Spoons, Shovels and the Indignities of Work

Noah Smith

I responded to Samuel Hammond a few weeks ago on his pro-work case for the universal basic income (UBI) but my analysis doesn’t stop there. Through Hammond’s article I found some articles by economist Noah Smith on the relationship between work/jobs and dignity. I didn’t have the space at the time to get into Smith’s articles but now I do.

For those interested, I’ll be responding to three articles by Smith that can be found here, here and here.

To start with, Smith decides to do one of the most unfortunate things when discussing work or jobs: Not define his terms.

So I don’t know if Smith and I actually disagree on this subject or perhaps it’s just a matter of classification. I’m fully open to the idea that perhaps the way I define work couldn’t possibly have something to do with dignity. While perhaps Smith’s elusive definition could more easily be tied to having a sense of self-worth in what you do.

But regardless of the definition we choose for “work” and “jobs”, I don’t agree with Smith that most contemporary jobs or work have much to do with dignity or could. And I specifically think his ideas about creating job guarantees and government programs designed to give people more jobs are ideas with poor reasoning behind them.

That being said, let’s dive into his first article:

One of the key arguments used by supporters of pro-employment policies – myself included – is that work is essential to many people’s sense of self-worth and dignity. There’s a more extreme variant of this argument, which says that large-scale government handouts actually destroy dignity throughout society. Josh Barro promotes this more extreme argument in a recent post.

This seems possible, but it’s very hard to get evidence about whether welfare payments are actually dignity-destroying. Anyone who goes on welfare probably has other bad stuff happening to them in life, so there’s a big endogeneity problem. Meanwhile, time-series analyses of nationwide aggregate happiness before and after welfare policy implementation are unlikely to tell us much. The best way to study this would be to find some natural experiment that made one group of people eligible for a big UBI-style welfare benefit, without allowing switching between groups – for example, payouts to some Native American group might fit the bill. My prior is that handouts are not destructive to dignity and self-worth, as Barro assumes – I predict that they basically have no effect one way or the other. But this is an empirical question worth looking into.

I like to lead with my good foot forward, so here we have sentiments I find (mostly) convincing and agreeable. I don’t think it makes any sense to see unemployment as a clear case of a net-bad when there are often many different externalities operating in a person’s life while being unemployed. People could be suffering from some mental illness which may have caused them to become unemployed to begin with, which would frustrate any attempt to make work look positive.

These types of arguments tend to treat correlation as causation and confuse the fact that people can have a wide-range of emotions about unemployment itself (largely based on labeling, in my opinion) while still preferring it to work. Or perhaps they don’t prefer it to work but they’re also depressed because they can’t find a job, not because work is so meaningful to them but because they need to pay the bills. This sort of tense relationship can often cause stress.

On another subject, I’m not sure how possible the “natural experiment” is given the history of imperialism that has affected native tribes throughout the US. The “natural experiment” concept seems like a Platonic ideal that may only be crudely approximated and even then, nothing that Smith might find valuable.

Regardless, I agree that this is an empirical matter worth going into more.

Let’s get meta-critical for a second here:

In his own post, Matt Bruenig argues against Barro. His argument, basically, is that many rich people earn passive income, and seem to be doing just fine in the dignity department:

If passive income is so destructive, then you would think that centuries of dedicating one-third of national income to it would have burned society to the ground by now…In 2015, according to PSZ, the richest 1% of people in America received 20.2% of all the income in the nation. Ten points of that 20.2% came from equity income, net interest, housing rents, and the capital component of mixed income…1 in 10 dollars of income produced in this country is paid out to the richest 1% without them having to work for it.

I don’t think this constitutes an effective rebuttal of Barro, for the following reasons:
1. “Work” is subjective. Many rich people believe that investing constitutes work (I’d probably beg to differ, but no one listens to me). And founding a successful business, which creates capital gains, certainly requires a lot of work.
2. Passive income very well might be destructive to the self-worth of the rich, on the margin. In fact, I have known a number of rich kids who inherited their wealth, and devoted their youths to self-destructive pursuits like drug sales and petty crime. It could be that for many rich people, the dignity-destroying effects of unearned income are merely outweighed by the dignity-enhancing effects of high social status and relative position.
3. Many rich people became wealthy through work – either a highly paid profession like CEO, or by starting their own companies. This past work may provide dignity for old rich people, just as retired people of all classes may derive dignity from their years of prior effort.
  1. Work may be subjective to some extent (though I don’t think disagreement is a good foundation for deciding that) but the lack of work that comes from when you’ve made it big is more of what Bruenig (I presume) is referring to. He likely isn’t referring to the beginning stages which may require a lot of planning, hiring, firing, capital building and so on. My intuition here is that he’s more likely referring to those who already have succeeded. And for those people, it doesn’t seem to be destroying their dignity.
  2. Anecdotes are interesting but as I’m sure Smith knows, they aren’t the same as statistically relevant data. This point is mostly speculation with some personal stories involved, but that doesn’t strike me as an effective rebuttal to Bruenig. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong but I don’t think he’s made a solid case otherwise.
  3. It’s true that past work can give people lots of dignity, though one would think that this’d eventually dissolve and need to be replaced by newer endeavors to get dignity from, if work is so crucial to it.

To be clear, I don’t have much of a dog in this conversation, but I thought it was interesting enough to comment on and share my own take. I read Bruenig’s article but it didn’t strike me as particularly worth commenting on.

Here’s Smith’s second article, which he linked above:

Economists like to tell a possibly apocryphal story about Milton Friedman. The prophet of free markets, visiting an Asian country in the 1960s, witnessed a public-works project that had people making a road with picks and shovels. When he asked why they didn’t use earth-moving machines instead, a local official responded that the goal was to provide people with jobs. In that case, the economist asked, why didn’t the government just have the workers use spoons instead?

I’ve told this story as well and thought of it as a way to counter the ideas of make-work bias that seem to hold favor in many economists eyes. Smith is one such economist as we’re about to see:

Inevitably, the people who chuckle at the “spoons” story are going to label these programs as make-work. If the market isn’t willing to pay people to do a job, they’ll say, it isn’t worth doing.

Already I’ve received a few responses along these lines. People who take these jobs might do it for the money, they say, but they’ll know the work wasn’t really needed, and they won’t derive dignity or self-respect from doing it. Better to just mail them a check.

I think this kind of thinking is very wrong. Yes, if you gave people spoons to build a road, they would realize it was silly. But it’s absurd to jump from that to the conclusion that any worker who gets paid more than what the market will bear is just a welfare recipient with a made-up job.

I don’t know if I’d label anyone who was in a government program so that they could get money in that exact way, but it is true that if market processes aren’t demanding a given service and the government steps in to artificially supply it anyways, that these job exist under different circumstances than most other jobs. I don’t think it’s incorrect to point that out and also think it’s worth considering whether it’s a good thing that the government has the power to ignore price signals, supply and demand and existing services, just to give people things to do so they can feel better.

Moreover, I find this kind of thinking heavily within the band-aid side of frameworks. The issue isn’t that people need jobs or work to have dignity but they need to actually feel engaged and respected within whatever they’re doing. It’s hard to feel engaged with many of the jobs we have today because the companies we work for we often have very little personal investment with. I have no stock (literally and figuratively) in the company I work for and could hardly care less if the entire company collapsed in a financial meltdown, as long as I was still getting paid and could afford necessities.

This sort of attitude about my job is a rather negative one, sure. But on a certain scale it’s also not a particularly uncommon one in the US (look at Smith’s use of declining labor engagements as another example). There’s a reason so many people want to talk about work and it’s not because we’re all living our dreams and working the jobs we want.

So maybe being paid more than the market will bear doesn’t make these people any particular kind of person, but it still seems like an intervention fraught with issues. How would the government decide what people need the most? How would the hiring process manage to keep free of special interests? How would wages be determined?

If we’re cutting off or at least diminishing the roles of markets and prices with regards to hiring than I think we’re opening ourselves up to much bigger issues than people sitting at home, watching Netflix.

None of which to say the market currently is fair:

People realize that the free market rewards people differently based on things beyond their control.

A janitor in the Philippines does the same work as a janitor in Texas, but the latter gets paid a lot more. Recessions, local economic conditions, development policy, the winds of global trade and a million other factors all play a part. That’s one big reason why free-market outcomes aren’t always seen as fair.

Most of us want to be valued not just for how much money we can manage to wring out of the system, but how much effort we put in.

It’s worth mentioning that we don’t have free markets.

I don’t think a market which has countless corporate subsidies, intellectual property laws, licenses and many other government interventionshas any chance of being a free market. So it’s hard to make judgement based on the lack of free markets we have now, to make predictions about how fair free markets actually are.

That aside, who decides what fair constitutes?

If the janitor in the Philippines works in an economy that can’t afford to pay him the same rate as someone in Texas is making laws forcing employers to do so the best idea? Wouldn’t other workers or the general economy suffer from giving consistent payouts that it’s unable to balance? The problem with Smith’s line of thinking is it’s the idea that we can simply force reality to convert to whatever amalgamation we want. Whether it’s actually a good idea or not to try to make the wages between two completely different environments equal isn’t important because it’s the equality that matters more than anything else. But I don’t think equality of outcomes is a particularly worthwhile goal relative to others.

I know that I don’t trust governments to decide fairness and while I don’t trust capitalist markets either, I don’t think these are our only options. If communities feel like people aren’t getting fair wages then there are ways to increase them without resorting to government force. Look at the example Charles Johnson cites in (of all places) Reason:

Last week, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced an astonishing breakthrough in an ongoing campaign to win wage increases for 80,000-100,000 seasonal laborers picking tomatoes for Florida farms. Even more surprising, C.I.W. announced that the concessions came from Walmart, in a negotiated, government-free agreement with one of the more die-hard enemies of union contracts in corporate America.

You can read more if you like, but the point being is that we shouldn’t rely on the government to direct the economy in such major ways. Not when it’s already failing at being a basically decent institution on a daily basis by upholding countless unjust laws, imprisoning untold numbers of innocents and continuing to pile on repression within the US.

More Smith:

If we work hard and produce something of tangible value, we tend to feel a sense of self-worth when society rewards us for it with a decent, middle-class life.

This was the essence of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal — if you work, you eat.

But this idea runs into an issue: What if you can’t work?

Should people who can’t work starve? Clearly FDR and Smith wouldn’t want such an outcome, but it’s the implicit result of such a faulty statement. Whether people eat or not, i.e. whether they live or die, shouldn’t be solely determined on whether they can or cannot work. This ties people’s self-worth too much to what they do at their jobs.

Some people want to give back via volunteering, community organizing, activism or “working” in some unconventional sense that likely won’t pay all of their bills. In the current economy this likely wouldn’t be enough and that’s true but is that fair? Fairness is a tricky subject and it’s also not an easily definable one. For example what I mean by “fair” is whether it accords with a legitimate system of ethics. And that’s it’s own conversation of what particular ethics we should be using.

I’d argue anarchist ethics, but I digress.

The continuing power of this idea is visible everywhere. Witness Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the city gave homeless people jobs and it made them feel “human again.”

Or look at the Job Corps program, where giving poor people jobs made them more likely to get married. If you give people work with tangible, visible value, you give them dignity.

This is confusing correlation and causation and ignores labeling theory. Of course people who are homeless, some of the worst treated people in society, would feel “more human” once they’ve been accepted into things that society deems are positive. But that doesn’t mean those things are necessarily positive. All it really means is that it’s better than being homeless and I don’t know about Smith, but that seems like a pretty low bar to me.

To Smith’s second point I’ll say that marriage and dignity often have nothing to do with each other. And that you can be a very dignified person while being single or unmarried and in various other states of relations. Correlating people’s dignity with their rate of marriage is not only an erroneous one but a slightly insulting one.

So is there work to be done in the U.S. that produces tangible, visible value? Of course there is.

To realize this, just take a one-week trip to Japan. Where American sidewalks are cracked and uneven, Japanese ones are neat and beautiful. Where tables in American Starbucks are littered with crumbs and dirt, Japanese Starbucks tables get wiped down after every customer leaves. Where American cities like Chicago and Detroit are full of broken windows and crumbling facades, Japanese cities are clean and modern, with well-maintained, reliable public transit.

Japan is a bizarre example given how often people, I don’t know, kill themselves?

And bizarrely in Smith’s next article he quickly remarks:

Perhaps the deepest change would be to tweak U.S. corporate culture, restoring the value of long-term employment. Obviously, it’s easy to go too far in this direction — witness Japan…

Well, which is it? Is Japan a model for employment or a step too far in the direction? Or is it right in some areas and wrong in others? Perhaps I’m being uncharitable here or perhaps Smith changed his mind in the interim between these two articles but whatever the case, I don’t think Japan is a good example of how our work culture can improve.

Unless you’re into suicide.

Before we start complaining about make-work, let’s make the U.S. look like that. Let’s fix the sidewalks and renovate — or knock down and rebuild — all the old buildings. Let’s wipe down every Starbucks table, build quality public-transit systems and hire the workers to make them run on time. And let’s take care of our people as well as our cities. Let’s provide child care for working moms, and elder care for old people. Let’s hire more teachers to reduce class sizes.

Here’s a drinking game: Take a shot every time a liberal says, “Let’s…”

It’s not as easy as “Let’s do X” because the “Let’s” doesn’t depend on us, it depends on the government. And I don’t know if Smith has seen the same government I’ve seen in only the past (dear lord) few weeks but I’m not exactly going to trust them do this and after Trump got elected I’m not sure why any of us should expect any of that to happen anytime soon.

These are all jobs that produce real, tangible results. When you fix up a building or build a train station, you can see the fruits of your labors. When you take care of an old person, you can see a real human being benefit. The value created by these jobs is a lot more tangible and clear than the value created by a lot of activities that the market rewards much more, such as high-frequency trading.

I don’t totally disagree with Smith’s argument here but it’s worth noting that the cost to set this up is high and that means that this would be coming out of folks pockets. How are you going to sell all of this on them? I suppose by continuing to write articles like the ones I’ve been critiquing, but excuse me if I remain skeptical on that method at this point.

Here’s the last article (and point) by Smith I want to address:

In most of economic theory, a job isn’t treated as something inherently valuable — it’s just a conduit through which money flows from employer to employee. But most people probably care not just about the amount of money they get, but how they get it. If they see themselves as having earned their daily bread, they feel better about themselves than if they got a handout. A job also probably has an important symbolic value — it sends a message that society cares about you and has a place for you.

This goes against most of my job experience, though granted I’ve mostly worked in retail. But it also goes against most studies I’ve read and seen in the past few years. More and more people I know and interact with treat their job as simply a way to get money. Sure they’d like to do what they’re passionate about but it’s a lucky handful or so (relatively) that gets to do that sort of work compared to most of us that don’t.

And even the ones who get to do what their passionate about (teaching, music, comedy, etc.) find us struggling in a lot of the half-assed ways we’re forced to do it to survive under state-capitalism. To me, that’s not living or at least not living in any way that I want people to feel like they have to live.

The symbolic message that Smith talks about here is what needs to die.

This idea, by implication, means that when you don’t have a job that you don’t have a place in society and society couldn’t care less about you. And that’s a horrible thing to experience and feel, even for those of us who try to reject that belief. It’s hard to do that, even for those of us aware that this isn’t a system designed for fairness (or efficiency) but designed to privilege certain classes of folks over others in ways that harm those lower classes.

Most of the rest of Smith’s article rehashed what he said in his other articles and I’ve said enough for now. But I want to stress that the importance isn’t finding people jobs but killing the idea in our head that jobs and work have any sort of intrinsic tie to dignity. Maybe if we conflate “work” with “effort” then this is an easy thing to do, but the way people often talk about work leaves you to wonder if they’re not just talking about their terrible 9-5 instead.

And here at Abolish Work, I’d like us to get rid of the idea (implicit or otherwise) that without that 9-5, you’re nothing.

This is what we need to focus our activism on, not more government restructuring, more government programs, more make-work bias and more artificial stimulus packages for a horribly exploitative system.

If we want to outlive the present we need to prepare for a future where we have fewer and fewer jobs and try to tie our worth to how we treat each other, how we live and our own personal activities and dreams.

Work doesn’t and won’t restore dignity, let’s stop thinking otherwise.


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