by riseupeconomics, Wed May 23, 2007 at 01:56:20 PM EDT
"Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements." -- From the movie Office Space, 1999
I love the movie Office Space, and especially the tagline, Work Sucks. It's a sentiment that I'm sure many of us share. Whether you're an "overworked American," under-employed, under-paid, or just plain unhappy with devoting half of your waking hours to an enterprise that you have very little control over, one thing is clear: work is an institution that dominates American life like no other.
People spend more time working than with their families and friends, and there's no end in sight. Unless you're one of the lucky ones with a real pension, most of us are doomed to work until we are at least 70. Even then, what will we have to show for a lifetime of work? A couple hundred thou in a 401K and a couple hundred bucks a month from Social Security? How long is that going to last if we live another 30 years? Will we have to come out of retirement at age 90 to work the drive-thru window?
As a progressive activist-type, my instinct is to try to figure out a way to make work suck less. But how?
To find the right answer, we need to understand more about the problem. To me, the problem is that we have an economic system where we, the working people, are completely dependent on the jobs that corporations, small businesses, and government agencies provide. These jobs are our only source of income and health care coverage. We depend on these jobs for our livelihoods. We need them. But they clearly don't need us.
In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Whether it's shipping well-paying unionized manufacturing jobs to the third world, outsourcing service jobs to India, or replacing humans with technology, businesses will do whatever it takes to keep their labor costs down. It's not in their best interest to provide quality jobs, unless there's some kind of shortage of a particular kind of worker.
Yet we still have an economic system where the vast majority of people are reliant on the jobs that the vast majority of companies have a major financial incentive to eliminate. It just doesn't make any sense to have our economy set up this way!
We're still stuck in the mode of thinking--leftover from the industrial and even agricultural revolutions--that says that everyone must get up in the morning and go out and work. Work out in the fields, our up in the factory. Now it's not necessary for everyone to work all the time (in fact businesses spend lots of time and money trying to figure out how to employ the least amount of people), but we haven't figured out a way adjust to this reality.
So what can we do about it? It just seems unrealistic to think that "the people" will be able to force corporations to create lots of good jobs that suck less. It's like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It's the wrong solution.
Wouldn't a better solution be to create a system where we didn't need these jobs as much? Can't we somehow figure out a way to make work less important in our lives, something we do to bring in some cash and be productive in society, but not as the end all, be all of our lives?
To make work suck less, we need an independent source of income that we can rely on whether we have a job or not. We need an ace up our sleeves to limit our reliance on jobs.
We've lived through about 20 years of Reagan/Bush/Cheney trickle down economics (Clinton didn't do much to reverse that trend). Why not create a Rise Up Economics? Same principle as Reaganomics but in reverse. Steer the money toward the people at the bottom and middle instead of the wealthy, and demand-side economics will spur the economy, creating jobs and wealth for everyone.
We know what happened when the wealthy and corporations got this windfall: they used the money to create more wealth for themselves, buying other companies, consolidating and cutting jobs. The rich got richer; we got trickled on. But what's the worst thing that could happen if working people got more money? Even if we just spent it all on hedonistic pleasures, it would at least boost the economy.
What if everyone could rely upon a basic subsistence income in their lives, with poverty-level income as a basic human right? In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, survival is the first level; you have to master that before moving on to the self-actualization part. Maybe our next evolutionary jump is to guarantee survival, to take that part of the dog-eat-dog capitalist world out of the equation.
We could transform work into something we do to earn whatever money we need on top of the basic subsistence income level. If we also had universal health care, then we'd be able to provide at least a basic level of economic security for all, and at least in some small way change the dynamics so that we don't need our jobs quite as much anymore.
Imagine a world where you had basic economic security. How would that change your choices and opportunities? Would you be able to work less, or work on something that you prefer doing but doesn't pay as much? Could you quit your job because you knew that you'd be able to stand a month or two without one? How would that change the dynamic between employer and employee?
If we made some changes to our education system, we could change the focus from preparing for a "career" that pays the bills to a real exploration of our talents and abilities. One of the worst aspects of the current economy is that it only rewards activities that make money; if your talents and abilities can't make yourself or someone else a profit, then you can't make a living doing it. With economic security, people would have the economic independence to think outside of the box and do things that they probably can't do now, whether it's opening up a small business or writing poetry or fixing cars.
I actually think that it would be easier to build a movement for economic security than it would be to take on the corporations head on and force them to give us good jobs. The old Marxist way of "taking control of the means of production" won't work if the means of production are in a factory in Indonesia or a boardroom in Manhattan.
We are no longer a nation that produces things; we are a nation of consumers. That's where our power lies. The corporations don't need us as workers, but they do need us as consumers. Using our strength in numbers as voters, we could tax advertising in the US, bringing in billions from all the major corporations that now get away tax-free. A relatively small tax on advertising would be a way to spread the pain among all the big corporations in a way that wouldn't be an attack on them, and it would be for the greater good: a world with economic security for all, with a vibrant economy that everyone has the means to participate in.
Wealthy kids already lead a life of economic security. Their parents have set up trust funds that pay them out a monthly stipend so they will never be without. Must be nice.
Why don't we as a society set up a working people's trust fund? The advertising tax could be the basic funding mechanism, or a carbon tax or CEO tax, but it could also be supplemented by tax-deductible donations, big concerts with U2 or hip hop shows and poetry slams. To make it politically palatable in the US, workers would probably need to pay into it for a few years before getting anything out of it. But imagine it as a big project that we all worked on together, along the lines of old WWII war bonds, the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan. A Marshall Plan for economic security...
I think it's important to have a vision of how the world could be, and it's something I think is often lacking in the progressive movement. While economic security for all may be a way-off, far-flung fantasy, it's a compelling vision and something to fight for and work towards.
There could be short term goals we could fight for along the way: a big increase in the earned income tax credit to get more out of the work that we currently do and make working less more feasible; a big increase in the Pell Grant to make education more affordable; universal health care so we're not reliant on our jobs for coverage, etc.
Isn't it time to build a movement around a vision of the economy that says there's enough to go around for everyone, that we should have a choice about joining the rat race? Are we going to be satisfied when we're 75 or 80 and look back at all the hours we spent working when we could have been with loved ones, helping people, enjoying ourselves, and truly living life? Can we change work to make it less oppressive? Can we create economic freedom and security for all? Can we make work suck less?