When I read articles like this
in the small business section of the Yahoo! Business news, where a woman operates a staffing company largely of women who are Moms who work in temporary part time jobs, I react negatively. I want to say to the woman: Where are the benefits for your employees? What are the annual earnings of such employees you have, and really, isn't this more of a supplemental income solution you are promoting which often undermines the stability of full time workers? And ultimately, ma'am, in all candor, what is the future for your employees at your company?
However, those questions are tiring and increasingly form an old argument. The new argument has to be this:
We are living in a post-modern society and we simply don't understand it yet. And instead of merely ripping into this woman with her history of a Harvard MBA, followed by fancy high paying full time jobs at a major accounting firm followed by a high level position in a major Fortune 500 corporation, plus her unmentioned spouse who was also making good money so as to allow her the freedom to start her business too, we should as a nation promote universalist government operated programs to provide people with the basic economic support that frees us to work as little or as much as each individual wants to work. Think first of a society where everyone is covered with medical insurance. Once we imagine it, we realize the benefits argument I was making against the woman and her business begins to fade away. Then, think of a government subsidy of a basic
guaranteed annual income paid monthly to every citizen. That would be a major transfer of wealth to those in the middle and poor classes, of course. But it also begins to change and lessen the other concerns I was raising through my pointed questions in the first paragraph.
I know it's scary to think about the part of the sentence that says "as little or as much as each individual wants to work..." It is scary when we decide to worry about loafers and freeloaders, you know, parasites in the Ayn Rand parlance. The truth is that those of us who are driven are well, driven anyway. We will do it for money. We will do it for status. We will do it for the pleasure we find in being active and especially in running things. That's why we volunteer when we are not working instead of staring at a bird out the window all day. Some of us, and maybe a majority of us just lounge around, drink beer and don't really want to think much, do much or frankly do anything. I get that...But let's think about this:
Star Trek tells us about the people on the Bridge because that is where the stuff happens. There is no money in Star Trek and most of the people on the ship are not working at all. They are just hanging out and get to just hang out for their entire lives--and think about this: That's on the Enterprise
, not some smaller perhaps slummier spaceship, and it isn't the planets either. Those other people are simply not interesting to us and so we ignore them. What Star Trek is saying is the money and technology produced in the futuristic society (that is far away, but still coming closer to us) means that we should not really have to worry about those who just want to stare out the window or sleep or be, generally speaking, inert.
Star Trek leaders would say that such possibly inert people are not the reason to reject the solutions proposed. They take the Ayn Rand argument about the inert people being irrelevant, but turn the argument around, saying instead: Just provide for the mass of humanity and let the drivers drive. And we can all keep voting and keep the society open too. It doesn't have to end up in dictatorships. When such folks or their children are ready to work, such persons will have open to them training and education, and the society can allow such folks to lead a fuller and more interesting life that they choose
to lead. Money and technology can do that. Not perfectly. Not always, but more than we might assume when we are caught in arguments with Randians and the business libertarian group of folks.
So where do we begin? Well, we're back to those policies that stop my questions from being asked of the temp Mom businesswoman. First, let's have a true national health insurance system. Second, we should begin to provide a basic guaranteed annual income for every citizen that replaces food stamps and any other relief, including unemployment insurance. When people start to scream about deficits and debt in the US, let's remind them the deficit and debt are largely
what we owe to ourselves. So let's not let that fetish stop this before we start. We know the money is ultimately there from the incredible productivity that is still ongoing from modern technology. Third, we should increase access to free higher education with a higher education philosophy that promotes a consilience of the arts and sciences to create even more amazing software that creates more opportunities for the freedom from work instead of enslaving us. Look at how many people in the creative arts in Hollywood produce much more money than they need or is good for them...Philip Seymour Hoffman anyone?
But really, how does technology help promote freedom instead of the current alternative when our cell phones keep us thinking about our jobs 24/7? We also start to phase in a 30 hour work week in the larger scale economic and government institutions. That does not mean the institutions have to only be open 30 hours, just that we the people don't work more than 30 hours a week. With the technology, as the opening linked to article shows, people can really be efficient and produce the same in 30 hours what would normally have taken 40 hours. This supports the payment of 40 hours worth of work for the 30 actually worked and would immediately expose to everyone why there is the growing inequality of those of the top grabbing most of the productivity money that we currently see. And this change in the number of hours worked at large institutions will filter down to smaller enterprises which will have to compete with those larger institutions, just as they do with other aspects of that competition. This will free up time for those who are working, and maybe even allow us to find more jobs for people who are interested in working if there is a limit to the efficiencies.
In these musings, I am indebted to largely unknown books for these insights. These include Michael Harrington's "The Twilight of Capitalism"
(1976), Robert Kuttner's "The Economic Illusion"
(1984), Harry Braverman's "Labor and Monopoly Capital"
(1974), Paul LaFarge's "The Right to be Lazy"
(1883), Reg Theriault's "How to Tell When You're Tired"
(1997), Robert Dahl's "A Preface to Economic Democracy"
(1985), Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickeled and Dimed"
(2001), Paul Goodman's "Growing Up Absurd"
(1960), Edward O. Wilson's "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge"
(1998) (Wilson's book moves the debate beyond C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures"
(1964)), David Brin's "The Transparent Society"
(1998) and Daniel Bell's "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism"
I am also inspired to think about this more because of an Australian comic and former Death Metal rocker named Steve Hughes, who delivered
what I have previously written is the greatest and funniest three and a half minutes about the nature of work, capitalists, capitalism and wage slavery I have ever heard. It is not safe for work as the f-bombs fly all over, but it is truly brilliant. In the midst of his bit, it is easy to miss that twice Hughes talks about us evolving with literature, the arts, and philosophy, not being in the drudgery of work.
And finally, I think about this more as I watch my son in his second year at an elite STEM
university. I particularly watch his generation grapple with the current problems of debt accumulation, the pressure to work and how this elite STEM university is stuffing his brain and his fellow students' brains with a massive amount of information regarding science, technology, engineering and mathematics--and how he and fellow students, largely on their own, push for more creativity in their lives with music, animation, theater and literature, which again informs their STEM interests. I look at the way so many drive themselves for the privilege of paying for a higher education to learn. They are engaged and yet they are oppressed in ways that we can change now if we Baby Boomers and those who came of age just after World War II could only have the type of vision of those who created our nation, those various Progressives in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century and those who promoted the New Deal in the 1930s. We don't need to repeat the lessons of racism and eugenics. We don't need to repeat the lesson of gulags and war. Those lessons need to be taught, to be sure, and our politics should be informed by those arguments as we move each step forward. But moving forward does not mean those things automatically have to happen again or at all.
To state it simply, and colloquially for an American audience, we need to learn that a Star Trek oriented philosophy has politically practical present
value. And to state it even more simply, but perhaps more deeply, We need to believe in the future again.