There was an interesting opinion piece on the nature of work in the NYTimes' The Stone philosophy blog on Saturday by Gary Gutting called What is Work Really For? It posits that "leisure, not work, should be our primary goal" and quotes Bertrand Russell from In Praise of Idleness: “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
I love that line! The article posed questions about work but I have already made up my mind: we need less work and more leisure. For me the question is how do we do it? How can we work less in a world where the profits from increased productivity are not shared with working people? It's a key question for us as this century moves forward and technology and increased globalization decrease the need for humans to work full time.
I propose an answer: a system of "earned income security" that eventually leads to a basic income for all.
Ever since I read Bob Black's The Abolition of Work back in the 90's, I've been grappling with this issue. There are simply not enough jobs for everyone who needs money. Most of the jobs that do exist in this world are bad jobs, with inadequate wages, unsafe working conditions, and shitty bosses.
Yet our entire economic system is set up so that the only way to get money is to work. Working-age people are in constant competition with each other for a dwindling number of jobs. As this century goes on, there will be less and less jobs, and with the crushing of the labor movement (which represents less than 7% of private sector workers in the US and has little power in the Third World where most of the jobs have gone), those dwindling jobs will most likely be bad jobs.
There's a solution to the jobs crisis, both short term and long term: we need to need jobs less. We'll never get anywhere when the vast majority of the human population need jobs that don't exist and never will.
To need jobs less, we need an independent source of money that's not tied to any job: a basic income, enough to meet the very basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter. Then we can work for what we want above that basic amount.
Bertrand Russell is one of many famous people who have called for some version of a basic income or guaranteed annual income, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Buckminster Fuller, Gov. Huey Long, etc. I believe it's the long-term solution to our jobs crisis.
The cost of providing working-age Americans with at-least poverty-level income of about $12,000 a year would be about $2 trillion annually. It would be a shock to the system for sure, but for that amount we would ensure an end to poverty, permanently stimulate our economy, along with many other societal benefits that go along with good economic times. But I think of it as a goal that we should strive toward. To get there, we could start with the short-term solution of earned income security.
There are two components to earned income security: increasing the earned income tax credit and making it a middle-class program, and rewarding years of work with guaranteed income that can always be counted on.
Working people could earn "income security" by working and paying taxes for at least 5 years. They would then receive their initial income security payments, $500 a month every month. That's money that they can count on, whether they have work or not. The amount would go up every 5 years until they receive a full basic income. They would eventually be guaranteed of waking up in the morning with at least poverty-level income in their bank accounts, and would work for what they want on top of that amount.
Having an extra $12,000 a year--or $1,000 a month--may not sound like a big transformation of our economy or the nature of work. But it would give working people a real boost, especially in households with multiple workers. It would give workers an ace in the hole when dealing with management, and allow people the opportunity to work less if they want to, opening up more jobs.
The combination of a robust EITC and monthly income payments after 5 years of working could allow many workers to raise a family on part-time work instead of needing to work multiple part-time jobs. It would allow working people to spend more time with their family and friends--or to invest the money and eventually retire early.
Earned income security would replace the 20th Century all-or-nothing social programs like welfare and unemployment that pay people only when they are not working (indeed, those programs pay people not to work). And unlike Social Security, where you work your whole life and then get payments when you stop working, this would be designed to supplement work income.
It may seem like a long-shot, but which is more likely, passing an "everybody wins" program that rewards work and fixes many societal ills, or reversing the slide away from good jobs with good wages and benefits and pensions toward part-time low-wage independent contractor work with no benefits? Which is more likely, earned income security or a massive full-employment jobs program. Income security would get money directly to people, without wasting it on bureaucracy.
How would we pay for this massively expensive program? It would require a conscious attempt to do something collectively with our world's wealth besides letting the wealthy do anything they want with it. The Alaska Permanent Fund is a model: they receive a portion of the oil industry's revenues that come from Alaska and put it in a Fund; dividends are then distributed to every man, woman and child in the state.
A requirement that corporations pay a portion of their revenues into a fund could work, combined with other revenue ideas like a financial transactions tax, a carbon tax, and my favorite: a tax on commercial advertising. Every ad you're forced to watch or hear would mean a contribution into the Earned Income Security Fund.
But there's no need to get too wonky about funding. We've figured out how to fund things that are national priorities, from WWII to bailing out the savings and loans/auto industry/Wall St. to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soon we will be facing a world with even fewer jobs and even more people looking for work. Like the climate crisis, we will be forced to deal with it sooner or later. By creating a system of earned income security, we could have a relatively painless transition from the current all-or-nothing world of work to a world where work is still important and the gateway to economic security, but not the dominant feature of American life that it is today.