“Forget job creation, we need to do more job killing. Cutting the military budget, reining in the financial sector, and dismantling the prison-industrial complex will destroy many jobs. So, too, would a single payer national health care system: the Republican attacks on Obama’s ‘job-killing’ health care law were lies, but only because Obama’s plan is so inadequate. As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems, we’ll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will ‘kill jobs’.”
True progress, argues Frase, is providing the social and economic resources to everyone to allow each person to make meaningful choices about their lives. Jobs in the post-industrial economy do not provide a secure route to this kind of choice. Moreover, many of the jobs in our economy contribute to environmental destruction, perpetual war, and social inequality.
Frase has dedicated several blog posts (each word is a link) to the idea that there are better alternatives to the labor market, and in any case, that in a mechanized world there can no longer be full employment. The welfare state should focus on ensuring a universal basic income (UBI) for all rather than making social support dependent on being in the labor market.
Is the UBI a good idea?
I would argue that the UBI is a socialist pipe dream: no viable political movement in the United States could bring it about, at least not without radically altering public opinion about welfare entitlement. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the UBI is a bad idea. Whether the UBI is a bad or good idea depends first, on how much valuable economic activity would be eliminated if workers exited the labor market to accept the UBI, second, whether society could afford the UBI, and third, on whether people subsisting on the UBI could pursue meaningful and fulfilling lives without work.
The economic viability of the UBI depends on how workers and producers respond to certain incentives. A lump sum transfer of money from capitalists to workers is not inefficient, but if the transfer is large enough it will lure some workers out of the labor force and increase the wages of those who stay behind. If the economy is operating at full capacity, then fewer goods will be produced and aggregate income will decrease. So our collective ability to sustain a UBI scheme depends on the participation of enough workers to keep industry humming, not to mention the continued willingness of capitalists to organize production and foster innovation. Make the cost of the UBI high enough, and the system will be both too costly to sustain and too attractive to people who might otherwise engage in productive economic activity.
The sunny side of mechanization
Mechanization changes the story. If, instead of eliminating jobs on the assembly line or the checkout stand, we fill those jobs with robots, then the displaced workers may not be needed in the economy. This is a specter that haunts most liberal economists, but Frase thinks that it poses a unique opportunity to liberate workers from degrading and difficult jobs:
“the promise of widespread automation is that it could enact just such a liberation, or at least approach it—if, that is, we find a way to deal with the need to generate power and secure resources. But recent technological developments have taken place not just in the production of commodities, but in the generation of the energy needed to operate the automatic factories and 3-D printers of the future. Hence one possible post-scarcity future combines labor-saving technology with an alternative to the current energy regime, which is ultimately limited by both the physical scarcity and ecological destructiveness of fossil fuels.”
This brave new automated world sets the stage for the kind of post-industrial paradise that Marx envisioned, where people are free to set out on their own creative enterprises (if they want to) and the labor market no longer organizes many people’s day-to-day experiences. To bring this about would require that capitalists that replace their workforce with robots would need to compensate the displaced workers, and the UBI would become the default method for providing this compensation. How extensive this compensation could be would depend on how much we could automate the world, and what kinds of resources we would need to provide to everyone in order to allow them to pursue leisure and consumption without destroying the environment.
Personal fulfillment and work
What does life look like for people living on the UBI without work? In particular, can people be entirely fulfilled without work? It has become a mantra in our society that work is necessary not just for financial survival but also for personal fulfillment. Part of this perception is fed by experience – we know that people that get laid off experience a precipitous drop in life satisfaction and are more susceptible to personal problems like depression and drinking. We do not exactly know how much this decline in life satisfaction is due to the intrinsic value of work versus the stigma of being jobless in a world where we have been taught that idleness is a moral failing.
A longitudinal study of German workers found that those that lost their jobs were much less likely to be satisfied during their working years, but once they reached retirement age their satisfaction dramatically rebounded. The explanation, Frase believes, is that once in the retirement group, they no longer dealt with the daily stigma of being jobless:
“The unemployed become happier, it turns out, as soon as they stop thinking of themselves as workers. This result suggests that the harm caused by unemployment has a lot to do with the way we, as a society, regard the unemployed. We treat paying work as a sure mark of a person’s worth, even though this conviction has no coherent rationale.”
There’s probably a lot to the argument that people could be very happy without work, but people need something to fulfill themselves emotionally and spiritually. Creating value, rather than “make work,” would require changing how people see their lives, and what activities we can collectively offer people that no longer have skills required by the market economy. Gardening, organizing community activities, knitting, blogging (ha), can all be fulfilling non-market activities, but it’s not clear that everyone can find a place for herself in a labor-less world. Then again, the instinctive reflex that work matters for self-fulfillment may reflect a lack of imagination – most of human history was a world without labor markets, perhaps most of the human future will be too.