mfioretti: work ethic*

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  1. Kela hopes additional data that is being collected as part of the trial from healthcare records will provide useful information on whether the security of a guaranteed unconditional income, paid in advance so beneficiaries can budget for it, might have a positive impact on anxiety, prescription drug consumption or doctor’s visits.

    “One participant has said she is less anxious because she no longer has to worry over calls from the job centre offering a job she can’t accept because she is caring for her elderly parents,” Turunen said. “We may be able to see from the trial data whether it has had unintended benefits – such as reduced medical costs.”

    The trial data may also allow the government to spend less on bureaucracy by simplifying Finland’s complex social security system – currently, it offers more than 40 different means-tested benefits – which is struggling to cope with a 21st-century labour market of part timers, short-term contracts and start-ups.

    The benefit system is simply “not suited to modern working patterns”, Turunen said. “We have too many benefits. People don’t understand what they’re entitled to or how they can get it. Even experts don’t understand. For example, it’s very hard to be in the benefit system in Finland if you are self-employed – you have to prove your income time and time and time again.”
    The Inequality Project: the Guardian's in-depth look at our unequal world
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    Perhaps most significantly, the trial marks “a real breakthrough for field experiments”, according to Kanerva. Rolled out in record time and after a brief, one-line pledge in the government’s platform, it had to function alongside all existing social security laws and clear numerous legal obstacles – including Finland’s constitution, which requires all citizens to be treated equally.

    “It was a huge effort to get it over the line,” Turunen said. “The government was determined it must be based on specific legislation – most experiments are not – and that it had to launch in January last year ... It was quite a task.”
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  2. Ask Järvinen what difference money for nothing has made to his life, and you are marched over to his workshop. Inside is film-making equipment, a blackboard on which is scrawled plans for an artists’ version of Airbnb, and an entire little room where he makes shaman drums that sell for up to €900. All this while helping to bring up six children. All those free euros have driven him to work harder than ever.

    None of this would have been possible before he received UBI. Until this year, Järvinen was on dole money; the Finnish equivalent of the jobcentre was always on his case about job applications and training. Ideas flow out of Järvinen as easily as water from a tap, yet he could exercise none of his initiative for fear of arousing bureaucratic scrutiny.

    In one talked-about case last year, an unemployed Finn called Christian was caught carving and selling wooden guitar plectrums. It was more pastime than business, earning him a little more than €2,000 in a year. But the sum was not what angered the authorities, it was the thought that each plectrum had taken up time that could have been spent on official hoop-jumping.
    Iain Duncan Smith
    ‘For Iain Duncan Smith, poverty was the rotten fruit of broken families, addiction or debt.’ Photograph: Bloomberg/via Getty Images

    That was Järvinen, too, until this year. Just as with so many Britons on social security, he was trapped in a “humiliating” system that gave him barely enough to feed himself, while refusing him even a glimmer of a hope of fulfilment.

    So what accounted for his change? Certainly not the UBI money. In Finland, €560 is less than a fifth of average private-sector income. “You have to be a magician to survive on such money,” Järvinen says. Over and over, he baldly describes himself as “poor”.

    His liberation came in the lack of conditions attached to the money.
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  3. I interpret the growing interest in a Basic Income across the political spectrum as a positive development. Here is how I see it: the demand for a Basic Income is, depending on the terms of the demand, a left-wing demand; however, the politics of the demand are not by any measure straightforward. Whether or not it can improve the lives of a broad crosssection of workers depends on several specifics, most important, on the level of the income that is provided. If it is too low, it risks further subsidizing low wage employers by offering their workers a wage supplement. The demand I support is for a miminal livable income that, insofar as it enables workers to opt out of waged work even temporarily, would force such empoyers to offer better wages and conditions. That said, the politics around this are tricky at best, as it is not unlikely that once won, a Basic Income will be first instituted at a low level. The struggle to then raise the level of income will require additional efforts.

    But even if or when it is secured in the form of a minimal livable income, it should be clear that a demand for Basic Income is not a proposal to replace the wage system, but only to loosen its grip on us a bit by providing income for those now shut out of or rendered precarious in relation to waged work, and for those whose contributions to social (re)production that are not now remunerated with wages. It would also give individuals a stronger position from which to negotiate more favorable employment contracts and better enable us to make choices about what kinds of households and intimate relationships we might want to form. While these are not insubstantial benefits, they do not add up to some revolutionary postcapitalist vision.

    Basic Income is the only way capitalism will be able to sustain itself materially and ideologically.

    On the contrary, I think a Basic Income is likely to be the only way capitalism will be able to sustain itself materially and ideologically in the near future as the wage system and family model continue to reveal themselves inadequate to the task of distributing income and organizing productive cooperation. Instead, what a Basic Income could provide is material support for the time and effort necessary to fight for additional reforms and a conceptual opening to think more critically about work and nonwork and more imaginatively about how they might be further transformed. It is in that sense a rather modest demand, but one that I think will enable further political thinking and action.
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  4. there has recently been a set of voices on the left calling this idea out as too good to be true. To this side of the argument, basic income is being advanced as a Trojan Horse by governments attempting to maintain and deepen a neoliberal policy project while putting a new coat of paint on it to placate an increasingly restive public. They warn that a basic income will be used as cover for continuing cuts in health and educational services, along with privatization of other social programs, and state that leftists who advance even cautious cases for basic income are being played for suckers. While such arguments are not without merit in certain respects, they nevertheless fail to recognize both the traditions of social citizenship on the left that a basic income, at least in its leftist variation, speaks to, and the necessity for positive, emancipatory policy visions.

    Furthermore, these critiques also have the unwitting effect of continuing to unduly valourize “work” performed under capitalist conditions in a way that testifies to the deep penetration of certain harmful ideas about the sources of human dignity and worth into our collective social psyche.

    In all, such a notion of “work” appears to be deeply tied to an uncritical, productivist form of Marxist thinking which may have had relevance in another political context but appears hopelessly dated in the current reality. This is all to say nothing of the fact that there are many people who have disabilities which prevent them from “working” in the conventional sense of the term, either temporarily or permanently, who are entirely written out of this analysis and would likely stand to benefit most from a basic income. Even the removal of the often intrusive, deliberately demeaning and manipulative aspects of the current social assistance regime would be deeply beneficial here, absent higher benefit levels. Similar remarks could be made as to the way in which basic income would act to, at least in part, recognize unpaid care work, usually done by women, which is often not considered as “work” under the status quo.
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  5. Among the 30% of respondents who said they did not think things would turn out well in the future were those who said the trajectory of technology will overwhelm labor markets, killing more jobs than it creates. They foresee a society where AI programs and machines do most of the work and raise questions about people’s sense of identity, the socio-economic divisions that already distress them, their ability to pay for basic needs, their ability to use the growing amount of “leisure time” constructively and the impact of all of this on economic systems. It should also be noted that many among the 70% who expect positive change in the next decade also expressed some of these concerns.

    Richard Stallman, Internet Hall of Fame member and president of the Free Software Foundation, commented, “I think this question has no answer. I think there won’t be jobs for most people a few decades from now, and that’s what really matters. As for the skills for the employed fraction of advanced countries, I think they will be difficult to teach. You could get better at them by practice, but you couldn’t study them much.”
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  6. Lord’s thesis is that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going. He traces the various forms of energy we have known as a species throughout our pre-history — our millennia spent in the Pleistocene — and in our recorded history — sexual energy, without which societies can’t continue; the energy of the body while hunting and foraging; wood for fire; slaves; wind and water; coal; oil; and “renewables” — and makes some cogent observations about their relationship to art and culture. In his Prologue, he says:

    Everyone knows that all life requires energy. But we rarely consider how dependent art and culture are on the energy that is needed to produce, practice and sustain them. What we fail to see are the usually invisible sources of energy that make our art and culture(s) possible and bring with them fundamental values that we are all constrained to live with (whether we approve of them or not). Coal brought one set of values to all industrialized countries; oil brought a very different set… I may not approve of the culture of consumption that comes with oil… but I must use it » if I want to do anything at all.

    (Photo via

    Those living within an energy system, says Lord, may disapprove of certain features, but they can’t question the system itself. Within the culture of slavery, which lasted at least 5,000 years, nobody wanted to be a slave, but nobody said slavery should be abolished, because what else could keep things going?
    (Sébastien Bonaimé/Getty Images; Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

    Coal, says Lord, produced a culture of production: think about those giant steel mills. Oil and gas, once they were up and running, fostered a culture of consumption. Lord cites “the widespread belief of the 1950s and early ’60s in the possibility of continuing indefinitely with unlimited abundance and economic growth, contrasted with the widespread agreement today that both that assumption and the world it predicts are unsustainable.” We’re in a transition phase, he says: the next culture will be a culture of “stewardship,” the energy driving it will be renewables, and the art it produces will be quite different from the art favored by production and consumption cultures.

    What are the implications for the way we view both ourselves and the way we live? In brief: in the coal energy culture — a culture of workers and production — you are your job. “I am what I make.” In an oil and gas energy culture — a culture of consumption — you are your possessions. “I am what I buy.” But in a renewable energy culture, you are what you conserve. “I am what I save and protect.” We aren’t used to thinking like this, because we can’t see where the money will come from. But in a culture of renewables, money will not be the only measure of wealth. Well-being will factor as an economic positive, too.

    Like Barry Lord, Morris is interested in the link between energy-capture systems and the cultural values associated with them, though in his case it’s the moral values, not only the aesthetic ones — supposing these can be separated — that concern him. Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth.

    The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.” Thus, for hunting societies, their way of life is over once there are no longer enough large animals to sustain their numbers. For farmers, arable land is a limiting factor. The five factors of doom combine and augment one another, and people in those periods have a thoroughly miserable time of it, until new societies arise that utilize some not yet exhausted form of energy capture.
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  7. The main difference between the Old Left and the Alt-Left is that the latter focuses more on the cultural, behavioral and psychological sides of economic life. In a world where material resources are relatively abundant and information and information processing become dominant in economic life, money begins to matter less than e.g. cultural capital, good social relations and access to high quality information. What is lacking is not stuff, or money, but intelligent solutions for distribution, value creation and ideas about what to do with our lives in the first place. To create a fair and sustainable global order we must create better social settings for people to do worthwhile things.

    We have already stated that this entails a “betrayal of the working class” (read previous post in this series). What do we mean by that? Basically it means that the Alt-Left loosens its ties to the worker movements and the interests of labor (higher wages, safer employment, benefits, consumption and so on). Simply put, the greatest problem of the world is no longer that working and middle class people make too little money. Many of the problems that come from poverty and economic precariousness are – upon closer inspection – in fact social and psychological problems. In the most developed countries people aren’t literally starving or freezing to death. But they are being stressed out, alienated, frustrated, treated poorly, manipulated by advertisement and getting stuck in destructive social relationships. Increasing people’s incomes and consumption can be a way of remedying these maladies, but it is far from the only way. And a too strong focus on material wealth does not only blind us to other means of improving people’s lives; it also perpetuates an overall system of production and consumption that is not ecologically sustainable.
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  8. "There is a difference between work and labor. Work is an activity a person does to give one's life meaning. Labor is what a human does to survive."

    Being able to provide for yourself and your family defined your worth in your own eyes as well as those around you. This need for dignity will remain no matter how technical and economic landscapes evolve.

    When I started doing the research for this piece, I asked others in the know to respond to the prospect of a world that is fully automated. One of the people I talked to was Phillipe Kahn, founder of Borland, Starfish Software, LightSurf Technologies, and most recently, Fullpower Technologies.

    "I remember being in India and watching a construction site: lots of people, elephants, activity. I asked, 'Why don't you all use bulldozers and tractors and prefabricated concrete parts?' The answer was enlightening: 'How would this community make a living with dignity?' That's the whole paradox that we are dealing with: productivity versus dignity for communities that could be unemployed for generations," said Kahn.
    Work vs. labor

    There is a difference between work and labor. Work is an activity a person does to give one's life meaning. Labor is what a human does to survive. In the old days, work was your avocation and labor was your vocation. Some people were fortunate enough to have their activities be both avocation and vocation.
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  9. Universal Basic Income is an old idea, but one that’s been getting a good deal of renewed attention lately. The essence of UBI is that every citizen receives a monthly income from the state, regardless of work or income status. The justification for such a program is to ensure everyone a minimal standard of living without the bureaucratic hassle and social-shaming indicative of means-based welfare programs. Recently, UBI has been forwarded as a possible response to the increasing displacement of workers by robots and computers. Silicon Valley “disrupters” have been among the most vocal UBI proponents. Douglas Rushkoff brought up UBI during the Sunday panel discussion and presented the idea in a positive light. Ed Whitfield pushed back against that notion, however, by noting that providing a UBI is not in anyway transformative, so long as that income is being spent to buy things from traditional, capitalist businesses. A basic income could very well serve as an excuse to not address the underlying problems with our economy, such as absentee ownership, low wages and exploitative working conditions.

    I have been a sometime advocate of UBI, on the basis that any policy or program that relieves some financial hardship for us low-income folks is to be supported. However, Ed’s critique is not one to be taken lightly. A remedy that merely alleviates the symptoms may serve to hide the underlying disease and make addressing the fundamental sickness more, not less, difficult. However, there is another policy proposal which, I think, has the potential to both improve the financial stability of the un- and under-employed, while also avoiding the pitfalls that Ed drew attention to in his critique. That policy is generally referred to as a Job Guarantee. My particular preference is for a Job Guarantee combined with a public budgeting process that would empower both individuals, by providing them with a guaranteed job, and communities, by letting them decide what work needs doing in their area.

    Unlike a UBI, a Job Guarantee (JG) is not an untested policy in our country. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Work Projects Administration (WPA), and similar programs put in place during the Great Depression had the intent of providing useful jobs for the many people who had been left unemployed by financial and ecological collapse, and for whom the capitalist economy proved unable to provide either employment or income. The idea of paying un- and under-employed people to do socially useful work at government expense would, therefore, likely be an easier sell for most people than a UBI.*

    My particular version works like this: communities (or perhaps neighborhoods in large urban areas) would engage in a participatory budgeting process to determine what work needs to be done in the community. Unemployment offices (which would now be employment offices) would then have the task of matching people to the tasks that the community has agreed upon. Jobs could range from tutoring/mentoring young people or home visits and assistance for older folks, to building parks, playgrounds and other types of communal space. A JG policy along these lines would not only provide much needed income for the many people left out in the cold by the current economy, but also give communities a way to guide the program to avoid the inevitable problems of centralized, “from-on-high” decision making. And the psychological benefits of performing useful work for your neighbors and community should not be overlooked. Whereas a UBI might lead to a sense of dependence and helplessness among those who depend on it, a well-implemented JG would provide not only money but a sense of purpose and the pride that comes with knowing that you are a valuable member of your community.**
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  10. we are already well down the road towards income support for the majority, not the few, with increasing reliance on in-work benefits as the median income falls, and a minimum wage to prevent employers (with the collusion of workers who expect to be subsidised) bidding down wages to the floor. But our current income support system is a mess. It's an unholy mixture of pensions, benefits and tax breaks, inconsistently designed and arbitrarily applied, riddled with exploitable loopholes for those who know how to play the system, and harmful sanctions for those who don't understand the rules. And government is now making ill-considered changes to it because of its increasing cost.

    Looking ahead, the only way in which such extensive outright subsidy of wages can be sustained in the longer term is through heavy taxation of profits and wealth - which rather undermines the purpose of forcing down labour costs, from capitalists' point of view.

    But the short-sighted strategy of forcing down wages to prop up profits is not the only problem. As Tomas Hirst notes, traditional "middle class" skilled production and office jobs are disappearing, but there is relative growth of low-skill, low-pay jobs, mostly insecure, part-time and short-term. These jobs are increasing because the cost of employing people to do them is lower than the cost (at present) of automating them. If the future is that the majority of people will do unskilled, insecure jobs for very low wages, then this amounts to a shocking waste of human capital. And if the more distant future is that even these jobs will eventually be automated, and working for a living will become the privilege of a few, then it is an even bigger waste.We have the most educated workforce in history, but the majority of them will have no opportunity to use their skills in satisfying and well-remunerated work.

    The obvious counter to this is that people have other opportunities to use their skills, through voluntary work and hobbies. But the problem is that people who are struggling to make ends meet focus only on survival - many of them working long hours or doing multiple jobs for little pay. People who have no disposable income don't do hobbies, because doing hobbies requires money. People who barely have enough work to meet essential living costs and don't qualify for state benefits don't do voluntary work, unless it has a real prospect of leading to paid work. For people on very low incomes, survival is the primary consideration. This is the lowest level in Maslow's hierarchy of needs:
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