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America Must Divorce Dignity From Work

A job guarantee is a good policy idea. But universal basic income is better.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Lots of Americans have bullshit jobs, ones that have little tangible effect on the world but are nevertheless all-consuming, demanding that workers attend meetings throughout the day and chat on Slack after hours. These jobs proliferate in areas like finance, brand management, and even, I daresay, in journalism. But we’ve all got to eat, and for the majority of adult Americans, that means you need a job. Whether your job does any good for anyone else is another matter.

Even as bullshit jobs pile up, millions of Americans have no job at all, or they can only find part-time work. They’ve got to eat, too. They also need dignity, a sense that their lives matter. And dignity is another thing Americans get preeminently from work. When you have not had steady, good-paying work for several years, you might be drawn to a certain demagogic politician who promises to “bring back your jobs.”

If Democrats want a winning platform in the years ahead, Jeff Spross argues in the current issue of the journal Democracy, they ought to counter President Donald Trump’s rhetoric with a concrete offer to every American who wants dignity and a decent living: a federally funded job. Spross, an economics and business writer for The Week, makes a thorough case for a universal job guarantee, writing that “a job is not merely a delivery mechanism for income that can be replaced by an alternative source. It’s a fundamental way that people assert their dignity, stake their claim in society, and understand their mutual obligations to one another.”

This case has considerable merit, both economically and ethically, but it also reveals the flaws in our thinking about work as a moral enterprise. Ultimately, a universal basic income would do more to promote justice than a universal basic job. In fact, America would be better off if we divorced dignity from work altogether.

Spross proposes that someone with a full-time job in the federal program would work on infrastructure and community development projects and be paid $25,000, plus full benefits. The proposal has precedent, not only in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, but in Argentina within the past decade. With jobs of last resort paying well above the current federal minimum wage, unemployment would drop to nothing and workers higher up the income ladder would gain tremendous bargaining power. The “dignity deficit” would disappear immediately.

Spross’s proposal coheres well with the American work ethic. Americans see their commitment to work as an essential part of who they are. In a 2015 Pew Research Center study dealing with personality traits, 80 percent of respondents described themselves as “hard working.” Only 3 percent said they were “lazy.” If Americans want to work, then it makes sense to let them work. A job guarantee would accomplish this moral end on a large scale.

But the moral underpinning of Spross’s case is also its greatest vulnerability. The job guarantee rests on the assumption that people deserve wealth only if they work for it—a widely-held view in America, but one that has two shortcomings that perpetuate injustice.

First, a guaranteed job, “with benefits and a living wage, to every American willing and able to work,” as Spross describes it, does not do much good for Americans who are not able to work. Our current system gives support to the disabled only grudgingly, and Social Security Disability Insurance comes with a measure of suspicion and resentment. People who care for children or other family members full-time get nothing.

The second shortcoming is that in the digital age, wealth is not only created by workers and owners. Productivity derives not only from labor and hard capital, but also from social capital—the matrix of beliefs, values, and customs that members of a society share. In his 2016 book The Wealth of Humans, Ryan Avent argues that values like tolerance and the rule of law—which no one can claim as exclusively theirs—make it easy to do business in America. They make American labor and capital more productive.

Some places, like New York or San Francisco, have especially high concentrations of social capital. These cities have creative, competitive cultures where influential people interact, and thus contribute disproportionately to America’s gross domestic product. But social capital is also broadly diffused across the society. It lives in the mind of every American. Wall Street and Silicon Valley can be as successful as they are in part because Americans as a whole respect innovation and contracts, are comfortable sharing personal information with private firms, and are reluctant to come after the rich with pitchforks and torches. Our work ethic itself is a form of social capital. When American workers are fired, they often blame themselves. That makes it easier for companies to churn the workforce and keep productivity high without raising wages.

To be clear, social capital does not create wealth on its own, but it does amplify the productive power of labor and capital. But as Avent argues, we do not acknowledge the role of social capital, and so “its benefits flow disproportionately to the owners of financial capital.” Because everyone contributes to creating wealth, regardless of whether they work or not, everyone deserves a share in that wealth. A universal basic income—a monthly federal check for $1,000 or so, given unconditionally to every American to cover basic expenses—would better align the benefit of social capital with the source of its value.

Spross suggests that a job guarantee and universal basic income could be “complementary” programs. “The UBI does provide every worker the option of exit from the labor market, and could thus increase bargaining power as well,” he writes. “But this effect is passive. The job guarantee’s strength is providing Americans direct control over the social infrastructure of job creation.”

But because basic income is the more inclusive program—encompassing children, the disabled, and everyone else who cannot work—it promotes a kind of justice that a make-work program cannot. Moreover, in an economy that can substitute machines for human labor, a job guarantee could transform into a de facto basic income guarantee anyway. As Avent notes, the more expensive human labor is, the more appealing machine labor becomes. With a high wage floor and no slack in the labor market, it would make economic sense to automate jobs that humans currently do for low wages, like customer service, transportation, and sales. This would push even more people to take the guaranteed jobs. At some point, there might not be enough productive work to go around. Once people find themselves doing pointless make-work just to keep busy and qualify for a paycheck—in other words, once guaranteed jobs become bullshit jobs—we may as well call it art.

Writers on both the left and right agree that the current system of work and wages needs to change. The system doesn’t ensure broad-based prosperity, encourages people to waste time and effort on unproductive work, and will likely prove unsustainable as inexpensive machines replicate more human tasks. In the short term, a job guarantee addresses one of these problems—it makes a modest living more widely accessible—but will prove increasingly ineffective as robots push people into ever more meaningless work.

The more meaningless the work becomes, the less dignity it confers. “Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote about work in the nineteenth century. “But many are no more worthily employed now.” His observation remains true; many Americans are unworthily employed. A job guarantee will not change that basic fact.

This is why we need a total revolution in the way we think about the connection between work and dignity—specifically, by cutting the link between employment and the right to belong, command respect, or reap benefits in America. A universal basic income isn’t a panacea, but it will do more than a job guarantee to create a society where citizens’ value and well-being are not contingent on bullshit jobs, but granted to all based on our shared humanity.