Work and beyond

by John Quiggin on February 9, 2014

A little while ago, Ross Douthat tweeted a link to this Aeon article of mine, reflecting on Keynes ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, which gave rise to some interesting discussion (Memo to self: Find out about Storify). Now he’s addressed the topic in the New York Times, linking directly to Keynes essay. There’s some interesting food for thought here. Unfortunately, it’s mixed up with some silly stuff reflecting his job as the NY Times token Republican, in which capacity he has to do some damage control over the exposure of the latest Repub lie saying that Obamacare will cost 2.5 million jobs. As Douthat delicately puts it “this is not exactly right”. But, although his heart clearly isn’t it, he tries to construct a narrative in which the Repubs might be right for the wrong reasons, or, in an even less-felicitous defence, mean-spirited and inaccurate but justified by the success of Reaganism thirty years ago.

More interesting though, is Douthat’s discussion comparing idealised hopes for a post-work society with the reality in which well-educated professionals are working longer hours than ever, while many at the bottom end of the income distribution, particularly poorer men have withdrawn from the formal labour force altogether (presumably, relying on disability benefits or scraping a living in the informal economy). One possible solution to this problem, is simply to give the poor more money, for example, in the form of a basic income, and not worry about whether they choose to work. Douthat isn’t too happy about this idea, saying

Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted. The question is whether tomorrow’s liberals will be our allies in that fight.

But this position elides a bunch of crucial issues.

First, while work may be necessary to “dignity, mobility and social equality” in a market society, it certainly isn’t sufficient. For unionised US workers in the mid-20th century, earning middle-class incomes in relatively secure jobs and expecting better for their children, work was, arguably both necessary and sufficient to achieve a fair measure of these things. But an at-will employee, juggling two or three tenuous jobs that pay $7.25 an hour, and looking at a steady decline in real income, is scarcely getting much in the way of dignity, let alone mobility or social equality.

Equally importantly, market work isn’t the only kind of work people can do, and certainly not the most valuable. Most obviously, there’s the raising of children. The US the developed countries that does not provide any kind of paid parental leave, and even the legislative provision for unpaid leave (12 weeks a year for mothers in firms with more than 50 employees, nothing for fathers) is incredibly stingy. The idea that the ‘rugged individualists’ who block any improvements to these conditions actually care about the dignity of the working class is simply laughable.

I don’t need to tell Douthat any of this. It’s all in his book Grand New Party with Reihan Salam, notably including a proposal for a full year of paid parental leave. The book received cautiously respectful reviews from many in the centre and centre-left, but fell entirely flat with its intended audience in the Republican Party.

I’ll have a bit more to say about the kind of technological determinism that seeks to explain labour market polarisation as arising from computers and the Internet a bit later. For the moment, I’ll repeat the conclusion of my Aeon essay that a response to technological change that will preserve the link between work, dignity and equality will require both a reduction in total hours of work and an expansion in the range of social contributions regarded as work, beyond those that generate a market return

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Yep, I did it. Love me if you like. Hate me if you have to. Officially, the course starts tomorrow, but we were ready so we flipped the switch.

[UPDATE: Probably I should mention this, in case people don’t know about Coursera. It’s free and you can just sign up now and take the course, if you care to.]

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Did Bob Dahl Really Say That? (Updated)

by Corey Robin on February 9, 2014

As many of you probably know, the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has died. The Monkey Cage is promising to post personal reflections from a former student next week, but in the meantime they have a roundup of the various obituaries. The Times obituary was quite good. I found this passage especially arresting.

Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”

When I first read that, I thought to myself, “Wow, Dahl was more of a Nietzschean than I realized.” I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books, but I hadn’t ever stumbled across that particular statement or sentiment in any of them. I posted it on Facebook with the header, “Bob Dahl, Nietzschean.”

But then I googled it and couldn’t find Dahl saying it anywhere, save in the Times. And then I got suspicious. Wrongly attributed statements, as readers here may remember, are a bit of an obsession of mine. So I asked around on Facebook, and thanks to the efforts of Harrison Fluss, who’s a philosophy grad student at Stonybrook, and Rafael Khachaturian, who’s a poli sci grad student at Indiana University, I was able to piece together the following letter to the writer of the Times obit. I hope they manage to make a correction. If they don’t, they might be unwittingly inaugurating decades of misconception.

If I’ve gotten any of it wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments. As I say, I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books; I’m by no means an expert. [click to continue…]