Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Value of Work

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 11, 2005

Someone wrote in DEOS just the other day, "Is a terrible, boring, mind-numbing job better than unemployment, or not? Will the society/economy accommodate the thing called "intelligence" or will it only accommodate some people's intelligence?"

We have all, of course, heard the official answer to this sort of question. It is always better to work. Work gives you dignity. Work helps the economy. Work means that you are not merely a parasite living off the work that others do. If you think certain jobs are "beneath" you, then you not only display your own ignorance, you also demean the people already working in those jobs.

And let's face it. If you don't work, then your quality of life will be even worse than when working at one of those jobs. I have spent time on unemployment, and even a summer on welfare, when I broke my wrist. Trust me, living on $400 a month - which is about what I got when I worked at 7-Eleven - is infinitely better than living on the $86 a month I got from welfare. Our institutions are set up to discourage people from living on welfare, and they do a very good job - only the desperately needy or the doggedly unemployed are on welfare.

Goodness knows, I was happy enough to get the 7-Eleven job in the summer of 1982. The oil boom in Alberta had just collapsed, I had taken one year of university classes, I had no money and no prospects of getting money, and something, anything, was better than nothing. And I stuck with 7-Eleven through to the end of the summer of 1984, working full time in the summer and on vacations, pulling the night shift weekends during the school year. After all, 7-Eleven was just the latest in a series of such jobs I had held (leading to an employment history sufficiently varied to warrant a timeline just to keep track).

Working at the store was sometimes pretty busy, but at three o'clock Sunday morning there is plenty of time while stocking shelves to ponder one's role in the larger economy. One thing I knew for sure: I wouldn't be working there if I didn't have to. I had much better things to do at that time of the day, not the least of which was to sleep. It's hard to say that working at the 7-Eleven hurt my GPA (spending 20 hours a week in the student newspaper office probably played a role). But it didn't help.

And I have wondered ever since those days why it is that we have structured society in such a way as to ensure that many people suffer considerable hardship if they don't work in such positions, and that many more suffer considerably more hardship because they cannot work.

For after all, let's think for a moment about just what it is that companies like 7-Eleven, McDonalds, and their ilk, contribute to the economy. Oh, no doubt, we could point to them and say they employ x number of people, that they have corporate earnings of such-and-such, that they contribute so many millions of dollars to the gross domestic product. But these indicators show us nothing other than the fact that they are money mills: money goes in, money goes out. But what do they produce?

Because, after all, the strength of an economy is not in how much money flows through it. Measures of the flow of money are meaningless when it comes to determining whether or not a society is actually wealthy. The strength of an economy is measured, minimally, by what it produces - that is, what food it raises from the ground, what minerals it mines, what wood it hews from the forests, what power is produced in its plants, what amount of finished products is produced in its factories, what innovation is produced by its researchers, what cultural and other artifacts are produced by its artists.

And, indeed, even the measure of production is a misleading indicator, because there is a great deal of production that produces no wealth whatsoever. My favorite example is, of course, the pet rock, which would no doubt have been included in the manufacturing statistics, not to mention the GDP, but which consisted entirely of empty production. And it is not hard to look around and find numerous other products of dubious or negligible utility. The wonder of it is that they gain any market at all, and of course they would not, were it not for that other engine of empty production, the marketing and advertising industry.

The fact is, we produce much more than we need, and once the market for things that we need has become saturated, we produce things we don't need. The production of things we don't need generates jobs - and we need jobs, remember, because otherwise people would starve - and in order to ensure the constant purchase of things we don't need we also produce the means, through marketing and advertisement, of persuading people that they do need these things. And we count this ever-mounting spiral as something called 'progress', and as the GDP numbers march steadily higher, we say the economy is getting better.

Adbusters, of course, has been running with a campaign over the course of the last few years centered around the theme, Is economic progress killing the planet? because, after all, when you use more and more resources to produce things you don't need, you place an increasing strain on the carrying capacity of the environment, and if economic progress is not measured in relation to this carrying capacity (and, arguably, it's not), then the more you 'progress', the poorer you become.

And I think that's a good point, and if Adbusters can ever get its commercials on the air (they have, of course, been blocked in their efforts to advertise things like Buy Nothing Day, it being bad for the economy and all), I'll support them. But I think there's a deeper point here, one we don't often consider, and that's the enormous waste of what might be (wrongly) called 'human resources' as well. Because the main thing that occurred to me as I stocked shelves at a 7-Eleven is that I was not feeding the hungry, I was not educating the illiterate, I was not housing the homeless - I was not, in other words, producing anything of value to our society whatsoever.

And if you accept this, I realized, then it follows that I was as much of a drain on society as I would be were I unemployed. And if I am a drain on society, I asked myself, then why am I spending my nights at 7-Eleven? One way or another, my useless non-production had to be supported, which meant taking some amount of money (a pittance) out of the national wealth, and giving it to me. And it seemed to me that, for the same contribution to society (ie., none), I could be making myself better, rather than making someone else richer. But I wasn't, and moreover, if I tried, I would be forced to starve.

In 1982, the Canadian government launched a study into economic reform in Canada. The resulting report, the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, was better known as the MacDonald Commission report. This report is most famous for recommending a free trade agreement with the United States, an agreement that was eventually signed and with morphed into today's NAFTA.

But the report also recommended that, in order to address poverty (more than a little of which would be caused by free trade), Canada establish a Universal Income Security Program (UISP). What such a program would be, in essence, is a guaranteed income program. "The gains at lower earnings levels would have been... unprecedented in size; the Commission cited gains of $5,000 to $7,000 among families with earned incomes in the $8,000 to $10,000 range." In other words, it would have changed the equation. We would no longer be faced with the choice between meaningless work (where work was to be had) or starvation.

I will leave the topic of free trade to another day, save to observe briefly that I am in general supportive of free trade, which is not the same as being supportive of NAFTA or the WTO. For the present moment, I am more concerned with the part of the MacDonald Commission report that we did not get, a guaranteed income.

Why didn't we get it? Well, as the report I cite above argues, a major concern was that a guaranteed income would have raised taxes. Another concern was that it would redistribute wealth, "raising questions about its political feasibility." And while it is argued that the report did have an impact on subsequent social program development, things like child poverty and education funding remain problems in this country to this day. And people still flip burgers at McDonalds and give out change for overpriced trinkets at 7-Eleven.

In other words, the analysis suggests that we could not afford anything like a guaranteed income, that it would cost too much to support every person in the country. But this is ridiculous. We could easily afford it; we have the productive capacity to do it. We already produce far more than we need. What we do not have is an economic system that would support such a fundamental change in society.

Because, after all, the day people realized that the would receive a living wage for doing nothing, a significant number of them would immediately quit their jobs. It is likely that every fast food chain and convenience store in the country would close shortly after such a program; they could not offer a wage high enough to entire people out of their now comfortable retirement. Numerous other industries would be similarly affected. There would be an immediate and severe labour shortage.

But, remarkably, we would survive. Because we do not need McDonalds or 7-Eleven in order to get by. Indeed, most of the work performed by people earning a minimum wage is not, in a strict sense, needed. So those jobs would disappear. The remaining jobs, those that are essential, would suddenly begin to pay more, in order to attract people to them. And it would suddenly make more sense to ensure that they are properly equipped and supported so they can do their work efficiently. The nature of janitorial services would change almost overnight, for example.

The thing is - when you give everyone a living wage, you can no longer force them to work, but you can entice them to work, by giving them sufficient incentive. Because the cost of work has increased, you ensure that people who do work that is valuable are paid what its worth, while you give people who were doing work that was valueless their time back, to do with it what they will.

Now the real bogeyman of a guaranteed income raises its head: "What," some people will ask, "if those people do nothing? What would their incentive be?" Well - horror of horrors. Some people might do nothing. But there is no reason to believe that most people would do nothing. No reason to believe it at all. Because, in the main, people do not require an incentive to lead happy and productive lives. They need an incentive only if they are to be forced into near slave-labour.

We would, for example, expect a proliferation of the arts. Enough people live today at less-than-starvation wages in order to be able to write, paint, sing, act and perform any manner of cultural pursuit; with guaranteed income even more of them would do so. We would expect a proliferation of scholars and philosophers: with the requirement to work no longer driving people into cookie-cutter training programs, people would pursue their own aptitudes and interests. We would see many, many more restored cars, hand-crafted furniture, four-table restaurants, home gardens and home restorations, as people engaged in the sort of creation and building that interests them.

We would, ultimately, see a wealthier society. It would consume less, but what it consumed would be better. We would see much greater emphasis on production efficiencies, as the labour surplus currently existing would no longer pose a barrier to technological innovation. And we would see a happier society as no person would ever need to live in fear of economic ruin or starvation. There would be a much greater sense that we're all in this together, a much greater willingness to cooperate and share, a much stronger sense of family and community.

You know, it is amazing how much your life brightens when the Sword of Damocles is taken away. And it is amazing how much harder you work, how much more productive you become, when you are working for yourself, producing something of value, than when you are working for some faceless Other, producing nothing of substance.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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