The alienation of labor

Apr 10 JDN 2459680

Marx famously wrote that capitalism “alienates labor”. Much ink has been spilled over interpreting exactly what he meant by that, but I think the most useful and charitable reading goes something like the following:

When you make something for yourself, it feels fully yours. The effort you put into it feels valuable and meaningful. Whether you’re building a house to live in it or just cooking an omelet to eat it, your labor is directly reflected in your rewards, and you have a clear sense of purpose and value in what you are doing.

But when you make something for an employer, it feels like theirs, not yours. You have been instructed by your superiors to make a certain thing a certain way, for reasons you may or may not understand (and may or may not even agree with). Once you deliver the product—which may be as concrete as a carburetor or as abstract as an accounting report—you will likely never see it again; it will be used or not by someone else somewhere else whom you may not even ever get the chance to meet. Such labor feels tedious, effortful, exhausting—and also often empty, pointless, and meaningless.

On that reading, Marx isn’t wrong. There really is something to this. (I don’t know if this is really Marx’s intended meaning or not, and really I don’t much care—this is a valid thing and we should be addressing it, whether Marx meant to or not.)

There is a little parable about this, which I can’t quite remember where I heard:

Three men are moving heavy stones from one place to another. A traveler passes by and asks them, “What are you doing?”

The first man sighs and says, “We do whatever the boss tells us to do.”

The second man shrugs and says, “We pick up the rocks here, we move them over there.”

The third man smiles and says, “We’re building a cathedral.”

The three answers are quite different—yet all three men may be telling the truth as they see it.

The first man is fully alienated from his labor: he does whatever the boss says, following instructions that he considers arbitrary and mechanical. The second man is partially alienated: he knows the mechanics of what he is trying to accomplish, which may allow him to improve efficiency in some way (e.g. devise better ways to transport the rocks faster or with less effort), but he doesn’t understand the purpose behind it all, so ultimately his work still feels meaningless. But the third man is not alienated: he understands the purpose of his work, and he values that purpose. He sees that what he is doing is contributing to a greater whole that he considers worthwhile. It’s not hard to imagine that the third man will be the happiest, and the first will be the unhappiest.

There really is something about the capitalist wage-labor structure that can easily feed into this sort of alienation. You get a job because you need money to live, not because you necessarily value whatever the job does. You do as you are told so that you can keep your job and continue to get paid.

Some jobs are much more alienating than others. Most teachers and nurses see their work as a vocation, even a calling—their work has deep meaning for them and they value its purpose. At the other extreme there are corporate lawyers and derivatives traders, who must on some level understand that their work contributes almost nothing to the world (may in fact actively cause harm), but they continue to do the work because it pays them very well.

But there are many jobs in between which can be experienced both ways. Working in retail can be an agonizing grind where you must face a grueling gauntlet of ungrateful customers day in and day out—or it can be a way to participate in your local community and help your neighbors get the things they need. Working in manufacturing can be a mechanical process of inserting tab A into slot B and screwing it into place over, and over, and over again—or it can be a chance to create something, convert raw materials into something useful and valuable that other people can cherish.

And while individual perspective and framing surely matter here—those three men were all working in the same quarry, building the same cathedral—there is also an important objective component as well. Working as an artisan is not as alienating as working on an assembly line. Hosting a tent at a farmer’s market is not as alienating as working the register at Walmart. Tutoring an individual student is more purposeful than recording video lectures for a MOOC. Running a quirky local book store is more fulfilling than stocking shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Moreover, capitalism really does seem to push us more toward the alienating side of the spectrum. Assembly lines are far more efficient than artisans, so we make most of our products on assembly lines. Buying food at Walmart is cheaper and more convenient than at farmer’s markets, so more people shop there. Hiring one video lecturer for 10,000 students is a lot cheaper than paying 100 in-person lecturers, let alone 1,000 private tutors. And Barnes & Noble doesn’t drive out local book stores by some nefarious means: It just provides better service at lower prices. If you want a specific book for a good price right now, you’re much more likely to find it at Barnes & Noble. (And even more likely to find it on Amazon.)

Finding meaning in your work is very important for human happiness. Indeed, along with health and social relationships, it’s one of the biggest determinants of happiness. For most people in First World countries, it seems to be more important than income (though income certainly does matter).

Yet the increased efficiency and productivity upon which our modern standard of living depends seems to be based upon a system of production—in a word, capitalism—that systematically alienates us from meaning in our work.

This puts us in a dilemma: Do we keep things as they are, accepting that we will feel an increasing sense of alienation and ennui as our wealth continues to grow and we get ever-fancier toys to occupy our meaningless lives? Or do we turn back the clock, returning to a world where work once again has meaning, but at the cost of making everyone poorer—and some people desperately so?

Well, first of all, to some extent this is a false dichotomy. There are jobs that are highly meaningful but also highly productive, such as teaching and engineering. (Even recording a video lecture is a lot more fulfilling than plenty of jobs out there.) We could try to direct more people into jobs like these. There are jobs that are neither particularly fulfilling nor especially productive, like driving trucks, washing floors and waiting tables. We could redouble our efforts into automating such jobs out of existence. There are meaningless jobs that are lucrative only by rent-seeking, producing little or no genuine value, like the aforementioned corporate lawyers and derivatives traders. These, quite frankly, could simply be banned—or if there is some need for them in particular circumstances (I guess someone should defend corporations when they get sued; but they far more often go unjustly unpunished than unjustly punished!), strictly regulated and their numbers and pay rates curtailed.

Nevertheless, we still have decisions to make, as a society, about what we value most. Do we want a world of cheap, mostly adequate education, that feels alienating even to the people producing it? Then MOOCs are clearly the way to go; pennies on the dollar for education that could well be half as good! Or do we want a world of high-quality, personalized teaching, by highly-qualified academics, that will help students learn better and feel more fulfilling for the teachers? More pointedly—are we willing to pay for that higher-quality education, knowing it will be more expensive?

Moreover, in the First World at least, our standard of living is… pretty high already? Like seriously, what do we really need that we don’t already have? We could always imagine more, of course—a bigger house, a nicer car, dining at fancier restaurants, and so on. But most of us have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our tables.

Economic growth has done amazing things for us—but maybe we’re kind of… done? Maybe we don’t need to keep growing like this, and should start redirecting our efforts away from greater efficiency and toward greater fulfillment. Maybe there are economic possibilities we haven’t been considering.

Note that I specifically mean First World countries here. In Third World countries it’s totally different—they need growth, lots of it, as fast as possible. Fulfillment at work ends up being a pretty low priority when your children are starving and dying of malaria.

But then, you may wonder: If we stop buying cheap plastic toys to fill the emptiness in our hearts, won’t that throw all those Chinese factory workers back into poverty?

In the system as it stands? Yes, that’s a real concern. A sudden drop in consumption spending in general, or even imports in particular, in First World countries could be economically devastating for millions of people in Third World countries.

But there’s nothing inherent about this arrangement. There are less-alienating ways of working that can still provide a decent standard of living, and there’s no fundamental reason why people around the world couldn’t all be doing them. If they aren’t, it’s in the short run because they don’t have the education or the physical machinery—and in the long run it’s usually because their government is corrupt and authoritarian. A functional democratic government can get you capital and education remarkably fast—it certainly did in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Automation is clearly a big part of the answer here. Many people in the First World seem to suspect that our way of life depends upon the exploited labor of impoverished people in Third World countries, but this is largely untrue. Most of that work could be done by robots and highly-skilled technicians and engineers; it just isn’t because that would cost more. Yes, that higher cost would mean some reduction in standard of living—but it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as many people seem to think. We would have slightly smaller houses and slightly older cars and slightly slower laptops, but we’d still have houses and cars and laptops.

So I don’t think we should all cast off our worldly possessions just yet. Whether or not it would make us better off, it would cause great harm to countries that depend on their exports to us. But in the long run, I do think we should be working to achieve a future for humanity that isn’t so obsessed with efficiency and growth, and instead tries to provide both a decent standard of living and a life of meaning and purpose.

Is a job guarantee better than a basic income?

Aug 5 JDN 2458336

In previous posts I’ve written about both the possibilities and challenges involved in creating a universal basic income. Today I’d like to address what I consider the most serious counter-argument against a basic income, an alternative proposal known as a job guarantee.

Whereas a basic income is literally just giving everyone free money, a job guarantee entails offering everyone who wants to work a job paid by the government. They’re not necessarily contradictory, but I’ve noticed a clear pattern: While basic income proponents are generally open to the idea of a job guarantee on the side, job guarantee proponents are often vociferously opposed to a basic income—even calling it “sinister”. I think the reason for this is that we see jobs as irrelevant, so we’re okay with throwing them in if you feel you must, while they see jobs as essential, so they meet any attempt to remove them with overwhelming resistance.

Where a basic income is extremely simple and could be implemented by a single act of the legislature, a job guarantee is considerably more complicated. The usual proposal for a job guarantee involves federal funding but local implementation, which is how most of our social welfare system is implemented—and why social welfare programs are so much better in liberal states like California than in conservative states like Mississippi, because California actually believes in what it’s implementing and Mississippi doesn’t. Anyone who wants a job guarantee needs to take that aspect seriously: In the places where poverty is worst, you’re offering control over the policy to the very governments that made poverty worst—and whether it is by malice or incompetence, what makes you think that won’t continue?

Another argument that I think job guarantee proponents don’t take seriously enough is the concern about “make-work”. They insist that a job guarantee is not “make-work”, but real work that’s just somehow not being done. They seem to think that there are a huge number of jobs that we could just create at the snap of a finger, which would be both necessary and useful on the one hand, and a perfect match for the existing skills of the unemployed population on the other hand. If that were the case, we would already be creating those jobs. It doesn’t even require a particularly strong faith in capitalism to understand this: If there is a profit to be made at hiring people to do something, there is probably already a business hiring people to do that. I don’t think of myself as someone with an overriding faith in capitalism, but a lot of the socialist arguments for job guarantees make me feel that way by comparison: They seem to think that there’s this huge untapped reserve of necessary work that the market is somehow failing to provide, and I’m just not seeing it.

There are public goods projects which aren’t profitable but would still be socially beneficial, like building rail lines and cleaning up rivers. But proponents of a job guarantee don’t seem to understand that these are almost all highly specialized jobs at our level of technology. We don’t need a bunch of people with shovels. We need engineers and welders and ecologists.

If you propose using people with shovels where engineers would be more efficient, that is make-work, whether you admit it or not. If you’re making people work in a less-efficient way in order to create jobs, then the jobs you are creating are fake jobs that aren’t worth creating. The line is often credited to Milton Friedman, but actually said first by William Aberhart in 1935:

Taking up the policy of a public works program as a solution for unemployment, it was criticized as a plan that took no account of the part that machinery played in modern construction, with a road-making machine instanced as an example. He saw, said Mr. Aberhart, work in progress at an airport and was told that the men were given picks and shovels in order to lengthen the work, to which he replied why not give them spoons and forks instead of picks and shovels if the object was to lengthen out the task.

I’m all for spending more on building rail lines and cleaning up rivers, but that’s not an anti-poverty program. The people who need the most help are precisely the ones who are least qualified to work on these projects: Children, old people, people with severe disabilities. Job guarantee proponents either don’t understand this fact or intentionally ignore it. If you aren’t finding jobs for 7-year-olds with autism and 70-year-olds with Parkinson’s disease, this program will not end poverty. And if you are, I find it really hard to believe that these are real, productive jobs and not useless “make-work”. A basic income would let the 7-year-olds stay in school and the 70-year-olds live in retirement homes—and keep them both out of poverty.

Another really baffling argument for a job guarantee over basic income is that a basic income would act as a wage subsidy, encouraging employers to reduce wages. That’s not how a basic income works. Not at all. A basic income would provide a pure income effect, necessarily increasing wage demands. People would not be as desperate for work, so they’d be more comfortable turning down unreasonable wage offers. A basic income would also incentivize some people to leave the labor force by retiring or going back to school; the reduction in labor supply would further increase wages. The Earned Income Tax Credit is in many respects similar to a wage subsidy. While superficially it might seem similar, a basic income would have the exact opposite effect.

One reasonable argument against a basic income is the possibility that it could cause inflation. This is something that can’t really be tested with small-scale experiments, so we really won’t know for sure until we try it. But there is reason to think that the inflation would be small, as the people removed from the labor force will largely be the ones who are least-productive to begin with. There is a growing body of empirical evidence suggesting that inflationary effects of a basic income would be small. For example, data on cash transfer programs in Mexico show only a small inflationary effect despite large reductions in poverty. The whole reason a basic income looks attractive is that automation technology is now so advanced is that we really don’t need everyone to be working anymore. Productivity is so high now that a policy of universal 40-hour work weeks just doesn’t make sense in the 21st century.

Probably the best argument for a job guarantee over a basic income concerns cost. A basic income is very expensive, there’s no doubt about that; and a job guarantee could be much cheaper. That is something I take very seriously: Saving $1.5 trillion a year is absolutely a good reason. Indeed, I don’t really object to this argument; the calculations are correct. I merely think that a basic income is enough better that its higher cost is justifiable. A job guarantee can eliminate unemployment, but not poverty.

But the argument for a job guarantee that most people seem to be find most compelling concerns meaning. The philosopher John Danaher expressed this one most cogently. Unemployment is an extremely painful experience for most people, far beyond what could be explained simply by their financial circumstances. Most people who win large sums of money in the lottery cut back their hours, but continue working—so work itself seems to have some value. What seems to happen is that when people lose the chance to work, they feel that they have lost a vital source of meaning in their lives.

Yet this raises two more questions:

First, would a job guarantee actually solve that problem?
Second, are there ways we could solve it under a basic income?

With regard to the first question, I want to re-emphasize the fact that a large proportion of these guaranteed jobs necessarily cannot be genuinely efficient production. If efficient production would have created these jobs, we would most likely already have created them. Our society does not suffer from an enormous quantity of necessary work that could be done with the skills already possessed by the unemployed population, which is somehow not getting done—indeed, it is essentially impossible for a capitalist economy with a highly-liquid financial system to suffer such a malady. If the work is so valuable, someone will probably take out a loan to hire someone to do it. If that’s not happening, either the unemployed people don’t have the necessary skills, or the work really can’t be all that productive. There are some public goods projects that would be beneficial but aren’t being done, but that’s a different problem, and the match between the public goods projects that need done and the skills of the unemployed population is extremely poor. Displaced coal miners aren’t useful for maintaining automated photovoltaic factories. Truckers who get replaced by robot trucks won’t be much good for building maglev rails.

With this in mind, it’s not clear to me that people would really be able to find much meaning in a guaranteed job. You can’t be fired, so the fact that you have the job doesn’t mean anyone is impressed by the quality of your work. Your work wasn’t actually necessary, or the private sector would already have hired someone to do it. The government went out of its way to find a job that precisely matched what you happen to be good at, regardless of whether that job was actually accomplishing anything to benefit society. How is that any better than not working at all? You are spending hours of drudgery to accomplish… what, exactly? If our goal was simply to occupy people’s time, we could do that with Netflix or video games.

With regard to the second question, note that a basic income is quite different from other social welfare programs in that everyone gets it. So it’s very difficult to attach a social stigma to receiving basic income payments—it would require attaching the stigma to literally everyone. Much of the lost meaning, I suspect, from being unemployed comes from the social stigma attached.

Now, it’s still possible to attach social stigma to people who only get the basic income—there isn’t much we can do to prevent that. But in the worst-case scenario, this means unemployed people get the same stigma as before but more money. Moreover, it’s much harder to detect a basic income recipient than, say, someone who eats at a soup kitchen or buys food using EBT; since it goes in your checking account, all everyone else sees is you spending money from your debit card, just like everyone else. People who know you personally would probably know; but people who know you personally are also less likely to destroy your well-being by imposing a high stigma. Maybe they’ll pressure you to get off the couch and get a job, but they’ll do so because they genuinely want to help you, not because they think you are “one of those lazy freeloaders”.

And, as BIEN points out, think about retired people: They don’t seem to be so unhappy. Being on basic income is more like being retired than like being unemployed. It’s something everyone gets, not some special handout for “those people”. It’s permanent, so it’s not like you need to scramble to get a job before it goes away. You just get money automatically, so you don’t have to navigate a complex bureaucracy to get it. Controlling for income, retired people don’t seem to be any less happy than working people—so maybe work doesn’t actually provide all that much meaning after all.

I guess I can’t rule out the possibility that people need jobs to find meaning in their lives, but I both hope and believe that this is not generally the case. You can find meaning in your family, your friends, your community, your hobbies. You can still work even if you don’t need to work for a living: Build a shed, mow your lawn, tune up your car, upgrade your computer, write a story, learn a musical instrument, or try your hand at painting.

If you need to be taking orders from a corporation five days a week in order to have meaning in your life, you have bigger problems. I think what has happened to many people is that employment has so drained their lives of the real sources of meaning that they cling to it as the only thing they have left. But in fact work is not the cure to your ennui—it is the cause of it. Finally being free of the endless toil that has plagued humanity since the dawn of our species will give you the chance to reconnect with what really matters in life. Show your children that you love them in person, to their faces, instead of in this painfully indirect way of “providing for” them by going to work every day. Find ways to apply your skills in volunteering or creating works of art, instead of in endless drudgery for the profit of some faceless corporation.