Many of our politicians along with the rest of the 1% have led us in a fundamentally dishonest understanding of the nature of work. They have come to define work as simply holding a job for which we are paid wages or as managing or owning a business, a useless and meaningless definition. They regard those who run businesses as “makers” and job creators, those without jobs as “takers” and job destroyers. But that attitude is at best uninformed and at worst deliberately disingenuous. A more honest and appropriate definition of work is to make a product or provide a service that is useful to society in general. Understanding and accepting this very practical and sensible definition could ultimately lead to serious revision of the ways in which we regard and compensate workers.
Clearly, according to this definition, both minimum wage workers and mothers on public assistance work. Anyone who thinks a “welfare” mother does not work should be condemned to spend 24 hours a day for a year with sole responsibility for two toddlers. I’d love to see the typical corporate executive try that. What could have more value to our community than loving, attentive child-rearing? Yet we fail to compensate mothers at rates even close to their value, essentially devaluing their service. Low wage workers, mothers, even mothers on public assistance spend all of the little they get, thereby increasing demand and creating jobs. They are the “makers” and the real job creators in our economy. Yet we have the cruelest, most parsimonious family support systems in the developed world. We continually cut the little mothers have to raise their children, refuse to subsidize day care that might enable them to earn income from a job, and are often even reluctant to provide adequate medical care for their children.
Most corporate executives, hedge fund managers, and other financiers do not work. Instead, they are essentially required by law to pursue profit above all else. Those profits, in turn, often come at the expense of competitors, governments, workers, the environment, and the community as corporations hire armies of accountants and lawyers to seek maximum advantage, to decrease labor costs, to reduce taxes, and to buy up or bankrupt competitors. Their jobs, pursuing profit at any cost, amount to a negation of work. In addition, financiers create debt out of nothing, drawing more and more of our economy into debt service. Little if any of their profits is spent in the “real” economy; rather most of it is “invested” to buy up stock, buy up other companies, and generally enrich themselves to pad their tax-protected bank accounts. Corporate executives and financiers are the job destroyers, the parasites, the “takers.” Classical economics regards such people as rent seekers or rentiers, as a drag on the economy because they receive income without providing value. Yet we allow them to be compensated far beyond their value, even taxing their unearned incomes at lower rates than the earned income of less well-to-do workers.
If we come to understand this simple, honest definition of work as having value to society as a whole, then we can begin to change policies to reward people according to their actual contributions to the community. We would tax unearned income at a higher rate than earned income; we would make it illegal to move income to offshore tax havens; we would increase family support in the form of sick leave, family leave, nutritional, medical, and housing subsidies. We would raise the minimum wage not to a mere $10.10 per hour but to a living wage of $20 per hour. We would institute a transaction tax on Wall Street trading. And we would raise top marginal income tax rates to 80% on incomes over $1 million. After all, during the longest economic boom in American history—the mid-forties through the mid-seventies, top marginal income tax rates ranged as high as 90%--and businesses as well as the public as a whole thrived.