Dan Kervick: The Emancipation of the Unemployed

Dan Kervick has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts, and is an active independent scholar specializing in the philosophy of David Hume. He also does research in decision theory and analytic metaphysics. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives.

An important anniversary is approaching.  On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  The proclamation that sounded the final end of the depraved institution of American slavery was presented to the nation and the world as an emergency war act, a “fit and necessary” measure for suppressing an armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States.  The language of the Emancipation Proclamation is restrained by the customary legalisms of government writ; and yet, vibrating through and beyond the tight cords of executive propriety, the drama and permanence of Lincoln’s statement sound clearly, along with the solemn national commitment to sustain the liberation of the newly freed men and women by force of arms:

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

Slavery offends enlightened moral sensibility in two ways: as a transgression of decent boundaries in the realm of property and as an assault on human dignity and justice in the realm of labor and exchange.  The first offense concerns what people should and should not be permitted to own.  The relation of human beings to their property is a relation between persons and things, between acting moral subjects with aims or goals, and the mere instruments that those persons are permitted by law to control and wield freely to satisfy their wants.  It seems almost unbelievable to us today that people in America should once have been permitted to own and possess other human beings, to reduce thinking and feeling women and men to the condition of property.

The second offense has to do with the preservation of human dignity and equal justice in the realm of work and recompense.  The slaveholder compels the slave to labor, and then takes the output of the labor for the slaveholder’s own benefit.  The slaveholder is not bound to give to the slave a fair wage in return for the service, but only the sustenance required to keep the slave functioning as a laboring machine.  No standard of either fair contract between individuals or the just distribution of social obligations among equal citizens comes between the avaricious lash of the slaveholder and laboring effort rendered up by the slave.

Lincoln recognized the evil presence of this second offense in his great Second Inaugural Address.  After describing the motivations that led North and South into civil war, he said,

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

And he even suggests that the war might be a severe, but correct, imposition of divine justice:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln recognizes, and expects his listeners to recognize, that there is something sinful in wringing one’s own bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, and in forcing others into unrequited toil.

Slavery still exists in this world, hiding mainly in its dark corners.  But although outright slavery is rarer than it once was, some of the fundamental moral challenges posed by slavery exist in other forms.  The goods we all enjoy are produced by the labor of other human beings.  Can we all honestly say that the share of goods we have received has been fully merited by our own contribution to the totality of human effort?  How have these things come into our hands?  What would we say if, surrounded by our comforts, we were brought face to face with the choking miner, the broken-backed picker or the lonely, late shift bench worker who produced the things we have?  Could we give a satisfactory account of ourselves?  Has their labor been requited justly?  Is what we have taken matched by what we have given in return?

And there is a related moral challenge posed by contemporary social conditions, one that equally tests our sense of justice and dignity in the realm of work.  This is the problem of people who are compelled against their wills not to work. Tens of millions of people in the United States are enduring unemployment.  These are people who are officially in the workforce, and who are both able to work and willing to work, but who cannot find employment.  Over 8% of the workforce is in this condition.  That number does not count people who have dropped out of the workforce from despair.  It also doesn’t count their children and other dependents who are not in the workforce at all, but who suffer just as well from the joblessness of their forlorn providers.  The percentage of the population that is employed has collapsed to levels not seen since the time when women entered the workforce in large numbers 2/3rds of the way through the 20th century.   Our toleration of these conditions of enforced joblessness is a national moral disgrace.  We must emancipate the unemployed.

In might seem strange to think of unwanted joblessness as a moral stain on our society to be mentioned in the same context as forced labor.  After all, the jobless are generally not being whipped and beaten, or physically shackled to their jobless status.   That is true.   But enforced joblessness is an assault on human dignity and a betrayal of the bond of fellowship that binds citizens in a democracy to one another.  To see this, we need to reflect a bit on the nature of work: on why we value it, how we reward it, how we create the opportunities for people to provide it, and what happens in a society that neglects its obligation to provide these opportunities.

Americans are a hard working people, and they honor an ethic of work.  This work ethic is often seen as an attendant of capitalism, and even a religious legacy of the predominantly Protestant founders of the United States.  But I would argue that the work ethic is inherent in the fundamental democratic ideals of American society.  Any society that strives toward an ideal of democratic equality, based on a republican and democratic conception of equal citizenship, with all of its members possessing equal rights and obligations, will be bound to promote an ethic of work.

In an aristocratic system, or any social system based on hierarchical social order, those at the top will require work from those at the bottom, and will use that work to support their own affluent and more leisured lives.  They will certainly value work in one sense, insofar as the work is something usefully performed by those in the lower orders of society to support those at the top.  But the aristocrats are likely to regard work they might perform themselves as something undignified, something that is beneath their station.  They will wear their idleness and abundant leisure proudly, as a mark of their exalted status.  People in the lower orders will of course resent the work extracted from them in excess to support those indolent others, and in exchange for substantially less reward than is granted their social superiors; and they will seek to escape from that work, seeing it as a humiliating mark of their social inferiority.   So in a hierarchical society work is likely to be viewed as something either to be disdained or resented.

But in a democratic society, citizens regard themselves as bound to one another by a social contract according each citizen equal social standing.   This code of social equality fosters ideals of teamwork and mutual obligation.  Just as democracies seek to erase the difference between the governors and the governed by forging a system of self-government, and by sharing the difficult chores of governance among the whole body politic under a duty of civic participation, so democracies are likely to view the sum total of labor that is needed to satisfy the society’s material needs, and to help the society thrive and prosper, as a social obligation to be shared.   Not everyone can do the same things, of course, but all are expected to do their fair share of work in exchange for the many benefits they receive from living in a successful society, benefits that have been produced by the labors of their fellow citizens.  If we are raised in a society of social equals, or at least a society that promotes an ideal of equal citizenship and social equality, we will have internalized this work ethic.  We will see work as the means by which we earn our full place in society and declare our equal standing, and will seek to do our duty to our fellow citizens by contributing our best efforts to the common need.  We will also chafe under conditions that force us into the indignity of unemployment.

Of course, in our present society these democratic ideals are practiced very imperfectly.   The rewards we receive for our work are very unequally distributed.  Even those who labor strenuously and do their best might receive little.  And when people lose their jobs, we take little responsibility as a society for the individual costs of forcing people into unemployment.  Some social support is offered, but the jobless and their families often lose substantial portions of their property, including their homes.  They might lose their communities as well, being forced into a kind of internal exile in the world of shelters.  They might be forced to live in their cars, or on the streets.  Sometimes they lose their families, when they can no longer support their loved ones in any adequate way.  And when they reach extremes of despair and shame, they sometimes lose their lives at their own hands.

But even when social welfare systems are adequate, and the unemployed and their families are able to continue with lives of minimal economic decency, the jobless are forced into a condition of social dependency: in effect forced out of full adulthood back into the humiliating condition of a repeated childhood.  They are not supporting themselves and their families; they are not working shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow citizens in the everyday work that holds the country together.  Instead they are the recipients of the paternal largesse of their society, burdened with feelings of inadequacy and failure.   People will stand in long lines just to get an opportunity to move out of this dependency, and into a paid position that offers material rewards little better than the alms they are already receiving, but which does offer them the opportunity to earn their way in the world with dignity.

So, seen from the perspective of the unemployed person, there is something very awful and terribly unjust about forced unemployment.   But when seen from the perspective of our whole society and its needs, there is also something almost criminally stupid about a system that tolerates mass unemployment.   It would be one thing if people lacked work because we had in some sense run out of useful things to do, and had achieved all of our social goals and ambitions.  But this is very far from the case.  We are surrounded everywhere by the evidence of work that needs to be done and is not being done.   Many of our public goods are vanishing; much of our public infrastructure is falling apart; our children need better educations than they are receiving; our systems for harnessing and distributing energy need radical change; our systems for transporting people are inadequate, and in some cases embarrassingly backward.  And in the background of all this is a world that needs saving from environmental stresses that have left the globe teetering on the verge of catastrophe.  There is far more that needs to be done than there are people to do it.  And yet millions languish in unemployment.

So: massive and critical needs for human labor on one side; unemployed humans willing to work on the other side.  What is wrong with us?  Surely we must be doing something very wrong as a society in the way we organize and distribute work and the rewards for work, since we are failing to find ways of connecting willing workers with the palpable need for work!

Indeed we are failing. We have fixed ourselves, stubbornly and ideologically, on a system that grants to private enterprise and the owners of private property a collective monopoly on the provision of work opportunities for our people.  But it should be abundantly clear by now that, as wonderful as private enterprise and the entrepreneurial spirit are for identifying and creating most of the opportunities for useful labor that are required for the satisfaction of our day-to-day wants, private enterprise is not adequate to do the whole job.  Left to its own devices, it leaves many people unemployed and many pressing social needs for useful work unsatisfied.  Indeed, some of the largest and most important jobs are left undone.

This need for public involvement in the creation of work opportunities was recognized long ago by the economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith.  Smith wrote that a duty of the sovereign or commonwealth was

… that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.

Smith offered a long list of such works, including universal public education, roads, bridges and canals.  He also argued that “the performance of this duty requires, too, very different degrees of expense in the different periods of society.”  Surely we have reached one of those periods in which the duty is urgent.

Some have argued that the existence of unemployment is not really a sign of a massive social failure to organize the opportunities for needed work in an effective and complete way, but more a sign of our abundance.   They think we are nearing the end of the road for the need for additional human work, as technology and other productivity improvements move more and more of the responsibility for economic production to automated systems.  They imagine a robot future, where machine production satisfies our material needs, and we humans devote all of our time to leisure pursuits.  So rather than seeking to employ more people, they say, we should begin the process of rendering unemployment more socially and individually tolerable, and of moving people into the future of leisure that awaits us.

I am rather skeptical of this vision.  There have been many dramatic improvements in human productivity over the past several centuries.  But I believe historical experience suggests that as we free human beings from the need to expend as much work effort as they had previously to sustain their existing way of life, they always move on with industry and zeal to explore whole new areas for human work that they previously lacked the time even to consider.   If the robots of the shiny future handle most of the production that we do now by ourselves, we will likely have moved on to apply our efforts elsewhere to open up new vitas for dramatic human improvement, scenes of progress that we can’t even imagine now.   I find it hard to imagine we will ever be satisfied with what we have, and will declare an end to hard work and hard-won progress.  We are mortal and finite creatures, with our backs up against an inevitable eternity and path of suffering that we always seek to hold off as long as possible.   No matter what we have, the gulf between our present state and our unfulfilled dreams will be yawning.

And however much total work we choose to do, we will need to distribute that work among ourselves, and distribute the fruits of that work as well.  There is no excuse for consigning some of our citizens to a lower social order of dependency, indignity, and relative poverty.  Nor is there an excuse for denying them the opportunity to be full contributors to the project of maintaining our society through work.

But it is not enough to provide opportunities for work of some kind to all of our people.  It is also important that we find ways of allowing people to contribute the full range of their talents and potential.  Anything else is a waste for society and grief for the individual.   A society is failing when it has divided its goods so unevenly that it ends up with engineers, educators, skilled artisans, clever mathematicians and talented artists scraping barnacles off the yachts of the wealthy or selling them perfume across retail counters.  A society that is moving in this direction is moving away from democratic equality, and toward the gradual reduction of the majority of its people to demeaning servitude.

Lincoln concluded the Emancipation Proclamation with these words:

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Liberation from slavery meant admission into the fraternity of democratic citizenship, a fraternity of people who freely offer their faithful labor to one another in exchange for reasonable wages.  In some cases they even offered their labor in the terrible field of war.  I would suggest that the wages of our own present labors include not just the material goods which we directly receive from our employers, but the many benefits we enjoy every day from living in a developed society that has been built from, and is daily sustained by, the labor of others.  The sidewalks we walk on, the streets we drive on, the well-educated citizens we encounter, and the civil peace and order of our communities are all the fruits of hard work.  And these fruits are all part of our wages.  What do we owe in return?

We have for too long prolonged a failing and barbaric social system that denies to millions of our fellow citizens –  who are so eager to labor faithfully for the sake of themselves, their families, their communities and their country – the opportunity to join the ranks of the working.  Yet we know how to end this system.  We know what can be done, and we know what needs to be done.  There is a future to be built, a planet to be saved, a stagnating country to be revived.  And so many people want to help.   It is time for the public to step forward, and to organize those public enterprises that are needed to perform the many unfulfilled tasks that private enterprise cannot accomplish on its own, and to give all of our citizens a chance to show what they can do.   And remember this:  So long as we permit a system that sets aside a degrading dungeon of unemployment for castoffs from the private sector workforce, none of us are as free as we should be, because the threat of dismissal into the dungeon can be held over our own heads by those who own the keys.

We are only four months away from the 150th anniversary of the great statement that proclaimed an end to a monstrous and cruel system of bondage and unrequited toil.  On that anniversary we should proclaim a new liberation from the bondage of forced joblessness and dependency.  It is possible that no American politician, no Lincoln of our time, will have the courage to lead us in making this proclamation.  We must then proclaim it ourselves, affix the seal of the citizenry to it, and make it known to our elected representatives so that they will be compelled to put it into force.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


      1. joecostello

        the job, along with what is our much of our present politics are creations of the industrial era, to look at the jobs that have been “created” in America in the last four decades and then to make part of you political platform the “need for more jobs” – both Dems and Reps cry! – is dumbfounding.

        We need a lot better thinking, but it shows how comfortable we become with our shackles, especially if they come with a little padding.

        1. joecostello

          and I think the question is not about simply having it easy, but how each of us have lives of substance, quality, and some meaning — however we want to define,

          part of the real revolution is supplementing quality for quantity, simple ain’t easy, so said Thelonious Monk

        2. Dan Kervick

          The industrial era might have invented certain kinds of wage labor, but it didn’t invent the idea of work or shared obligation. Life isn’t easy, and the high material standard of living we enjoy doesn’t come easy. If you are a farmer or tradesman in the pre-industrial era, its hard work. If you lived in an agricultural commonality of any kind, much of the work had to be shared. The computer I’m typing on … someone had to work hard to make it.

          1. joecostello

            People didnt have jobs prior to industrialism, they were farmers, shopkeepers, hunters. the “job” which your piece is about, not work, is an industrial creation.

          2. F. Beard

            The computer I’m typing on … someone had to work hard to make it. Dan Kervick

            Probably doing work they enjoyed. And that’s the problem with a JG as opposed to a BIG – paying people to waste their time on make-work.

            With enough resources, including land, people can find their own meaningful work to do – meaningful by definition.

          3. WorldisMorphing

            I have to agree with joecostello on that one Dan.

            The difference between work then and “jobs” now is that the former did not require the worker’s time to be regimented in subordination to what can literally only be described as a ‘machine’.

            50 weeks a year with of a job that is damaging for the body or asphyxiating for the soul (or both) will really not give you much enjoyment when you realize that consumption of an inordinate amount of crap (if even possible)is the only appeasement the ‘Machine’ offers…if you leave out anti-depressants…
            You realize eventually that land rent, market forces and greed can really create unnecessary loss of leisure time, unnecessary misery, unnecessary slumlords, undeserved wealth and most of all — a completely FUBAR notion of value.

            Meanwhile, for not having properly defined *The Situation of the Human Race*(see Malthus) — and, adhered to a Social Contract allowing to assume and extract the best in humanity, the elite steeped into a vague and intellectually crass ideology presupposing the threat of homelessness and starvation as the only worthwhile tool of control and coordination of the masses…
            It worked for a while; until the engine with 99 times more friction than function hit the wall of self-perpetuating mediocrity…

        3. F. Beard


          The person of independent means works when, where, how and how much he wants to without worrying about homelessness or starvation. And that’s pretty much how it used to be before banks drove people off their family farms.

          1. Dan Kervick

            The world was never like that F. Beard. Before industrialization, there was feudalism – not a world of independent family farmers happily choosing to work on their own terms. There was in addition, poverty, pestilence, drought and blight. Progress requires moving beyond the monopoly of private enterprise, not back to some imagined edenic past that never existed.

          2. F. Beard

            I’m looking back to ancient Israel where the agricultural land belonged to a family permanently. It could not be sold though it could be leased out for up to 50 years. Even then, the land could be redeemed early according to the number of crops remaining till the 50 year Jubilee.

          3. Lambert Strether Post author

            The flip side of the beauty of permaculture is, well, who wants to be a peasant? Especially when the crops fail?

            I’m reminded, however, of the work that Adam Smith et al. did to create “the work ethic.”

            I mean, what kind of life is it, making your own shoes instead of buying them, working 6 months a year, and then zoning out on your own home brew? Silly, uncultured, immoral, lazy parasites, refusing to be exploited for their own good!

          4. Dan Kervick

            I seem to recall that the ancient Israelites were conquered several times and carried off into slavery.

          5. F. Beard

            Interesting you should mention that. In the time of Jeremiah, the Jew were besieged by the Babylonians. In desperation, they made a solemn vow to release their illegally held Jewish debt slaves to appease God. It worked! The Babylonians withdrew! However, the Jews then re-enslaved those they had just released. The Lord was not amused.

            We should probably free our debt slaves too? And abolish the means by which they were enslaved – the government backed counterfeiting cartel, our current banking system?

  1. mad tinfoil hatter

    After the Emancipation Proclamation came apartheid, which continued up through the 1960’s. Still continues today in a way, now de facto instead of de jure.

  2. F. Beard

    [my comment copied from New Economics Perspective]:

    The lack of jobs is a result of excessive personal debt, no? So why not treat the disease instead of the symptoms of it?

    And if people have a need to work then why not restore the population to the family farms that were stolen from them by the counterfeiting cartel, the banks? Isn’t that Jefferson’s (and the Bible’s) ideal, a nation of small farmers?

    Sometimes I wonder about the MMT folks. They seem more interested in pushing a social agenda than in pursuing justice.

  3. Susan the other

    Capitalism isn’t an economic theory, it’s just a mechanism to broker solutions. When it brokers problems instead it ceases to work. If sovereign wealth, our shared commonwealth, comes to the rescue of big private capital, something is amiss. There should be no profit taking, no socializing risk and privatizing profits. Let big private capital take their corporate headquarters to China.

  4. Calgacus

    So, seen from the perspective of the unemployed person, there is something very awful and terribly unjust about forced unemployment. But when seen from the perspective of our whole society and its needs, there is also something almost criminally stupid about a system that tolerates mass unemployment.

    “Almost”? “Stupid” too, yes. But above all – “criminal”. The refusal of governments to guarantee jobs, the necessity for which they themselves create is both criminal & insane. Based on illogic we don’t see anywhere else, in historical non-monetary economies, or slave economies, or in private enterprises and households.

    They think we are nearing the end of the road for the need for additional human work … They imagine a robot future. Good – the blind robot future imaginers who don’t get the essentiality of full employment, the JG are suckers. The future robot in an insane economy, like ours, that randomly denies people the chance to provide for themselves is the Terminator.

    1. Gerard Pierce

      The problem of the “robot society” was dealt with about 50 years ago by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in “Player Piano”. It’s a story that is currently more and more becoming a prediction.

  5. Chauncey Gardiner

    Re Dan Kervick’s statement: … “So long as we permit a system that sets aside a degrading dungeon of unemployment for castoffs from the private sector workforce, none of us are as free as we should be, because the threat of dismissal into the dungeon can be held over our own heads by those who own the keys.”

    Bingo! Despite the inspirational aspects of this piece, the sad reality is that it’s frequently about fear and intimidation now. Those who presently hold the keys employ a range of tools – such as deprivation of healthcare as a result of job loss for a worker and his or her family members – to assure continuing control of workers’ behavior including the willingness of workers to accept lower compensation, to work uncompensated overtime, to limit vacation leave, and even to effectively pressure employees into such “voluntary” actions as making contributions to a corporate PAC.

    A major systemic constraint on U.S. workers that was not discussed in Dan’s essay is that of “outsourcing” of jobs by corporations, who constantly seek the lowest-cost sources of labor in other countries and even among U.S. states with the lowest labor costs, lowest levels of corporate taxation, least environmental and workers’ safety regulations, etc., and that actively work to discourage the formation of labor unions. (In this regard, it is educational to study the history of FoxConn, a major Chinese contractor for U.S. and other large corporations that produces consumer electronic devices. Particularly noteworthy have been the actions of their Chinese employees in response to their working conditions.)

    The implicit threat of outsourcing is used as a means of intimidating U.S. employees and politicians, and for shattering and diminishing the negotiating power of labor unions in the U.S. that once acted to counterbalance the greed and excesses of those who own the keys.

    Unlike many of their predecessors, I have come to believe this group of powerful and wealthy individuals generally have minimal respect for and care very little about the welfare or the future of the vast majority of citizens or the nation. Unfortunately, some even have sociopathic characteristics. Accordingly, material systemic changes are necessary.

    As Susan said above, continuing to privatize the profits into the hands of a few (with those “profits” often resulting from government-central bank wealth transfers) while socializing the costs is unacceptable.

  6. F. Beard

    Dan Kervick: The Emancipation of the Unemployed

    I can’t resist:

    Arbeit macht frei?

    The MMT folks should be the first to recognize that the problem is excessive private debt, not lack of jobs per se. So the solution is either debt forgiveness or better yet, because credit creation cheats non-debtors too, Steve Keen’s universal bailout which he calls “A Modern Debt Jubilee”.

    1. Dan Kervick

      Private debt is only part of the reason that we have economic stagnation and unemployment. Another reason is severe income inequality, which holds down demand by excessively concentrating purchasing power in one part of the population. Remember that even as the debt burden is paid down, mainstream economists are likely to tell us that we are at “full employment” when we get to a point where 6% of the workforce is involuntarily unemployed. This whole system, and the academic ideologies that back it up, sticks – and it is stupid to boot.

      1. F. Beard

        Remember that even as the debt burden is paid down, mainstream economists are likely to tell us that we are at “full employment” when we get to a point where 6% of the workforce is involuntarily unemployed. Dan Kervick

        They might have a point. What happens when robots are doing nearly all the uncreative work and a good deal of the semi-creative work too?

        1. JTFaraday

          “They might have a point. What happens when robots are doing nearly all the uncreative work and a good deal of the semi-creative work too?”

          They do have a point. The robots are already writing software code and the vast majority of the political propaganda.

          However, after the robot revolution, the workfare mothers will be taking applications for diaper changers. I’m all for giving the political propagandist robots those jobs so they can do something that’s actually productive while sparing the citizenry from unnecessary exposure to robot talk.

  7. Publius

    Critique of the Gotha Program’ MARX

    In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

    1. JTFaraday

      What is this MARX business? Sounds like a self programming program or a political propagandist.

      If I make it do something productive after the revolution–like change diapers** for the workfare mothers– do you think I can trust it not to molest the children?

      **Like my mother always said “A woman’s work is never done, from the rising to the setting of the sun.”

  8. Not Invented Here

    This country pulled Lincoln’s ideas up short after they shot him. The rest of the world took all that stuff and ran with it. The world hooked it up to Kant and not Adam Smith, producing two revolutionary movements, one that flopped and one that kept on going: Marxism, which took Kant’s antinomies, and human rights, which took his categorical imperative.

    So while we could, in our insular american way, invoke abortive US traditions, like some president that got whacked for his trouble, the obvious and legitimate authority for decent work has been fully articulated, integrated with a comprehensive political philosopy, and written into law. All we have to do is sign up and get

    UDHR Article 23 clause 1, Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

    CESCR Article 6 clause 1, The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.

    and much more. But no. The authorized state parties, (R) and (D) both, actively suppress those rights – naturally, that’s their job. But the electoral “alternatives” campaign with the same piecemeal programs as the authorized state parties. The PDA and even the Greens invoke particular rights in isolation, without citing the authority (and if they ever wind up in government they’ll learn you don’t make a move without citing the authority.) They show no sign of knowing what it takes to run a sovereign state. So screw em. You might as well vote for Lincoln’s mummified corpse.

  9. Working Class Nero

    Three thousand and five hundred words on unemployment but missing among them are globalization, off-shoring, and illegal immigration.

    The Emancipation Proclamation (EP) was a wartime measure which only freed slaves in some occupied Confederate territory. It ended up freeing up to 50,000 out of more than 3 million slaves. It’s not too much of an exaggeration that it almost only freed slaves over which the North had no control. Union slaves of course continued to be enslaved. Most slaves were freed by invading armies after many soldiers had dies clearing the way; among the most successful of these were General William T. Sherman. So I’m somewhat sceptical that one Big Man in the sky is going to solve the unemployment problem by diktat. Of course hoping for this solution does allow one to avoid sensitive subjects that may upset tender Bourgeois Leftist sensibilities.

    One very interesting point brought up in the article was the employment-population ration and its relationship to the changes to the workforce accomplished by feminism. Pre-feminism the typical employment-population ration would vary from 55% in a recession to 58% in a boom. With the advent of feminism these numbers have bounced up to 64% in a boom down to our current 58%. But this increase in employment-population ration also coincided with the long decline in American middle and working class standard of living (along with the increase in the upper middle and rich classes).

    One way to explain this is that working class women were already pretty much in the work force pre-feminism. The real changes came to the upper middle class where suddenly well-educated couples could command two high salaries and put that much more distance between themselves and the lower castes. This process coincided with the sharp rise in property values in desirable areas of America along with the desegregation of some schools (mostly in working class areas). Desirable, of course means schools without, how should we put this delicately: children seen to be from culturally dysfunction backgrounds. All the other classes scrambled as much as they could away from the poorest classes, driving up house prices or private school costs all around.

    But in the drive to separate themselves from the lowest caste Americans, many among us have lost the appetite for labour, especially farm labour; leaving it for those neo-slaves, the third world labourers for whom our wealthy elite’s appetite is as insatiable as was their predecessor’s for African labour all those years ago.

    The solution to unemployment seems fairly straight forward. Raise tariffs against products produced by nations such as China that practise neo-slavery. Update the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 to stop the importation of virtual slave labour from Latin America and to punish all employers who use undocumented semi-slave labour. If these two measures are not enough stimulating the economy should finish the job.

    But there will rest a fairly large number of people who remain unemployed or are unemployable for various reasons. These people should be very strongly encouraged out of the cities and suburbs and onto farms. They should not get welfare, food stamps, etc; they should be given the use of land to grow their own food. This will allow them to redevelop a work ethic and perhaps within a generation or two their children or grandchildren will be ready to take another shot at making it in the city. Also non-violent offenders should be as well forced back onto the land to help empty out some of the overcrowded prisons.

  10. mac

    When it takes such a large dose of words to put forth or defend an idea, either the idea has problems or the wordsmith admires his/her words over much.

  11. gonzomarx

    In 1932 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled ‘In Praise of Idleness’. He began it thus:
    “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what has always been preached”.
    He concluded:
    “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever”.

    1. JTFaraday

      “A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

      Sounds a bit like Hannah Arendt (in the “Human Condition”), who says that in taking the pre-industrial model of subsistence labor as the model for work in the modern world, liberal economists and socialists, both, made a serious error.

      Of course, for her, the real error is the substitution of this necessary economic order for humanist politics, which imply that we have the freedom to make conscious decisions about how we order society. Which, in a technologically advanced society, we do.

      Not surprisingly then, today we see economists and political propagandists of all stripes emphasizing not what is technologically possible, but what is “politically possible”– and according to them what is politically possible is only some version or other of the same mode of existence necessitated by the pre-modern human enslavement to laboring after a bare human subsistence.

      That’s what the American reality of poverty level hand-to-mouth is, job or no job.

  12. rotter

    Debters of the world Unite!! – to threaten MASS DEFAULT..they will listen, if they dont first panic and attack every living on the planet with a neutron bomb..demand a debt jubilee and a social income …work is irrelevant …debt plays that role now..it wasnt a general strike or the AFL-CIO that brought capitalism to its knees – it was mass default. Lets do it again, but with feeling this time.

    1. F. Beard

      Amen! Debt to a counterfeiting cartel is not valid.

      However, non-debtors have been cheated too. That’s why Steve Keen’s universal bailout is more just and politically expedient too.

    2. Dan Kervick

      High mortgage debt and other personal debt is surely a drag on our current economy and one cause of unemployment.

      But it’s not as though unemployment is some new and mysterious phenomenon. Capitalist economies historically show recurring patterns of higher and lower unemployment. Even in “good times” there is tremendous economic suffering and unemployment. But the mainstream of the economics profession has simply re-conceptualized that persistent unemployment to label it a normal and healthy thing – and even to declare it not to be unemployment at all. Once unemployment gets down to about 6% they will tell us we have “full employment.”

      There is simply no reason to expect that an economy that organizes work predominantly through a system of private property, private investment and private investment will ever generate genuine full employment. The ownership of the means of production will be concentrated in a minority of private hands, and when those owners reach the point where the return on further investment doesn’t any longer exceed the cost of the investment, they will simply stop investing – even if that leaves a substantial number of individuals unemployed.

      Another way of looking at it is that they will reach the point where there is insufficient demand to merit investment in the production of additional supply. But demand for goods is just the possession of something that the possessor is willing to trade for those goods, and that the owner of the goods is willing to accept in trade for them. So lack of demand can be a problem of a basic lack of income, resulting from a pattern of grossly unequal distribution of income. If you impoverish enough worker/consumers, eventually they will reach the point where it doesn’t pay the capitalist to employ more of them. High debt can be a temporary cause of the lack of demand, but I believe these demand shortfalls would exist whether there is debt or not. And even if our present system did generate full employment, it does so in a way which permits massive social and economic inequality.

      So I’m not just complaining about our failure to address the current unemployment “crisis” – although I am very concerned about that too. I am calling on us to address the permanent failure of our society, organized as it traditionally is, to identify and provide well-paying work opportunities for each and every individual who is able to work and desires to work. This is a permanent structural problem, not a “crisis”. The period of crisis just makes the permanent problem more acute, and allows us to see it more clearly.

      We need a permanent, ambitious and flexible program of public enterprise whose employment rolls and project lists can be adjusted up and down in response to the inevitable fluctuations in private sector employment.

      1. F. Beard

        Haha! Every comment of mine is “moderated” at New Economic Perspectives. I’m beginning to feel unwelcome there! But here’s a copy of my reply to you there:

        Lack of employment is not the problem (Do the rich need jobs?) but unjust wealth and income distribution*. So why focus on full employment?

        What’s with you MMT folks wrt banking? Google “famous banking quotes” and you’ll quickly see how some of the most famous men in history have despised and hated banking. Were they wrong?

        * Caused by credit creation – the means by which the so-called “creditworthy” steal purchasing power from everyone else.

        1. Dan Kervick

          Calm down. All the comments are moderated automatically on every post. I clear every one one my own posts as soon as I see them. Yours are up now.

      2. F. Beard

        I’ll add that without the government backed counterfeiting cartel, the banking system, that common stock as private money and 100% reserve lending of fiat should be able to adequately and honestly finance business and industry. That’s the way it should have been – central banking was invented in 1668, about 60 years after the common stock company.

        1. Gizzard

          Frankly we need both Keens debt jubilee AND Moslers JG. The debt jubilee would right the past wrongs inflicted on everyone by the “counterfeiting cartel” (I kind of like that phrase) and get present consumption up to where it could be, but it still seems to me that a JG is necessary (or a BIG but our society would reject a BIG before JG I think) for the simple reason that private employers will always be trying to do the most with the least amount of people. A full employment situation within the private sector will be naturally unsustainable as private sector businesses get more efficient. Efficiency leads to unneeded employees. Thats the way it is and the way it should be. We should never expect a private business to employ more people than they need. The public sector though can always find something for a person to do and can always pay them a wage. They dont need customers to provide the revenue to pay for employment. Basically no one who wishes to do something for pay should be denied that opportunity.

          1. F. Beard

            Frankly we need both Keens debt jubilee AND Moslers JG. Gizzard

            What if, in addition to Keen’s debt jubilee, and instead of Mosler’s JG, all the common stock of all the large corporations including the banks, was equally divided among the US population?

            That way, we would all be debt-free (on average) owners of all the large capital in the US, the way we would probably have been except for the counterfeiting cartel.

            The problem with a JG is that it does not fix unjust wealth disparity which is bound to get worse if income is limited to just wages for most of the population. Distributing the capital, otoh, eliminates the war between capital and labor by making everyone an owner of the capital.

            Small capital (doctors, lawyers, small companies, etc.) would remain independently owned because it is MUCH more likely to have been honestly earned.

          2. Gizzard

            Well it seems there is no reason that income would have to be limited to those JG wages. 8$/hr job, national equity and a debt jubilee.

            Any idea how much an individuals share of the national stock would be worth?

          3. F. Beard

            That’s a good question. I just added up the market capitalization of the top 20 US companies and came up with $4.4 Trillion. That’s $17,600 for every US adult.

          4. LucyLulu

            F. Beard wrote: “What if, in addition to Keen’s debt jubilee, and instead of Mosler’s JG, all the common stock of all the large corporations including the banks, was equally divided among the US population?”

            Surely ye jest. Now you have truly entered the realms of fantasy land.

            You really plan to tell all the nation’s shareholders you’re confiscating their shares for some big giveaway? What percentage of our lawmakers own stock and would have to vote against their self-interest? Uncle Warren loses all his BAC options?

            Recall that many of these folks who have stock are the working middle class with 401K’s. Many also have guns. The rest have access to pitchforks. The plan sounds vaguely similar to Bush’s plan to privatize SS, with the value of pension savings vulnerable to disruptions in the economy.

          5. F. Beard

            Surely ye jest. LucyLulu

            The trend in automation is that fewer and fewer workers will be needed. So what about the rest of humanity? Shall they be given make-work on Pharaoh’s pyramids? Or enlisted in the US military to make the world safe for banking?

            And how did the large corporations in the US get so big? Was it not through the liberal use of the government backed counterfeiting cartel, the banking system?

            But the abolition of the counterfeiting cartel, a universal bailout, including non-debtors, till all private debt is paid off and a Basic Income Guarantee is acceptable. BUT NO MAKE WORK! That’s an insult to those whose stolen purchasing power was used to build the capital in the US.

            Without the counterfeiting cartel, then I reckon the large corporation will have to issue more common stock to finance themselves so the eventual result might be the same anyway.

      3. R Foreman

        > when those owners reach the point where the return on further investment doesn’t any longer exceed the cost of the investment, they will simply stop investing – even if that leaves a substantial number of individuals unemployed.

        That’s where we’re at now. That’s what forced the Fed/Treasury to start buying up most of the risk markets, and caused consistent outflows from those markets. Once they paid off the bad debt (the 2008 bailouts), the die had been cast.. no risk of loss, and no incentive for profit, mean there is no reason to invest, period. We have been set on a path which leads to no economy at all, or an economy so horrible that complete dependence on the state is preferable.

        F Beard’s discussion about a debt jubilee/reduction, the one proposed by Steve Keen, I believe is our best chance at a way out, a return to ‘normalcy’, but I don’t have much hope it will be taken. Our feckless leaders have demonstrated such severe self-interest, a desire to sustain an unsustainable system and themselves emerge with multiples more wealth, and such a disdain for our highest laws, that I have a horrible view to where this is heading.

      4. Carla

        @Dan Kervick and others posting on NC: I would like to suggest that when we study the writings of President Lincoln, we consider how he managed to express profound ideas in relatively few (perfectly chosen) words.

        Economy of language may help us to persuade others to our point(s) of view.

  13. RanDomino

    What a bunch of stupid bullshit. You can’t talk about work without taxes and rent, which make work obligatory rather than a dignifying gift.

    This worthless idea that work is inherently good is based on the Christian idea that you’re a bad person and you deserve to suffer, and if you’re not suffering then you’re lazy or greedy and so on. Fuck that.

    Fuck full employment, let’s get back to talking about full enjoyment.

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