Both Livingston and Jorion say paid work in labor markets is destined to decline, but I think this is far from clear.
A cursory look at the US statistics indicates as such. In the celebrated post-WWII US economy the civilian labor force participation rate never reached more than 58 percent in 1953 during the Korean War. Then, it fell to 55.2 percent in 1961. Congress held hearings on “automation.” But what is the labor force participation rate today? In April 2018 it was 60.3 percent. So more people are working today than during the vaunted golden age of capitalism, when Americans produced something instead of flipping burgers or houses.
True, from its all time peak of 64.7 percent in 2000, the US labor force participation rate has declined ever since. And there is evidence that new technologies are biased towards replacing rather than augmenting labor. Jorion had the historical record wrong here, it seemed to me. During Industrial Revolution, often the machines created new demand for labor. When we talk about jobs disappearing lets be clear what we are talking about. We are talking about a certain kind of job that was the anchor of industrial society. We are talking about middle-income male employment. The crisis of work is a crisis for men. Who are “men” going to be in the future and what will they spend their days doing? For Keynes, “full employment” meant nothing more than getting the factories back up and running, so they could employ men. Since WWII, men have been working fewer jobs, and women more. Only the Great Recession put a dent in the steady rise in women’s labor force participation since WWII.
My best guess is that capitalism is still fully capable of generating plenty of jobs. Yes, recently Asian corporations such as Foxconn, who assembles our IPhones among other items, have been buying robots to replace workers on their assembly lines. Nonetheless, between 1990 and 2005, how many wage earners in Asia do you think were newly engaged in manufacturing goods for export outside their national economies? Guess. According to the IMF the answer is, wait for it, 500 million. That’s a lot of robots!
Further, if capitalism stays on the same path, and the super rich get only richer, very likely they will invent plenty of new jobs for everyone else to do. This will happen in the service sector. There will be even better food and more therapists, life coaches, personal trainers, maids, and bought-off politicians. Maybe personal servants, or paid friends.
I am not saying that there are not good economic arguments for human beings to fundamentally reconsider their relationship to remunerated employment. Rather, the reason for doing so is no different today than what it has been, in many places, for some time. We live in a post-scarcity economic world in which poverty, as Keynes put it back in 1936, is a “paradox” rather than a basic material fact of human existence, because in terms of material wealth we were then, and are even more so now, very rich.
Don’t make the work issue depend in any way upon an economically deterministic argument that there will not be enough jobs for everybody anymore. It is best to keep the issue on the right plane, where it belongs. The question of work is a moral question about what we should do during our time on this earth. It is also a question of, as Livingston underscores in his Coda, paraphrasing Kant: what can we rightfully ask other human beings, moral agents no less than ourselves, to do for us on our behalf?
This is where Livingston’s book is at its best. He prods. Should not all this wealth be adding up to better possibilities for human living? Not too long ago we had to work, to survive. That job is now done. Why can’t we let it go?
I suspect that in the distant future, if there is a distant future, much ink will be spilled by robots pondering over the question how come the human work ethic persisted for so long? Livingston’s candidate, Protestantism, sounds right for the US, but I am writing this in Catholic Italy where it was not uncommon in recent election rallies for chants of “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” to break out. We are dealing with what may be a global pathology and it is hard to know whether to blame global capitalism or the long shadow of our evolutionary past.
I place my hope in the declining labor force participation rate of women since the Great Recession. It is hard to explain it on economic grounds, since women on average are now ideally suited for employment in the two high growth segments of the labor market. That is low-wage, long feminized service labor, such as food preparation, retail, or domestic work, whether cleaning or elderly care. Or, it is higher income jobs in which one needs educational credentials. Women now attend college at a higher rate than men and get better grades. Not in all instances of course, but in some instances the withdrawal of female labor after the Great Recession might just be voluntary. Perhaps, many women already are saying “Fuck Work!” By contrast many men are just saying, “Fuck!” At least, American men who do not work are getting addicted to drugs, committing suicide, and voting for Trump at alarming rates. Too much surfing is hardly the problem.
I agree with Jorion, if I understood him, that going cold turkey, and immediately moving towards a basic income, is probably not the way to go, even if it were politically feasible. Besides, at some level, we are dealing with pathology, and if you had a friend who compulsively washed his hands all day would you tie his hands behind his back and ask him to say thank you because you had finally forced him to be free?
Jorion’s basic services solutions sounds like social democracy, which unfortunately is not politically tenable these days either. I would favor in the short term struggling to expand the category of remunerated work. The state will have to do this. If there is a laid off factory worker and his buddy is ill I think the state should tax the rich and pay the laid off worker to watch over his friend, which may include getting him to his doctor’s appointments on time, or sharing a meal. Neither of them should have to hustle to accommodate the service demands of the rich, by, say, uprooting from their lives in northwest Indiana to be Uber drivers on the north side of Chicago.
If the state could seize greater control over the remuneration of activity – what should count as remunerated activity – it might then focus the larger moral question upon a more manageable political question of what should count as valuable human activity and should therefore earn a pecuniary reward. Then later, it may be finally time to address the link between activity and income at a more fundamental level. But for now instead of de-commodification politics the best chance might be for the state to commodify necessary human activity that private labor markets will not.
Finally, I had this reaction to Jorion’s call for space exploration. As a native of Houston, Texas I once had the pleasure of many inspiring schoolboy fieldtrips to NASA. The last time I was there, a few years ago, the mood was lackluster. I asked an Italian engineer whether he thought we might go to Mars someday. His said his ambition was to return one day to Italy, if only the economy would improve. Jorion is right. To shake us from our working slumber we could use some inspiration. But isn’t space exploration commonly the dream of little boys who want to be astronauts when they grow up? And as Emerson once said, travel is a “fool’s paradise.” Travel anywhere you like and you will sonly be yourself – a point, with respect to a possible extraterritorial social order that the film Total Recall (1990) definitely proved. Mars got strip-mined.
Can we just stay right here and work on living together instead of dodging the main issue by either mindlessly toiling our way into our graves or fantasizing about heroic feats worthy of great deaths?
I found Livingston’s argument that love must triumph over work completely persuasive.