Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Jobs’

Exploit the Protestants

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

In my last post I talked about the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), and asked what would happen to this concept if technology rendered 95% of us unemployable. The reason I use such a drastic number is 1) I’m not alone in believing this is a real possibility in the coming decades, and 2) I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the question if that number were more like 35% – the unemployed third of humanity would be demonized by the two-thirds able to somehow hang on to a job. Low moral character, unwillingness to work, looking for handouts – these would all be named as ’causes’ for unemployment, even with clear economic evidence to the contrary.

Why do we feel that work somehow equals virtue? I’m only just re-acquainting myself with Max Weber’s collection of essays, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic idea of the PWE. It is an idea as old as the Reformation itself, and it permeates American thinking about work to this day.

“Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace….the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.” (Wikipedia)

Weber says this is why Europe and America have the dominant economic position in the world today – the superior belief system caused them to work harder. Therefore, they worked for it and they deserve it. That’s an oversimplification for sure, but one probably a majority of Americans and everyone who voted for Donald Trump would ascribe to.  A recent example here.

It’s no surprise that these ideas spring from the 1500s, at a time when great economic changes were occurring, stressing the medieval hierarchies of lords, priests, and peasants. A Catholic peasant farmer had only to give his earthly lord and heavenly one what was due – fruits of his labor in exchange for subsistence and tenancy to the former, performance of sacraments in exchange for eternal life to the latter. The Protestant believer had to be ever-working and vigilant to prove himself part of the elect.

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Notice how neatly this idea fits the demands of the workforce required by the Industrial Revolution. While farm work was done in seasons, with downtime in the heat of the day and during the long winters, cottage labor could be done year-round and by candlelight, and factories need never close. Is it accidental that a new religion would promote frugality and hard work as it’s own reward, at the exact same time factory owners needed laborers to work round-the-clock? Could it be – and I’m just postulating here – that the PWE was a way of maintaining the advantageous relationship (exploitation?) the aristocracy and clergy had enjoyed for centuries?

Now I know some of you are saying these beliefs are not constructs invented to keep the lower classes where they are, but instead are Biblical truths. My question to you would be – why wasn’t this the predominant Christian view for the first 1500 years? Isn’t it strange to you that a doctrine promoting the workaholic as ideal Christian comes around at precisely the time that the owners of the economy needed workaholics?

In America, the prevailing view is that hard work is its own reward. We tend to view our work as a contribution to the company we work for, and to society as a whole. Since we spend so much of our time focused on work, either doing it, preparing for it, or thinking about it – and because by nature we resist the idea that our lives are spent in exercises of futility – we see ourselves as key to our employer’s success. How could they ever make it without me? Look how much income I generate compared to what I’m paid! As Thoreau says in Walden, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do….”

We unquestionably believe that working for a living is virtuous. We don’t like to think luck has played any role in what success we have – we are ‘blessed’ to have what we have – a word that has, much to my annoyance, replaced ‘lucky’ only in my lifetime.

But corporations and capitalists seldom look at labor the same way. Employees are expenses. They require ever increasing pay to keep up with inflation. They want paid vacations and perks. They get sick and old, and over time become less efficient. They require expensive insurance and need sick leave. Employers are ALWAYS looking for a way to employ fewer people – often through using technology to get more work out of fewer people, finding a way to employ those who are willing to work for less money and fewer benefits, or investing in computers and machines that can do the work without using human labor at all.

Perhaps Americans are the most productive workers in the world because of the PWE – but is that a good thing? Our productivity increases almost every year, but our compensation has remained stagnant for three decades. Why should we work harder for ever-diminishing returns? Are our leaders using our religious beliefs against us to enrich themselves at our expense?

What Happens to the Protestant Work Ethic When There’s No Work?

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 10, 2017 at 8:45 pm

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It is a rare opportunity that a working stiff like me gets to take a few weeks off from work for no particular reason – not sick or laid off, haven’t received a financial windfall or a lottery payout (I wish!), nor have I suddenly become a member of the moneyed leisure class. I’ve simply finished up a contract with my previous employer, and so far am not overly excited about any of the others I’ve been offered. So, I’ve temporarily absconded to SE Asia where costs are low enough that I can do absolutely nothing, on the cheap while job hunting. (If you’re interested, I’ll soon be posting my travel adventures at nevercomingback.com).

When not engaged in the monotonous tasks of writing cover letters and doing Skype interviews, I’ve been catching up on all the books, articles, and TED talks I didn’t have time to indulge in when working. I find that a lot of what I’m reading/listening to has to do with the decline of the American Dream, and the precarious future in store for those of us who need to work for a living.

Of course, whenever a person is out of work, even by choice, there’s at least a tiny voice in the back of his head telling him he’ll never work again. Go a few days without even so much as an automated response to your inquiries, and that voice becomes decidedly louder. Perhaps that’s where my interest in this topic is coming from.

But I think I’ve also sought out information of this sort because of the recent elections in the US; it seems a man laughably/frighteningly unequal to to the task of being president was put in that office because of the great anxiety people have about the disappearance of quality work. There’s a common belief, it seems, that the grand old industrial economy of yore will come roaring back, once the demons of over-regulation, over-taxation, illegal immigration, and poorly-negotiated trade deals are exorcised.

However, I’m finding that the truth of the matter is that kind of economy is disappearing forever – not because the Chinese or illegals are doing them on the cheap, but because technology is making them obsolete.

Elon Musk thinks we could easily be looking at 15% unemployment in 10 years’ time, due to new technologies. Two Oxford scholars say that 47% of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by algorithms in the next 20 years. A recent Business Insider article predicts that automation will create unemployment rates of 50-75% worldwide in the coming years. In some European countries, unemployment of twenty-somethings already stands at 20%. And it’s not because they picked the wrong majors – those much-vaunted STEM degrees provide the kinds of skills that are MOST likely to be replicated by a computer in the very near future.

Yuval Noah Harari writes in ‘The rise of the useless class’ that “99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.” Ironically, our over-specialization over the past decades has made it much easier for us to be replaced by a machine or algorithm.

In a way, this is basically what happened 300-500 years ago, during the English enclosures. For centuries, there had been common areas of land that were reserved for public welfare. The landed gentry controlled the vast majority of real estate, but peasants were allowed to hold back a portion of their agricultural produce, and were free to hunt or cultivate crops in these common areas in order to ensure their survival. However, by the 1500s, land owners were finding they could make better returns from large scale agriculture, so they began to purchase common areas, enclose small holdings into larger plantations, and to remove unnecessary laborers from their land. For centuries the labor of small farmers had been required; when no longer needed, thousands were removed from the land with little or no consideration as to how they might survive.

Wikipedia says, “Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit.” I hardly see how it can be argued any other way – and we see a similar government takeover by the wealthy elite happening in the US today.

Fortunately, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were just underway and, although I’m sure there were instances of deprivation and hunger, perhaps starvation, the towns and cities where cottage industries were starting up were able for the most part to absorb that labor. Historians seem to be divided as to whether this excess labor allowed the Industrial Revolution to occur – or whether it was just lucky timing for the displaced farmers. In any event – people were able to find work, and were able to continue to exchange their labor for the necessities of life.

But what if they hadn’t?  What if those deprived of a livelihood suddenly had nowhere to go?  What if the financial and technological changes of that century had simply created a surplus of half of the labor force, with millions of people finding there was no market for their skills?

Coming back to the 21st century, consider a not-so-hypothetical situation. Imagine an incredibly powerful artificial intelligence (AI) is developed in the next couple of years, a breakthrough so dramatic that by say 2025, it could replace the jobs that 95% of us currently do. All of the goods and services we currently enjoy in the West could be provided to everyone in the world, with dramatically improved efficiency and reduced cost. Natural resources would still exploited, cars and iPhones still assembled, food still produced and packaged, beer still brewed and whisky distilled. it’s just that the services of you and me – and six billion other people – are no longer be required.

Let’s assume that the owners of such a technology just happened to be the top 1% that control the vast majority of capital in the world already – safe enough assumption. Perhaps another 4% would be needed in some kind of maintenance or management role. What would we do with everyone else?

What does this have to do with secularism, you might ask? Well, as the title suggests, there would have to be changes in our assumptions, especially the Protestant work ethic and all that idea entails – God helps those whose help themselves, those who don’t work don’t eat, etc. Think about what effect that would have on our current assumptions about work, labor, respect, compensation, etc. Both conservatives and liberals tend to think of what we deserve based on our labor. Even as I write this, GOP legislators are hoping to insert a work requirement into ACHA – you wouldn’t be eligible for health insurance without working.

How would these assumptions about contributing to society (the topic of my next post) be turned upside down?  When nobody’s work is needed – and work is no longer a commodity – what then do people deserve?

What would we do with all those unemployed – unemployable – people?

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Where Is The Evidence That Cutting Taxes For The Wealthy Creates Jobs?

In 2012 Election, American Economy, American Society on October 8, 2012 at 12:49 am

Before my conservative friends get all in a frenzy, remember that this is not a liberal website, but a secular one. Secularism, as defined by the man who coined the term, is “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.” In other words, one of the chief goals of secularism is to separate dogma from the debate; if you want to establish that something is true, repeating it hundreds of times might persuade the weak-minded, but has no effect whatsoever on those accustomed to basing beliefs on evidence.

Since Ronald Reagan, the conservative solution to every single problem has been to cut taxes. Known as ‘trickle-down’ economics in the ’80s (or ‘voodoo’ economics to George H.W. Bush, when he ran against Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries), the assumption goes something like this:

Taxing those individuals who have realized the greatest financial success in our country is counter-productive, if not downright immoral. They are the movers and shakers, the job creators that keep the American economic system purring along like the finest luxury car. If we lighten their tax load, they will use that extra cash to do wonderful things, like build factories, hire employees, give to worthy charities, etc. This will, in turn, crank up the economy, and those new employees of those new factories will sing the praises of the ‘creators’ as they toil away for their weekly paycheck. Everybody wins – the rich benevolently bestow upon the lesser classes all the good things they have not the industry nor morality to produce for themselves.

Except – there’s absolutely no evidence that it actually works this way.

While every conservative politician will say ‘raising taxes hurts the economy’ or ‘cutting taxes creates jobs’, you’d be hard pressed to find a single study that supports this point of view – and hundreds graphs, charts, and studies that refute the idea.

Go ahead and do a Google search yourself – I’ll wait right here for a moment.

If you’re a conservative, you will obviously discount anything from the liberal sites like HuffPost or MSNBC.  But my search, “Do low tax rates create jobs?” turned up a great big ‘NO’ from pretty much every site I could find – at Forbes, here, and here; at US News and World Report; Business Insiderand a number of other sites not particularly noted for their liberal bias, all supported by data. In fact, the only ‘Yes’ answers I found were in the Wall Street Journal,  editorial commentary from conservative newspapers and blogs, and quotes from Mitt Romney. Not particularly in-depth economic analysis.

Take a look at these charts from the Center for American Progress:

This one shows that there is no correlation between the top marginal tax rate – what the richest Americans hypothetically pay – and the GDP. It does seem that lower tax rates flattened out the volatility in GDP, but didn’t cause it to spike upward. As a strong output generally indicates good employment conditions, it would appear from this chart that the effect of taxation on the economy was negligible.

This bar graph is astounding. It appears that when the top individual tax rate is ABOVE 39%, the number of jobs has grown around 2 to 2.5 percent. When the tax rate is lower than 39%, job growth has been minimal. How do conservatives account for this gap between what they preach and what the data shows?

And finally, a graph that shows growth rates rising when taxes are increased, plummeting when taxes are cut.

Now I’m not suggesting that raising taxes will automatically increase the number of jobs in this country – that’s something for honest, hard-working economists to decide. But a 5th-grader could look a these charts and see that the conservative mantra just simply isn’t true. Employment is a complicated thing, based on a lot of parameters. But one thing we do know is that when the economy is good, jobs are created. Raising taxes or cutting them may have a variety of effects, but creating or destroying jobs doesn’t seem to be one of them. Yet politicians are saying it hundreds of times a day.

Perhaps the idea of trickle-down or supply side economics would have been a valid economic theory in the 1950s. Back then, a successful man with excess cash on his hands had few investment choices. He could reinvest in his own business, help to start up another one, or invest in a stock market chock-full of good old-fashioned American companies. Any of those choices might have helped to improve the American economy, create jobs, etc.

But today, the world of finance and investment is radically different. So many financial vehicles today involve moving money around more than actually ‘investing’ it in to one place, and brokers and hedge fund managers often see a far better return in developing markets such as China or Russia. So the rich may still be job creators in a sense – it’s simply that the factories they are building and the jobs they are creating aren’t necessarily American. That money that wasn’t collected in the form of taxes, because of the idea that it would hurt investment, ends up building an Indian factory or collecting interest in a Swiss bank account.

One last thing that we know for sure about cutting the tax rates for the nation’s wealthiest (especially while fighting a couple of ill-conceived wars), is that it creates huge deficits:

I’ll admit that spending needs to be tackled as well – but there’s no question that if you take in less money, you’ll end up with more debt. What happens when governments face deficits? The have to fire policemen, teachers, firemen, and other government employees, meaning that unemployment rises.

So, as a secularist, I have to say that I’m still waiting for some evidence that cutting taxes for the richest Americans will help the economy. So far, that claim doesn’t make the cut. Got a chart or data to back up your claim? Share it with me.