Friday, December 03, 2010

Work Sucks, and There’s Not Enough of It

This holiday season, millions of out-of-work Americans and their families will be screwed by the Republican Grinches. Without an unemployment check, they will either be unable to find a job and have to go without, or they will find a job that is most likely much worse than the one they had before. Worse pay, worse working conditions, worse hours.

After months and months of hoping to find a job, many will come face to face with the sad reality that those of us with jobs know all too well: work sucks.

Work sucks, and there’s not enough of it to go around. It’s like the Woody Allen joke: the old lady at a restaurant complains "the food here is terrible," and her friend says "yeah, and such small portions."

I won’t go into all the ways that work sucks—that’s already been done much better than I could ever hope to. Let’s just highlight the issue of time. We seem to be going backwards from the 40 hour work week that unions helped win. Most people work more than 40 hours, whether at one stressful job or two or three part-time jobs. More than half of our waking hours are spent at work. And that doesn’t count the time and money we spend commuting to and from work.

The real joke is that we live in a world where we all desperately need these jobs that suck, but they don’t need us. More than 8 million jobs were lost in the Great Recession, and many businesses have learned how to do more with less staff. Productivity is way up, and jobs are still down. This problem is only going to get worse as the 21st century goes on. Advances in technology and continuing globalization will mean less jobs and more competition among millions for the remaining jobs.

What’s the progressive solution to this jobs crisis? Either we somehow force corporations to go against their bottom line and create millions of good jobs; or the government steps in and takes responsibility for creating the millions upon millions of jobs needed to sustain an economy that works for everyone; or we change the equation and decide that jobs shouldn’t be our only source of income.

As hard as it is to imagine a massive jobs program that would be big enough to make a difference, there’s also the problem of creating a two-tiered employment system: one tier of good quality, middle class jobs (mostly government jobs), and a lower tier of private sector, increasingly part-time, low-wage, independent contractor jobs.

And it does nothing to address the problem that no politician dares speak of: work sucks.

A more efficient way to spend the trillions of dollars it would take to provide full employment would be to simply give that money directly to the people, cutting out the middle men.

If we create an independent source of income that people can rely on to cover at least their basic human needs, then people would have the economic security and freedom to work as much or as little as they like.

Work would suck so much less if we didn’t need it quite so badly. If we all had a trust fund that we could count on for a guaranteed monthly income of, say $1,000, then it would be possible to work 20 hours a week and still make ends meet.

Working people would then have some leverage when dealing with their employers: a sort of national strike fund. We’d need jobs less, and they’d need us more.

Sounds too good to be true, right? How much would it cost? How would we pay for this? There are 3 ways to pay for it, but first let’s just step back and acknowledge that this would be a major re-working of our economy. The cost of reducing poverty and economic inequality and changing work as we know it will not be cheap. But it will be well worth it.

There are several papers that are posted on the website of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network that include detailed proposals, including one by author Al Sheahen that puts the price tag at roughly $1.9 trillion annually for a basic income of $10,000 a year for adults and $2,000 for children. I’d envision a basic income of $12,000 a year for people who have worked and paid taxes for a set amount of time, like 3 or 5 years. But for argument’s sake, let’s say that a basic income would cost about $2 trillion a year.

Where on earth are we going to come up with $2 trillion when our national budget is about $3.5 trillion? Again, we need to keep in mind what we are getting for our $3.5 trillion now, and what we would get with a basic income. There are three main ways to pay for a basic income.

First, we need to have the rich pay their fair share in taxes. It’s time for a millionaire’s tax, which the Senate is now considering (but Obama may have already sold them down the river). We also need a CEO tax, which would be a surtax on income over $10 million. We need to end the loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay less in taxes than their secretaries. We need to tax carbon pollution, track down offshore tax havens, close corporate tax loopholes, increase the estate tax, etc.

Alaska has a tax on oil revenue that it puts in a Permanent Fund that gives a dividend of a few thousand dollars annually to every man, woman and child in the state. It can do that just on taxes on the state’s oil revenue; imagine what we can do nationally by taxing all oil, gas, and coal revenue.

In general, we need to rely less and less on taxing the income of working people, and more on taxing wealth in all its forms. We need to get creative about it, too. The financial industry is sucking up so much capital that should instead be in the hands of working people. Let’s tax financial transactions.

How about taxing advertising? We all hate commercials; they would go down easier if every time we had to watch/hear one, some money would be going to a basic income. We’d then be able to tax global corporations indirectly. Let’s face it: we’ve become a nation of consumers, not producers. Let’s use that to our advantage by using our leverage as the most sought-after market in the world.

Moving from "free" trade to fair trade would also increase revenue from global corporations. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

The second way to pay for a basic income is to cut spending on other things, mostly the military and a spate of all-or-nothing, 20th Century government programs that would be replaced by a basic income. That includes unemployment, food stamps, housing programs, welfare to work, etc. This would also include eliminating corporate welfare that has been disguised as "job creation."

The third way to fund a basic income would be through deficit spending. It was good enough for Reagan in the 80’s as we built up our military and cut taxes for the rich, and for Bush in the Zero’s as we fought two wars and cut taxes for the rich. Despite all the anxiety over our budget deficit, progressive economists agree that we can sustain an even higher level of debt without worry. The question is, what are we going into debt for? For tax cuts for the rich and military spending, or to put a major dent in poverty and economic inequality and provide a real solution to the jobs crisis?

A combination of new taxes, spending cuts, and deficit spending would together provide the funding we need to provide a basic income to all. The real question is whether we can build a movement and the political will for economic freedom and security for all.

No comments: