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Indignity of not-work?

from David Ruccio


Mainstream economists and economic commentators continue to invoke the so-called “dignity of work” to criticize the idea of a universal basic income. 

It’s an argument I’ve dealt with before (e.g., here and here). As I see it, there’s nothing necessarily dignified about most people being forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a tiny group of employers. The idea may be intrinsic to capitalism—but that doesn’t mean it contributes to the dignity of people who work for a living, especially when they have no control over how they work or what they produce when they work.

Matt Bruenig, to his credit, suggests an alternative argument against the critics of a universal basic income:

these writers dislike the fact that a UBI would deliver individuals income in a way that is divorced from working. Such an income arrangement would, it is argued, lead to meaninglessness, social dysfunction, and resentment.

One obvious problem with this analysis is that passive income — income divorced from work — already exists.

Bruenig is making a distinction between income related to work and income that comes from other sources—passive or not-work—which represents a fundamental divide within contemporary society.

As is clear from the data in the chart above, very little of the income (15 percent in 2014) of the bottom 90 percent of Americans stems from not-work (and, even then, most of their apparently not-work income is actually related to previous work, in the form of pension incomes). However, for the tiny group at the top, most of their income (59 percent for the top 1 percent, 75 percent for the top 0.01 percent) is related to not-working (and, of course, most of their work-related income is based on sole proprietorships and elevated executive salaries). In other words, most of their income represents a claim on the extra work performed by others.

So, when critics of a universal basic income rely on the “dignity of work” argument, what they’re really doing is reinforcing the idea that most people can and should derive dignity from working for a small group of employers. At the same time, critics are presuming there’s no loss of dignity for the tiny group at the top, those who have managed to capture most of their income from sources related not to their own work, but the work of everyone else.*

Where’s the dignity in that?

*Now, it’s true, as Noah Smith observes, “many rich people believe that investing constitutes work.” But spending a few minutes a day reading the business press and examining alternative investments does not constitute work—at least as most people understand what it means to work. Or are those rich people referring to the fact that they hire a whole host of other people, from financial advisors to accountants, to do the actual work of managing their not-work investments?

  1. January 12, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    One of our most amusing cultural stories is the elves and the shoemaker. This amuses me because the natural assumption when you hear the story is that we play the part of the shoemaker. In truth, most of us are the elves.

  2. Craig
    January 12, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    Economists think too much in mere economic terms. This is actually the fragmented state of modern intellectualism as a “whole”. They think merely in terms of humans as homo economicus instead of actual whole beings. Hence their narrow definition of purpose is restricted to employment and they confuse leisure with idleness, when leisure is self determined attentive activity which is the essence of edifying purpose itself. Any economics that misses or impedes this realization is by definition humanly regressive.

    What we require is not economics, but a Wisdomics which would integrate economic theorizing with the long observed insights in “perennial philosophy” and that would have policies that aligned with same.

  3. January 12, 2017 at 10:31 pm

    Almost nobody i know well really works or if they do, they either quit or get fired, like me—i had a few jobs which would be considered very good and even easy—teaching math or science, but i got into a couple small conflicts with people who employed me so i quit on the spot. Basically in retrospect a bad decision, but i come from a backgound such that anytime i got a negative comment i viewed it as a threat—and sometimes it was–it was a physical threat and i got hurt many times..
    I had another good job –low pay but doing scientific research in theoretical biology—but i was told they coudlnt keep paying me unless i got a MS or PHD in computer science which i didnt want to do. I wanted to do more math, and less programming.

    There is a whole lot of work that is not counted—its under the table. Its actually a full time job not having a job. Anywhere you want to go you have to walk or bike, and a bike takes money to maintain, and due to traffic you may get hit when coming back at night (i’ve been hit by a car several times–mostly drunk drivers).

    For alot of jobs, its too much work to get one. You have to conform to whatever they require—dress for success, wear suit and tie, cut your hair a certain way, always on the job schedule.

    I support a Universal Basic Income–but its only maybe 1/3rd of the solution. (Thats really just basic economics— in current system for every hour you work, you know half of your pay or productivity is going to your boss—pareto’s law. you may get some ‘free stuff’—a public library, park, etc but in reality not much. My public library is nice, but the neighborhood is dangerous so i don’t really go there much—i might get shot). ) 1/3rd is how you spend your BIG. (most people i know spend half their money on junk). 1/3rd should be ‘from each according to ability’. Babies and senior citizens shouldn’t be required to work or do any chores, or get educated. I think other people should be required to. Some people i know would just do drugs, watch tv, and such all day. They usually have some interest in education but don’t deal with it. Maybe same reason i didnt want to get a degree in computer science; only interest i had in that was theoretical but i was judged not fit for that https://rjlipton.wordpress.com/

    there are more jobs flipping burgers than teaching godel’s theorem or p=/np? problem.
    so it goes.

  4. January 13, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    There is a complete section missing to this. There is work that is done every day by a vast number of people. They call it “volunteering”. This is work that is somehow considered not-work in terms of pay, but since it generally consists of caring for others is vastly more dignified than what is generally considered work. Making money for others is undignified. Caring for others is the most dignified and dignifying thing one can do, as far as I’m concerned. Basic Income puts a certain amount of value on that, by freeing up time otherwise used to collect capital for more dignified endeavours. This is not to say that people would not continue to “work” as we consider it now, but it gives them far more options to work or not-work in fields that make them feel dignified, rather than being forced into spaces where they are putting in time for the gain of others doing something they likely find nothing in.
    Dignity certainly can be found in work, if one is doing work that has a process or outcome that a person finds personally uplifting or societally useful. The idea that work itself has a dignity to it is only true if you buy into capitalism as a system that has intrinsic value, as opposed to recognizing that at it’s core it dehumanizes and devalues people, and only recognizes their usefulness to the wealth of those at the top of the socioeconomic scale, rather than their usefulness to society as a whole.

  5. January 13, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    Would be interesting to research how much “meaninglessness, social dysfunction, and resentment” there is among that top 0.1 percent versus the rest of the population. However that still wouldn’t replicate a UBI as in the case of the wealthy money and family relationships are all intertwined undermining the sense of individual independence a UBI would create.

  6. January 14, 2017 at 9:27 am

    The Roman Catholic understanding of work is any human activity, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances that is performed to realize values that serve the fulfillment of the worker, society and the glory of God. Very little of what capitalist doctrine identifies as work would meet this standard. A UBI would provide an opportunity to recreate work in accordance with this standard. But only an opportunity. Based on history there seems little chance this opportunity is realized. It would require an almost total reversal in thought, morality, and community that I can’t see as likely.

  7. January 14, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Many support a job guaranteed job over the guaranteed income. It is an interesting comparison on many fronts. Pragmatically, the guaranteed income wins, I believe, because of the truly daunting administrative challenge of managing the program. It could be done but it would require a new organization such as the WPA and CCC of the 30s.

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