“Nobody wants to work anymore.” Oh please…

 “Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.” Oscar Wilde

The April jobs numbers are out, they’re lower than forecast, and the Republicans are crying “Socialism!”

“Nobody wants to work anymore.” Somebody who is capable of saying that believes a few essential things: 

  1. “Nobody” – that is, people in general — are lazy, unmotivated, irresponsible, and ignorant. They don’t get it. They don’t get that working at a job is the essential fuel that keeps the USA’s economic fires burning. The USA is nothing without a bull market IPO unicorns free privatize everything social Darwinism free market capitalism on steroids funning at full tilt. In fact, our nation is here on the Earth to carry this torch. We must hold it high. That’s our destiny, our plan, our purpose.
  2. Because people are lazy, unmotivated, and all the rest, we can’t help them out when they’re trying to not starve and not become homeless while surviving a pandemic (um.. “pandemic” means worldwide, like all around the world, the whole planet…) that has killed nearly 600,000 in the USA alone. Even if they needed some help with basic survival, we need to yank the rug out from underneath them in order to fire up our economic engine  — which by now everyone knows isn’t built to help them out, it’s capitalism built to benefit capitalists, Since they won’t do it willingly, we need to force them back into survival, scrambling-to-somehow-make-it mode. That’s when things get done around here.
  3. If we do that, we will build their character. We will make them strong. They will be the rugged individualistic stock that built America. They will sustain this great country into its glorious manifest destiny city on a hill future.
  4. And, I – the speaker — am exempt from all my own accusations. I am above it all, I am of better character than the great unwashed “nobody.” I am justified in arrogantly pronouncing that “nobody wants to work anymore.” I am right and true and noble and visionary when I label any policy “socialism” that would molly-coddle the lousy lazy bastards — without bothering to understand what “socialism” actually is, that it is not in fact synonymous with Communism, that the “free market” is not and has never been free, that tax breaks and pro-monopoly, anti-union, anti-minimum wage, and all the rest are a warped version of socialism in action). Not me. I am better. I am pure. I am on the top of the heap, a member of the club of what all true Americans would be if they would just get a job.
  5. And I – the speaker — can get away with insulting the “people” because they also believe I’m not actually talking about them, I’m not calling them lazy, unmotivated, irresponsible, and ignorant.” They, like me, believe they are also above it all, they are willing to fight for their own survival and they don’t need any stinking help from the government, and that’s the American way. I am my constituents are united in outrage, united in our belief that the problem is Them—the Mexicans and Asians and Moslems and Blacks and anybody else whose skin color isn’t classified as “white” – all those and immigrants and other lowlifes and people from shithole countries who are responsible for all this mess and who believe that there really was (and still is) a pandemic and that getting vaccinated is a good idea.

The April jobs data might have more to tell us than the average brainless if-you-don’t-understand-or-like-it-call-it-socialism Republican is capable of processing.[1] The problem is not that we’re lazy and don’t want to work and therefore need a good swift kick in the butt to get out there and show some character and initiative for a change. The problem is that the Republicans still live in a reality where The Job is everything. The Job is what made American a militarist fascist heartless capitalist powerhouse. The Job is the USA’s gift to mankind. The Job is the cornerstone of civilization.

It never would occur to a true believer in The Job that the great unwashed nobodies aren’t all that excited about working long hours, barely making enough to get by (if that), never having time off, sacrificing family and social life to work-induced zombie-ism. Or that The Job is the lifeless icon of a “free” market that is utterly failing at providing affordable housing, affordable higher education, affordable healthcare, or affordable anything else to the majority of the Americans.

The problem with The Job is that it’s crappy work with crappy hours for crappy pay. The only reason the benefits aren’t also crappy is because there aren’t any benefits. Which is pretty crappy.

The Job sucks. That’s pretty much a guarantee. The Job sucks because the boss probably sucks, and so does the corporation that pays its CEO a gazillion times more than The Job will pay America’s lazy slobs throughout their only-in-your-dreams lifetimes.

The Job sucks because the capitalist free market has been twisted and turned and distorted and warped to the point that capitalism only benefits capitalists. Capitalists don’t make a living at The Job, they make money by having capital – money, lots of money – something people with The Job will never have. And they make lots of money by making sure the lazy slobs of the world have to make a living at The Job. The Job fuels the capitalist engine, and never mind that technology is rapidly making The Job obsolete, so that one day those who work at jobs will become one more non-recyclable waste product loser of competitive zero-sum capitalism. But don’t tell anybody – let ‘em keep believing.

The politicians are good with all that. Let the lazy little fuckers work, don’t they see we’re busy here in Washington making the world safe for capitalism and militarism and totalitarianism? Don’t they see we’re busy making it as hard as possible for people to exercise their last bit of democratic power – the right to vote? People want all this quality of life bullshit – that’s socialism, and it would be the end of America. Socialism gives people stuff to make them happy! That’s as bad as it gets, my friends. Now get back to work. Get off your lazy butt and do your part. Go get The Job.

There never was a Golden Era of The Job. Radio journalist Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people for his 1974 book Working. Here are a couple quotes from it:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”

The Job hasn’t changed since Working came out. A few years back, a professor named David Graeber got more than 15 minutes of fame from his On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:  A Work Rant (2013):

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

Why has it become inflammatory to suggest that boring, meaningless work might not be a good thing? Because of the widespread “truths” about work that have become culturally sacred – and not just to Republicans. Another professor, James Livingston, also gave The Job a thorough shredding a few years back in his book No More Work:  Why full employment is a bad idea(2016)::

“Work means everything to us. For centuries–since, say, 1650[2]–we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labor, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve also believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives–at any rate we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.”

“Those beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills–unless, of course, you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”

“[Work] no longer functions as either a moral calendar or an economic calculator. You will learn nothing about character by going to work at the minimum wage because the gangsters or the morons at corporate headquarters control your opportunities; you will learn nothing about the rationality of the market because the same people determine your income.

“When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labor market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And here’s the rub:  they do not go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills, and present reward. When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, or durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by “durable” I don’t mean just material things0, I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.

“When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America), or buying votes in Congress (all of the above)–just business as usual on Wall Street–while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realize that my participation in the labor market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.”

The Job was already in trouble long before our government dared to soften the impact of a vicious pandemic – despite the Republican President and the rest of the Republicans and their supporters protesting — still to this day, after nearly 600,000 USA deaths (geez, people, what does it take??!!) — that it was all a hoax, it would go away if we ignored it, and getting vaccinated is a Commie plot, and as for the pandemic (worldwide) part, who cares about the rest of the shithole world and those pompous-ass European snobs anyway, we got MAGA.

So what happened while people actually got a few hundred dollars a week to save them from starvation and homelessness (yes, things were… and still are… that dire for millions of people), they got enough relief from The Job to see how crappy it really is. Be in a hurry to go back to that crap? Maybe not.

What we’re seeing from the crappy low jobs numbers is that The (Crappy) Job is a dying American institution. Wave the flag all you like, but The (Crappy) Job ain’t coming back. People who can think have been saying that for awhile, but it took a worldwide plague to reveal that to the rest of us (Republicans excluded). Reveal – revelation – is at the heart of what the word “apocalypse” means. The Republicans missed the revelation. American workers had an apocalypse, but the Republicans were too busy ignoring reality to notice. They’re still blind. They still believe in The (Crappy) Job. They’ll never get it. Never. Just like they’ll never get what socialism really means, that it’s not synonymous with Communism, that it does in fact co-exist nicely with private enterprise, and that yes, it thinks “We The People” deserve more from life than The (Crappy) Job.

How can you say, “Nobody wants to work anymore” without gagging on your silver spoon?

I guess they learn that in Republican school.


[1] See, e.g., ‘No one wants to work anymore’: the truth behind this unemployment benefits myth | US unemployment and employment data | The Guardian (May 7, 2021).

[2] 1650 is the year René Descartes died.

Horatio Alger is Dead, America Has a New Class Structure, and it’s Not Your Fault

horatio alger

January 23, 2020

The member of the month at the gym where I work out is a guy who looks like he’s in his early 20’s. One of the “get to know me” questions asks “Who motivates you the most?” His answer: “My dad, who taught me that hard work can give you anything, as long as you can dedicate time and effort.”

The answer is predictably, utterly American. “Hard work can give you anything” — yes of course, everybody knows that. Parents tell it to their kids, and the kids believe it. America is the Land of Opportunity; it gives you every chance for success, and now it’s up to you. “Anything you want” is yours for the taking – and if you don’t take it, that’s your problem, not America’s.

Except it’s not true, and we know that, too. We know that you can work really, really hard and dedicate lots and lots of time and effort (and money), and still not get what you want.

Why do we keep saying and believing something that isn’t true? Why don’t we admit that things don’t actually work that way? Because that would be un-American. So instead we elevate the boast: America doesn’t just offer opportunity, it gives everybody equal opportunity — like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed.
I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Equal opportunity means everybody starts together. No, not everybody wins, but still… no matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody has the same odds. None of that landed gentry/inherited wealth class system here.

Except that’s not true either, and we know that, too.

But we love the equal opportunity myth. We love the feeling of personal power – agency, self-efficacy – it gives us. It’s been grooved into our American neural circuits since the beginning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the .pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[1]

We’re all equals here in America, divinely ordained to pursue the good life. That’s our creed, and we – “the governed” — declare that we believe it.

Even if it’s not true.

Equal opportunity is a foundational American cultural belief. Cultural myths are sacred – they’re afforded a special status that makes them off limits to examination. And national Founding Myths get the highest hands-off status there is.

Never mind that the Sacred doesn’t seem to mind being doubted – it’s the people who believe something is sacred you have to watch out for. And never mind that history and hindsight have a way of eventually outing cultural myths – exposing them as belief systems, not absolute truths. But it’s too late by the time history has its say: the fraud is perpetrated in the meantime, and attempts to expose it are shunned and punished as disloyal, unpatriotic, treasonous.

If we can’t out the myth, what do we do instead? We blame ourselves. If we don’t get “anything you want,” then we confess that we didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “dedicate the time and effort,” or maybe we did all that but in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, frustration, depression… we take them all on as personal failings, in the name of preserving the myth.

You may have seen the Indeed commercial. (Go ahead, click it – it’s only 30 seconds.)

Indeed advert

It brilliantly taps the emotional power of the equal opportunity myth.

“With no choice but to move back home after college, they thought he’d be a little more motivated to find a job.”

The kid is glued to his phone, and it’s driving his parents crazy. He’s obviously a slacker, a freeloader. Household tensions mount. The phone dings at the dinner table. Dad snatches it up.

“Turns out, they were right.”

He’s using it to find a job! Faith and family harmony restored! That’s our hard-working boy!

Heartwarming, but still untrue.

But What About the Strong Job Numbers?

Yes, unemployment is low. But consider this analysis of those numbers[2], just out this month:

“Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Employment Situation report (better known as the ‘jobs report’) to outline the latest state of the nation’s economy. And with it, of late, have been plenty of positive headlines—with unemployment hovering around 3.5%, a decade of job growth, and recent upticks in wages, the report’s numbers have mostly been good news.

“But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Are these jobs any good? How much do they pay? Do workers make enough to live on?

“Here, the story is less rosy.

“In a recent analysis, we found that 53 million workers ages 18 to 64—or 44% of all workers—earn barely enough to live on. Their median earnings are $10.22 per hour, and about $18,000 per year. These low-wage workers are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, including retail sales, cooks, food and beverage servers, janitors and housekeepers, personal care and service workers (such as child care workers and patient care assistants), and various administrative positions.

“Just how concerning are these figures? Some will say that not all low-wage workers are in dire economic straits or reliant on their earnings to support themselves, and that’s true. But as the following data points show, it would be a mistake to assume that most low-wage workers are young people just getting started, or students, or secondary earners, or otherwise financially secure:

      • Two-thirds (64%) of low-wage workers are in their prime working years of 25 to 54.
      • More than half (57%) work full-time year-round, the customary schedule for employment intended to provide financial security.
      • About half (51%) are primary earners or contribute substantially to family living expenses.
      • Thirty-seven percent have children. Of this group, 23% live below the federal poverty line.
      • Less than half (45%) of low-wage workers ages 18 to 24 are in school or already have a college degree.

“These statistics tell an important story: Millions of hardworking American adults struggle to eke out a living and support their families on very low wages.”

When the kid got a text at the dinner table, it was about one of these jobs. Mom and Dad better get used to the idea that he’ll be around for awhile. Even if he gets that job, it won’t offer benefits, could end at any moment, and won’t pay him enough to be self-sustaining. That’s not how Mom and Dad were raised or how things went for them, but that’s how the economy works nowadays.

Economics Begets Social Structure

The even bigger issue is that the equal opportunity myth has become a social norm: uber-competitive free market economics controls the collective American mindset about how adult life works, to the point that it’s become a nationalist doctrine.

The Chicago School of Economics – the Vatican of free marketism — believed so ardently in its on doctrines that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of fundamentalist indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”[3]

Free market ideology preaches that capitalism promotes both economic and social opportunity. It has had the past four decades to prove that claim, and has failed as spectacularly as Soviet-style communism failed to benefit the workers it was supposed to redeem. Instead, free market ideology has given America what it wasn’t ever supposed to have: a stratified socio-economic class system that skews rewards to the top 10% and leaves the rest in the grip of the dismal statistics listed above.

But we don’t see that – or if we do, we don’t say anything about it, we just keep reciting the “trickle down” mantra. Member of the month and his Dad and the parents in the Indeed commercial and most Americans still believe the myth. Ironically the ones who see through it are the top 10% members who got in before they closed the gates. Meanwhile, the lower 90% — the decimated middle class, the new poor, the hard-working wage-earners – keep blaming themselves.

Even though it’s not their fault. If the kid in the commercial can’t find a job to support himself, it’s not his fault.

“I can’t pay my bills, afford a house, a car, a family. I can’t afford healthcare, I have no savings. Retirement is a joke. I don’t know how I’ll ever pay off my student loans. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m poor. But it’s not my fault.”

Try saying that to Dad at the dinner table.

But unlike “anything you want,” “it’s not your fault” is true: current economic policy and its companion social norms do not deliver equal opportunity. Horatio Alger is dead, but the equal opportunity myth lives on life support as we teach it to our children and elect politicians who perpetuate it, while all of us ignore the data.

Horatio Alger is Dead

There’s no more enduring version of the upward mobility ideal than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message. Except it never worked that way, especially for the Robber Barons – opportunists aided by collusion and chronyism carried out in the absence of the antitrust and securities laws that would be enacted under the New Deal after history revealed the fraud.[4]

But never mind that — according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin. Thanks to our devotion to that philosophy, a fair start has become is a thing of the past — so says Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders.

Reeves begins by confessing that his disenchantment over the demise of the Horatio Alger ideal will no doubt seem disingenuous because he didn’t grow up American and is now a member of the economic elite himself:

“As a Brookings senior fellow and a resident of an affluent neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of DC, I am, after all, writing about my own class.

“I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. (Also, I was born on the Fourth of July.) There are lots of reasons I have made America my home. But one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

“My new country was founded on anti-hereditary principles. But while the inheritance of titles or positions remains forbidden, the persistence of class status across generations in the United States is very strong. Too strong, in fact, for a society that prides itself on social mobility.”

Reeves also wrote a Brookings Institute monograph called Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream, in which he said the following:

“Vivid stories of those who overcome the obstacles of poverty to achieve success are all the more impressive because they are so much the exceptions to the rule. Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in America now — forces related not just to income and wealth but also to family structure and education – that put the country at risk of creating an ossified, self-perpetuating class structure, with disastrous implications for opportunity and, by extension, for the very idea of America.

“The moral claim that each individual has the right to succeed is implicit in our ‘creed,’ the Declaration of Independence, when it proclaims ‘All men are created equal.’

“There is a simple formula here — equality plus independence adds up to the promise of upward mobility — which creates an appealing image: the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape as a vast, level playing field upon which all individuals can exercise their freedom to succeed.

“Many countries support the idea of meritocracy, but only in America is equality of opportunity a virtual national religion, reconciling individual liberty — the freedom to get ahead and “make something of yourself” — with societal equality. It is a philosophy of egalitarian individualism. The measure of American equality is not the income gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

“The problem is not that the United States is failing to live up to European egalitarian principles, which use income as a measure of equality. It is that America is failing to live up to American egalitarian principles, measured by the promise of equal opportunity for all, the idea that every child born into poverty can rise to the top.”

There’s a lot of data to back up what Reeves is saying. See, e.g., this study from Stanford, which included these findings:

“Parents often expect that their kids will have a good shot at making more money than they ever did…. But young people entering the workforce today are far less likely to earn more than their parents when compared to children born two generations before them, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.”

The New American Meritocracy

Along with Richard Reeves, philosopher Matthew Stewart and entrepreneur Steven Brill cite the same economic and related social data to support their conclusion that the new meritocrat socio-economic class has barred the way for the rest of us. I’ll let Matthew Stewart speak for the others[5]:

“I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule.

“By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below.

“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.

“So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re ‘middle class.’

“One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.”

Two Stories, One Man

In a remarkable display of self-awareness and historical-cultural insight, Stanford professor David Labaree admits that his own upward mobility story can be told two ways — one that illustrates the myth and one that doesn’t, depending on your point of view.[6]

“Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

“But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed. As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University.

“Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game.

“In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale.

“The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children.”

Pause for a moment and wonder, as I did, why would the new meritocrats write books and articles like these? Is it a case of Thriver (Survivor) Guilt? Maybe, but I think it’s because they’re dismayed that their success signals the end of the American equal opportunity ideology. You don’t trample on something sacred. They didn’t mean to. They’re sorry. But now that they have, maybe it wasn’t so sacred after all.

The new socio-economic class system was never supposed to happen in America. We weren’t supposed to be like the Old World our founders left behind. But now we are, although most of us don’t seem to know it, and only a few brave souls will admit it. Meanwhile the Horatio Alger mansions are all sold out, and the gate to the community is locked and guarded. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in America.

Until it did.

[1] The Declaration of Independence.

[2] Low Employment Isn’t Worth Much if the Jobs Barely Pay, The Brookings Institute, Jan. 8, 2020.

[3] The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017).

[4] The best source I’ve found for the American history we never learned is Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017).

[5] Matthew Stewart is the author of numerous books and a recent article for The Atlantic called The 9.9 Percent is the New American Meritocracy. Steven Brill is the founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, and is the author of the book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It and also the writer of a Time Magazine feature called How Baby Boomers Broke America. The quoted text is from Stewart’s Atlantic article.

[6] Pluck Versus Luck, Aeon Magazine (Dec. 4. 2019) –“Meritocracy emphasises the power of the individual to overcome obstacles, but the real story is quite a different one.”

Work and Money

will work for food

He’s a gentleman with a family
A gentle man, living day to day
He’s a gentleman with pride, one may conclude
Sign reads, “Gentleman with a family will work for food.”

Manhattan Transfer, Gentleman With a Family

Norwegian Petter Amlie is an entrepreneur, technology consultant, and frequent contributor on Medium. Work runs our economy, he writes in a recent article, “but if future technology lets us keep our standard of living without it, why do we hold on to it?” It’s a good question — one of those obvious ones we don’t think to ask. Why would we insist on working for food — or the money we need to buy food — if we don’t have to?

As we’ve seen, at the center of the objections to robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, marketing algorithms, machine learning, and universal basic income is that they threaten the link between work and money. That’s upsetting because we believe jobs are the only way to “make a living.” But what if a day comes — sooner than we’d like to think — when that’s no longer true?

Work comes naturally to us, but the link between work and money is artificial — the function of an economic/social contract that relies on jobs to support both the production and consumption sides of the supply/demand curve:  we work to produce goods and services, we get paid for doing it, we use the money to buy goods and services from each other. If technology takes over the production jobs, we won’t get paid to produce things — then how are we supposed to buy them? Faced with that question, “the captains of industry and their fools on the hill” (Don Henley) generally talk jobs, jobs, jobs — or, in the absence of jobs, workfare.

John Maynard Keynes had a different idea back in 1930, just after the original Black Friday, when he predicted that technological progress would end the need for jobs, so that we would work for pay maybe fifteen hours per week, leaving us free to pursue nobler pursuits. He spoke in rapturous, Biblical terms:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue–that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those who walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin.”

But then, after a second world war tore the planet apart, jobs rebuilt it. We’ve lived with that reality so long that we readily pooh-pooh Keynes’s euphoric prophecy. Amlie suggests we open our minds to it:

“Work and money are both systems we’ve invented that were right for their time, but there’s no reason to see them as universally unavoidable parts of society. They helped us build a strong global economy, but why would we battle to keep it that way, if societal and technological progress could help us change it?

“We have a built-in defense mechanism when the status quo is challenged by ideas such as Universal Basic Income, shorter work weeks and even just basic flexibility at the workplace, often without considering why we have an urge to defend it.

“You’re supposed to be here at eight, even if you’re tired. You’re supposedto sit here in an open landscape, even if the isolation of a home office can help you concentrate on challenging tasks. You have exactly X number of weeks to recharge your batteries every year, because that’s how it’s always been done.

“While many organizations have made significant policy adjustments in the last two decades, we’re still clinging to the idea that we should form companies, they should have employees that are paid a monthly sum to be there at the same time every morning five days a week, even if this system is not making us very happy.

“I do know that work is not something I necessarily want to hold on to, if I could sustain my standard of living without it, which may just be the case if robots of the future could supply us with all the productivity we could ever need. If every job we can conceive could be done better by a machine than a human, and the machines demand no pay, vacation or motivation to produce goods and services for mankind for all eternity, is it such a ridiculous thought to ask in such a society why we would need money?

“We should be exploring eagerly how to meet these challenges and how they can improve the human existence, rather than fighting tooth and nail to sustain it without knowing why we want it that way.

“The change is coming. Why not see it in a positive light, and work towards a future where waking up at 4 am to go to an office is not considered the peak of human achievement?”

One gentleman with a family who’s been seeing change in a positive new light is Juha Järvinen, one of 2,000 Finns selected for a two-year UBI test that just ended. He’s no longer working hard for the money, but he is working harder than ever.  We’ll meet him next time.

Old Dog, Old Trick, New Showtime

old dog new trick

Blockchain consultant and futurist Michael Spencer called it a conspiracy by the 0.01 percenters to enslave the rest of us for good.[1] A growing number of those 0.01 percenters have already supported it, but they’re not alone:  this poll conducted shortly after the 2016 election showed that half of Americans supported it as well. A parade of think tanks (here’s one) and other professional skeptics (more than I can cite with hyperlinks in a single sentence) have given it a thorough vetting and mostly concluded something along the lines of “yeah well okay maybe it’s worth a try.”

What is “it”? This idea:  give the poor what they lack — money. Ensure everyone a livable income while getting rid of the expensive and draconian welfare system. And just to be fair, go ahead and give everyone else money, too, even the billionaires.

The idea mostly goes by the name “universal basic income” (UBI). It’s rooted in the futuristic fear that technology will eventually put humans out of work. That’s not an old fear:  UBI is “far from a new idea,” says Martin Ford, another Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a popular TED talker, in his New York Times Bestselling Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

“In the context of the contemporary American political landscape… a guaranteed income is likely to be disparaged as ‘socialism’ and a massive expansion of the welfare state. The idea’s historical origins, however, suggest something quite different. While a basic income has been embraced by economists and intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum, the idea has been advocated especially forcefully by conservatives and libertarians.

“Friedrich Hayek, who has become an iconic figure among today’s conservatives, was a strong proponent of the idea. In his three-volume work. Law, Legislation and  Liberty, published between 1973 and 1979, Hayek suggested that a guaranteed income would be a legitimate government policy designed to provide against adversity, and that the need for this type of safety net is the direct result of the transition to a more open and mobile society where many individuals can no longer rely on traditional support systems:

‘There is, however, yet another class of common risks with regard to which the need for government action has until recently not been generally admitted…. The problem here is chiefly the fate of those who for various reasons cannot make their living in the market… that is, all people suffering from adverse conditions which may affect anyone and against which most individuals cannot alone make adequate protection but in which a society that has reached a certain level of wealth can afford to provide for all.’”

LBJ foresaw the possibility of massive technological unemployment back in the 60’s, and appointed an “Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution” to study the topic. The Committee included co-Nobel Prize winners Friedrich Hayek and Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.[2] Rise of the Robots describes the Committee’s findings:

‘Cybernation’ (or automation) would soon result in an economy where ‘potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.’ The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for goods and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.

“The Ad Hoc Committee went on to propose a radical solution:  the eventual implementation of a guaranteed minimum income made possible by the ‘economy of abundance’ such widespread automation would create, and which would ‘take the place of the patchwork of welfare measures’ that were then in place to address poverty.

“The Triple Revolution report was released to the media and sent to President Johnson, the secretary of labor, and congressional leaders in March 1964. An accompanying cover letter warned ominously that if something akin to the report’s proposed solutions was not implemented, ‘the nation will be thrown into unprecedented economic and social disorder.’ A front-page story with extensive quotations from the report appeared in the next day’s New York Times, and numerous other newspapers and magazines ran stories and editorials (most of which were critical), in some cases even printing the entire text of the report.

“The Triple Revolution marked what was perhaps the crest of a wave of worry about the impact of automation that had arisen following World War II. The specter of mass joblessness as machines displaced workers had incited fear many times in the past — going all the way back to Britain’s Luddite uprising in 1812 — but in the 1950s the ‘60s, the concern was especially acute and was articulated by some of the United States’ most prominent and intellectually capable individuals.

“Four months after the Johnson administration received the Triple Revolution report, the president signed a bill creating the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. In his remarks at the bills signing ceremony, Johnson said that ‘automation can be the ally of our prosperity if we will just look ahead, if we will understand what is to come, and if we will set our course wisely after  proper planning for the future.’ The newly formed Commission then … quickly faded into obscurity.”

A few years later, Richard Nixon introduced UBI legislation that he called “The most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” That legislation also faded into obscurity– more on that another time.

UBI is an old idea responding to an old fear:  how do we make a living if we can’t work for it? A half century after LBJ and Nixon, that fear is all too real, and lots of people think it might be time for the historical UBI solution to make its appearance.

But not everyone is jumping on the UBI bandwagon. The very thought that jobs might not be the source of our sustenance is the rallying cry of UBI’s most strident opponents.

More on UBI next time.

[1] Spencer followed with a similarly scathing assessment in this article.

[2] Myrdal’s study of race relations was influential in Brown v. Board of Education. He was also an architect of the Swedish social democratic welfare state. Hayek and Myrdal were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.