by Anne McDonagh
originally published in the 2012 Winter Issue
In the last issue of Learning Curves, in my article, Is it the end of work?, I concluded on a gloomy note, “What are the consequences of an economy that does not need workers? If we continue on the path we are on, the connection between work and income will be severed for most people. Wealth will be in the coffers of the owners of technology. The gap between the rich and the poor will increase to the point where the poor will not be able to support themselves or their families while the rich will be wealthy beyond all imagining. The poor are not likely to accept this fate without a protest.”
I also suggested that we did not have to go down this road to social chaos. There are alternatives. Jeremy Rifkin, author of The End of Work, wrote an article for the Utne Reader called “A View of the Future: The Good Life in The Post-Market Age.” In this article he imagines a society vastly different from the one we currently have, but one which addresses the challenges of a jobless economy. Here are some excerpts.
“THE YEAR is 2045. Life for most people is quite different today from what it was half a century ago. Perhaps the greatest visible change is the diminishing role of the economic marketplace in day-to-day affairs. Now that we are deep into the Information Age, most of the world's goods and services are produced in nearly workerless factories and marketed by virtual companies run by a small team of entrepreneurs and highly trained professionals. Sophisticated computers, robots, and state-of-theart telecommunications technologies have replaced the "worker" of the industrial era. Less than 20 percent of the adult population works full time.
“Most people receive their economic livelihood, in the form of voucher payments, from their local governing body in return for community service work in non-profit organizations…
“The values of the market economy that so dominated the industrial era have steadily given way to a new ethos based on personal transformation, community participation, and global responsibility…
“The older market system reinforced a materialist vision glorifying production and efficiency as the chief means of advancing happiness… People thought of themselves first and foremost as "consumers," not as neighbors or citizens…
“The transition to a Post-Market Era has not been easy...Although some opposition continues to this day from critics clinging to the values of the 20th century market ethos, most people have adjusted well to the new Post-Market Era, enjoying the freedom that comes with less work in the marketplace.”
Clearly, Rifkin has done away with the only economic model we have ever known— capitalism. Many questions about the feasibility and desirability of this scenario spring to mind: Are there any signs that society is ready for such systemic change? There is certainly dissatisfaction among the 99% of us who have watched the 1% amass their fortunes. It seems, however, that we are powerless to make much smaller changes in our society let alone major ones such as Rifkin suggests. Are there other less radical possibilities which, nevertheless, address the problems of the unequal distribution of wealth and the ensuing anarchy? Indeed there are, and they support Rifkin’s ideas.
In fact, several schemes have been put forward over the years, which if implemented would go a long way towards alleviating the problems caused by “the end of work.” They are the Tobin tax, a Guaranteed Annual Income and a shorter work week/day. There are probably other solutions as well, but if we applied these, even the least among us would have enough to survive on and we would have twice as many jobs.
The Tobin tax gets its name from James Tobin, a Nobel prizewinning American economist, who first proposed, in 1978, that international financial transactions should be taxed. (It has also been called other things such as the Robin Hood tax.) The tax would be very little, about .05%, but it would generate trillions of dollars a year that could be used by governments for the public good.
The Guaranteed Annual Income would replace the many social supports that we now call the “safety net”, which in theory would save money. By itself, it may not be possible to provide enough for subsistence on the Guaranteed Annual Income, but combined with the Tobin tax there would be more money available to the government that could be applied to the GAI.
Now to the shorter work week/day. Germany’s experience of the recent recession was just as severe as North America’s, but the unemployment rate was more manageable than in the United States. Why? Because firms were encouraged by government to cut the number of hours each worker worked in the week and then hire more workers. The government made up the difference in pay to the workers. And so more workers were needed.
Even before automation, there were some who advocated a shorter work week and believed it was possible. Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher, was one who thought a 4-hour work day was plenty.
The following are excerpts from his essay “In Praise of Idleness” written in 1932. [With a four-hour work day] “there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid…
“Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion…
“Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued
to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”