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Is It Possible To Build An Economy Without Jobs?

Humans will always work. But that whole employee-employer thing is optional. It's time to start looking for another model.

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Of course, there are those who, while pleased with their own situation, recognize that the system does not work so well for many others. Even those who have had satisfying careers have seen or experienced some of the downsides of the job system: arbitrary and abusive bosses; the fear of losing a job, made all the more intense by the realization that this also usually means losing health insurance; the day-to-day monotony or stress associated with a dysfunctional workplace; the sense that the work being done is unethical or otherwise destructive to the general well-being;  brutal and demoralizing competition and conflict with co-workers; the constant pressure to stay “attractive” to the employer; long hours; low pay; and finally, getting laid-off or fired. Very few of us are exempt. 

Put that all aside. (Nothing is perfect.) Presume that the job system has been a net “success.” Is that success sustainable? No, it isn’t. And even if in the big-picture scheme of things it has been beneficial for 300 years, does that mean it’s the best we can do? No, it doesn’t.

Is this system sustainable? There are two questions here. First, has the job-based system of organizing human effort already peaked? (Even a well-maintained car outlives its usefulness after several hundred thousand miles—or less). Many seem to think so. Political discourse in the US these days is dominated by left-wing and right-wing versions of “we want our America back.” Implicit in both positions is the view the system once worked better than it’s working now. 

But can either or the Tea Party get us back to 1957? In my view, no. A tipping point has been reached, a line crossed. To stay with the car analogy, the job system has already replaced the engine, the transmission, the windshield wipers, and just about every other part -- and it still isn’t running well. 

What repairs have been tried? For purposes of discussion, let’s say that the golden years of the system were roughly from 1950-1980. Income for males (at least, white males) was rising along with productivity. Many single-income households not only got by, they prospered. 

Starting about 1980, there came a growing consensus across the mainstream ideological spectrum, from Charles Murray to Paul Krugman, that the economic engine was sputtering. Various repairs and adjustments have been attempted. Simultaneously, significant economic and demographic changes were taking place. Women entered the workforce in large numbers, driven in part by the threat to living standards represented by stagnant wages for men. Some barriers to better jobs for African Americans were removed. The amount of education necessary to find a willing employer increased, and young people stayed out of the workforce longer and longer while they got the required credentials.

Over the last 30 years the forms of employment have also changed quite dramatically. What was once a predominantly private sector W-2 economy shifted to include many more workers in the public sector. Much W-2 employment was converted into 1099 “independent contractor” relationships.The underground off-the-books economy also exploded. A protracted and successful campaign was launched by increasingly powerful corporations to diminish the capacity of workers to use unions as a means of protecting their own economic interests.

In addition to using education as means to delay the entry of young people into the full-time mainstream workforce, capitalism in the US created its own kind of gulag, designed to remove millions from the workforce altogether for very long periods. That gulag is known as the prison-industrial system. In a way, this atrocity tells us all we need to know about the “unfixability” of the job system. 

In an earlier capitalist crisis, the Great Depression, we got the Works Progress Administration. It used government funds to pay artists and unemployed workers to create murals and symphonies and libraries and bridges and roads. 

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