… For instance, more Americans today see themselves as in the lower classes. In 2000, according to Gallup polls, 63 percent saw themselves as middle-class and 33 percent as lower-class. In 2015, 51 percent saw themselves as middle-class and 48 percent as lower-class. Similar trends have been reported elsewhere.

“Below the precariat in the social spectrum is what might be called a ‘lumpen-precariat,’ an underclass of social victims relying on charity, often homeless and destitute, suffering from social illnesses including drug addiction and depression. … Their numbers are rising remorselessly; they are a badge of shame on society.”

Prof. Standing’s unique contribution to the conversation about work, happiness, and meaning is his identification of the new social strata. The balance of his analysis is not unique — as he says above, it has been reported “all over the world.” In the coming weeks, we’ll look at various implications of these findings:

  • The old job market’s last stand — “bullshit jobs”;
  • Whether the middle class is truly vanishing;
  • Whether a rising tide truly does float all boats;
  • Why this might be a good time for a new vision of utopia; and
  • Why law firms might want to make their next associate hire a robot.

And much more. Stay tuned.

Whatever Happened to Working For a Living?

“Politically, every transformation has begun
with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age.”

– Economist Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a research professor at the University of London and a prolific author and world-traveling speaker. In his book, The Corruption of Capitalism (2016), he analyzes how the concept of working for a living has fared under the two economic models we looked at last time (the Fabian Society’s social democratic model and the Mt. Pelerin Society’s free market). I can add little to his analysis by rephrasing it, therefore I’ll quote excerpts at length in this post and the next.

“The period from the nineteenth century to the 1970’s saw what Karl Polanyi, in his famous 1944 book, dubbed “The Great Transformation” — the construction of national market economies.

“[T]he model that underpinned the Great Transformation made “labour,” not all forms of work. Socialists, communists and social democrats all subscribed to ‘labourism.’ Those in full-time jobs obtained rising real wages, a growing array of ‘contributory’ non-wage benefits, and  entitlements to social security for themselves and their family. Those who did not fit this model were left behind.

“The essence of labourism was that labour rights — more correctly , entitlements — should be provided to those (mostly men) who performed labour and to their spouses and children. As workers previously had little security, this was a progressive step.

“Labourism promoted the view that the more labour people did, the more privileged they should be, and the less they did the less privileged they should be. The ultimate fetishism was Lenin’s dictate, enshrined in the Soviet constitution, that anybody who did not labour should not eat.

“The labourist model frayed in the 1980’s, as labour markets became more flexible and increasing numbers of people moved from job to job and in and out of employment.

“Labour and social democratic parties everywhere became ‘reactionary’ — reacting to events rather than forging the future — and regressive, allowing or even fostering inequality.

“Around 1980 saw the beginnings of a Global Transformation — the construction of a global market system. As with the Great Transformation, the initial phase may be called ‘dis-embedded’ because the emerging economic system rendered old forms of regulation, social protection and redistribution obsolete or ineffectual.

“Politically, every transformation has begun with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age. This time the attack was on labour-based security, previously the objective of governments  or both left and right. Now it was seen as an impediment to growth. Once again, policy changes were dominated by financial capital. Intellectual justification came from the so-called ‘Chicago school’ of law and economics at the University of Chicago, whose leading lights went on to receive Nobel Prizes. Their agenda, honed in the Mont Pelerin Society set up by Friedrich Hayek and thirty-eight like-minded intellectuals in 1947, evolved into what is now called neo-liberalism.

“This meant the liberalization of markets, the commodification and privatization of everything that could be commodified and privatized and the systematic dismantling of all institutions of social solidarity that protected people from ‘market forces.’ Regulations were justifiable only if they promised economic growth; if not, they had to go.

“As a consequence of these developments, ‘in-work poverty’ has rocketed. In some OECD[i] countries, including Britain, the USA, Spain and Poland, a majority of those in poverty live in households where at least one person has a job. The mantra that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ is simply false.”

I.e., according to Prof Standing, historical and contemporary adherence to the Fabian and Mt. Pelerin ideals has skewed and will continue to skew the notion of working for a living in ways that are unsustainable in current economic reality.

Ironically, Lenin’s dictum  that “If any man does not work, neither let him eat” was first articulated two thousand years ago by none other than St. Paul. 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Thus the idea of “working for a living” has long persisted as a cornerstone belief in communist, socialist, and capitalist economic theory, giving it nearly universal sacred status. To question this ideal is truly to trample on hallowed ground.

More next time.

[i] The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has 34 mainly industrialized countries as members.