September 3, 2013

Work and reciprocity

Several years ago, I did some minor volunteer work for a local sheltered workshop, a facility that gives the mentally or physically disabled the opportunity to do light assembly work for local businesses. The work typically consists of stuffing envelopes or constructing simple machines – whatever is within the capacity of this most marginal group of workers. Despite the necessary simplicity of the work involved, you shouldn’t imagine that employing these people is act of charity. In fact, with the assistance of good organizers and a few physical aids to steady shaky hands, their output is good and their quality is often better than that of people with abler bodies and minds. They are happy to get a paycheck – to be adult, productive members of society. There is a lesson here for all of us.

As a culture, we don’t respect work much anymore. Many people, rich or poor, do their best to avoid it. The trick is to make money without working, and whether one does that by siphoning wealth out of other people’s misfortune through a hedge fund or by mooching off an undeserved public entitlement the motive is the same. Work is for suckers. The awkward people at the sheltered workshop, struggling to assemble mailers and put little plastic parts together, are the biggest suckers of all. Not only do they work more than they have to, they have the na├»ve belief that it gives their lives some measure of meaning and dignity. What a bunch of retards.

Like it or not, the very basis of society is reciprocity. In our personal relationships, most of us recognize that a person that takes from us without giving anything in return is not our friend. Unless you are possessed by pathological self-loathing, you’ll do your best to avoid people whose goal is simply to use you. You will also do your best to be at least decent to the people that matter to you. In a healthy society, this simple understanding – that we have responsibilities as well as needs – is widespread, shaping most of our relationships with others. Work, in almost every society on the planet up until now, has been the reciprocity of default. To work is to make things or do things for others. To be paid for working is to earn the right to have things made and done for you. There have always been inequalities in this exchange, just as there have always been inequalities in personal relationships, but reciprocity has always bound us together nonetheless.

A society that encourages stealing, cheating, swindling and mooching will not be a society very long. To be fair, neither will one that cannot provide enough real jobs for most of its citizens. The official unemployment rate of around 8% is a widely acknowledged joke. As the Federal government sees it, if you’ve been out of work for a few months you’re not unemployed anymore. You’re “discouraged”. You don’t count in the statistics. If you are collecting disability because you have some back pain, you are not unemployed either – even though you could work at a desk, answer a phone, stuff envelopes, or do a million other things. All of the “disabled” I know are far more “abled” than any of the people I saw working in the sheltered workshop.

The real unemployment number is hard to estimate, but it is probably more than double that laughable 8%. If all of the real unemployed got up one morning and decided to look for jobs, it is obvious that most of them would not be able to find one. We live in a society in which working and acquiring a means of support are not reliably connected things. We departed from that path a long time ago. Instead, we went down a path of increasing automation (euphemistically touted as “high worker productivity”), outsourcing, low-wage part-time service jobs, and more-or-less permanent positions on the dole. If you have no means of support you can get help from the government, who will take the money (despite what anybody tells you) from the pockets of the middle class. It is nice, of course, that we do not let people starve – but is it fair that fewer and fewer people put in all the productive effort?

If there is a solution to the current structural problems of the economy, it will have to be more imaginative than either “just get off your ass and get a job” or “let’s raise taxes on the greedy rich”. It is will have to include, among other things, both the idea that work is worth doing, and the idea that satisfied employees are worth having. It is going to require people who know how to think of themselves as citizens, rather than as elites or victims.