Basic income and the ‘job ethic’
Written by: Michael A. Lewis
I was recently listening to a talk show on public radio. The first segment was about President Trump’s tax proposals. It included a debate between a supporter of Trump’s plan and an opponent of it. The supporter is associated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Her conclusion was that Trump’s proposed tax cuts would be great because they would lead to more economic growth and, therefore, more jobs. This is, of course, the supply-side/trickle-down economics reasoning, which could be a subject of debate itself.
A later segment on the talk show focused on New York City’s attempt to persuade Amazon to set up its headquarters in the city. For those who may not be aware, New York City’s mayor is widely considered to be politically progressive. If you are more familiar with European politics, you can think of him as something like a Social Democrat. He did not appear on the radio program, but one of his deputies did. The deputy said a primary reason the city wants to attract Amazon is that such a move would generate a lot of jobs.
Thus, there was a representative of a progressive mayor and a conservative, both of whom argued for two very different proposals on the same basis — jobs. This is not that unusual. The U.S. political Right and Left disagree on plenty: tax cuts, the proper role of the federal government, how best to improve U.S. schools, what the U.S. Constitution says about the right to own a gun, and a host of other issues. But both sides can always be counted on to agree that whether someone has a job or not is an issue of utmost importance.
Conservatives may argue that the best way to generate jobs is for the government to get out of the way and let businesses “do their thing.” Progressives may counter that the private sector will never create enough jobs for all those who desire one, and that the only way to assure people can find work is for the government to guarantee a right to work, even if it must do the hiring. But for both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, jobs are what matters.
It makes sense that both the Right and Left would be so focused on jobs. The main source of many, if not most, incomes in the U.S. is a wage or salary. For many people, if they lost their job, it would not be long before things became dire for them. For many of those currently without jobs, things are already quite dire. It is in the nature of capitalism for most of us to toil away as “wage slaves” as the Marxists define it. But it seems that over time, this economic necessity has developed into something many people call the work ethic, but which I have come to think might better be called the job ethic. The job ethic is the culture which develops when what we have to do to survive becomes not just a source of income but also one of social recognition.
In her book Justice and the Politics of Difference, the late philosopher Iris Marion Young has an essay on the definition of “oppression.” That essay is called The Five Faces of Oppression, and one of those “faces” is marginalization. Marginalization is what happens to the involuntarily unemployed. Obviously, those faced with this situation have a serious financial problem, given that they are living within a system which requires them to have money to meet their needs. But, according to Young, this is not the main reason involuntary unemployment is oppressive. The main reason is that those who are unemployed lack something which grants them access to being recognized and esteemed by their fellow citizens/residents — a job. It is this lack of a job which makes the unemployed feel cast aside and marginalized. The fact that someone is not willing to hire them results in their feeling socially worthless.
Being a philosopher/political theorist, Young does not support her argument with figures and statistics. But I think she may be onto something. A number of opponents of basic income seem to think so, too. Anyone who has followed the basic income debate has heard the argument that basic income is imprudent public policy because it would result in less work. Less work would mean people would be less inclined to engage in an activity which provides them not just with income, but also with meaning and social recognition. What these individuals are really saying is that basic income is bad social policy because it would result in fewer people having to obtain meaning and social recognition from what they have to do to “put food on the table.”
In the past, I have questioned whether basic income would have this effect. But I’m also inclined to wonder: So what if it does? As important as making a living is, humans do a lot of other things besides sell their labor. They spend time with children, spouses, and friends, they enjoy hobbies of various kinds, they engage in pursuits of higher learning, they become involved in civic pursuits to make the world a better place, and a host of other things. Can’t at least some of these things be sources of social recognition, as well? As long as capitalism and tasks that cannot be completed by machines exist, there will be a need for humans to sell their labor. But if a basic income freed some of us up to spend more time doing other things which provide us with social recognition, would that really be so bad?
About the author:
Michael A. Lewis is a social worker and sociologist by training whose areas of interest are public policy and quantitative methods. He’s also a co-founder of USBIG and has written a number of articles, book chapters, and other pieces on the basic income, including the co-edited work The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Lewis is on the faculties of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York.