February 23, 2013

IF INCREASING WEALTH WHILE SUBTRACTING LABOR ISN'T PROGRESS...:

A World Without Work (ROSS DOUTHAT, 2/23/13, NY Times)

[T]he decline of work isn't actually some wild Marxist scenario. It's a basic reality of 21st-century American life, one that predates the financial crash and promises to continue apace even as normal economic growth returns. This decline isn't unemployment in the usual sense, where people look for work and can't find it. It's a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time -- wanted or unwanted -- is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.

Of course, nobody is hailing this trend as the sign of civilizational progress. Instead, the decline in blue-collar work is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms -- on the left as the economy's failure to supply good-paying jobs, and on the right as a depressing sign that government dependency is killing the American work ethic.

But it's worth linking today's trends to the older dream of a post-work utopia, because there are ways in which the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.

That progress can be hard to appreciate at the moment, but America's immense wealth is still our era's most important economic fact. "When a nation is as rich as ours," Scott Winship points out in an essay for Breakthrough Journal, "it can realize larger absolute gains than it did in the past ... even if it has lower growth rates." Our economy may look stagnant compared to the acceleration after World War II, but even disappointing growth rates are likely to leave the America of 2050 much richer than today.

Those riches mean that we can probably find ways to subsidize -- through public means and private -- a continuing decline in blue-collar work. Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they're receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admits. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)

There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren't the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?

...then there's no such thing.

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Posted by at February 23, 2013 8:00 PM
  
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