[extropy-chat] Refining the Work Ethic (fwd from durable at earthlink.net)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Wed Apr 14 10:31:39 UTC 2004

----- Forwarded message from Barry Brooks <durable at earthlink.net> -----

From: "Barry Brooks" <durable at earthlink.net>
Date: Tue, 13 Apr 2004 19:57:22 -0500
To: eugen at leitl.org
Subject: Refining the Work Ethic
X-Mailer: Calypso Version (4)

Refining the Work Ethic

Should we go home and open cans to keep our can openers busy? The waste of spoiled food would be much worse than the imagined waste of can openers waiting to be used again. Human labor is no different. Producing too much will reduce our wealth. We can continue to waste scarce natural resources to avoid the "waste" of idle labor, but that is not sustainable.

Some people believe that labor is scarce and natural resources are abundant, but really resources are increasingly limited and labor is increasingly surplus due to automation. Now that we have machines we don't need everyone's full labor, but the existence of surplus labor has been obscured because we have been able to waste enough to keep most workers busy, so far. Should we continue to waste scarce natural resources to keep all workers busy?

Culture Bound Attitudes Prevent Reform

For most workers "employment" is not just a matter of economics. It's a matter of being a member of society, of individual satisfaction and identity, of being human. We have made work so important that many people doubt that life has any purpose without work. We may give thanks to God for the gift of food, but we really believe that we earn our livings.

We respect productive people and scorn laziness, yet our capitalist system has two kinds of income: earned income and unearned income. While most people are dependent on wages, our system also allows various kinds of unearned income such as interest, dividends and rents. For those who own significant capital "employment" has nothing to do with being human or being a member of society, and getting a job is never a matter of urgency. Unearned income, in the form of a Basic Income, will allow capitalism to change enough to become sustainable.

Now, we face great pressure to address the limits to growth. The greatest obstacle to building an efficient and durable world has been our failure to separate the economic and the social functions of work. Before machines and resource scarcity became basic economic realities, more work would bring more wealth. When a scarcity of labor prevailed, economic output was limited by labor, and full employment was the best way to increase our standard of living.

Today we need full employment only because of wage dependence. Automation has ended the need for full paid employment, and the pressing need to conserve will require the replacement of our job-creating consumer economy with a new economy designed to just deliver goods and services, rather than also keeping us busy.

The production of goods and services could be much more efficient if we didn't make the use of all human labor one of our goals. For example, most automation can be designed to operate with low energy consumption, and without the need to transport many workers to and from work the economy could operate very well on a fraction of the present energy consumption. The use of increased durability is a powerful method of conservation will allow vast wealth to be supported by low rates of resource consumption, but increased durability conflicts with our goal of using all human labor.

Without the use of demand stimulation, war, and other methods of increasing waste, there will be a shortage of paid work in any automated economy. But there will always be plenty of unpaid work, like motherhood, that could be done properly if people weren't too busy being wage slaves. If human dignity hinges on work why not give unpaid work its due respect? Must money be involved for work to be good? Those who need to or want to can work as much as they want. People can work at anything helps others, or anything that conserves or that produces what we need without wasting our scarce resources or polluting this little planet.

We have lost sight of the goal of economic activity. It is to provide goods and services. Any work that may be involved is just a means to an end. We have let the means become the end.

To answer our economic problems we must first decide what we want and how to get it. I believe that after due consideration we will end up wanting a sustainable economy that delivers goods and services and which requires only a minimum amount of forced work. Why should we automate jobs? Not because we need to produce more and more, but because we want to work less and less.

Some kinds of independence are really possible and desirable, but that does not make dependence bad. To the mind of an economic-macho dependence is always bad. However, the idea of being self-made has limited application in realistic thought, because we are all dependent on so many things. It's sad to meet wealthy people who kick their children out to earn their own income as workers instead of teaching them how to be grateful beneficiaries and responsible stewards of the family wealth.

For those fortunate few who refuse to accept the responsibility of helping poor people it is very easy to excuse greed and cruelty by claiming that helping people is bad for them. They believe that any help for the bungled and botched would only create more bad dependence. This sort of insane individualism doesn't just seek personal egotistical independence; it seeks to destroy the evils of cooperation and altruism everywhere, and turns selfishness into a virtue.

Must we base our self-respect on being useful? We love children, but we don't love them because they are useful. We even love the idle rich, who don't seem to be useful. We have plenty of other values to guide society without having an attitude based on the belief that he who doesn't work belongs on the street in a box.

Some kinds of dependence are unavoidable. We may be wage dependent or dependent on unearned income, but we all need some income. Do we earn our livings, or do we just take the wealth of nature with an automated system?

We may even say thanks for the gift of food occasionally, yet we may still think that unearned income is good for the rich and bad for the poor. Doesn't unearned income really make people more independent than wages? At least without wage dependence we have more time to do whatever we choose and the freedom to live far away from centers of well-paid employment.

If dividends are worth fighting for why is welfare so bad? Should wages be the only source of income for poor people in an efficient and automated economy? We could try a form of capitalism in which ordinary people have some income from capital. It would allow an end to hyperactive waste.

We need some quick ethical evolution. It may be hard, but we can take a different attitude toward our work. While oil is still abundant we can easily build systems that don't need high consumption to operate, and we can stop wasteful busy-work any time. Are we just going to fight for the dwindling space, water, air, and oil, while ignoring the possibility of painless conservation? It would be much better to address these issues now. Physical laws will not change, but we must. We can change and we will, and sooner would be better than later.

Barry Brooks

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