05 February 2009

Then stills its artisans like ghosts

So yesterday unemployment in Ireland hit its highest level since records began, rising by 36,500 in January to 327,900, or 9.2%, with the Taoiseach forecasting end of year figures as high as 400,000. This figure of course only counts those who are signing on for Unemployment assistance or benefit, and does not count those who haven't registered, like me.

I was asked recently if I had signed on the dole, since I haven't worked since April, and of course I haven't. I voluntarily left work, choosing to take 18 months or so off, and had carefully budgeted and saved over the previous 4 years to be able to do so. I have no moral issue with receiving welfare from the government, and have done so myself many years ago ago, during and after college. As a worker I have paid a not inconsiderable amount of Social Insurance, deducted automatically from my salary by my employer, and thus have always felt entitled to claim that back from the government during periods of unemployment. That's what its there for, that's why you pay PRSI. However I do feel that in the current economic crises with the exchequer so low due to financial mismanagement by the government and rampant tax avoidance by the investment classes and corporations, and when there clearly isn't enough to go around, those who can support themselves are morally obliged to do so.

This is actually in contrast to my idealised situation, strongly influenced by Andre Gorz, that every citizen should be paid a guaranteed minimum income by the government regardless of their work status, financed by both a sliding-scale sales tax with luxury and convenience goods contributing a disproportionately large share, and by a significantly higher rate of personal tax on incomes grossly above societal norms.

Gorz makes a number of interesting arguments, beginning with the fact that we all work too many hours, and our pay has little to do with the actual value of the work produced during those hours:
"In the capitalist countries of Europe, taken as a whole, three to four times more wealth is produced today than thirty-five years ago. But it does not take three times more hours of work to achieve this more than tripled level of production. It requires a much lower quantity." - Gorz, "Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology" p.44
And yet as Paul Krugman points out throughout "Conscience of a Liberal", Middle and Working Class wages have actually fallen in real terms since the 1970s. So prior to the current economic meltdown, profits for companies were at an all time high, driven by a highly productive and cheaper workforce. The top 1% were enjoying a quality of life never before seen in history, and yet for the other 99% life was actually worse in real terms since the 1970s.

Gorz suggests that if corporations and the investing class weren't so greedy they could still enjoy substantial profits with workers working less hours and enjoying a better quality of life. As someone who invariably worked a 60-hour week (though was in theory compensated for only 40 of those), the diminished quality of life I experienced as a result was the major reason for leaving my job. Gorz writes of two principles of a reduced work-week:
"(a) that everyone should work less, so that everyone may work and may develop outside their working lives the personal potential which cannot find expression in their work; (b) that a much greater proportion of the population should be able to have access to skilled, complex, creative and responsible occupational activities which allow them continually to develop and grow." - Gorz, "Critique of Economic Reason" p.192
In a society where part-time work would be the norm, more employment opportunities would exist, as would opportunities for more fulfilling work. Shortfalls in earnings that may result from significantly reduced work (normally voluntarily reduced hours) would be balanced by a guaranteed minimum income supplemented by the government and financed through luxury goods taxes.

One doesn't need to be stuck in a Polish hotel with nothing on the television in English but a "My Super Sweet Sixteen" marathon to realise that consumerism in Western society is out of control. Does anybody actually need a private plane? Does anybody need a diamond-encrusted mobile phone, or for that point does anybody need non-industrial diamonds? Does anybody even need a 42" TV? The scale of our consumption of The Unnecessary is staggering, but rather than prevent anyone from using their earnings however they want, in a world of such extreme inequalities those who wish to indulge their selfish base desires should be made to contribute significantly to the overall well-being of society as part of the act of indulgence itself.

Consumerism is both a product and effect of a long work week, as with little spare time outside of the work place an individual has little time to produce things for themselves, rather than for an employer. While Gorz does not envision a time-rich worker building themselves a television, a time-rich worker would be able to undertake other pastimes with more energy and enthusiasm, and would not be dependent upon passive entertainment. A time-rich worker would buy less processed and pre-made meals, having the time to indulge in cooking, and potentially even growing and harvesting their own food. Modern society has become divorced from the simple joys of making, doing and being, for being time-poor has fed into the illusion that happiness can only be bought and that consuming is the sole leisure activity.

Going beyond Gorz I would suggest that in a time-rich society the concept of a luxury tax could be extended to items of convenience, such as processed and 'fast' foods; nobody needs to eat at McDonald's, but rather than removing the choice from individuals a higher tax should be placed on McDonald's foods in a similar way to that on cigarettes and alcohol. One consequence of this could be that obesity would return to its traditional position of being a disease of wealth, and not of poverty as it currently is.

Even in America, the second most Capitalist nation on Earth, questions are being asked about the inequalities that have emerged since the 70's. President Obama has imposed salary caps on the financial institutions accepting federal bail-outs, but even at $500,000 you have to ask what value can any individual possibly be adding to justify a salary so far from the average. The economist Tim Harford devoted a chapter in "The Logic of Life" to trying to understand why Executive pay is so high, and specifically if there is any contribution an individual could make to the success of a company that would justify today's astronomical salaries and bonuses. His conclusion, rather simply, is "No". Executive salaries have nothing to do with the abilities of the individual, and everything to do with their role as a motivational tool for those on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder to work hard and deliver strong results in the hope of moving up and one day reaching the executive level. However as we have seen in the sub-prime crises that led to our current economic collapse such incentives do not encourage people to just work harder, it encourages people to lie, cheat, cut corners and falsify results to achieve their goals. Greed in America is a far more powerful motivator than Weber's Protestant work ethic.

If a society can accept that it is morally justifiable for an individual to earn in excess of even $500,000 per year, 10 times the average US household income in 2007, then it should also find it acceptable to actively redistribute a portion of the wealth of those high earners to the other 99% who live on substantially less through a guaranteed minimum income regardless of employment status. Then more people wouldn't have to make the choice between financial security and happiness. Surely that is the hallmark of an advanced civilization?

As for me, I was fortunate enough to be able to choose to opt-out of it all, to place happiness above the need to work, to spend today outside in the snow photographing the Iveagh Gardens instead of inside compiling endless Powerpoint presentations or having to fire an employee so my VP could get their bonus this quarter.

But I still look forward to the day when happiness and productive work aren't an either/or choice for the 99%, but rather are two complimentary parts of a holistic whole.

Andre Gorz - 'Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology'
Paul Krugman - 'The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming America from the Right'
Tim Harford - 'The Logic of Life'
Photos of today's snow in the Iveagh Gardens

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At 10:23 pm, Blogger Niall Murphy said...

Of course, the competitive effect is even more interesting. If I choose to step off the gas for a little bit, I will be comparatively less rewarded than others, and hence will drop further "behind". And people with families have the choice of either doing not as well at their job as others of similar abilities but more time, or not doing as well "at" their family...

At 1:04 am, Blogger Unknown said...

great post unkie d. and it is possible for everyone to live better and work less, if there was something like justice. and remember the powerful comparative effect of those who can choose to live otherwise than to work, doing so - stepping off the treadmill lets others see the treadmill and the solid ground and fertile soil all around it.


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