Our Decadent Nonsensical Work Ethic

 

Hello everyone,
I published an article recently with The Baffler, about the smoking wreckage of Panera Cares, Panera Bread Company’s libertarian soup kitchen. The response online was varied and interesting. Many people still want to believe that super-wealthy entrepreneurs are our best hope for solving big problems. Unfortunately entrepreneurs, like Ron Shaich, are short-sighted idiots, just like me and you! Collective action, solidarity, and governmental intervention works much better. My underlying argument is that Shaich should be shamed for thinking he could get customers to solve a problem that public institutions like our government already try to solve. Read it and let me know what you think!

This week’s issue is themed, focusing on the Protestant work ethic. As you probably know, the Protestant ethic is loosely the idea that people should work hard today, and save for tomorrow. In other words, we should deny ourselves the pleasure of today for our reward in heaven tomorrow. Sociologist Max Weber found the Protestant metaphor of denial in capitalism, as he describes in his famous text, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published way way back in 1905. And when you look for it, you still see it everywhere, which many journalists and writer types like me love to point out. I want to suggest that maybe the idea that we must toil is outdated, nonsensical, and oppressive.

At Carrier, the Factory Trump Saved, Morale Is Through the Floor (NYT)

 

Carrier, the air-conditioner maker, advertised during the New Hampshire primary that it would be shutting down its plant Indiana. After a promise of $7 million in tax breaks and $16 million in new equipment from Trump, they remained open. But with mandatory overtime and 60 hour weeks, one in five employees aren’t showing up for work. Employees see the writing on the wall, and believe correctly that Carrier can still move to Mexico at any time. People know when their jobs suck. They know when management doesn’t care, when there is no future. So we can cheer on job-creation, fight for higher wages, or even the possibly delusional goal of full employment, but we also must listen to our guts. Our guts might be saying that paying businesses to create jobs for people is a dead-end. Of course encouraging businesses to create jobs sometimes works. But what if the jobs so obviously suck? Also, in a pathetic twist, the money Carrier received was already “earmarked for automation.” So in one way, tax incentives actually paid Carrier to destroy jobs.

In the article, Nicole Hargrove, a worker at the plant, grapples with why people aren’t showing up to work. She says: “There are days when I’m hurting and I’m tired but when I walk through that door, I’m going to give 100 percent. The Bible says an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and I try to live by that.” My eyes narrowed to slits upon reading this. What the fuck does the Bible have to do with work? Should you work a shitty, pointless, doomed job just because the Bible says to? Is the Bible really that petty? Hargrove rightly feels that something in the social contract is breaking down, because while she knows that God has instructed them to toil, it doesn’t quite make sense. Her fundamental beliefs aren’t doing anything; her co-workers aren’t showing up.

Behind Hargrove’s sentiment is the Protestant work ethic, the ideology that democratized Western civilization by making it a universal moral obligation to work. Martin Luther and John Calvin both preached that from princes to paupers, everyone should pitch in to create a surplus. They enshrined an economic principle in moral, religious language. Their idea that to work when you’d rather play, to save when you’d rather spend, to abstain when you’d rather indulge, is still the essential economic (and moral) idea of our society. People who don’t “produce” anything are bad: from the “idle rich” to the poor lazy welfare cheats. This idea fed the great tidal wave of capitalism. But what the saga at Carrier indicates is that maybe this idea has run aground. Like a change in whale migration patterns, maybe these absentee workers are a signal that we should be heeding. Maybe work needs to be decoupled from Protestant morality.

The unexpressed story here is that the government is engaged in a perverted form of welfare. It gives corporations money to give people jobs. Consumers need to spend money to keep the economy running, and the only way to get this money, currently, is to work a job. Even if the job doesn’t need to be done. This logic presumes that corporations can always create useful jobs. This can’t possibly be true. Why doesn’t the government just skip the big fat middleman and give the money to the people? What we have here is a completely dysfunctional, segregated privatized welfare system.

 

Inside Nxivm, the ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached Empowerment” By Vanessa Grigoriadis (NYT Mag)

in NYT mag

 

Leaders of the cult called Nxivm pushed followers to jog, count calories, and become vegetarians. They were also accused of sex-trafficking, coercion, and brutality. The founder, Keith Raniere, started Nxivm because he wondered if coercion could be used for good. And in some ways, it’s a totally banal idea. Many fad dieting and exercise crazes verge on cultish adherence. The government tries to do it all the time. Those “Dad hug your kids” or “use a condom” ads are attempts to coerce people to do something. In Ingmar Bergman’s day, Swedish mothers were encouraged to not show too much affection to their children, for fear that it would make them gay. He cites his mother’s denial of affection as the foundational pain in his life. But this was promoted by doctors, and coercively speaking, it worked.

 

The constituency of Nxivm also raises a question: why are the wealthy, actors, and business people so especially susceptible to self-improvement regimes? Scientology targets actors, and the Rajneeshees were famous for attracting the rich and frivolous to their cause. Is there something wrong with rich people? Are they more insecure than other people? Maybe they just have money to dispose of, or too much free time. But what about Tony Robbins? He is a self-help guy, but his work often crosses over to business advice. Why is that? Why does it seem like sales people need How To Win Friends and Influence People more than other people? Shouldn’t we all want to win friends? After reading the book, I found that it was indeed applicable for all people. We all could be a little more sensitive to the intricacies of getting along with others. Sales people rely on it because they have to deal with people even when they don’t want to. Their job is terrible and unnatural. Also, in the case of Tony Robbins, this self help stuff crosses over into the realm of exercise and brain health. The people who populate these forums are most often entrepreneurs, actors, creatives, and rich people. Once again. Why are the well-to-do so fixated on exercise? A Swedish company now makes its employees do crossfit. And Jeff Bezos is looking jacked. Self-help is often a melange of other religious practices, like gratitude and meditation and fasting, is this our response to a spiritual crises? Is extreme exercise the penance we do for bullshit, meaningless jobs? In the case of Nxivm, it definitely seemed to be the overriding ideology, just an amplification of what we all do all the time already.

 

Nxivm is just the extreme case of our time, where the regime of Protestant self-denial’s ultimate conclusion is a skin cauterizing manipulative sex-cuit.

 

The American Worth Ethic” by Bryce Covert (Longreads)

 

What is behind the work requirement for public welfare when the wealthy receive inheritance money with little taxation, or any work requirement? As Covert says, “No one has been made to pee in a cup for tax breaks on their mortgages.”

But Covert also wonders why we have such strict work-requirements for welfare in America. Is work really the rubric by which we judge value? Covert says, “even if it were true that there was a horde of poor people refusing to work, do we want to condemn them to starvation and likely death? In one of the world’s richest countries, do we really balk at spending money on keeping our people — even lazy ones — alive?”

The question strikes close to the root of the question: why does poverty still exist? When you get deep into this discussion, it often boils down to morality: some people are lazy, or unworthy of a good life. The reality is that work is an arbitrary and now unnecessary criterion by which to judge people, an outdated ruler to measure a person’s relative contribution to the betterment of their society. We don’t need people to work more. In fact, our planet would be better off if we worked less. Reducing the working week to fifteen hours would quickly offset massive carbon expenditures needed to run massive buildings and corporate infrastructures.

The basic premise behind the Protestant work ethic is that working more now will provide a surplus that can be multiplied towards growth later. But not only does our planet not need growth, it needs a reduction in capital accumulation. The paradox is that most working people get their money from actually working, whereas the rich get their money the way that the rest of us should (welfare checks), by collecting returns on investments:

“In 2012, those earning less than $25,000 a year made nearly three quarters of that money from a job. Those making more than $10 million, on the other hand, made about half of their money from capital gains — in other words, returns on investments. The bottom half of the country has, on average, just $826 in income from capital investments each; the average for those in the top 1 percent is more than $16 million.”

Covert goes on to say. “The richest are the least likely to have their money come from hard labor — yet there’s no moral panic over whether they’re coddled or lacking in self reliance.”

Covert is wrong here: people complain about the idle rich all the time. And this is in many ways not a useful criticism, because not working shouldn’t be a reason to criticize someone. Unfortunately it often is. We all work and––I know I have experienced this––resent the people who don’t have to. But actually, we should all aspire to be like the idle rich and lazy welfare recipients.
Why Work” by James Livingston (The Baffler)

Just stapling this on to the last sentiment: “We hate the idea that anybody is getting something for nothing, especially if the recipient is a paper-pushing bureaucrat, or a class-action lawyer, or a Wall Street banker—or a “welfare queen.”

 

Could Performance-Based Pay Lead to Depression Among Workers?” By: Andrew R. McIlvaine (HR Executive)

Should your pay be tied to metrics about how hard you work? Maybe not. Actually work is, as I said, just a privatized welfare system. Automation has driven worker productivity through the roof, since 1920. We need fewer and fewer people to produce more and more stuff. This is why performance based “incentivized” pay systems are a crazy draconian system that would reveal what it very true: that many jobs are pointless or don’t require 40 hours a week to compete. But if we admitted this, under our current system, our economy would collapse because consumers wouldn’t have enough money to keep the system afloat. What to do?

Why is work hell?

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Why are our fastest growing companies the worst places to work?

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld (New York Times) and

At Netflix, Radical Transparency and Blunt Firings Unsettle the Ranks” by Shalini Ramachandran and Joe Flint (Wall Street Journal)

 

One of the mainstays of work life at Enron was an all-staff meeting called the Performance Review Committee. In the meeting, employees were ranked. The lowest-ranked individuals were routinely fired. The PRC caused rampant political maneuvering. Managers sacrificed good but expendable employees to save more valuable members on their team. They ganged up on other factions. This process is colloquially referred to as a “rank and yank” process. At the time, it was celebrated by management consultants like McKinsey and Company and by business schools like Harvard. The PRC was instituted by Jeff Skilling, the head of Enron, a graduate of Harvard Business School and one of the youngest people to make partner at McKinsey and Company. But during the final days of Enron, a external auditor found a toxic work environment, and stratospheric levels of unhappiness. Some suggest it was what brought the company down: employees were more than ready to rat out their colleagues to the Feds.

 

“Rank and yank” is one of the foundational elements of Amazon’s workplace, as revealed by and exposed in the New York Times. Amazon’s office seethes with the same Machiavellian intrigue as Enron. Most employees work 80 hours a week, take no sick days, work nights and weekends, and are granted no maternity leave. Confrontation is encouraged, especially in meetings. Compromise is weakness; it’s a pox that leads to mediocre ideas. There’s a backchannel process in the phone directory in which Amazonians can send secret messages to managers about their directs. Even advertisements for hiring emphasize that you either fit in at Amazon, or you don’t.

 

Why do people at Amazon work so hard? Because they love innovation? Maybe. Working at a growing company like Amazon gives people the chance to dream up big ideas and then implement them quickly. But surely new ideas can arise (and have) in less adversarial circumstances. So why all the pressure? Well, debt is extremely cheap for Amazon and if they don’t take the cheap capital, their competitors will.

 

So what is going on at Amazon? Amazon’s owners are filling up a pool with water. Employees do any number of things with the water. They sell it, make it into ice, and send it to the moon. If the owners stop filling the reservoir, someone else will use the water. So they are now filling the pool and it is getting really full and people are now very into all of Amazon’s various water products and are giving them tons of water. Employees must dig the pool deeper and wider, to find even more new things to do with all this water. Owners have really opened up the spigot now. So everyone better work as much as possible, as much as humanly possible to do something about all this goddamn water coming it. Better come in on the weekend to find a way to use this water! If you don’t use it, it evaporates away. Working like mad is effective, and the more water that gets used, the more water lenders are inspired to give to Amazon. Now it is a big cultural spectacle, these water works, that no one can stop talking about.

 

When capital is rushing in, you best find a way to spend it before it disappears.

 

Netflix is essentially the same workplace. In the WSJ article, workers recall not wanting to comfort a fired, weeping colleague for fear that they would look weak. And anyone can be fired at any moment; management encourages this fear with what they call the ‘keeper test.’ Would you fight to keep your employee on your team? If not, you should fire them. From the WSJ article:

 

“Mr. Hastings’ [the CEO] ring of top executives take the keeper test seriously. At a meeting in late spring of Netflix public-relations executives, one said every day he comes to work he fears he is going to get fired. Karen Barragan, the vice president of publicity for original series, asked how many other people felt that way. A number of hands went up.

“Good, because fear drives you,” Ms. Barragan said, according to people familiar with the meeting.

 

Is Netflix a crazy, anxious workplace because that is the only way to drive growth? Or is Netflix being dosed by a firehose spray of capital? In America, we had tremendous growth in the 1950s and 1960s without a tragicomic shark tank workplace. In fact, job security was expected.

 

Here’s an excerpt from Netflix’s crazy HR manifesto, which is an ode to vague, aspirational language that could be interpreted in any possible way:

 

“Are you courageous? Are you humble? Are you curious and passionate and ask thoughtful questions about the business? Are you able to and open to providing and receiving feedback to be better? Are you scrappy, have grit and willing to roll up your sleeves regardless of your title? Are you a team player? Are you inclusive and self aware?”

 

Why isn’t there an HR Powerpoint that just asks the real questions: Are you willing to work every weekend? Return to work after a week of maternity leave? Alert your bosses to your underperforming coworkers? Rarely see you children? Be glued to your phone?

Fyre docs: A report on an over-caffeinated seven year old

Book report

Fyre Fraud (Hulu) and

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)

 

These two documentaries are good tragicomic stories but miss the greater historical context: fraud is inherent to capitalism and most rampant in moments when the culture worships innovation and risk.

 

I have no doubt you saw or heard about these two movies. They both clumsily explain that millenial’s fear of missing out caused them to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a poorly planned music festival. Millennials cry on a bus. Millennials slash each other’s tents. Millennials record every moment of their lives with their damn video phones. Both documentaries explain what influencers are, and both try and fail to answer a question about how culpable advertisers are in perpetrating scams. They fail because that line of thinking just begs the question: whose fault is it when scams occur? Is it simply buyer beware? If not, how responsible are advertisers to verify their clients’ products? Better yet, how responsible are venture capitalists and financiers in ensuring they are funding a legitimate businesses? Should the government be policing businesses?

 

Fraud has always been present in America. As Duke Professor Edward Balleisen explains in his recent book about fraud, periods of technological innovation that rely on the use of financial capital are the most fraud filled (that is, our current era). From the frauds of westward expansion to lightning rod salesman of the 1920s to Bernie Madoff, unstable times make people vulnerable to those who promise them what they want most.

 

The two documentaries focus on the schadenfreude of watching Millennials get scammed, but it was a trans-generational group who got sucked in: the spineless advertisers, the clueless financiers, and Bahamians of all stripes who turned out to work for little pay. All these parties believed that the rich-seeming tech bro Billy McFarlane–who looked and acted like a caffeinated seven year-old–could pull off a music festival in the Bahamas with no prior experience. Some wanted to believe, and some were too desperate to have any choice.

 

For his entire adult life, Macfarlane found that capital was easy to drum up. He, like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, raised real, legal capital. As another contemporary fraud, the ”Soho Grifter” Anna Delvey, told a reporter from jail, her fraud wasn’t about just stealing cash, “If I really wanted the money, I would have better and faster ways to get some. Resilience is hard to come by, but not capital.” Macfarlane is comparable to Holmes and Delvey–confirmed frauds–but also to one of his funders, deceased fracking billionaire Aubrey McClendon. The question is why is capital so accessible to people like Billy Macfarlane when we can’t even fund a infrastructure improvements? Fraud is important to pay attention to; it exposes real fundamental flaws in our economic arrangement.

 

Elwood, Illinois (Pop. 2,200), Has Become a Vital Hub of America’s Consumer Economy. And It’s Hell. by Alexander Sammon (The New Republic)

 

Elwood, a town 40 minutes south of Chicago, attracted business by allowing itself to become an inland port. Warehouses and distribution centers for Walmart, Amazon, and other quickly populated the area. But these companies were attracted with the typical corporate giveaways. First there were tax breaks, temp labor, and now the local municipality is losing control of its corporate tenants.

 

Truck traffic alone is a major problem, because the roads aren’t big enough and truck drivers are a less experienced, more desperate lot. A trucker gets stuck on a local road: “It’s gonna be a problem trying to get him out of here,” Buss grumbled. “There’s no training now. Most of these guys don’t know how to back up.”

 

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

 

Ehrenreich goes undercover in the mid-2000s to see if she can get a job in white-collar executive America. I enjoyed this book, but it felt strange and disappointing. The book has no culminating action. She never even gets close to finding a white-collar job. She regales us with dark, funny stories of career coaches she employs, networking events and job training seminars that she attends. They all practice some form of victim blaming–she needs to have a positive attitude, she needs to be networking more, the corporate world does not owe her a job–but also make no real attempt to help her find work. The only job she is offered is a temp job selling insurance for AFLAC, which is not really a job. It’s a freelance position with no benefits, or guidance even. The reality is that the white-collar world is more akin to a feudal court than to a factory, and who you know, who you were raised to be, who you genuflect to, is most important. Skills have nothing to do with it.

 

The Real Legacy of the 1970s by Michael Tomasky

 

The rampant inflation of the 1970s made us not trustworthy? Interesting theory, though incomplete and not totally believable.

 

Until the Next Crash by Jonathan Levy (n+1)

 

Levy opens his review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed with a discussion of the deleterious preoccupation of the global economy: liquidity. He writes that “liquidity is a fetish, because for the community as a whole the concept makes no sense. What looks like liquidity to an individual owner of wealth means a decline in the aggregate rate of long-term investment for the macroeconomy—fewer jobs, less wealth, and more wasted human potential.”

 

The Federal Reserve stepped in, after the 2008 crash and over the past decade, to ensure liquidity with a number of complex policies that reaminmated the American and global economy. Is this new economy based solely on complex tools durable? The fed is like Dr. Frankenstein, animating his monster with brilliant technical wizardry. An undeniably amazing achievement. But the monster is fucked-up and ghastly. You couldn’t confuse it for human. What hath God wrought?

 

Stuck In A Gilded Age by Jonathan Levy (Dissent)

 

Industrial productivity ended in the 1970s, and never came back. This is industrial crisis. Levy says that, “by the 1970s, the productivity gains of the Second Industrial Revolution were exhausted. Productivity flagged, contributing to…inflation and the wider sense of industrial malaise. It has not revived—aside for the period 1996–2004—because technological innovation has occurred in the relatively narrow sector of information technology. The narrowness of the Third Industrial Revolution means eight years of solid productivity growth was all this revolution could muster.”

 

So what happened in America after the 1970s? One thing that is certain is that capitalists stopped doing the only thing that made them capitalists, plugging money back into their businesses. They stopped reinvesting and the rate of investment or investment in capital stock, as it’s also called, dropped. And this trend has only increased since 2000s. Hmm

 

Levy explains that “the [rate of investment] has been trending steadily downward ever since 1970, and plummeted after 2000. This has continued while, at the same time, entering 2016, U.S. corporations sat on some $1.9 trillion in cash, which they have not yet invested. Gordon does not include the broken state of U.S. investment as a “headwind”—even as so much money sloshes around domestic and global financial markets, inflating asset prices and thereby contributing directly to the growth of wealth and income inequality.”

 

One simple explanation of inequality is that business have stopped investing in business. Growth, as a goal, leads businesses to hoard cash instead of reinvesting. This leads to the worst of all possible worlds: “The chief economic problem today is not that we do not have enough wealth, but that we do not have the ability to direct it towards the most worthy of human aspirations.”

 

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

 

People are crazy for orchids.

 

Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science (The New York Times)

and

The Philosopher Redefining Inequality by Nathan Heller (The New Yorker)

 

Bruno Latour theorized that scientific ideas make the world, scientists don’t discover buried truths. Scientists felt this might be an attack, but Latour actually loves them. He is, as a philosopher, not comfortable saying that gravity exists without the frame of scientific inquiry. His position is similar to that of the pragmatists (William James, John Dewey, etc): ideas are tools. I’m not interested in pure science unfortunately, but I like pragmatism.

 

In Heller’s profile, he digs into University of Michigan’s Elizabeth Anderson, a professor who named her chair after John Dewey. I don’t know if she calls herself a pragmatist, but her ideas stem from that tradition. She is looking to see how ideas work in the world, not how they are supposed to work. This leads to a rethinking of how inequality comes to exist.

 

The Neoliberal Optimism Industry (Citations Needed)

and

Accentuate the Positive by Anthony Gottlieb (NY Review of Books)

and

Consolation Prizes by Alex Pareene (The Baffler)

 

There is sector of thinking that posits that things have never been better (so stop complaining!). It is occupied by thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker and Bill Gates. Pinker wrote a book many years ago about why violence has declined and has a new book about why capitalism has raised the standard of living for everyone on the planet. Not to be glib (or repetitive) but why, in that case, does poverty still exist? The rhetorical twist of the optimism industry is a rebuttal to protestors and reformers,  and it is an obsequious theory. It’s tailor-made for those in power. In “Consolation Prizes” Pareene explains how we’ve come to believe that the ability to buy consumer goods, alone, makes poverty okay, as opposed to other countries that provide healthcare and education by reducing disposable income.

 

Everyone hates open offices. Here’s why they still exist By Katharine Schwab (Fast Company)

 

Open offices are a way to indicate a company’s value to venture capitalists and talent. The goal is “not to improve productivity and collaboration, but to signal that the company [is] doing something interesting.”

 

Cubicles and offices are expensive, which apparently matters more that helping people get things done.

Jonathan Franzen contemplates suicide

Book report
Farther Away” by Jonathan Franzen (New Yorker)

In 2010, Jonathan Franzen travelled to the remote island that the novel Robinson Crusoe was set on, to read the book (and see some birds). The essay drifts between his travelogue, bird watching, thinking about the origin of the novel, and reflecting on the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. It is a complex and moving contemplation on suicide. Suicide, he believes, is the final word in an argument, formulated to have the maximum impact. Franzen is also painfully aware of how painfully aware Wallace was about the potential fame-cementing impact a writer’s suicide has. Something of a bitter pill, but seems accurate. Could you imagine Kanye committing suicide for the everlasting fame? I some ways, if his mania went untreated long enough, you can.

 

The Whole Shabang: Chips So Good You’ll Have To Go To Jail To Get Them (NBC)

Everyone loves cooking shows. Especially when ex-cons are behind the grill.

 

Cheapest DIY: Custom Nasal Strip (Breathe Right) That Fits You,& Find Your Z-Spot [sic] (Genius Asian)

Dr. Zhang suggests making your own Breathe Right strips with thin strips of credit cards.  Don’t have any inactive cards? He explains exactly how to cut up a card that you are still using and have it still work.

 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Wonderful non-fiction book about the confrontation of the Hmong people and the American medical system. Fadiman finds a confrontation between the hyper-rational Western medical establishment and the Hmong. The clash grow hot because for the Hmong medicine is religion. Their mysticism is bound to their healing practices. Maybe one of the greatest non-fiction books ever. Fascinating, moving, unsettled, and complicated.

 

Man in Profile by Thomas Kunkel

Book-length profile of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell was depressed and felt trapped between two worlds. Because he was not going to be buried in New York City he felt alienated. His last project was a potentially sprawling autobiography but he let things distract him. Then he lost his wife. The autobiography goes unfinished. It makes me wonder: Is writer’s block just depression? Is perfectionism depression? What about the projects that grow so large in our minds that we have never done, that feel so real to us. Are they the fertilizer of a mind gone to seed?

 

D. J.s, Swim Briefs, $25 Coladas: In Vegas, the Party’s at the Pool” By Courtney Bond (NYTimes)

Fun fun FUN! We love FUN! Great reported essay on Vegas pool parties.

 

Economic Inequality with Mark Greif (RSA)

Should the wealthy be relieved from the burden of unending wealth accumulation?

 

Message to my haters: You are correct, I’m a Neanderthal” by Alex Nichols (The Outline)

A nice article about 23andMe. My biggest problem with 23andMe is that it can’t really tell you much about yourself, unless you are adopted. It uses correlative metrics, meaning that it compiles (and relies completely on) data that has already been collected (ie other people’s DNA tests). So for the time being, while much of the population hasn’t had their DNA encoded, DNA tests can’t really tell you that much.

 

I Don’t Want It At All” by Kim Petras

My pop song of the moment.

Why is UBI such a tedious topic?

UBI is a DRAG

Many people are talking about Universal Basic Income (UBI), the policy that proposes a standardized cash payment to citizens. On gut feeling alone, the idea is seductive, but upon further inspection, it is a quagmire. This is because at its root it is a moral question. Should people receive “something for nothing?” Is a cash portion of the society’s surplus a birthright? If recipients don’t work, what will become of their soul? Will it wither? Will idle hands conduct the devils work? What if the point of work is suffering in hopes of a better tomorrow? Can we respect each other without that common, obligatory suffering? In this way it’s very similar to diet and personal finance. If you don’t suffer for your weight loss, is it really a diet? If you don’t save your money, can you still be a good person? UBI is, at first blush, a purely technocratic proposal. But it is much more than that. The soul of our society is at stake.

So I am going to note and comment on a couple of articles and books I have read recently that touch on UBI, and make a uncommon conclusion.

Who Really Stands to Win From Universal Basic Income? By Nathan Heller (New Yorker)

A strange feature of our time is that there are advocates on both the right and the left for UBI. Socialists on the left want it. Billionaires like Elon Musk advocate for it today. Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman even proposed a right leaning solution in the 1970s, with a negative income tax.

I was excited to read this article because I like Nathan Heller’s writing. But he flailed and struggled to make the article interesting and cohesive. Why?

Something about UBI makes it a difficult topic to cover. It is vacuous. Many different groups are writing books about it for many different reasons, and it is difficult to reconcile their underlying assumptions. Business-minded people want a UBI to ensure consumers have enough money in their pockets to keep spending. Those seeking to eliminate poverty want a UBI to ensure the basic dignity of life. The former assumes a dire need to maintain consumer spending (which makes sense because it accounts for almost 70% of economic activity) and the latter assumes the dire necessity of human rights.

Other myriad and conflicting reasons for UBI from the article: Automation will eliminate jobs. It could eradicate poverty. There’s too much surplus capital. The gig economy corroded the possibility of labor unions. A monthly check could allow the government to eliminate welfare. Cuts down on paperwork. The wealthy are free to grow wealthier, knowing that the poor have cash. Success is random. A rising floor of income lifts all, uh, boats. The reasons for UBI are all over the place.

Most importantly, discussions surrounding UBI spring from a larger problem, which is wealth inequality. Poverty is problematic for everyone. But poverty is relative. UBI doesn’t automatically solve inequality, and is thus something of a dead-end.

Stockton Rolls out Universal Income Experiment (SF Curbed)

Stockton, California is likely to be the most watched UBI test in America. Residents will get $500 a month, unconditionally. This experiment is an example of the UBI-as-replacement-for-social-services, in which a government or municipality issues cash instead of specific benefits, like Medicare or SNAP (food stamps). Unfortunately, for UBI to work, recipients will need to have benefits in addition to cash payment, because if they don’t, insurance premiums could just increase and suck the cash away.

What’s crazy about this test is how little money they are playing with. How much will $500 a month change human behavior?

What If The Government Gave Everyone a Paycheck? By Robert Reich (New York Times Book Review)

Robert Reich, in a review of two books on UBI, says what I was thinking: UBI is problematic because it doesn’t solve inequality. People still have to pay all their own bills, and most people won’t inherit much wealth. The most important issue of our time is the necessity of redistributing wealth. Reich says:

“A core challenge in the future will be how to redistribute money from the ever richer owners of the robots and related technologies to the rest of us, who are otherwise likely to become poorer and less secure. This is not just an economic challenge but also a political one. As we know from recent history, vast fortunes translate directly into political power, and such power effectively resists redistribution. Sadly, neither of these authors discusses how to deal with this paradox.”

Bull Shit Jobs by David Graeber

David Graeber, an anthropologist from the London School of Economics, examines jobs that those who hold them describe as pointless, unnecessary, and wasteful. A survey he cites suggests that 30% of people find their own jobs to be, in his formulation, bullshit. The main question becomes, if capitalism claims to be so efficient, why are there any bullshit jobs at all?

Another question is: Isn’t it strange that it is so demoralizing to work a job where you do nothing? Homo economicus should be happy as a clam to do nothing for something. The answer is not clear.

What I realized towards the end of Graeber’s book was that we already have a form of UBI, it’s the salaries from bullshit jobs. People need to have money, and there is no great way to give it to them other than having them “work” for it. The really important implication from this is that we live in a world that is not really capitalist, because–as we are often assured–no capitalist would ever create an unnecessary job.

But everyone has worked unnecessary jobs. I worked in the University’s kitchen in college. There was often a list of stuff to do. But some days there wasn’t. On those days, I would hide in the salad cooler and eat apples and salami. For four to six hours. And then I would leave. It wasn’t a job as much as much as it was a really lame, tedious, and heavily conditional scholarship.

The kitchen job was clearly bullshit because it was welfare disguised as work. Some jobs are simply symbolic, like a chief executive’s slew of vice-presidents. Or are in place to fix a problem that was caused by another job.

A reason we don’t object to pointless work is that we believe that work is an end in itself, that it has value just being work. Work symbolizes our commitment to the future existence of our society. It is the sacrifice we make to show others that we want to be part of the group. This is why the more you like your jobs, the less society feels like you are sacrificing. Which might be why teachers, nurses, journalists, and artists are paid so terribly. The more tedious and boring and stressful and awful it is, the more obviously a person is buying into the collective system that requires a 40 hour a week (or more) tribute (which might be why a lot of people with well paying jobs loudly proclaim their jobs to be “so stressful,” they need everyone to know they’re earning their salary and thus place in society). If a person likes their job, they are not contributing to the idea that a person must work in order to be considered a member of society.

But the idea that work is valuable in itself is outdated. It began with the Calvinists, or maybe a little before, and created the ideological basis for capitalism. It destabilized the power of feudal lords, and suggested the surplus created by hard work could be put to use creating a brighter future. Work (suffer) today for payment (heaven) tomorrow. However, the profits from running a business, the surplus, are plugged into all kinds of useless things, like inflating the housing market or creating wasteful products that are designed to be obsolete as quickly as possible. So maybe work is pointless.

No More Work by James Livingston

Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers, has a radical idea: we need to decouple work from our value as human beings. This need arises from the fact that, in economic terms, we haven’t needed to employ more people to increase productivity, for almost 100 years now. This analysis is supported by the fact that, while both the left and right encourage full employment, wages have not risen in almost 50 years. Is this because people are worth less? Or is it because our work has little to do with the attempt to produce enough goods for everyone (which we haven’t had a problem with for 100 years) or with the attempt to equally distribute these goods to everyone. Pay is, essentially, a political token that we trade in order to control our lives. And if pay isn’t to reward increased productivity, if productivity has been resolved as a problem, pay ought to be linked to our value as citizens in a democracy, meaning distributed equally. This is a good argument for a UBI.

Jonathan Gold gone too soon

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Robin’s Book Report #39
A culture and economics reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

Agenda
-Jonathan Gold
-Working less to increases productivity
-Frankenstein’s monster at the art show

 

What I am reading

Jonathan Gold, Food Critic Who Celebrated L.A.’s Cornucopia, Dies at 57 by Pete Wells (New York Times)
I found Jonathan Gold’s writing in 2011, while I was trying to get a better handle on Korean food. He has a long list of dishes to try in L.A.’s Koreatown. He was a wonderful writer and I was shocked to see that he had died last Saturday. Too soon.

The Four Day Work Week is Good For Business by Adele Peters (Fast Company) +
5-Hour Work Day Increases Productivity (Business Insider)

Having every worker in every industry work an eight-hour day, five days a week doesn’t make sense. How could every single industry require the same amount of labor. Here’s a solution: 15-hour work week should be mandatory (pay remains equivalent to 40 hour workweek), with some sectors working less of course!

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Reboot Starring an African-American Buffy Is on Its Way (Vulture)

If you ever watched Buffy, you’ll know that this reboot makes a lot of sense. A new slayer is activated every time the last one dies, so the show is ripe for rebooting (not that ripeness has ever stopped the reboot i.e. Spiderman).

An Artist Remakes a Film Classic — With Frankenstein’s Monster By MH Miller (T Magazine)

The video discussed in this article, “The Perfect Monster”, is currently on view at David Zwirner on 19th street. It is a shot-for-shot remake of a Jørgen Leth video, “The Perfect Human,” from 1967. But instead of focusing on young man, Da Corte’s video’s character is Boris Karloff and Frankenstein. The artist stars as both characters, in goofy and terrible prosthesis. Da Corte delivers wonderful and inventive set-design. The colors and textures are fun and joyous. There are dollar store brooms and lunch meat placed on the back of Frankenstein’s neck. I fell in love the first moment I saw it. If you get a chance to check it out, please let me know what you think. If you don’t live in NYC you can check out bits of the video here, though I would discourage watching it if you can because Alex Da Corte is not well spoken in the interview.

-“The Talent Myth” by Malcolm Gladwell (The New Yorker)

Was Enron wrong to nurture their best and brightest? I’m not a Gladwell fan, but this article strikes the closest to the heart of why Enron was such a fascinating disaster to me. Maybe it isn’t individuals who make big group projects work, but instead how the group works together.

Continue reading “Jonathan Gold gone too soon”