Back when I was a pup, way, way back in the ancient 1960’s, the “work” paradigm went something like this (assuming you made it to high school): “High School – College – Job At IBM Or Xerox Or Ford Motors For Life – Retirement At 65 – Death Not Too Long After If You’re Male, Not Too, Too Long After If You’re Female”. The work you did was more or less generic. Your whole career, such as it was, was all about taking one for the team because you expected the team would be there for you when you needed it. Your employer (for life) would take care of your salary (of course) and your health insurance. They’d also take care of your retirement — tying their future fate together with your later years. Of course, they’d be there come the day — it’s America, FFS! But, something else was happening meanwhile — something below the surface of it all. While America was working, corporate America — monied America — was working against us all.
Though profits and productivity increased, wages did not. That wasn’t an accident or a coincidence. Back in the 1950’s, when America’s economy boomed, the retail-retail top tax rate for people earning mega-bucks was 91%. No one paid that; when all was done and said, the effective tax rate for the more-money-than-God set was 42%. That’s not too far from today. In other words — the wealthy (having gotten far wealthier since then) could easily pay that difference without even missing it.
Now, let’s be real where the super wealthy are concerned. Nothing any one person does, will do or has ever done could possibly justify anyone having the kind of wealth the super wealthy now possess. Even a great idea born of one person’s verifiable genius demands that countless others get involved in order to shuttle that great idea from the abstract into reality. Contrary to Donald Trump’s thinking, NO ONE alone can fix ANYthing. It’s not just child-rearing that takes a village. Here in the real world, it takes a village to do literally ANYTHING.
The problem is, rich people immediately assume they deserve their wealth (regardless of whether they do or don’t). Whether a trust fund or good fortune have smiled upon them, the rich tend to think their being rich is part of some divine plan. That’s how we ended up with kings and queens insisting (all evidence to the contrary) that their blood was superior to everyone else’s. It’s how we ended up with the idea that an ordinary (fallible) priest takes on the papal robes and immediately becomes INfallible. Um, no, actually — the infallible thing does not in fact happen. The robes only add layers of clothing. Nothing else.
I have spent my entire adult life in the gig economy. It’s not a new thing. What’s new is that more and more people realize they’re living in it, too, now. They realize they’ve been living in it for a while. And they won’t be getting out of it. The gig economy is now THE economy.
America is not prepared for it.
That’s because we keep thinking of “work” in the old fashioned way. We need to stop doing that right bloody now.
Is All Work Created Equal?
Hell, no. But it’s kind of the wrong answer to the wrong question. It should really be framed as “Is all work equal to the worker doing it?” We’d normally ask it in the reverse: “Is the worker equal to the work?” That’s why we insist on resumes and job interviews and character references. We want to make sure we’re hiring someone up to the task. Even better — someone who’ll excel at the task and make us look like geniuses for hiring them. An unemployed rocket scientist or brain surgeon would find their skill sets wasted doing shifts at McDonald’s. But, by the logic of unemployment compensation, you better have a good excuse for not taking the first job offered you.
The brain surgeon doing a shift at the takeout window will walk away with $120 worth of bounce in her step — not much bounce when her monthly nut costs thousands. Yes, she’ll no longer be “unemployed” but her job will both take up her time and fail to pay for her existence. Not exactly the point of the exercise. Let’s say that by hook or by crook the clever Brain Surgeon finds a way to make ends meet on $2400/month (that’s $600/week X four). That wouldn’t be the case, of course — taxes, unemployment, Social Security and Medicare have to be taken out BEFORE any money got to the Brain Surgeon. Take away 25% — what it will likely cost the Brain Surgeon. Working full time, she’s got to make everything in her life fit inside $1800/month.
The simple fact is that no one living in most urban environments in America can thrive on $1800/month. A couple making $3,600/month has a fraction more wriggle room but bigger expenses. Throw in a kid and it would have to be a miracle that this family isn’t living on the street somewhere. Yet, this happens all the time in America. People work their asses off like hamsters in a wheel — getting nowhere, having zero to show for it.
We got here because we love money more than work. We love money more than any work product especially when t’s not ours. We assume the higher one gets paid, the more valuable the work. Spoiler Alert: that’s bullshit. The most valuable work is that which builds, nurtures and sustains us AS a culture. Teachers are incredibly valuable as are any people who chose to work in day care and early childhood development. If we paid people what they were worth in the broadest possible sense to the culture they call home, the distribution of money would be very different from how our society hands out its financial rewards.
The biggest cost in most businesses is labor. The people who “do it all”. That’s also where most businesses try to keep their expenses down. Of course, one must have a budget in order to successfully run a business. But, we’ve loaded businesses up with obligations that maybe they shouldn’t be obligated to — like their employees health insurance. For the record, this anomaly began in America during World War Two. To keep as much money as possible directed toward the war effort, big companies were prohibited by law from giving anyone raises or by luring new hires with promises of more money. The workaround a number of big companies found was offering new hires and valued employees “Hospital Insurance” policies that would help in the event that they or their family encountered a health emergency that put them in the hospital.
After the war ended, these workarounds should have ceased. But a lot of very big companies were now doing it — and, as America had no real health care infrastructure at the time — no system that valued health CARE (not the insurance that covers part of the cost of the care) — health insurance offered by one’s employer became a “thing” in America that Americans expected as part of their employment. That may sound good on the surface, but it’s been nothing short of a disaster for the bulk of Americans and American families who either can’t afford the insurance or aren’t capable of navigating a system that — profit driven as it is — wants to make money, not pay for benefits.
The big companies quickly realized that running a health insurance business for your employees is expensive and unrewarding. The health insurance business was invented to “solve” that problem. It’s utter rubbish that “Americans love their health insurance”. No, they don’t. No one loves their insurance. Insurance companies are GATE KEEPERS standing between an American and the health care of health care provider they want or need. They add nothing except cost. And, while government can indeed be terribly inefficient and subject to graft, so can the corporate world. At least with a government, we can (eventually) vote the bastards out. When a corporation has control of you, of your life, there’s little recourse — except governmental intervention.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed America’s many flaws in terrible ways. The first question our health INSURANCE (versus CARE) system asks when anyone walks in its door isn’t “How can we fix you?”, it’s “How’re you gonna pay for this?” That’s a problem if people can’t pay. They won’t go to get fixed. If they’re sick, they’ll continue to BE sick. They could easily make more people sick. As the delta variant has made clear, viruses untamed begin to mutate making the problem of solving them that much harder. When even the vaccinated can still get sick, we’re in a bad, bad place.
The reason Universal Basic Income has worked everywhere it’s ever been tried — the reason it’s working for us now (despite so many states already reasserting their more Dickensian way of doing things) — is because the money we pay people almost always goes directly into the economy. People use the UBI to pay their bills and buy things. Rather than taking the first job offered them, people receiving UBI (without having to worry about justifying it) tend to wait for jobs best suited to their skill sets and financial needs. When they do accept work, it’s invariably at a higher salary which means they’ll pay more taxes back into the system — helping to keep the whole thing going.
It works. it’s working. And it understands that we can make work and workers and working far more productive by giving work and worker more time to find each other. As more factory and retail work gets robotized, more people will have to find different jobs — maybe even whole different careers. The nature of a gig economy makes that more easily do-able. But that gets both do-able and productive when we stop thinking of work as punishment for not being rich and, rather, as a means to an end.
The rest of the world works to live while most Americans still live to work. That’s another unexpected benefit of the gig economy — it will force Americans to re-think why they work, what they do when they work and how to reap the most possible rewards from their work.