The Work-Only Society: the Basic Flaw of American Economics

Copyright 2010, John Manimas Medeiros

In the process of thinking and writing about economics, my views have evolved and I have come to the conclusion that one of the most fundamental principles of economics, in virtually all economic systems or models, that money or goods should be earned only by useful labor (sometimes called "gainful employment"), is in fact an ideal goal that is impossible to achieve. As a highly-regarded goal, both morally and philosophically as well as in terms of economic justice, it is not even necessarily rational or fair. Who invented this principle? Does it really promote the best interests of the society? Compensation for labor sounds so simply clear and fair. But, if it cannot actually be achieved on a sensible basis, if our economic rules persist in producing "unemployment," what is the flaw or defect in our methods or thinking that blocks us from accomplishing what we claim is so fundamentally morally, socially and politically just? If work were not the only justification for compensation, what other social or economic roles could possibly be deemed a fair contribution to society in exchange for compensation similar to that awarded for labor?

Work or "home-making" for compensation:

Let us not skip over what might first come to mind: the role of the homemaker, traditionally the female spouse and mother, who supposedly has her economic needs met, including money she receives from her husband, in exchange for all of the labor that she provides in terms of maintaining a household and raising children. This so-called "traditional" home maker is not working in a factory or office, not planting or harvesting on a farm or harvesting food, at least not in the twentieth century, although historically the household could have included a vegetable garden and a family cow, pigs, a small flock of chickens. There have certainly been variations in the complex set of duties assigned to and performed by a "home maker" in both western and eastern -- and southern -- cultures, but the main duties have been the same worldwide: cook, clean, raise the children, impose some order on a home base that could easily become uncomfortable, even toxic, if not maintained on a regular basis. In some geographic regions, a primary and time-consuming function is to obtain water. In many cultures, the homemaker is the cornerstone of a type of subsistence agriculture and her duties include grinding grain, making bread, making cheese. Still today, though the homemaker is deemed to not be "working out of the home," she is receiving compensation for labor. Some sociological and psychological concepts tell us that she is even receiving intangible measures of social and physical security because she performs the economic role of wife, mother and housekeeper. Fine. But this role can also lead to "unemployment" if she does not get married, or is divorced, or is cast in some other single-female role such as waitress or prostitute. That would mean that at times she would be "employed" and at other times she might be "unemployed." The woman who is not a house-wife or home-maker is in the economic environment of "outside the home," and subject thereby to the same economic rules as a male -- except for the level of compensation. No work, no money.

The money-for-work idea is so old it must come out of pre-history. Historically, we have the Christian evangelist Paul saying to members of a community: "If they will not work, then let them not eat." And centuries later, not overtly proposing to support a Christian economic morality but rather a more secular and scientific morality, Karl Marx said that the basic economic rule should be: "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs." This "communist" or social ideal is not contrary to Christian ethics. In fact, I have argued that it is perfectly consistent with the extreme form of social and economic equality advocated and practiced by Jesus. There are other philosophers, too numerous to list and cite, who have signed on to this concept of economic justice that seems so simple, direct, and obviously fair. But again, if this maxim is so simple and fair, why has it been beyond human achievement most of the time? It reminds me of the moral concept of sexual fidelity. Western Civilization persists in identifying sexual infidelity as a moral and social offense, but can find only a few adult males who have never committed this offense. In both cases, the moral principle we uphold in the public vision is something we appear to strive for rather than achieve. But if a civilization does not achieve a moral or ethical goal after many centuries of striving, is that not a signal for a scientific society to question the rule that embodies the goal? The ethics of a human civilization should reflect what people do to meet their legitimate human needs, not what people imagine doing or wish they could do or dream of doing in order to be what they are not and cannot be. "Full employment" is like "world peace," a wishy self-deception. There may even be a connection that is a clue to both problems: When lots of men are "unemployed," they are more easily coaxed into going to war. And war has been viewed by politicians as a good way to stimulate the economy, with due consideration of the risks involved. This suggests that the goal of "world peace" and "full employment" might actually be the same goal.

Free choice of occupation:

Somehow, western civilization evolved to also evoke freedom to choose one's occupation as a fundamental freedom in a democratic (or republican) society. This is certainly etched upon the American mind. We are free, and one of the signs that we are free is that no one tells an individual what work they will perform as their contribution to society. The individual seeks employment and finds it, may pursue self-employment or a profession, or work as a free agent or join a union or just apply for work, get hired, get fired, get laid off, apply for work again, and again, and again. Many perform temporary jobs, or migrate to perform the farm labor that changes with the seasons. The individual chooses and the concept of making that choice begins early. What do you want to be when you grow up? A fireman, a policeman, a hair-dresser, a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut, a teacher, a veterinarian, a social worker, a billionaire, an actor, actress, singer, dancer, artist, and on and on. One chooses. But, we know, as we grow up, that there are many natural constraints on the choices that are really available.

First and foremost, we must possess the skills or aptitude to perform the work that interests us. We are tested and measured. If we were not formally tested and measured in a school setting, we would be tested and evaluated or judged by the adults in the community one way or another. The young child and then the adolescent becomes known as an ambitious or hard-working child, or one gifted with athletic or social skills, or musical talent, or mathematical ability, a love for nature or science or a particular art form; one who likes working with metal, chemicals or weapons. We have developed a very complex society with thousands of occupations that did not exist in the past. Because we have mechanized we have numerous employees who are described generically as "assemblers" or "machine operator" and then "computer operator" or "data entry clerk" or "retail sales" or "maintenance," and of course mechanical engineer, machinist, inventor. There are thousands of choices, it seems. But are there really many choices for the individual? Periodically a government agency or non-profit issues a report stating that certain jobs or professions are open and more applicants are needed. The pay is going up for nurses, for example, because there is a scarcity of nurses. Burger flippers however, who perform repetitive, mechanical and tedious operations in fast-food restaurants are not paid much. Almost anyone can be trained to perform the simple movements required to operate the machinery that produces millions of breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day. The pay is relatively low. Teachers get paid more, and convenience store managers often earn more than teachers, and some professional athletes get paid more in one year than either a teacher or a store manager will earn in their lifetime.

If you are a free citizen who is going to "apply" for a job, then your freedom is mediated by all of the people who have the power to hire you, or not hire you. That is a fairly powerful constraint on one's freedom. Are you overweight? Are you "ugly" by society's current standards of physical appearances? Are you known as a fast worker? Cheerful? Easy to manage? What are the "bona fide" (good faith, meaning "legitimate" or real) qualifications for the jobs that you are applying for? Have you ever heard that a person was not hired, even though otherwise qualified, because the hiring person felt the applicant would not "fit in" with the current workforce already on the job? What kinds of forces and decision-making models have been discovered by sociologists and psychologists who study hiring practices? Are tests used to screen out applicants who have a mind of their own? Do people get hired because they look good, or sound good? Are the applicant's abilities really assessed or just guessed at? What happened to that "freedom" to choose your occupation? Do people work at what they choose or at what chooses them? How many people would say that they got into their occupation by accident? How many would say that the work they do is exactly what they sought to do? How many people choose to perform a particular type of work mainly because of the amount of compensation? How many people choose to perform work that serves the rich because the rich pay well for certain types of work? How many choose to work to help the poor? Why? How many people choose an occupation that is difficult, dirty, dangerous? Why?

It looks like people are free to choose their occupation. But, it also looks like society eliminates an obligation to individuals -- the society side of the social contract -- by proclaiming one's employment is due entirely to one's personal decisions, personal merit, personal choices and level of ambition. Is this valid? I question this concept that the

individual is responsible for their "employment," because there are too many forces and factors outside the control of the individual. Let's take a look at a model community or society, and see if we can discover how some people end up "unemployed."

Do primitive or traditional communities have "unemployment"?

First let's look at a fictional anthropologist studying a primitive tribe in an undeveloped territory, where the clan or community survives on subsistence hunting and farming. They do not produce a product that is "for sale" so that they can make a profit and earn money to buy things. Learning the tribal language, the anthropologist asks what is their word for "unemployment." He has to describe what he or she means, of course, with simpler words. The anthropologist tries to explain that "unemployment" means not doing anything, not working, not productive, not hunting or fishing, not occupied, not active. All of these odd descriptions lead to the tribal leaders advising the anthropologist the "unemployed" does not have any special word in their language, but means something like "sleeping" or "dead" or "gone away" or "resting" or "making love" or "bathing" or in a trance. It doesn't mean "gone fishing," because in their society, fishing is work or employment. They do not have any concept that comes really close to our opposing pair of "employed" and on the contrary "unemployed." In a tribal or community society everyone is doing something most of the time, and in their world that means they are active and "employed." It makes no sense to them that any person could be or would want to be "unemployed" because that seems to mean "doing nothing" and doing nothing is not something that they do. Sleeping or resting is definitely not "unemployed" because these are things that one must do, like eating. They are always "employed" doing something. Philosophically, the shaman of the group comments that this stranger's idea of "unemployed" sounds a lot like someone who is dead or does not exist.

Who wants "full employment"?

Modern society is in denial about many things, and one of them is the efficiency and determination with which the commercial and industrial class continuously diminishes the social need for human workers or "employees." We all started with a society where to be "employed" simply meant to be a member of a tribe or community and join in the work of the community, joyfully and enthusiastically, not resentfully. One made a contribution of labor not because one needed "money" -- money was not valued or not existent -- but because one needed membership, social and emotional belonging, personal pride and dignity. Warrior, hide-scraper, sewer, hunter, gatherer, lodge builder, arrow-maker, trapper, artist, medicine maker, spiritual guide, one was one of these, or more than one. A heroic member of the tribe might be all of these. The concept of being "unemployed" or not contributing to the labor of the community, in order to share by some meaningful proportional measurement in the wealth of the tribe, was so unnatural and impossible that there would be no word in the tribal language truly equivalent to "unemployment." The word for "employment" evolves along with the development of industrial and materialistic society, where we deem a person to be "employed" only when they are hired and paid money by another person or business entity. With the evolution of this concept, we naturally invent the associated concept of "self-employed" which means a person is not being "employed" by someone else, but earns money by working for many clients or customers. When a person is successfully self-employed, we say that they are "in business" for themselves. Thus, our modern society has built its economic foundations upon this idea that industry, material wealth, and economic success revolves around the concept of "business" or being in business. One is either independent (free), being in business, or one is "employed" (not free or less free). One of our Presidents who was very popular at the time he held that office, Calvin Coolidge, said, "America's business is business." He made that statement shortly before the business of America came to its most serious collapse ever, the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Great Depression, and many other economic disasters since then, have invariably occurred because the rich are unable to resist the temptation to make high finance into a game of gambling and "snookering" or cheating others who play our money games according to reasonable rules. This does not occur strictly because of "greed" but also because of stupidity and the thinly veiled idea among the rich that our Constitution guarantees them a right to remain rich. They even have private schools for their children where they can "learn how to be rich." A review of the history of economic disasters would prove beyond any doubt that economic disasters are -- when not caused by climate -- caused by bankers and investors. The disaster begins as soon as an individual or a group calculates how to get more money instead of how to improve productivity or how to help the community. The motive is not always just greed, it is often accompanied by a jackass argument, possibly really believed, called "economics."

One of these jackass economic arguments is that if an individual is "unemployed" in our advanced industrial, materialistic, money-oriented society, it is their own fault. They need to be more ambitious, accept reality and work for less and work at a job they hate because it is available. Is it not strange that "progress" has taken us from joyfully joining in the natural activities of the tribe to industrial slavery? Working in our commercial-industrial society has been compared to slavery, and many stories have been written, and research shared, and films produced, that illustrate the deep feelings of alienation and enslavement that are felt by "employees" in a modern factory or office. One famous example is the film Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin. That film shows a factory worker eating an ear of corn that is mounted on a device that spins the ear so that he can eat it faster and take less time for "lunch." "Where was the choice when I got hired for this job?" is a question imprinted on the mind of modern civilization. Workers do not feel "free." They feel enslaved, captive by their need for money and benefits and acceptance in a society where economics means conformity and compliance. Social conformity and compliance seems to be the American interpretation of "freedom."

The loss of the land:

In the 1700s, the French invented the word "sabotage" from the word "sabot" for a poor man's shoe. In rebellion against the speeding up of machines in French factories, they put a shoe (sabot) in the gears to stop the operation and cause a loss or setback for the factory owner. This was not motivated by a desire to avoid work or stop working. It grew out of a resentment and anger over a process that has continued in the world since the new mechanics (engineering) of the eighteenth century started the "industrial revolution." That process is usually called "industrialization," and the inescapable reality of "industrialization," and why it is often resisted by native peoples, is that it makes men and women less free. The more "primitive" or "third world" society is agricultural. People either own or have free access to productive land -- they are farmers and fishers and hunters -- from which they obtain their food and everything they need. The "industrial" society is also a "commercial" society, which means that modern society is dependent upon the legal enforcement of private property rights and the use of money as the medium of exchange for everything, even for "love" or a facsimile thereof. The key difference between an agricultural society and a modern industrial society is that in an agricultural society the vast majority of people have access to productive land. This makes them feel "free" because they can fend for themselves and meet their needs without any forced relationship with anyone else other than their clan and neighbors. In an industrial society people are removed from the land, or it might be more accurate to say that the land is removed from them, and they become far less "free" because they now cannot meet their needs any other way than by working for "the man" in order to obtain money, and the money is absolutely necessary in order to purchase what one needs: food, clothing, shelter, and just about everything that people used to provide for themselves. This is why in a modern society one must be "employed" in order to have money, and one must have money in order to have anything. Without money, well the reader can use their own metaphor. Without money, the "unemployed" member of society might as well be deemed to not exist. The "unemployed" have no money, no property, no rights other than the right to choose who will be their next master in their slave-like role as "worker" under duress. It is interesting to consider that in the United States of America, if a group of workers organize to advocate for their own rights and their livelihood, their actions are labeled as an aggressive political "movement" or "class war." But the process whereby the noble class of bankers and industrialists continuously eliminates the need for human labor is called "progress." Wouldn't it make more sense to consider the elimination of the role of workers in society to also be an aggressive "political movement."?

Why do people wonder at the high crime rate and fat prisons in the USA? Why wonder about the source of the sub-economies of prostitution, gambling and drugs? All this occurs because some people feel the need to be "free" of the control of others more than they feel the need to be "moral" or "cooperative" or "upright" or compliant. They would rather risk prison and the hatred of their hard-working and long-suffering neighbors than "work for the man" or feel like a slave who is a sucker because the rich don't play by the strict moral rules that are imposed upon the common people. Rest assured, organized criminals do not feel that the are being unfair to anyone or being unreasonable. They see a world in which people have what they take, and many people lead lives of "quiet desperation" because they comply with the rules of the industrial and commercial nobility in a fake democracy. They do not believe that good, law abiding citizens are wise or morally superior; they believe that law abiding citizens are fools who believe in the myth of their own freedom.

The successful movement to eliminate labor:

Since the 1700s, for three, fast-paced centuries, our best minds have been trained and hired to design and build machines that perform labor faster and more uniformly than human hands. Go on factory tours or watch documentaries about how things are made in our modern society. Even the harvesting of oranges and grapes can be and is accomplished by giant machines. Machines have been made to replace nearly every form of human labor. Because of machines, we can produce huge quantities of breakfast cereal, hotdogs, bread, shoes, shirts, televisions, cell phones, shiploads of wheat or soybeans, airplanes, just about everything you can think of, faster, and with far less human labor than was needed in the past. This is the real accomplishment of the commercial-industrial nobility, the bankers and investors and engineers and inventors, and managers. They are constantly pressured and motivated, and have been for three centuries, to reduce the cost of labor and the costs of production, and the best way they know to reduce the costs of production is to replace tens or hundreds or thousands of workers with a machine. The stupidity in this process is that the nobility forgets that the immense production capacity is useful and profitable only if there is an immense number of people with enough money to buy everything that is produced. Thus, we have the core economic conundrumm of mechanized society: if workers are not needed, then we will produce a vast army of "unemployed" citizens; they will have no money; they will be unable to buy what we produce. So, what is the solution to that problem? Easy. We -- the nobility -- want the masses to continue to believe that we are the source of everything good. We, the commercial and industrial class are the ones who provide freedom, and happiness, and material wealth -- that trickles down to the poor -- and abundance, and democracy, and all the good things that America can produce. And so, naturally, we are the source of what the people so desperately need: we are the source of "jobs." To be employed, to have a "job," you must be hired by "the man" or the commerical-industrial nobility. They cannot control the types of jobs available, really, or the level of compensation. Those factors are subject to the "invisible hand" of God and Nature, even though we pour a significant portion of our fortunes into making laws to serve ourselves. Thus we have the most insidious and irrational and violently destructive myth of modern "economics," the myth that the rich "create jobs." Or, the government pressures the rich to create jobs.

Yes, sometimes the government pressures the rich to create jobs, because by a prolonged period "without jobs" we run the risk of recreating the France of the 1780s, where the poor and a starving middle class had enough and sharpened their guillotine as well as their political philosophy. This resulted in the real revolution of western civilization, which proclaimed that the rights of the citizen, male or female, included liberty, equality and fraternity. Hence, "socialism" evolved out of this form of democracy because it was genuine, because a world of "equality" and "fraternity" or brotherhood does means something more than the ephemeral right to "pursue happiness." In the United States of America, the right to pursue happiness is aptly enforced: you can pursue happiness all you want, but if you don't find any, don't blame us. Finding happiness is strictly your own personal responsibility. Your unhappiness, your poverty, your loss of physical and emotional health after years of operating machines while living in a hovel, is your problem, not ours. If you are not happy, the cause is the same as your "unemployment:" you didn't know what to pursue. We knew what to pursue: money. And we have plenty, and you don't have enough. That's just the way the world works because of "Social Darwinism." I have more because I know how to have more. I learned how to be rich. That is the keystone of American economics. You are "unhappy" for the same reason you are "unemployed" -- because you don't know how to steal money within the boundary of the laws.

Workers create wealth:

Saying that investors and bankers and engineers "create jobs" is ridiculous, because the other side is omitted. It is just as accurate to say that employees "create profits" for the commercial industrial class who build and buy machines in order to reduce the need for human labor. We are mechanized, and from time to time our machines get ahead of us and we cannot seem to "create jobs" that are "new" as fast as we eliminate other "old" jobs. There is also the ongoing phenomenon of industry persistently seeking to build machines that can be operated by a simple, uneducated and unskilled human, if not an orangutan, so that the wage required will be insignificant as a cost of production. The industrialists defend all this as being embodied in their natural right to operate a business as they see fit, to earn a profit "without government interference." Their goal of making a profit, for their "shareholders," is supreme, and they feel that they are only defending their own freedom. Which they are. But what they persistently refuse to acknowledge is that their narrow, self-serving goal to reduce the need for human labor cannot be a practical goal for society. That is impossible. Populations rise, and rarely fall. The "abundance" provided by mechanized and scientific society produces an abundance of people. They all have needs. They must have money in the modern, mechanized economy. Being without money, and without a job (unemployed) is impossible, totally unacceptable. All of the people must be employed all of the time in order for this mechanized society to work. Therefore, society and government must -- this is imperative -- create new jobs to replace the old jobs that the industrial "revolution" has removed. This is so obvious, it is extremely exasperating to hear the rich, sounding like they live on Mars, claim that the reason people are unemployed is because they don't want to work. Absurd! The reason there are people who are unemployed is because you -- the rich -- have devoted your best resources, your investment funds, your engineering and technical knowledge, your best mechanical and electronic inventors, to eliminating the need for human labor. Why do you pretend that you have failed? You have succeeded. Human beings are no longer needed -- no more than a few, to run your factory or even your agricultural industry. It is now established that a family of five can operate a farm of thousands of acres, plant, cultivate, protect, harvest, ship to market. The myth that only 2% or 3% of the workforce is needed to produce all of our food is a ludicrous and destructive self-deception. That low percentage would make sense only if one considered the farming product to be produced only by those few who operate the farm machinery. To include everyone who contributes to the farm production, we must include everyone and all of the industries that produce the diesel fuel, the farm machinery and the replacement parts and the maintenance and repair of the machinery. Everything, everything has to be included, the factories that make the metals and the rubber, and the plastics, and the electronic controls, the mines that obtain the raw natural resources. The railroads and trucks that deliver the machines and the parts. The refineries that produce the diesel fuel and the trucks that distribute it. Include the power plant that sends electric power to the farm home and electric motors that perform the farming processes. Include every structure and device that is used to store or handle farm products. When we include everyone who participates in providing the mechanization and electrification of the farm, the percentage is much, much higher than 3%. I claim it would be at least 30%, possibly 50%. To make this computation properly, one would even include the wholesaler and supermarket and the banking services. All these too are necessary for the farm to be a successful business. So, we like to say that this farming family is "self-employed." Ask them. Ask them if they are free, self-employed and can do what they want. They will laugh at you. They are not happy. They do not even have any control over what seed to buy. The more a society becomes mechanized and industrialized and "scient-ized," the more every decision is decided by technology and there are few if any decisions made by "the farmer." So, this is the end result of the "industrial revolution," the farmer also is a slave. Even those who are "self-employed" are not free. This is why we have so many novels and movies about a cataclyism that sends us back in time, because in our hearts we want to go back. We want to escape from the control of the machines, and be free again, dance in the streets together and sing about our liberty, equality, and fraternity.

 

What is the solution to this problem? It is easy for me: All of the employers employ all of the people all of the time. All of the employers (society) employ all of the people (society) all of the time (continuity and economic stability). The rich don't have any special responsibility or capacity to "create jobs." Jobs, the precise type of jobs, are created by whatever society demands be produced, and the responsibility for enabling these jobs to be an acceptable contribution to the labor of the community and nation is a societal and governmental responsibility. This is not a decision made by a banker or a "businessman." This is a basic decision that must be made by the people in order for them to have liberty, equality and brotherhood, and not to just wear themselves down to a stub by trying to "pursue happiness" in a world where happiness depends on money and those who perfect their ability to obtain money are deemed to be happy. They are no more happy than the enslaved farmer. Their children take drugs. They get sick and feel sorry for themselves. They are so miserable they spend their excess money on reconstruction of their own faces. Occasionally they open their eyes and see how foolish is the American Dream to find happiness by getting money. They have comforts, but not happiness. Liberty, equality and brotherhood are better than the right to pursue happiness while crawling in the muck across a firing range.

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