I’ve continued to get jazzed about this “work” topic such that it looks like we’ll be covering some selection of readings in this area for episode #83. My question about this on the Facebook group has gotten a lot of responses, and I’m starting to get clearer on the spectrum of questions and positions here. Here’s some information on one of the sources I had in my possession for the Not School Bergmann discussion but didn’t much have time to look at before.
The End of Work (1995) by economist and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin is largely a historical and economic analysis to make the point that technology really is inexorably making the idea of traditional full-time employment for even most of us in impossibility. There’s a lot of discussion of the industrial revolution (Actually, he says there have been two, with the third going on now.) to show that we really have made reductions in the work-week in the past without wrecking the economy and can do so again. I’m not sure how “mainstream” Rifkin is, though his bio looks pretty impressive. For another, more recent economic proposal about the reduced work week, here’s a 2012 publication of the “New Economics Foundation,” an “independent think tank,” whatever that means exactly.
I also skimmed Rifkin’s own more recent work, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, which is more about taking ecological considerations into economics and the new technologies (people using green technologies to feed into the power grid, fabricators and other de-centralizing industrial tools) that he thinks are already transforming the world. Some of this is very much in line with Bergmann’s discussion of “high-tech self providing,” but not directly about the labor issue.
Even moreso than Bergmann, Rifkin in The End of Work takes into account what might and likely won’t be politically viable over and beyond what would actually work to ease the transition into a post-market economy, and it’s interesting and a little sad to see what back in 1995 seemed possible that in the face of subsequent government dysfunction has on my judgment virtually no chance of being enacted now. Whereas Bergmann has by now more or less given up on the US as a major starting point for this, focusing instead on Europe and more poverty-stricken areas, Rifkin cites Tocqueville in pointing out how America is unique in the degree to which volunteerism has thrived. This is in the last part of the book, where he starts giving his positive policy suggestions and pointing out promising things already being done or proposed by governments, unions, corporations, etc.
The choice as Rifkin initially puts it for our future is between forced unemployment or voluntary leisure: We can either take positive steps to recognize the labor shortage and reduce the work week, doing so with incentives for business and individuals to encourage this, or we can let economic progress simply take its course, exacerbating the distance between the rich, overworked minority and the increasing poor. “Leisure” for Bergmann is actually a negative, pointing at lying around watching TV and otherwise being unproductive, which thereby is not only a social waste but is not really what people want (insofar as they’ve developed their wants, which requires institutions and channels, hard deliberation and trying lots of things out), not in the interest of our psychological health. However, as Rifkin starts talking about volunteerism, it’s clear he has a similar disdain of that kind of leisure. He calls volunteerism “the third sector” after the public (government) and private (business), and calls this the future of work in the post-market area, such that we need to put more effort into tending it now, as legislative action is needed to make the third sector robust.
It’s ironic, he says, that Reagan was so gung-ho on supporting volunteerism, and Bush continued this with his 1000-points-of-light platform, but in practice this was just a mask for removing government restraints on business, and in fact the ability of non-profits to do a wide number of things was restricted during these administrations, not expanded. Rifkin also points to liberal opposition to the volunteerism movement as Reagan took it up; there were liberal fears, for instance, that pushing people into volunteer positions would remove the need for government workers and that the emphasis on volunteerism was in any case condescending and sexist, as women have made up the bulk of the volunteer force and should, according to this feminist criticism, be financially recognized for their efforts.
Rifkin doesn’t actually make the step Bergmann makes in talking about how organizations can help people figure out what they “really want,” i.e. he doesn’t explicitly start with Bergmann’s Nietzschean/Hegelian picture of human nature whereby the self has to be grown. However, Rifkin is not free of philosophy and actually identifies Herbert Marcuse has having said 50 years ago, on Freudian grounds, that human freedom is predicated on reducing the amount of time we spend on forced labor.
In arguing for his two stated goals to respond to the labor shortage: the reduction of the work week and the cultivation of the third sector, Rifkin does have several policy proposals for us to consider re. their logistic and political viability:
1. Offer a tax deduction not just for charitable contributions, but for volunteering hours for a registered non-profit. Rifkin calls this a “shadow wage,” and somehow moves from talking about currently employed people being encouraged to volunteer in this way to pushing the poor and unemployed into service this way. I’m not sure why he thinks offering a tax deduction to folks not currently making an income at all works. Just as we give different tax break levels to encourage different types of (e.g. hiring) activity, the legislature could vary the amount of this shadow wage to encourage different activities. Again, this would require a functioning legislature able to determine majority-willed priorities and enact them via legislation, which doesn’t seem available to us in the foreseeable future.
2. However, he also recommends a guaranteed minimum income, and points to neo-conservative economist Milton Friedman for actually having promoted this idea, as a less costly alternative to the welfare system. So you’d stop welfare payments in favor of this guaranteed minimum income that would decrease as people add job work to it, but not decrease so fast that people would be discouraged from working. Rifkin cites some studies and government efforts whereby offering such an income did not make people less likely to work. Needless to say, in the U.S. today this would be a non-starter, and even in 1995 Rifkin acknowledges that this was running against political trends.
3. Cutting back public sector hours (without cutting back benefits), which would then encourage the private sector to do the same. We’ve seen the backlash against this among public-sector unions. Some state governments are instituting mandatory unpaid furlough days, which come as nonsensical work interruptions designed to save an immediate budget dollar rather than an overall planned reduction in hours. There’s also no indication that this is causing businesses to cut back hours; the increase in overtime that Rifkin points to still seems on track (such that he thought the employed would soon be working as much on average as people in the 1920s).
4. Legislating that overtime payments be further increased from time-and-a-half to double or even triple, so as to discourage companies from using a small, overworked labor force. Again, advocating this in theory sounds great, but has the immediate effect of exacerbating a bad situation for lots of working people, such that cushioning the blow in this time of transition would require more government spending (see #2). Our Congress can no doubt be counted on, if such a reduction in “official” hours were to pass, to make sure to fail to provide any cushioning blow of this sort. Viva los Cheapos!
Rifkin is also well aware of the use of temporary labor and other measures that businesses use to keep from having to pay the taxes and benefits that go with having full-time employees, and so a major legislative goal should be to remove the hard distinction between full- and part-time work, both in one’s experience as an worker and as an employer. This means de-coupling full-time employment from getting health insurance, and there are also considerations regarding unemployment insurance and other things. Rifkin points to people’s overall willingness in many cases to trade work for free time so long as it’s a good deal to do so–so long as they’re still making enough to cover their cost of living. So increasing the minimum wage, making college affordable, controlling the cost of health care insurance, utilities, and fuel is all going to help people be able to afford to work less and so have more time to volunteer.
As much of that requires more tax revenue, Rifkin has a number of financing suggestions including less military spending, discontinuing subsidies to corporations, enacting a value-added tax on non-essential goods and services, etc. Pretty much all hot-button issues that would require some politicians to stake their entire careers on to get enacted. I am not optimistic.
This resistance from one side or both to any particular legislative action is why I think the important role for discussions like this now should be just to try to promote the ideal of an actually fulfilling job system, recognizing that it really is a possibility, and so get this to be an actual issue in public debate. It is not an exclusively liberal vision (isn’t it affluent professionals who are more likely to regard more free time as the next thing that they really want?), there’s room for discussion about the details of the vision (How much do we encourage entrepreneurship? How big should the transition safety net be?) and how to achieve it (through more legislative action, tax breaks, voluntary changes in standards, individual businesses trying new things?). Unless you really think that the current system is great (meaning everyone you know is either satisfied with his or her employment or it’s his or her own damn fault) and sustainable over the long term (sure, new industry will generate enough jobs for nearly everyone!), then this is a cause that’s worth putting your mind to and bitching to your legislators about. Utopianism is not just for stoners anymore!