Friday, April 04, 2014

Why are we still working?

On his blog, SF author Charles Stross asks the big question about modern society: most jobs are bullshit, and many of them are disappearing due to technology. Meanwhile, as a society we're richer and more productive than ever before. So why are we still working?

We can still produce enough food and stuff to feed and house and clothe everybody. We can still run a growth economy. But we don't seem to know how to allocate resources to people for whom there are no jobs. There's a pervasive cultural assumption that people who don't work are shirkers or failures, rather than victims of technological change, and this is an enabler for populist politicians who campaign for support from the frightened (because embattled) working majority by punishing the unlucky, rather than admitting that the core assumption—that we must starve if we can't find work—is simply invalid.

I tend to evaluate the things around me using a number of rules of thumb, one of which is that the success of a social system can be measured by how well it supports those at the bottom of the pile—the poor, the unlucky, the non-neurotypical—rather than by how it pampers its billionaires and aristocrats. By that rule of thumb, western capitalism did
really well throughout the middle of the 20th century, especially in the hybrid social democratic form: but it's now failing, increasingly clearly, as the focus of the large capital aggregates at the top (mostly corporate hive entities rather than individuals) becomes wealth concentration rather than wealth production. And a huge part of the reason it's failing is because our social system is set up to provide validation and rewards on the basis of an extrinsic attribute (what people do) which is subject to external pressures and manipulation: and for the winners it creates incentives to perpetuate and extend this system rather than to dismantle it and replace it with something more humane.

Obviously, its good for the people at the top to continue this way. But for the rest of us, trapped in jobs we hate and whose utility to society we doubt, which we'd give up in an instant if an alternative became available? Not so much.

There is an obvious policy solution to this, in the form of a Universal Basic Income. This would disconnect work from survival, and allow us to find a better balance between work and lesiure (and permanently removing the employers' boot from our neck would make those jobs which need to be done or which we choose to do much more pleasant). It's affordable, its better for us, and we already have one in New Zealand for over-65's.

I was going to say that none of our political parties are grappling with this problem that, none of them want to question the sacred cow that work, no matter how meaningless, is the only way. And for National and Labour, that's true - both are committed to the current orthodoxy, the ideology of work and brutally punishing those the economy does not work for. But a quick check shows that the Greens are different - they're committed to "investigat[ing] the implementation of a Universal Basic Income for every New Zealander". That's a cautious statement, but its still lightyears ahead of the other two parties, and shows they're looking at our actual problems, rather than committed to protecting the status quo regardless.