I am a great believer in self-employment, and think many more people should be self-employed than currently are. But I don’t think everybody should be self-employed, for the simple reason that not everybody wants to be self-employed. But if work is to continue to be a part of our economic tapestry, then it needs to undergo some major restoration work.
Is work primarily a source of dignity?
Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, has led a major rebranding of that institution from one promoting the most extreme forms of Objectivist libertarianism into a softer, gentler giant that frames their agenda in terms designed to appeal to more moderate voters and politicians.
A major component of this project has been recasting the dismantling of the welfare state as “pro-work labor market reform.” And work, Brooks has been eager to argue, is the key to human happiness.
In the New York Times, Brooks wrote, “I learned that rewarding work is unbelievably important, and this is emphatically not about money…relieving poverty brings big happiness, but income, per se, does not…Work can bring happiness by marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others.”
This is work as talisman, endowing the bearer with dignity, self-respect, and the respect of others. While I was glued to C-SPAN on Wednesday watching the Senate debate repealing the Affordable Care Act, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made this exact argument:
“Frankly, one of the misunderstandings of this debate is that any Republican is up here talking about trying to take away stuff from those who are disabled, can’t work, and do have to have care. That is traditional Medicaid. They will continue to be cared for. Under this, we are talking only about able-bodied people. Should able-bodied people–people who walk around, hop out of their truck–should they be working? Should they be providing for their health insurance? Yes. Can there be a transition zone? Yes. We have transition programs between unemployment back to employment. We shouldn’t have people permanently unemployed–people permanently on benefits who don’t work or won’t work. There should be work requirements. I am not afraid to say that every able-bodied person on Medicaid ought to work. There should be a work requirement. I meet many people on both sides of the aisle who are for that.
“I don’t say they should work as punishment. I think everyone in America should work as a reward. I think work is a reward. I don’t care whether you are from the lowest job on the totem pole to the top, to the chief executive. Work is where you get self-esteem. No one can give you self-esteem. Your self-esteem comes from work. I think we are wrong. In fact, I think what we have done–in some cases, we now have multigenerational dependency on government, and they are so distraught and so lacking in self-esteem that it also compounds the drug problem that we have.”
The logic of Arthur Brooks and Rand Paul is that unemployment has become too easy, too comfortable, and that by making unemployment painful enough, we can draw more people into the workforce. Importantly, in this framing we are doing so for their own good. The argument is that the unemployed incorrectly believe that they are happier outside the work force, when in fact they would be happier working at a job — any job.
Or is work primarily a source of money?
You may or may not be surprised, depending on your economic background and your own work experience, to learn that actual workers tend to see work very differently: as a source of money, which they can then use to pay their bills and expenses.
The Fight for 15 is a movement to increase the incomes of minimum-wage workers by raising the minimum wage.
The Center for Popular Democracy is leading a Fair Workweek Initiative to require shifts to be scheduled in advance — and for workers to be paid for the shifts they’re scheduled to work.
Likewise the workers who lost their lawsuit against an Amazon subcontractor because they were searched at the end of every shift were not suing in order to end the practice of searching them at the end of every shift. They were suing for the money they were owed for the time they spent waiting to be searched.
This is not to say that workers are not concerned about dignity. Workers are extremely concerned about dignity! But this primarily takes the form of indignities inflicted on them by their employers and coworkers. Being sexually harassed is an indignity. Having your bathroom breaks timed and monitored is an indignity. There is a college debate argument, typically made by freshman and particularly dense sophomores, that workers should be able to enter into “harassment contracts” which allow their bosses to sexually harass them in exchange for higher wages. In reality, of course, it’s the lowest-paid workers and those with the fewest alternatives who are the most vulnerable to workplace abuses.
If work is a source of dignity, we must make it dignified
I have tried to be as fair as possible to both views of work, because I’m not particularly concerned which of the two models of work you personally endorse. That’s because whichever version you ascribe to, the fact is that work is failing workers.
If work is a source of dignity and self-respect, how can it be that we allow employers to fire workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity? If work is what lets a woman hold up her head proudly, how can we allow her employer to decide which forms of birth control her insurance will cover? If work is to be a source of dignity, how can we let employers continually violate workplace safety rules? If you, like Rand Paul, believe that “work is a reward,” the only acceptable conclusion is a radical reform of our labor laws so that the ultimate fruits of that labor are not death, dismemberment, and disability (find me the dignity in incident #1227660: “One worker died and another hospitalized after being ejected from bucket”). A logical way to make work dignified is by expanding collective bargaining rights, so workers can participate in the creation of work environments that dignify, but certainly more aggressive state and federal oversight of working conditions is indispensable if work is to fulfill its destiny of conferring dignity on the worker.
But even more importantly, if work is to be a source of dignity, rather than money, workers will need some other source of money. What form that income should take is not especially relevant. A universal basic income would give workers leverage to bargain for more dignified working conditions, since they would have a fallback option in case of intolerable indignities. A refundable tax credit like the Earned Income Credit could be used to “top up” the incomes of workers, although as currently conceived the EIC creates unnecessary and harmful marginal tax rate headaches, as part of the credit is clawed back with each dollar a worker earns above a certain threshold.
Work need not be a worker’s primary source of income, but if it is not, we must find something to replace it.
If work is a source of money, we must make it pay
On the other hand, especially if you know anybody who works for a living, you may have the view that people work not to secure dignity and self-respect, but rather money. Here, too, we find that work is not doing its job. If employment is to be the primary or exclusive source of income for workers, then work must produce sufficient income for a worker to survive. Today we have the bizarre situation where:
- prime-age male labor force participation is at historic lows (this is a problematic measure, but it is true);
- the inflation-adjusted minimum wage is 35% lower than it was in 1968;
- and millions of workers hold multiple jobs in order to make ends meet!
If you believe the point of work is to earn an income, then this situation cannot be tolerable. Wages are too low, forcing people to hoard jobs: instead of two jobs going to two different workers, each of whom earns enough to live, a single worker will hold two or more jobs. The worker earns enough to live while the unemployed goes without any income at all.
The question of how to make work pay is an interesting one and there is no shortage of suggestions:
- An increased minimum wage, especially one indexed to inflation and without gimmicks like tipped-worker exclusions, would force employers to pay each employee more, enticing more workers off the sidelines into the labor force. Proponents points out this option would also “internalize” to firms the expenses the state currently pays to top up the income of low-wage workers, like SNAP benefits, EIC, and Medicaid.
- Wage subsidies to low-income workers would give employees more take-home pay without imposing additional costs on employers. An advantage of this plan is an increase in employees’ income without depressing employment overall. A disadvantage would be “externalizing” to the state the living expenses of low-income workers. There’s no obvious reason why the public as a whole should subsidize the country’s least productive private businesses.
You may think that the problems and solutions I’ve outlined here are commonsensical, or you may find them dangerous and incendiary, depending on your prior political inclinations.
So let me share one, basic, elementary, essential truth: work is at a critical crossroads. If the return to work continues to be sabotaged by a capitalist class intent on retaining all the profits of industry for itself, and by a political class intent on immiserating workers by destroying, step-by-step, their ability to control the terms, conditions, and yes, dignity, of their employment, then work has no future in America.
If you think today’s youth lack a work ethic, wait and see what they’ll be like once you’ve completely destroyed work as an institution.