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Unemployment is miserable and doesn’t spawn an upsurge in personal creativity

Here is a summary of another interesting study I read last week (published March 30, 2017) – Happiness at Work – from academic researchers Jan‐Emmanuel De Neve and George Ward. It explores the relationship between happiness and labour force status, including whether an individual is employed or not and the types of jobs they are doing. The results reinforce a long literature, which emphatically concludes that people are devastated when they lose their jobs and do not adapt to unemployment as its duration increases. The unemployed are miserable and remain so even as they become entrenched in long-term unemployment. Further, they do not seem to sense (or exploit) a freedom to release some inner sense of creativity and purpose. The overwhelming proportion continually seek work – and relate their social status and life happiness to gaining a job, rather than living without a job on income support. The overwhelming conclusion is that “work makes up such an important part of our lives” and that result is robust across different countries and cultures. Being employed leads to much higher evaluations of the quality of life relative to being unemployed. And, nothing much has changed in this regard over the last 80 or so years. These results were well-known in the 1930s, for example. They have a strong bearing on the debate between income guarantees versus employment guarantees. The UBI proponents have produced no robust literature to refute these long-held findings.

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Countering the march of the robots narrative

I read a very interesting Report last week – False Alarmism: Technological Disruption and the U.S. Labor Market, 1850–2015 – published on May 8, 2017 by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and written by Robert Atkinson and John Wu. The title is indicative of the message. Somehow, contemporary commentators including many on the so-called progressive Left are stuck in the ‘robots are coming for your jobs’ narrative, which then somehow morphs into a resignation that there will never be enough jobs for all those who desire them, and then surrender, we need a basic income to keep people eating. Apparently, then human creativity will spring forth from the despair of unemployment because the pittance received from the basic income will allow people to engage their inner entrepreneurial spirit with businesses popping up all over the place, great works of art and music being pumped out and all the rest of the basic income camp’s vision of blithe happiness. Pigs might fly! Of course, if this was happening at the pace that some would have us believe then productivity growth would be booming and investment to GDP ratios high. The robots camp then say – well it is only a matter of time – business needs time to adapt to the new technologies available (for example, Artificial Intelligence and the Modern Productivity Paradox: A Clash of Expectations and Statistics). Technological change is on-going and there have been great leaps in techniques in history. But the ITIF research suggests that the current era does not signal it is one of these great leaps, and, in fact, the “US labor market is experiencing unprecedented calm” right now.

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Automation and full employment – back to the 1960s

On August 19, 1964, the then US President Lyndon B. Johnson established the – National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. He established the Commission in response to growing concern during the deep 1960-61 recession that the unemployment had been created by the pace of technological change. Ring a bell! He wanted to an inquiry to explore this issue and come up with recommendations on how to deal with the possibility that automation was wiping out jobs and the future would be bleak. Before the Commission had reported, the Federal government had reversed its fiscal austerity and the resulting stimulus had driven the unemployment back down to relatively low levels. The Commission noted that unemployment was largely the result of inadequate total spending and that the Government had the tools at its disposal to eliminate it. They considered that there would be workers (low-skill etc) who would suffer more displacement from technology than those with more skill etc, but that ultimately even those workers would be able to get jobs if the public deficit was large enough. In this regard, they eschewed pointless training programs that did not provide immediate access to jobs. Instead, they recommended (among other things) the introduction of a Job Guarantee (Public Service Employment) financed by the Federal government but administered at all levels of government. It would pay the Federal minimum wage and be available on demand. This is the preferred Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) approach and rejects solutions that rely on the provision of a basic income guarantee to resolve the problems created by unemployment.

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The conservative opposition to full employment legislation in the US

In 1946, with the Second World War at an end, the world governments turned to the question of how to maintain the full employment that the prosecution of the War had brought in the peace. It was clear that governments could choose whatever unemployment level they wanted through the manipulation of fiscal and industry policies and so the only question was the political will to maintain the full employment state. In the US, the political debate led to the Employment Act 1946, which demonstrated that the parameters of the conflict between conservative and the more liberal forces over what constituted full employment and what responsibility the currency-issuing government had for maintaining high levels of employment. We can see through successive attempts in the US to legislate for full employment how the economic profession has influenced the political process and how we have reached the point today where governments pay lip service to fulfulling their responsibilities as the fiscal agency to maintain sufficient jobs for those who desire to work.

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The rise of the “private government”

I have always found it odd (read totally inconsistent) that people rail against government intervention as if it is a blight on our freedom, but ignore the ‘governance’ of workplaces by capital, who seek every way possible to destroy our freedom and initiative unless it is serving to advance their bottom line. We ignore the benefits of collective goods and laws that protect us, but turn a blind eye to the on-going, minute-by-minute, repression in the workplace. I was reminded of this again as I was reading a new book that came out in May 2017 – Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) – by American philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. She studies that way in which corporate America serves in effect as a “private government” minutely and vicariously controlling our daily working lives yet many of us still accept the construction that this is the ‘free market’ operating. It is when the word ‘free’ loses all meaning. I especially like her use of the term “private government” to reinforce the hypocrisy of the elites and the inconsistency of those (workers included) who call for small ‘government’ as if that is the exemplar of freedom.

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Employment as a human right

As I indicated earlier this week, I will progressively add notes to the body of work that will become the manuscript for my next book (with long-time co-author Joan Muysken) on the – Future of Work. As I write bits and pieces, I will post them here for comments and feedback. The book will be published sometime in 2018. At present, I am working on the philosophical considerations that we will deploy to underpin the more prescriptive elements (policy proposals) that we will produce. Today, I have been writing about the ethical basis for work. This is derived from work I did at the turn of the century. Part of the text today was written in collaboration with a former colleague John Burgess and the body of work we produced was subsequently published in several periodicals and book chapters around that time. However, the ideas sketched here were taken from parts of the papers that I mostly wrote although trying to decipher the exact division of labour is impossible. In that sense, I acknowledge the fruitful nature of my interaction with John at that time and the body of work we produced together.

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When Austrians ate dogs

You will notice a new ‘category’ on the right-side menu – Future of Work. It will collect all the blogs I write as part of the production of my next book (with long-time co-author Joan Muysken) on that topic. We aim to present a philosophical, theoretical and empirical analysis of a plethora of issues surrounding the role, meaning and future of work in a capitalist society. As I complete aspects of the research process I will produce the notes via blogs. Eventually, these notes, plus the input from Joan will be edited to produce a tight manuscript suitable for final publication. Today, I am discussing an important case study that needs to receive wider attention. Its lack of presence is in some part due to the fact that it was written up in German in 1930 and escaped attention of the English-speaking audience until it was translated in 1971. In selected social science circles this study provides classic principles that transcend the historical divide. The relevance of the study is that it provides a coherent case for those, like me, who argue that work has importance to societies well beyond its income-generating function. Humans need more than just income and in a society where work is considered normal time-use and frames the time we spend not working, it is an essential human right. Progressives who think that only income should be guaranteed by the state rather than work miss many essential aspects of the issue. The case study is important in that respect.

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