The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why the “If You Don’t Work, You Don’t Eat” Is a Hell Ethic

Once upon a time, most of humanity lived in a condition of scarcity.

There was a lot of work to do, and unless you were disabled, you could do it.

When a farm needs work done, it needs to be done. In hunter-gatherer societies, one can usually step away from the campfire and look for food.

There is work to be done, and you can do it.

It is not fair, reasonable, or adaptive, for someone who can work, in such societies, to not work.

This has been true for virtually all of human history, but it stopped being true some time during the industrial revolution.

We gained the ability to make more stuff than we needed AND we gained the ability to do more damage than whatever we made.

Well, strictly speaking we’ve always been able to do more damage than the work was worth, but the industrial revolution increased that potential by some orders of magnitude.

Right now, probably about a third of all the work done in the world is harmful. We would be better off if it wasn’t done–most of the carbon extraction industry, most of the airline industry…practically all of what amounts to deciding who owns what, is harmful, because it involves people using carbon to go places and do things that really don’t need to be done.

Our lives include vast amounts of environmental and human pollution. This extends far beyond where it’s obvious, and it’s obvious everywhere.

For example, there appear to be no studies which don’t show a correlation between time spent on social media and lowered happiness and mood, and yet social media is one of the flagship industries of our era.

We work like dogs at jobs that either don’t need to be done, or are harmful, and thus can’t care for our children, so we hire strangers to care for our children. We fly on jets we hate, after going through airport security that is dehumanizing, dumping huge amounts of carbon into the air.

And we build items, like the old lightbulbs, which could last almost forever, with death switches so we can sell even more of them.

And yeah, we’re destroying the biosphere, choking it with plastic, and causing runaway climate change. We know we’re doing it, and we keep doing it.

So, jobs. There’s a lot of talk about a job guarantee. And that might be great, if those jobs would be ones that added to human welfare beyond giving some people some money, but under current governments and corporations, they won’t. What we need to do is give people the food, housing, and other resources they need, and giving them a job is a roundabout way to do it.

While a guaranteed income has its own issues, at least it doesn’t create jobs that probably aren’t necessary. We already have excess capacity–more food than we can eat, more manufacturing than we use. We don’t need more. We need less, and less in ways that feel like the same: items that aren’t engineered to fail, food that isn’t unhealthy for us, jobs that involve less work, and more time with our families and friends.

One of the great problems with culture is that ethics that were once mostly adaptive, like “work or don’t eat” linger on even after they become maladaptive. (Another example is “have lots of children.”)

But we’re emotionally attached to them: We take our self worth and self-image from them, and thus we cling to them even as they harm us both individually and as a civilization.

Time to stop. The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough jobs–or even that we don’t work hard enough. The problem is that we distribute resources primarily through jobs, when too many jobs add little or negative welfare to the world (for instance virtually every job in finance, sadly).

People don’t need jobs. They need the resources jobs allow them to buy.

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  1. bruce wilder

    I tried to express this idea in a comment on a discussion of striving to limit hours of work (the 40-hour week and ending norms of work life that pressure people to make themselves available to the job every waking hour.

    Most people saw it as very personal — how nice if you had the option of supporting one’s self by working only, say, 30 hours a week and so on.

    It is a problem that people see many political issues in such personal terms. Natural, of course, but destructive if people can not see that a bigger picture must be involved in deciding such conventions.

  2. Dan Lynch

    I agree with Ian’s sentiment.
    Of course, Ian’s suggestion is not necessarily compatible with capitalism, implying instead a planned economy. I agree with that sentiment, too, at least for necessities, but it ain’t gonna happen in the U.S. in my lifetime.
    Alternative solutions to distribute resources more fairly while reducing work might include a shorter work week, minimum 6 weeks paid vacation, earlier retirement age, paid maternity (or paternity) leave, and raising the minimum wage.
    Alternative solutions to achieve full employment (given that the U.S. is stuck with a market economy) might include functional finance budgeting as proposed by Henry Wallace (in his 1945 book “60 Million Jobs”).
    Like so many of today’s political controversies, this one strikes me as re-arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the climate change iceberg looms straight ahead.

  3. Hugh

    “Don’t work, don’t eat” is about social control and is a weapon of class war. The idea is to keep those of us in the lower 80% in a perpetually precarious and helpless state. In a just and decent society, all of its members would commit to making sure the basic building blocks for a good and meaningful life were provided to all. In one dominated by a few and class war the goal is to destroy the possibility for such a life by denying or placing at risk those blocks: food, shelter, jobs, family, education, healthcare, retirement, etc.

    I agree too that if we subtracted out work and production that was socially destructive we could redirect people and resources to more socially useful purposes, to leisure and private time, or simply keep physical resources unused reducing stress on the biosphere.

    Off topic and probably more relevant to the last thread, the nutcase Mike Pompeo was confirmed for Secretary of State by the Senate 57-42. McCain remains out, but once Rand Paul gave up his largely attention seeking opposition, the Republicans had the votes for confirmation: 50-49. So why did 6 Democrats and one independent vote with the Republicans anyway, who were they, and what does this say about the Democrats generally? Well, here they are:
    Donnelly (D-IN)
    Heitkamp (D-ND)
    Jones (D-AL)
    King (I-ME)
    Manchin (D-WV)
    McCaskill (D-MO)
    Nelson (D-FL)
    Essentially a bunch of Republicans with a D after their name (I in the case of King) who don’t think the Democratic message would sell in their state, that is if the Democrats had one beyond they’re not Trump, and wouldn’t support it even if it did. The Democratic plan seems to push candidates like these to gain a majority in the House and/or the Senate, but with Congress people like these, nothing changes, –a feature not a bug,– so why should any of us care?

  4. highrpm

    good points on being more judicious about the expending of precious energy to what to produce or get done. and suddenly, in the middle of the discussion, “One of the great problems with culture is that ethics that were once mostly adaptive, like “work or don’t eat” linger on even after they become maladaptive. ” how is “don’t shit and die”, or “don’t drink water for 3 days and die of dehydration” adaptive? where is the dialective of consideration of choices? in this maladaptive case, “who pays?” and “why should they?” who says work should be voluntary. certainly not the laws of nature. i propose lots of things are truly maladaptive, such as stealing to put food on the table, resorting to killing to resolve conflict, build a bigger bomb to deter the choice of doing war and, if the choice is made, to end the war sooner. or in the case of the present subject of voluntary work, expending precious energy mentoring low lifes in how to imagine and do rather them letting them go unattended to walk the streets with pants down and face in cell phone to make it through the day.

  5. John

    Don’t worry, the Law of Cause and Effect, Mother Nature, Karma,
    will take care of all this if we don’t manage to. The pampered TFB’s (trust fund babies, in a sense all of us) who run our societies are blowing the inheritance this planet has given us. What is it? a third of all lottery winners go bankrupt. We are literally just burning our way thru the fortune. The yeast in the wine bottle are partying on all the sugar…the vinegar stage is gonna be hard. A jawb guarantee is just more judeo-christian punishment logic. Provide the survival basics and guarantee an arts and crafts education to fill the time.

  6. You forgot to mention the automobile, which is the number one product of corporate capitalism. It’s been over 130 years since the modern automobile was invented and cars literally litter the planet. Every car that has ever been built has put about 44 tons of co2 into the atmosphere. And, no there is no such thing as a green car. But it is the great taboo to speak truth about our addiction to the automobile.

  7. Brad Prothero

    Is work simply a means to an end or can work be an ends in itself? While I am not saying that working for the money is not a real thing and a necessary thing for most people, work does have benefits in and of itself. It can give us a sense of purpose, a way of relying on others and having others rely on us, mental health benefits of interacting with others, the discipline of doing things that we do not like to do (for various reasons), and many others. Also, your definition of work appears to be strictly work for money. And while that is how many take it, the context of the Bible reference (2 Thess 3:10) has to do with living in a community where everything is shared. Paul was giving the example that people should not be a burden on others when they have the ability to do things themselves. Then next verse says “We here that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies.” Another way to phrase this idea is “earn your keep”. That does not mean that you need to get paid but that you are doing things as a service to others. Many times, housework is not paid but it is a great service to the family and can provide many of they benefits mentioned above. In addition, volunteer work also can serve people with a purpose in life. Granted, there needs to be some flow of money into the families but work is not limited to just paid work. While I understand your point and agree that some jobs are better off not done, bemoaning the phrase seems misplaced. People need purpose in life. A job can give purpose and it can, and most of the time does, provide the resources to ensure that people can accomplish their purpose in life. That is our biggest need.

  8. JohnB

    Have you considered Ian, that the Job Guarantee allows the government to deliberately squeeze the private sector – to deliberately end those unproductive jobs – and to replace those jobs with productive jobs, under the Job Guarantee?

    For example, jobs aimed at overhauling the entire globes energy infrastructure, to reduce and perhaps even reverse, carbon emissions?

    That sounds like useful work to me – and it requires an effort which is a few orders of magnitude greater than the Manhattan Project.

    It’s the best example out there, of useful work that urgently needs to be done, and which requires all available hands.

  9. When they talk about “jobs” and “working” they mean the ones for which one gets a paycheck.

    No-one ever mentions hobbies or artistic endeavors, in which one works primarily for their own selves and to attain a feeling and satisfaction of true accomplishment—something creative done or performed for the sake of bringing something worthwhile and enjoyable into existence.

    “Working” is all based on how much money one earns, hence how much one will be able to “contribute to the economy and wealth of” their society.
    The concern is not with any ethics or personal responsibility. It’s with how “useful” one is to their culture.

  10. …practically all of what amounts to deciding who owns what…

    Register of Deeds is a bullshit job?

  11. Bears repeating: we have to stop doing what we’re doing.

    It isn’t working.

  12. You make some excellent points (as you so often do). I hadn’t thought about the relation between excess production and minimum income.

    But unemployment doesn’t just cause loss of income. It raises one’s risk of depression, anxiety, divorce, loss of friendship, and overall health problems. We could change our culture so that people don’t feel like they need a job to have worth, but that would take a lot more doing than just instituting a job guarantee. Besides, there is a lot of work to be done that private enterprise just isn’t going to do, such as repairing roads and bridges or updating our electrical grid. So, I believe a job guarantee is the way to go.

  13. Ian Welsh

    Sigh: register of deeds is obviously not a bullshit job. Almost everything that happens on Wall Street is. Almost every job doing over-complicated income tax forms (corporate or personal), is. Almost every (fill in the blanks).

    I wonder with things like this if people are trolling or honestly didn’t get it.

  14. Ian Welsh

    Of course, if the government was to replace BS jobs with jobs that actually need to be done, that would be great.

    I’m not sure why people think that most governments in existence today would do that, however…

  15. Geof

    unemployment doesn’t just cause loss of income. It raises one’s risk of depression, anxiety, divorce, loss of friendship, and overall health problems. We could change our culture so that people don’t feel like they need a job to have worth, but that would take a lot more doing than just instituting a job guarantee.

    It seems to me that the key problem is that in our culture, having a job is just about the only form of collaboration. There are very few other contexts in which we engage productively and socially with others.

    Work is a very particular kind of collaboration: either you are following someone else’s orders as an employee, or you are competing in the market as an entrepreneur. It is revealing how we talk about this. We talk about gaining self-worth or taking up a hobby: both very inward-turning, focused on the individual.

    Other cultures have had rich an productive social interaction, often not clearly delineated from work but without the competition or hierarchy of modern employment: barn-raisings, communal feasts, beating the bounds.

    Depression, anxiety, loss of friendship: these are classic symptoms of loneliness. The problem is not individual self-worth (and it can’t be solved by self-improvement): it is a lack of social connection and community. One by one, we have substituted market goods and exchanges for human interactions: we have dissolved our communities until there is nothing left but the nuclear family and the workplace. Take one away and of course people are lost and hurt: not because they aren’t working, but because they are alone.

    You are right that fixing this would take a whole lot more doing: but it seems to me that this is the most important thing of all. Otherwise we must cling to the impoverished world of work and consumption that capitalism offers because it is better than nothing at all.

  16. nihil obstet

    The industrial revolution not only gave the opportunity to banish scarcity, it also changed the way we think of work. In Genesis, western civilization was taught that work was a curse imposed on Adam and his descendants as a result of original sin. Work was necessary and thus workers served God, but it was only instrumental to the result. In the industrial revolution, work was recast as morally uplifting. By enclosing the commons, the rich were forcing the tenants to become hard-working and industrious, to their great improvement. This double feature of stove-piping money upwards and insuring social control downwards remains a deeply held moral belief for many. Just watch the job guarantee crowd go ballistic if you suggest that it should not incorporate meritocracy — all jobs should pay the same, and there should be no workplace hierarchy.

    As the post suggests, we have a lot of work to do before either the job guarantee or the ubi can deliver much improvement. We have to control the cost of essentials so that providers can’t just scoop off increased income. We have to eliminate the ways in which scoring a high place in the hierarchy is assigned worth, and otherwise you’re a loser. We have to create a widely shared vision of society in which people have the needs that are currently provided by jobs available elsewhere — jobs have taken on those functions because the jobs displaced alternative venues. Small farmers didn’t need to have their hours regulated, their work overseen, their social needs met by fellow workers!

    Meanwhile, we need to improve the current situation because the big bang will be a failure if we just wait for it. All workers should have the rights that French workers have had (and that Macron is trying to do away with). We should implement a sovereign wealth payment to all citizens now. It obviously won’t be enough to live on, but it creates the mental and moral space for a vision of shared prosperity that will eventually eliminate the need for everyone to have a paying job under the supervision of an elite or its flunkeys. And there are lots of other steps that can move us in the direction we should go.

  17. Dan

    You’re right, but you’re speaking very narrowly of “work” as “employment” in a “job” where alienated labour trades existence-time for money, and “paid work” is the predominant, most valued kind.

    People need work as “things to do with/for others” because dignity and meaning are tied to it. This seems to hold for every human society, no matter how small or simple. We need things to do that are intellectually engaging and socially valued whether they are “necessary” or “useful.”

  18. JohnB

    With regards to governments replacing BS jobs with jobs that actually need doing: The ideological impediment to that, is the same ideological impediment to the Job Guarantee itself. In other words: It’s all about the ideological opposition to government ‘intervention’ in the economy, wholesale.

    If you overcome that impediment by creating enough political pressure to enact the Job Guarantee, automatically that will create the political conditions necessary for putting people to work on useful/necessary infrastructure projects – for one.

    That’s how I view it, anyway – I’m open to arguments which try to counter this, by putting forward the view that a Job Guarantee entering the political mainstream, doesn’t mean large scale (ala New Deal) infrastructural projects will enter the mainstream again – it would be useful to hear the details of that line of argument, if that’s where you’re going.

  19. Hugh

    Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition distinguished between work and labor. She considered labor to be the tedious 9 to 5 earn money to live stuff and noted many languages had words like “labor” which also connoted pain. Work she to took to be meaningful, productive, creative. Nowadays most jobs are labor, and no effort is made to rethink them into work. For me, there is a coercive element to labor while work is a choice.

  20. marku52

    Plenty of work that needs to be done. Almost the entire west was on fire last summer. Thinning the forests might be a fine idea. Building and policing housing for the homeless would be another. The homeless are a massive problem out in the west. The current “solution” is to move them down the road to be “SEP”, somebody else’s problem. A massive home insulation project would be another fine idea.

    Lots of stuff that needs to be done. Capitalism is keeping it from getting done.

  21. NJRubble

    1. I agree with your distinction: A guaranteed job is not the same thing as a guaranteed income. The first entails either a vast public sector or a command economy. The second is, theoretically at least essentially a redistribution issue. Presumably it will start to enter the mainstream of what passes for political thought in another decade or so, after most of the cashiers in the US are unemployed. Doubtlessly it will be attacked in the US, so what will probably happen is the current unemployment compensation scheme will metastasize into a quasi-permanent payment system, whereby, for example, your student loan payments are deducted by the government.

    2. It’s not really quite right to say “we produce more … than we need”. Could the world produce enough food to feed everyone–that is, grow it and supply it, either for free or at a low cost to the world’s poor? Perhaps. Could it do that in an environmentally sane fashion, such as not ransacking the planet for nitrogen and then dumping it into waterways? Probably not.

    3. I pretty much agree with you about financial services, and especially as to the financialization of the US economy. Finance has an important role to play as to efficiency and allocation questions, within certain constraints. But to the extent that the financial sector, which, with the connivance of the other elite sectors, has realized that the easiest way of making money is reducing most of the population to a kind of debt peonage, (yes it is a long sentence) it has become an engine of reverse progress and there is nothing positive about it unless you happen to own a chunk of it.

    4. Environmental concerns are kind of a wildcard here, I think. Could there be a full employment project like building a dike along the entire Eastern Seaboard of the US? Will disaster relief expand at the cost of defense spending? Will the airline business come to a stop? The only one I feel at all confident about is the last one. Not because people will stop taking vacations, but because in the not too distant future, the true costs of jet travel (environmentally speaking, a catastrophically bad idea) will be tacked onto the airfare (easy to impose, easy to pass along, and more than justifiable), and that will be the end of that.

  22. NJRubble

    Oh, I forgot about a full employment scheme: The US can establish a social media agency and hire people (perhaps even with khaki pants, like an even lower-low rent TSA) to work as moderators for the companies like Facebook and Google that don’t really want to pay people to do that. We tax and pay ourselves, while improving corporate profit rates. Win-win!

  23. Webstir

    I think a nod to Kunstler is appropriate here, Ian.
    This is right on point:
    Not that most readers aren’t probably already acquainted, but just in case, JHK has been hammering this theme for at least the last two decades.

    “We work like dogs at jobs that either don’t need to be done, or are harmful … .” Basically the theme of “The Geography of Nowhere.”

    It’s interesting when applied to humanity versus the individual, but old timers in AA have a saying — Your best thinking got you here, and you won’t think your way out of being a drunk. You have to act your way out of it one day at a time.

    JHK approaches this through “design.” We must literally tear down and rebuild the infrastructure of our world to have any chance of survival. I don’t think he’d disagree with my thumbnail of his extensive work.

  24. Webstir

    Ian: “practically all of what amounts to deciding who owns what”

    Galbraith had one word for this — the bezzle.

    “To the economist embezzlement is the most interesting of crimes. Alone among the various forms of larceny it has a time parameter. Weeks, months or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery. (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net increase in psychic wealth.) At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in – or more precisely not in – the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more. Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression all this is reversed. Money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye. The man who handles it is assumed to be dishonest until he proves himself otherwise. Audits are penetrating and meticulous. Commercial morality is enormously improved. The bezzle shrinks.”

    Although, he grossly understated the scope of the problem. Obviously, the banks are the largest practitioners. My wife had to pay a $20.00 fee to close an account the other day. The $20.00 profit was built in all along without her knowledge.
    Good work if you can get it I guess.

  25. Tom W Harris

    Naked Capitalism has what I thisk is a convincing post on why the job guarantee is the way to go, and why the universal guaranteed income would be a disaster.


  26. Peter

    Following Obama’s austerity cuts to federal employment and Trump’s plans to further reduce the size of government the idea of the government creatiing new jobs is DOA. The government can help by improving conditions to promote job creation in the private sector but the idea of it as an employment service is dead old statist dreaming.

    I’m sure there would be strong resistance to what elite thinkers decide is harmful work and should be eliminated. Taking out the pillars of civilization and replacing them with social workers to ease the transition to poverty and darkness is not much to look forward to.

  27. BlizzardOfOzzz

    Ian, it’s interesting that you would do a post about this. There are lots of lefties who will cherry pick scripture to claim that Christians are hypocrites in not supporting socialism — classic example here — but not so many who are informed and honest enough to follow it up with contrary quotes like this one from Paul.

    In fact socialism is a Christian heresy and parasitical of the Christian tradition. It feeds off partial and distorted versions of truths that are deeply embedded in the consciousness of Western man. “If you won’t work then you won’t eat” – what could be more contrary to socialism, which holds that everyone is entitled to eat regardless, because that’s just humane. Of course, the part that our empathetic humanitarians leave out is that, if those who don’t work are entitled to eat, then they must be fed by those that do work, and that there must be a class of managers to enforce it.

    Humanitarianism is the smiling face of managerialism. It takes power from the common man for what it claims is the greater good — but the managerial class defines the greater good according to its own whims. I highly recommend The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment (not the OP subject specifically but related) by CS Lewis, who must be along with Chesterton the most penetrating of writers on this general topic.

  28. Ian Welsh

    There hasn’t been anything approaching a state society without managers in millenia. If you’re going to have them anyway, and you are, they may as well do good.

    But I consider the social gospel and liberation theology much more in accord with what we know of Jesus’s own words than theology which suggests faith is more important than works.

  29. nihil obstet

    Tom W. Harris,
    The Naked Capitalism post is convincing if you’re already convinced. It posits a perfect, job guarantee in a utopian society against a basic income in a society of helpless and hopeless people. Yves Smith is utterly opposed to the UBI and partial to posts that argue against it. Most JG advocates believe that people are lazy and that their character and happiness are destroyed by the idleness that they would naturally succumb to if not required to report to a job. The argument between the two approaches is about control — JG advocates believe that people must be controlled, while UBI advocates are more confident in human freedom.

  30. Webstir

    Interesting you bring it up. Michael Hudson just wrote a book on the subject titled “Forgive Them Their Debts: Credit and Redemption.” He talks all about it here:

    Can’t wait to read it.

  31. Tom W Harris

    nihil obstet,

    I don’t think

    Most JG advocates believe that people are lazy and that their character and happiness are destroyed by the idleness that they would naturally succumb to if not required to report to a job

    I do think too many everyday Americans do believe (or could easily be persuaded to believe) that, and thus the UBI concept could easily be demagogued to death.

    The JG would be much easier to defend, and would be a yuge step forward. Sometimes the perfect really is the enemy of the good.

  32. nihil obstet

    Tom W. Harris,

    I do think too many everyday Americans do believe (or could easily be persuaded to believe) that, and thus the UBI concept could easily be demagogued to death.

    The JG would be much easier to defend, and would be a yuge step forward.

    Like Social Security is demagogued to death, and government worker pensions are much easier to defend? People keep assuring me that means- or situation-tested solutions are easier to enact, run, and defend than universal programs, but damned if I’ve been able to see it.

  33. BlizzardOfOzzz

    Some lefties seem to live in a time warp where it’s always 1968. How do you see liberation theology as anything but a farce? We just had Jewish rabbis and black pastors occupying Starbucks for the grievous injustice of a black person being asked to buy something or leave — a stranger-than-fiction Tom Wolfe novel.

    I hear “kindness at scale” as a contradiction in terms. We can only be kind to those we have a personal relationship with. How do you help someone in need? Each case is different, so even the best King can’t enlighten his subjects in bulk.

    It probably comes down to this-world versus next-world orientation. Christians throughout history have always embraced suffering as a trial of faith, because our mortal life is supposed to be preparation for the next. But the modern trend has been to deny anything spiritual, so everything has to be re-interpreted in material terms.

  34. BlizzardOfOzzz

    @Webstir, that’s a nice comic self-parody. What is it with these leftist academics and their need to re-interpret the Western canon as occult positions on fiscal policy? It’s like the cottage industry of uncovering how each poem Shakespeare wrote was actually about buttsex. All of history had to have been driven by my one obsession, I just know it, let me prove it.

  35. realitychecker

    I think I once heard someone say, “There is no free lunch.”

    To which I will just add, “Why should there be?”

    IOW, what other creatures are so special that they can get their needs met by doing nothing?

    Think about it.

  36. Steve Ruis

    Re “It is not fair, reasonable, or adaptive, for someone who can work, in such societies, to not work. This has been true for virtually all of human history, but it stopped being true some time during the industrial revolution.” You missed the mark by about 5000 years.

    When agriculture was “invented,” it took a while but the elites figured out a way to create surpluses that could be stored, basically in grains that could be dried. People did not want to farm, so they were coerced, and this resulted in the loss of their hunting and gathering skills (as farming took so much time and labor). They became crop depended and their available foods became very, very narrow.

    So, “you don’t work, you don’t eat” went from an obvious consequence of nature to a threat used to coerce additional labor out of us.

    It wasn’t the industrial revolution or the division of labor per se, but the elites skimming of a surplus of storable food (grain) we could grow to give them power.

  37. Willy

    Is Ian looking ahead to the time when most people cannot work, but must still eat (full automation)? What is the Christian response to that?

  38. Ian Welsh


    I’m familiar with the storage issue. You were still expected to work, it’s just that, as with hunter/gatherers in decent climes, the work didn’t amount to a whole ton of work.


    I’m always amused by those who consider themselves left wing who are against basic left wing principles. The simple inability to understand that it’s better to do nothing than to do harm, and that a lot of the work we do today does more harm than good is amazing. The inability to see beyond prior ethics to the requirements of the post-industrial revolution and the anthropocene is also amusing: “let’s work ourselves to death like morons because we should work like animals do.”

    Ok, and this is why humanity is wiping out other species like a meteor hit, and may wipe itself out. Stop thinking like dumb animals.

    This certainly applies to anyone who thinks “kindness at scale” is a bad idea. Might be something: you aren’t left wing.

    The current science indicates that altruism to complete non-related strangers is real and has a biological and selective purpose, by the way. The kin selection model is on the way out: it has little to no predictive utility.

    You figure out how to be kind at scale, or like the genocidal idiots humanity is proving itself to be, you will kill half the human population and wipe out vast amounts of biodiversity humanity relies on.

    And people argue that altruism isn’t practical.

    It’s selfishiness that is like to wipe us out.

  39. scruff

    How about we do away with “jobs” and just let people have as much opportunity as possible to do the work their communities need done? “Jobs” are the ashes of opportunity; they only appear when human activity has been artificially constrained for the purpose of extracting profit from the labor of others. A job guarantee might be helpful in the short term, but the underlying structural relations surrounding “jobs” means that they inevitably incentivize exploitative control of other people, and all the resulting problems that come about from that.

  40. Hugh

    I agree with Ian’s last comment. I too do not understand the compulsion to jump through hoops just for the sake of jumping through hoops and that such a nonsensical and often destructive exercise somehow confers “worthiness”. Most people will look at a trap and think you would have to be blind not to see it and a fool not to avoid it. But the most effective traps that ensnare us aren’t physical. They’re in our minds, our ways of thinking. We don’t see them and so keep falling into them. To escape them, we need to change the way we think about things. So about free lunches, to be a member of society is to undertake commitments and obligations to each other. This is not a free lunch. It is our most fundamental duty. But we are conditioned not to talk about this, or to see it as oppression and a threat to our private lives and freedoms, instead of making them possible. As a result, we fall for every grifter and con artist that comes along. We get so turned around that we end up treating those who fight for us as enemies and fools and what they stand for as poison.

    So we need, indeed have an absolute obligation, to waste our lives working ourselves to death doing worthless or destructive things because, well, that’s what we have been indoctrinated to do. And if we don’t continue to do so, EVERYTHING will fall apart. No, what we should be doing is considering what kind of society we want, achieving it, and leaving the old, outmoded, and manipulative verbiage and ways of thinking that ensnare us at the door.

  41. realitychecker

    Some here seem eager to cast my “no free lunch” comment within the inherently dishonest ‘false choice’ framework of absolutes. It’s not a choice between “free everything” OR “working yourself to death for unworthy reasons.” Pretending that only absolutes are on the menu is a rhetorical flim-flam, and I’m so so so tired of how often and easily political discussions descend to that level of dishonesty/intellectual laziness.

    Just to show how unproductive and inaccurate such framings are, let me share that my entire adult experience has been influenced by the knowledge, acquired early in life, that as we evolved, we were able to meet our basic needs by working only about 4 hours per day, and the rest of the time we were free to just sleep, play, and have sex. I have always had a strong sense that as we moved away from that early model, and accepted various less-satisfactory ‘plastic’ substitutes for the pleasures of the original lifestyle, we were moving in the wrong direction for optimal individual and societal health. And I have lived my life in accordance with that understanding, disdaining materialism and never seeking to own more than enough. Surprise! Now, doesn’t it seem misguided to try and paint me as wanting everyone to work themselves to death doing destructive stuff?

    No, I am always going to be somewhere in the middle wrt the absolutes. I find the extreme position to almost always be a flawed one in real life.

    It is extreme, IMO, to think one should have all needs provided without a corresponding, enforceable set or responsibilities and obligations to the society that provides those needs. Very pie-in-the-sky, IMO. Very much wish-fulfillment fantasy.

    It is equally misguided, IMO, to deny that creative energies and achievements are best stimulated by a reward system that realistically balances risk/reward ratios. The left has a chronic problem of devaluing the contributions of inventors and entrepreneurs, believing that all we have could just as well have been created by janitors.

    We have to stop loving rhetoric more than we love reason.

  42. Willy

    The left has a chronic problem of devaluing the contributions of inventors and entrepreneurs, believing that all we have could just as well have been created by janitors.

    Wrong! The current left believes we can have our inventors and eat them too! This is because it’s happened before, back in the more economically-stable American-dream progressive-taxation reasonable-regulation times from FDR to Nixon, or so. We just don’t want these “entrepreneur-inventors” to be funding all this automation which could force our children to try and scrounge up free lunches via dumpsters… or violence.

  43. Hugh

    So since we have lived like rats in a trap for much of our recorded history, we should continue to do so just because having been indoctrinated with one set of oppressive habits, we can not learn or choose any others. Good to know.

  44. Richard B McGee

    JG and UBI are two different animals, designed to achieve different objectives. JG is a macroeconomic program designed to permanently eliminate the buffer stock of unemployed, and stabilize the unemployment rate at effectively zero. UBI, by contrast, is designed to break the chain of involuntary work to subsistence.

    I can’t evaluate if a properly-designed JG would actually achieve this objective, but I certainly have no objection to trying it.

    A working post-scarcity economic system will have to be implemented in discrete steps. Reduce the working week in slow stages. Lower the retirement age a bit at a time. Allow the system to gradually absorb these changes. Of course, from the start provide robust housing and healthcare. Establish a precursor to a true UBI (in the form of a negative income tax) designed to target the bottom quintile (it’s upper limit can gradually be extended over time).

  45. hvd

    Isn’t it remarkable that in the modern world the highest pay goes to the work that usually brings the most pleasure and/or which goes to those who have had the opportunity to choose the work. Invariably this work involves the least real danger/risk to the person doing it while also bringing the greatest ancillary (non-money) rewards (status, ease, psychic pleasure etc.). The lowest paid are almost invariably the most dangerous, the most boring, the dirtiest, and finally the most necessary. All the while fetishising financial and emotional risk as if somehow they are more serious than the physical risks attending low paid work.

    In my experience it seems likely that inventors and entrepreneurs would do that work simply for the emotional pleasures derivable therefrom regardless of money remuneration, while they wouldn’t be willing to be janitors unless their very lives depended on it.

  46. Hugh

    I have always hated that phrase “buffer stock of unemployed”. It treats people as a commodity and for me illustrates the essential neoliberal agenda of those behind current formulations of a jobs guarantee. You see a buffer stock implies somewhere to park excess labor until needed by the private sector. This means jobs that neither pay too well nor are especially fulfilling. You know the kind people would not want to keep. If you want a jobs guarantee, have it for people. Don’t have it to give employers “buffer stock”.

  47. realitychecker

    Funny how none of the above comments paid any regard at all to the value enhancement to the business of the high performers, as they work to denigrate their worth.

    It’s an old attitudinal problem with the left, way pre-dating automation.

    But since Willy mentions automation (as though to imply that I support it, though I actually think it will be a catastrophe for regular folks, like us), how can anyone who sees the automation wave coming totally disregard the greater likelihood that the hordes of new ‘useless eaters’ will be sacrificed in some large-scale way, as being unnecessary inefficiencies, than that the Masters will be agonizing over how many of our free lunch demands should be granted?

    Bookies are waiting to take your bets, I’m sure.

  48. Willy

    rc, honestly, I’m not seeing this desired for paid underachievement / lack of respect for high achievers from the left. The inverse used to be true for conservatives, but outside of a few small business owners I know, not so much anymore. Most conservatives I know are tricksters, rationalizers, mindf-ers and insider tribalists who put their faith in an invisible god who never physically shows up. M0st lefties I see online want competency from their government, not dogma. For every Cenk Uygur I see at least one Alex Jones, a Ted Nugent, and an Ann Coulter. Who are these high performer denigrating lefties?

  49. Richard B McGee

    @Hugh, we already have the buffer stock of unemployed – AKA the “reserve army of the unemployed.” It is a fully integrated part of the economic cycle, and won’t go away on its own without an alternate system in place. Simply creating more public jobs (although great in itself) doesn’t address this problem. Please don’t group the post-Keynesian progressive economists like Wray and Tchernova with the neoliberals – they are most definitely not.

  50. realitychecker

    If you guys can’t even imagine ‘high performers’ working their asses off in small private businesses, and can only think instead of high profile cheaters and economic pirates when you see that term, then I submit that a prolonged self-examination might be in order.

    There is obviously a disconnect somewhere in your thinking about those who create the things you concentrate on giving away for free to those who produce nothing.

    Has alchemy made a comeback? Should I invest in lead?

  51. Ian Welsh

    The people you think should do well aren’t the people who do best, they aren’t even close.

    And, the best economy of the last 100 years paid them well, had less people working as a percentage of the population, had more generous welfare and taxed high earners far more.

    These are facts, and your world view is incapable of dealing with them, or with the fact that much work does more harm than good. In a world where the percentage of people involved in manufacturing, transport, agriculture, R&D and product design is small, most jobs are BULLSHIT.

    You are stuck in an ideology built for a different world, claim to be left wing, and push the exact ideology which has impoverished the people you claim to care about and which, by causing production and consumption which is un-needed and generally actually bad for people, is destroying the climate and ecosystem, destroying life everywhere, and may wipe out humanity.

    These are the actual results of “everyone should produce something, even if it’s bad.”

    Mass genocide, and soon what will amount to mass human genocide.

  52. realitychecker

    My only point was that legitimate high performers deserve more credit for their efforts than the left typically gives them. I’m never supporting the corrupt actors or the bad results of corporate activities, which seems to be all you guys can think of when you see the term “high performers.” But I’m being falsely characterized as though I do. (It’s ironic that I also get attacked for wanting to punish the bad actors severely, despite the obvious truth that punishment is the only thing that works to deter bad behavior.)

    Is that so threatening that it justifies deleting all my comments? I’m very disappointed to see the censor’s pen becoming so dominant here.

  53. realitychecker

    BTW, I never did and never would say “everyone should produce something, even if it’s bad.”

    I only argue for the basic premise that everyone should try to produce something that constitutes a societal benefit of some sort, sufficient to more or less replace the value of their sustenance that the society provides under any of the ‘free lunch’ scenarios. I stand firmly for that principle, and wonder why anybody would not.

  54. Hvd

    But if, as Ian hypothesizes, we already are capable of producing more than we need isn’t at least some part of what would be produced “to more or less replace the value of their sustenance” invariably going to end up as excess or put another way pollution.

    You seem to think that we won’t “perform” without a stick where I’m inclined to believe it is in our nature to enjoy doing, making things which we will do just for the joy of it. A reward punishment system seems to me to be just a superfluous superimposition designed to limit and control what we are naturally capable of.

  55. Willy

    rc, sometimes it is hard to separate out the deserving societal contributors from those gaming the system. It can be far more insidious than what’s visible on the surface. Maybe you could be the guy who realitychecks that?

  56. realitychecker

    @ hvd

    It would be great if we all had self-actualization at the top of our priority list, but laws and rules are made to control the bad people, of which there are always plenty.

    The left continuously conflates the vision of the world they would like to live in, with the one we are actually stuck living in.

    That’s a problem, IMO.

  57. realitychecker

    Also, it’s funny how you can’t conceive of any fair way for people to contribute back to society in a helpful way.

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