All of my life, I’ve been listening to adamant assertions about how our government should be run like a business. Lots of people still have faith in the notion that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” I used to believe it wholeheartedly, but as I enter my eighth decade on the planet, I believe it’s time to rethink the whole premise.
People whose internalization of the business model is such that they believe Capitalism to be the solution to every problem under the sun now make me cringe. Low wages, high unemployment, and low taxes are good for business, but not so much for working people. The business model of efficiency is well suited to business, but not to families when there are not enough jobs that pay a living wage.
We’ve created an economic system that depends upon and, in fact, thrives on high unemployment for corporate profits. Yet the blame falls on the unemployed for being unemployed when, by design, there aren’t enough jobs. This is like putting people in a round room and then accusing them of cutting corners.
Many of us do not accept the notion that Capitalism is our reason for living. Having children, for example, is not efficient. In fact, it’s not a savvy business thing to do at all. But the reason we do things in life that are incompatible with the business model represents a moral truth north of religion.
I don’t want a president or any of my elected officials to base all of their decisions about the future of the country on the business model alone. We don’t sell our children, and neither should we sell them out. I don’t want a president making decisions about sending our young men and women to war based on the business needs of Lockheed Martin or Halliburton. Nor do I want our air and water rights sold to the highest bidder to contaminate as they please.
I don’t want leaders who will opt to sell Nebraska to Texas, or let Bain Capital gut and sell off the state of Michigan. As ridiculous as these examples sound, some government “business decisions” in the past have been nearly on par with that level of stupidity.
The only time Capitalism favors workers with equity over management is when there are not enough workers available and businesses have to compete to keep employees. Otherwise, when unemployment is high, the lack of employment mobility leads to exploitation and oppressive management, often bending the will of employees to do whatever is necessary to keep their jobs, even if it is illegal. History shows this is often the case, and we’re seeing it today.
So what do we do to ensure business is good for both business and workers? How do we balance the power of Capitalism with the needs of citizens?
A half-century ago, economists on both the Left and Right were seriously considering enacting a guaranteed income. Richard Nixon, a Republican president no less, tried to get legislation enacted to make it the law of the land. A negative income tax was also the subject of much discussion. Well, Nixon failed to get the legislation for a guaranteed income passed, largely because the idea of paying people to do nothing was repugnant to most folks, myself included. But after giving the idea a lot of thought, I’ve changed my mind.
My initial reaction was that there is absolutely no reason to pay people to do nothing when there is so much in the world that needs to be done—extremely important things that are not getting done. But then I realized it’s presumptuous and arrogant to assume that if people were truly free to use their time as they wished, without being dependent on an occupation for a sense of identity and social respect, they would not quickly gravitate toward that which needs to be done of their own volition. My reason for believing this is that we already have an enormous volunteer workforce in the nonprofit sector, whose tireless efforts to make the world a better place trump the ethos of financial success.
Indeed, real freedom requires the ability to use one’s time as one wishes. Unless we understand this completely, we are bound to live like actors in a play about independence with our roles, scripts, and narratives written by others. This renders our intrinsic aspirations moot and turns our actual life experience into more of an act than an exercise of genuine freedom.
Over the past three decades, our worker productivity has increased dramatically but wages haven’t. The more high-tech we get, the fewer workers are needed in the workplace. Yet we still have an enormous amount of work that desperately needs to be done in the world to make our lives livable: healthcare, childcare, eldercare, education, public safety, environmental restoration, agriculture, solar energy, science, construction, food service, and a whole host of activities that add meaning to life.
On the topic of work and value, I can think of no other subject surrounded by so much pretentious hype—hype about mythical expertise, arguing that only a select few individuals have the special knowledge and ability to command insane levels of compensation, while people who actually work as hard or harder barely make it from paycheck to paycheck.
No doubt many executives in charge of large organizations work hard, but— economic leverage value of their decisions aside—I’ll wager that, in terms of effort and stress, most people who work the front counter in fast-food franchises work harder than many executives. If you doubt this, give a front-counter job somewhere a try. Moreover, wages are determined less by skill or level of effort required than by political power, or the lack of it. In years past, I’ve known secretaries who actually ran the business where they worked, even though their salary was but a pittance of their bosses.
I’m an ex-Marine and an ex-cop with a big city police department, and I have more than a half-century of work experience, including years with three Fortune 100 companies. I have witnessed scores of employees in the lower echelons of organizations who work harder and clearly add more value than those near the top. The biggest difference between them was a gross disparity in compensation, often based far more on politics than contribution.
More often than I can count, I’ve watched competent employees train incompetent but credentialed people to rise above them in organizational ranks. The trainees’ paper credentials had nothing whatsoever to do with performing the job at hand, but they indentured the bearer in debt to a financial institution for decades and locked them into a lifetime of mediocre performance in an occupation for which they were allegedly qualified but unsuited in aptitude.
America’s workplace is not a product of Divine meritocracy in which the talented always rise to the top. It is instead an elaborate enterprise of political pretense that depends to a significant degree upon contempt for otherness to sustain the power of hierarchy by cooperative cronyism.
Once and for all, we need to wake up and realize that there are things more important than making it a priority to see that a few greedy people become insanely rich while millions of good people barely get by. We need to replace meaningless jobs lost to technology with meaningful work that helps people be people. Period.
Now, I realize that in today’s political climate, the notion of guaranteed employment sounds insane and that the Far Right will foam at the mouth and convulse at the thought of socialistic-sounding policies. Let them. If they need a job we will find them one.
The world is changing at warp speed; we are entering a digital realm that earlier generations couldn’t imagine. It is perfectly clear to anyone who will face reality that a much more equitable society of the kind we had shortly after World War II is never coming back with business as usual, unless we take extreme measures to make it happen.
In The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out that in 1968, 1,200 economists signed a letter addressed to Congress in favor of a guaranteed income, with support from people on both sides of the political aisle: Richard Nixon, Milton Friedman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Samuelson, James Tobin, and Friedrich Hayek.
One week after I finished writing this piece, the PBS News Hour featured present-day advocates from both the Left and the Right who are still arguing for a no-strings guaranteed income. The possibilities are intriguing. We wouldn’t need food stamps, and we could dismantle some social welfare programs that are only marginally effective.
It’s long past time that we figured out how to guarantee a living wage for all working citizens and a stipend for basic human needs simply for the dignity human beings require. The very viability and sustainability of America’s future depends on it. It’s time to stop rearranging the deck chairs on America’s Titanic, our middle-class labor force. It’s time to scuttle the ship and build a new one that floats, not in a rust-belt economy, or a Wall Street winner-take-all swamp of corruption, but rather in a digital sea of American equity, where people are considered more important than machines, where people are valued as ends in themselves and not merely as means to an end, where selflessness and goodwill trump greed, and where Americans can again say we live in a great country and really believe it.