The Complexities of Work and Pay

The whole subject of work and pay is more complex than we usually suppose. For one thing, technological progress has greatly increased economic growth in recent decades, making a shorter work week possible, as predicted by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. Unfortunately, almost all of the benefit of technological progress accrues to capitalists, contributing more to unemploy-ment than to a shorter work week.

Most people don’t give a damn about billionaires. But they do care—a lot—about fairness, and they see that the inequality on the rise is inherently unfair. And for the poor it hurts, because they are being punished for being poor.

Poverty is a shortage of money, not a fault of character, as Barbara Ehrenreich and many others remind us. If you work, you should be able to survive at a decent level. But this is not always true, and in fact is increasingly untrue.

Poverty is a shortage of money,
not a fault of character.
Low pay is created not by the people who earn it,
but by conservative capitalists.

Living Wage is the most important domestic need in the US right now. Nobody can survive on minimum wage. Many other problems would be solved with Living Wage. Not nearly enough attention is being paid to this, and the concept of being able to live on your earnings seems to be especially challenging to capitalist Republican minds. Republicans have decided low pay is a character flaw, one that especially infects African-Americans. This is an odd belief, because low pay is created not by the people who earn it, but by conservative capitalists who have never had to deal with the condition.

It’s also worth recalling that every member of Congress is wealthy, and half or more are millionaires. This means that every member of Congress is far removed from those who struggle daily to survive, and have little understanding of how difficult it is.

We have reached a point where
a shorter work week is feasible,
but challenging.

Much of the technological change we have made is akin to monopoly. Capitalists should be rewarded when they contribute to progress—but not in perpetuity. Carlos Slim is the Mexican multi-billionaire who regularly vies with Bill Gates to be the richest man in the world. His wealth continues to flow in because he long ago managed to gain monopoly rights for communications for all of Mexico.

In the US the 40-hour work week is still the standard, but many people work less, for various reasons. For some, their shorter hours are involuntary, forced on them by corporations that seek to pay the lowest possible wage, with the least benefits possible, so they can maximize capitalist profit. 

Our failure to form a national health plan
is a continuing economic disaster,
wasting perhaps 10% of our GDP.

There are also people who choose to work fewer than 40 hours. This is quite possible, for example, with worker-owned companies, which usually require a certain number of hours, but not 40. In addition, there are people who work, but are not paid. This is sometimes bad, sometimes good, sometimes voluntary, sometimes involuntary.

We should repeatedly stress the fact that equality is correlated with just about any favorable measure of individual and national life you can think of. Good health, low crime, school achievement—dozens of things. The authors Wilkinson and Pickett studied just about everything they could, and reported their findings in The Spirit Level. The correlation of equality with good stuff is so pervasive that the onus is on anyone who disagrees to prove them wrong.

Another point I would like to make is that good federal social programs would help to make a shorter standard work week possible. Since a work week of fewer than 40 hours is rapidly becoming the norm anyway, we should make the most of these programs. Here again, capitalist Republicans want to go in retrograde, holding wages low and cutting or eliminating essential public services like Social Security, and killing off health care entirely. This, of course, would cause rapid additional inequality and poverty. For some reason they think massive misery would make a better America.

Placing personal security
at the mercy of market forces and the rich
is a guarantee of a nation in poverty.

Health care is the single greatest “optional” expense for most people. Private insurance, which would take half of the income of many people, is simply impossible. For several million Americans, the stopgap Affordable Care Act has made it possible to have health care insurance for the first time in their lives. This has literally saved thousands of lives that would have been lost for lack of medical treatment. While subsidies are a national expense, the added benefit of having restored someone to the ranks of healthy workers undoubtedly results in an economic credit over time. The opposite is true if Obamacare were to be rescinded.

Although Obamacare has already been a huge benefit for the country, there are still many millions without medical care. Obviously, a national health care plan would cure that, save hundreds of thousands of lives, and save hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions, both because national plans cost half what we pay, and because having healthy citizens is a huge economic benefit for the country. Our continued failure to form a plan wastes perhaps 10% of our gross domestic product.

National programs are inherently
more cost-effective because of economies of scale
and much lower management costs.

While national health care is the biggest national need, Social Security and other programs are in need of updating to current conditions as well. Each would create individual and national benefit, and their totality would bring us considerably closer to a modern work week.

The capitalist conservative position has always been “every man for himself”. This is hypocritical, because capitalist conservatives pay whole regiments of expensive lawyers devoted to creating favors for themselves. A handful of pro bono activists help the rest of us. Placing Americans at the mercy of market forces and the rich guarantees a nation of poverty.

National programs are inherently more cost-effective because of economies of scale and because of much lower management costs. It’s the only way people can survive on modest wages. National health care in particular would eliminate some 25% of health care cost that is presently wasted on insurance paperwork.

Paying attention to work and pay conditions, and particularly to health care, could make the nation stronger, wipe out most poverty, and usher in a new more benevolent era for most of us. But it’s a complex situation that needs careful study, and, above all, facts. Facts are pretty scarce on the ground these days.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.

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