No, none of us is worth what we are paid.
December 19, 2016 5:43 AM   Subscribe

Perhaps in the end the problem is that people want to pretend that they are filling a valuable role in the societal division of labor, and are receiving no more than they earn--than they contribute.

But that is not the case. The value--the societal dividend--is in the accumulated knowledge of humanity and in the painfully constructed networks that make up our value chains.

A "contribution" theory of what a proper distribution of income might be can only be made coherent if there are constant returns to scale in the scarce, priced, owned factors of production. Only then can you divide the pile of resources by giving to each the marginal societal product of their work and of the resources that they own.

That, however, is not the world we live in.


Brad DeLong (economist and economic historian) on markets, gift exchange, social capital (or increasing returns) and wishing "to be neither cheaters nor saps."

In response Nick Rowe at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative ties the question of increasing returns and payment according to the value of "marginal product" to Rousseau's Stag Hunt and the luck of finding yourself in a good social situation.

While the DeLong piece (and things he links to) involves commentary about how these issues relate to "Rust Belt" questions, perhaps focusing on the policy issues and not the immediate political situation might be helpful here.
posted by hawthorne (72 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
pull quote

...in a market capitalist society, nobody has a right to the preservation of their local communities, to their income levels, or to an occupation...

"Rights" are an artifact of social contract, which is in itself an artificial, perhaps imaginary construct. The big dog, or loudest, or scary smartest dog/entrepreneur does not know about rights, just if the sale closes.
posted by sammyo at 6:07 AM on December 19, 2016 [4 favorites]




perhaps imaginary construct

I'm fairly sure the social contract exists, at least in some places. Isn't that why I'm not being robbed right now?

May no longer apply int the US, I suppose.
posted by pompomtom at 6:49 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Nurses, teachers, police, the people who make your food, are all underpaid. Those are the people who heal you, educate you, protect you, and feed you.

Half of everyone aren't paid the same for the same work, ladies. Immigrants are plainly exploited as cheap labour. The poor pay more tax than the wealthy. Athletes can earn more money in a minute than you will in a lifetime.

Those are all facts. I shouldn't have to make any cites, you have google.
posted by adept256 at 6:50 AM on December 19, 2016 [22 favorites]




Thus we need to do this via clever redistribution rather than via explicit wage supplements or basic incomes or social insurance that robs people of the illusion that what they receive is what they have earned and what they are worth through their work.

As usual, DeLong putters along for a bit making interesting and thoughtful observations before making a wild unsupported leap when it comes to proposing actual policy. There is no evidence whatsoever that preserving people's illusions of meritocracy is useful or more likely to succeed as policy. There is substantial evidence that what makes or breaks a policy is not its imagined fairness1 but the breadth of its base—and there are few policies with a broader natural base than a universal basic income.

1. Imagined by wealthy white men like DeLong, that is. Naturally he presents no evidence that working people take his putative illusion very seriously at all. It's been my experience that faith in the efficiency of markets and justness of distributions is directly proportional to one's personal piece of the pie.
posted by enn at 7:00 AM on December 19, 2016 [14 favorites]


And so the only rights that matter are those property rights that at the moment carry with them market power--the combination of the (almost inevitably low) marginal societal products of your skills and the resources you own, plus the (sometimes high) market power that those resources grant to you.

I became very adept at understanding this at a young age and have ridden a 20-year long wave of a career that has keenly taken advantage of said ability.

But I can scarcely give a shit, I care more about the friends I didn't make in that time.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:02 AM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


If somebody's willing to do a job for love/a sense of goodness, you can underpay them. If they're not and someone else is, you can sack them and hire that other person. Which is why teachers/nurses and such will always be underpaid in a free-market society. Meanwhile, nobody becomes a hedge-fund trader out of altruism.
posted by acb at 7:04 AM on December 19, 2016 [24 favorites]


> Meanwhile, nobody becomes a hedge-fund trader out of altruism.

Financial markets are a machine and a game, and there are people who love playing games and fixing machines, so while there might not be goodness, there is plenty love of winning.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:10 AM on December 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


There are two elephants in the room in any economic distribution discussion: The idea that wealthy people believe they justly earned their billions (mentioned here), and the idea that most poor people feel a moral duty to breed their way into long-term food and job insecurity.
posted by Brian B. at 7:11 AM on December 19, 2016


No one becomes anything for just one reason. I work for a commercial bank doing QA and compliance work. I'm paid pretty well, I like the people I work with, a healthy corporate culture is supported from the top and all the way down, I like the work I do, and the nature of my role and my department is such that it's VERY stable.

Those are the selfish reason that I like my job but I'm also a small cog is part of a HUGE machine that acts as a bulwark against another financial crisis. I know that I personally don't make a big impact but I DO make an impact so I feel like I have a duty to society to take my job seriously.

I could totally imagine that some hedge fund managers understand what their role is in helping idle capital find worthwhile investments and take that role our economy's health seriously. Like everything else, I'm sure it's a spectrum with a lot of them doing it for the money and nothing else but I'm sure it's not the only reason for everyone.
posted by VTX at 7:13 AM on December 19, 2016 [17 favorites]


Perhaps even more importantly, local and state governments in the Midwest could work with universities and local companies to create more academic-private partnerships and to boost knowledge industries in places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio.

It is pure bubble-world fantasy that supposes that cash-strapped, beleaguered "local governments" in states where most if not all of the legislatures are Republican-controlled are going to be willing, able, or inclined to "work with" universities and companies to create conditions of the kind proposed above. Austerity is a harsh overlord, and in austerity-land, nobody in a position to do anything about it gives a shit that Macomb County (or any other county unless it's Fairfax or Morris or Westchester or some similarly affluent county) is falling apart at the seams.
posted by blucevalo at 7:20 AM on December 19, 2016 [10 favorites]


Well, the true test of altruism behind a career choice is this:

You willing to do this same job for under $30k a year?

Because that's what we ask of teachers, allied healthcare workers, social workers and a myriad of other "helping professions".
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:23 AM on December 19, 2016 [29 favorites]


Now I think it is an open question whether it is harder to do the job via predistribution, or to do the job via changing human perceptions to get everybody to understand that:
-no, none of us is worth what we are paid.
-we are all living, to various extents, off of the dividends from our societal capital
-those of us who are doing especially well are those of us who have managed to luck into situations in which we have market power--in which the resources we control are (a) scarce, (b) hard to replicate quickly, and (c) help produce things that rich people have a serious jones for right now.


I don't think that much changing of perception is actually needed; Delong focuses quite a bit on this idea that no one wants to believe they're receiving charity (and therefore a Basic Income wouldn't work), but I think you could hook that reception of capital into nationalism really really easily:

"Of course I get my Monthly Dividend! I'm an American, aren't I? Greatest country in the world. Richest country in the world. We ALL get our Monthly Dividends. That's why everyone else in the world envies us! We're the best ones!"

This is not too far off from a lot of the other benefits we already have, like the strongest military being worshipped by people who don't serve in it, or Medicare received by people no longer working, or hell, the privileges of whiteness being enjoyed by people who did zero to get 'em. It's remarkably easy to convince people they absolutely deserve the thing they're getting, that they're owed it just for being them.

I think Delong is too worried about something that would only be a brief and small problem during the phase-in period, and would go away within one short year or so.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:25 AM on December 19, 2016 [17 favorites]


I actually don't care much about usefulness or deserving when it comes to my work. It's a way of surviving. I would gladly work a few hours a week and spend the rest in reading and learning, maybe traveling, maybe acquiring new skills. I wonder if this need is in fact male-coded. Women and others with less experience of privilege might have less of a hard time understanding the ways money earning is not about fairness. Maybe deLong should talk to some of them.
posted by emjaybee at 7:28 AM on December 19, 2016 [19 favorites]


Well, the true test of altruism behind a career choice is this:
You willing to do this same job for under $30k a year?
Because that's what we ask of teachers, allied healthcare workers, social workers and a myriad of other "helping professions".


No, it's not. That's asking people to do a different (and - you think - more socially valuable) job. Doing the same job means taking the highly paid job and giving most of the money away. Some people do that. Not as many, but some.
posted by hawthorne at 7:29 AM on December 19, 2016


Because that's what we ask of teachers, allied healthcare workers, social workers and a myriad of other "helping professions".

I've read a lot of articles like this in the last 2-3 years, and I don't know that I can stomach another one. The unshakeable conclusion that I've come to is that the logical conclusion of capitalism (maybe any totalizing economic system, but certainly capitalism) is unvarnished death culture. I can't see any novel application of its core logic that lets us work ourselves out of this trap.

I mean, for fuck's sake - what kind of ghoul looks at a kindergarten teacher and thinks, "it's not enough that this person makes next to nothing - we need to demonize them so that it's easier to find a profitable, private sector 'solution' to their very existence!"

It needs to be killed with fire. Though maybe water will be what does it in the end.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:32 AM on December 19, 2016 [37 favorites]


There is no evidence whatsoever that preserving people's illusions of meritocracy is useful or more likely to succeed as policy.

Certainly in the US I think there's quite a bit of evidence of that. People want to work, a "fair day's work for a fair day's wages", a "deal" (new or fair). This is even how things like social security got sold.

A corollary to this of course is that distribution of jobs is important. Complaints about "makers vs. takers" ignore the fact that the "makers" are the lucky ones not because of their incomes but because they've taken the jobs.

There is substantial evidence that what makes or breaks a policy is not its imagined fairness1 but the breadth of its base—and there are few policies with a broader natural base than a universal basic income.

Once you have a policy in place people who benefit will fight to keep it, so sort of, but part of a UBI is a very high tax rate that many people will fight against. And there is a political science rule that things that benefit small numbers of people get more organized support.

Liberals are constantly scratching their heads about why policies that ojectively help workers financially get mixed support at best even from those workers, and UBI is no exception. I think UBI politically needs to be pitched as a dividend, the way de Long talks about income, a pay out from the collective wealth you contribute to, so you aren't being played as a sucker.

You willing to do this same job for under $30k a year?

Because that's what we ask of teachers


Median teacher income is almost twice that. It should be more. But it's a good bit more than Mike Clerk from TFA.
posted by mark k at 7:41 AM on December 19, 2016 [7 favorites]


Median teacher income is almost twice that. It should be more. But it's a good bit more than Mike Clerk from TFA.

Teaching salaries are heavily localized. In some places they pay quite well (here in PA actually--we still have strong teachers' unions and this is not a coincidence). In other places they do in fact pay that poorly. Looking at a national median figure doesn't capture the wild swings between the high and low water marks on this one (yo, South Dakota, what the hell is wrong with you???)
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:53 AM on December 19, 2016 [13 favorites]


a national median figure doesn't capture the wild swings between the high and low water marks on this one

100% this. School budgets - and by proxy teacher salaries - are tied very closely to local property taxes. Rich areas have highly paid teachers while poor areas do not. Cities, because they have such a high population density and relatively low property taxes, are an exception to this.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:57 AM on December 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


The people we trust with our money, and in return give us 10 percent returns and growth; those people deserve and earn every penny of their millions in salary and commissions.
The people we trust with our children, and in return give us functional young adults with knowledge and critical thinking skills; those people aren't valued in the least and are considered overpaid at subsistence wages.
The only conclusion is that we value our money more than we value our children.
posted by rocket88 at 7:59 AM on December 19, 2016 [13 favorites]


Also the step increase structure of public teaching salaries means that looking at the pool of all teachers gives the illusion that teachers with 1-5 years of experience aren't making significantly less than that figure. (Most teachers don't last more than 5 years, partly because the job tends to be easier and pay more the longer you do it so years 1-5 are basically having a masters degree and then working 80-hour weeks for thirty grand and wondering where the hell your life went so wrong. Source: all of the teachers I know including my husband.)

Anyway, sorry for the derail but this is kind of an instant well-actually button for me.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:01 AM on December 19, 2016 [14 favorites]


Also, from the article Delong links to:

The program proposed by Democrats of targeted tax credits and minimum-wage hikes is nothing more than a Band-Aid. It ignores the importance of jobs

This is kind of a weird take. Minimum-wage hikes are directly contingent on jobs. It's an attempt to make any job a job worth taking, so that even if like 90% of our jobs are "stocking the endcaps at Target", they're still able to provide enough security to raise a family and buy a house and let people live middle-class lives.

Universities are helpful for regional economic growth. The Midwest has a number of good schools (I went to one of them for my Ph.D.)

Noah Smith's article seems an even more amorphous take on "Let's Teach The Truckers To Code" -- he (and Delong) appear to envision a society built largely around people like themselves, not the millions of people working as hairdressers, cab drivers, dog groomers, janitors, etc.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:01 AM on December 19, 2016 [20 favorites]


I love the ontological and categorical problems that postmodern Capitalism creates. Chiefly, it seems that many are confused why the pricing structures that works for, say (a la 'Wealth of Nations', ca. 1776) and the production of simple industrial goods-- like buttons seems to fail when applied to people.

'I don't understand why this 18th C. pricing model for leather goods doesn't apply to pharmaceutical technicians in Birmingham?!??!?!?' It doesn't seem to be returning fair and useful results!'

Markets are exceptionally good at pricing certain kinds of transactions-- this is trivially obvious. They fail for other kinds of transactions, without enormous amounts of state infrastructure-- this also seems trivially obvious.

The idea that one's [SALARY] = [SOCIAL_WORTH] couldn't be more hilariously silly.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:01 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


I can't tell if it's the font or the writing style, but I can't seem to read and follow this article. Seems interesting, wish I could just get the gist of it somehow?
posted by latkes at 8:08 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Value-for-work is very much on my mind as of late.

I've been gradually - and unofficially - taking on a second person's duties where I work, because they are working remotely - and doing a job that it is not very practical TO do remotely. When this arrangement first began, I was told it would be "a coule months" until they were phased out, and I figured it was a good chance to sort of "audition" for the role myself.

But that was in April, and the only thing that has changed is that I've gradually worked from doing one-and-one-third jobs to one-and-eight-tenths jobs, but I'm still only getting the salary for one job. And the cheaper of the two to boot.

I have mentioned this to my boss a couple times, and still get the "just a couple more months" message. I am meeting with them one more time, and this time I will be telling them that "look - someone else is being paid for work I am doing. You can either start paying me for it, or I can bill her directly. Your call."

I have also considered just not doing those other tasks, but the hell of it is that those are the tasks I want to be doing and I would be left only with the data entry and analysis that I hate.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:09 AM on December 19, 2016 [11 favorites]


latkes, I feel you. The prose style of this article makes my head hurt.
posted by jonmc at 8:11 AM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, the whole idea of being paid (the market value of) what you earn will be doomed as soon as automation drives the market value of human labour below the minimum cost of living. It has already done this in a lot of traditional working-class jobs, and a lot of traditionally middle-class cognitive labour is next. Then either there will have to be some other basis for remuneration (universal basic income, dividends from common wealth, or whatever one calls it), or the AIs that run the corporations will unleash the killer drones to finally prune the extraneous costs of having all those economically useless meat-beings taking up space.
posted by acb at 8:11 AM on December 19, 2016 [7 favorites]


Noah Smith's article seems an even more amorphous take on "Let's Teach The Truckers To Code" -- he (and Delong) appear to envision a society built largely around people like themselves, not the millions of people working as hairdressers, cab drivers, dog groomers, janitors, etc.

This is something that genuinely baffles me about the conservative argument against minimum wages that goes like

1) Small business owners/job creators will be pressed if they're forced to pay more for labor
2) Wage-earning was never meant to be the basis for a life (here they will trot out the example of a teenager for whom $7.25 is big buxx before college)
3) If a person wants to earn a really good living, they need to become business owners themselves

Which completely elides all the jobs that make theirs possible, and which don't work if everyone owns their own business: teachers, janitors, ambulance drivers/emergency medical personnel, bank tellers, trash collectors, museum curators, law enforcement officers, and THE LIST GOES ON because society just doesn't work this way. Worker bees (or bots) are necessary for things to function. Not everyone needs to be an owner or "disruptor" or to innovate in their field.
posted by witchen at 8:17 AM on December 19, 2016 [16 favorites]


acb I like where you're going with this, in terms of an inevitable plague of killer drones. I have to be vague for business integrity reasons, but this is largely a part of what I do for my gig-- encoding of those 'precious knowledge worker' jobs.

I wish I could say that the last few years of my profession have been humbling, and taught me a profound respect for the depth of human creativity and the passion that people bring to their roles: it's done the opposite.

There are huge offices, my friend, fields of them. People driving SUV's, feeling comfortable at their six-figure salaried jobs, where the bulk of their 'precious, intellectual labor' consists of taking EXCEL FIELD (A1) and seeing if it is larger than (B2) and then coloring field C3 red or blue.

Those jobs are going away over the next ten years. Furthermore, I would argue, from a value-creation standpoint-- they probably never should have existed, and were probably the artifacts of 'empire-building' corporate cultures where all that mattered was getting butts into chairs to increase headcount in yet another spreadsheet somewhere. That corporate america is dying. Whether that's good or bad, I remain neutral on.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:18 AM on December 19, 2016 [15 favorites]


And immediately I realize what that end game looks like, and that it is desirable to certain people: only the strongest/best business owners and their families will survive; other positions will be automated; the humans who didn't make the cut just...didn't make the cut.

That's the dream of Trump's America. Which seems obvious, I guess.
posted by witchen at 8:19 AM on December 19, 2016 [6 favorites]


Musk just told Trump to invest 100B (of the 1TB Infrastructure plan) in *ROBOTS*!

(we are all so screwed)
posted by sammyo at 8:23 AM on December 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


I suppose if you think about it in terms of scarcity, then kindergarten teachers, by dint of the very fact we need so many of them become less "valuable" in a sense individually, where CEOs, since we require so few of them, are seen as more "valuable" to be able to fill such a small niche over any competitor. If society takes it construction as a given, and sees each role as having some reasonable merit for the society as a whole, then they will be more likely to view scarcity and accomplishment as linked and place higher rewards on jobs with higher level competition, but fewer openings.

(Higher level in this case coming from the idea that the job has a high degree of difficulty or requires higher levels of ability as much due to the perceptual issue of rarity and power than actual abilities or skills required potentially and, in some ways, really. There are probably fewer people than one might imagine willing to take on a CEOs job as it requires treating people as objects or worse. So our own ethical reticence might increase the social value of the job in a way, while filling social needs actually harms value, in that narrow sense of the term.)
posted by gusottertrout at 8:23 AM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


The entire discussion on income vs. value vs. tech vs. (shh commies) vs. good red blooded republicans seems more and more like the discussion of time travel paradox plots. Does not matter what thread of reasoning one follows, it loops around to prove the opposite.
posted by sammyo at 8:26 AM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


I could totally imagine that some hedge fund managers understand what their role is in helping idle capital find worthwhile investments and take that role our economy's health seriously.

Really? I can't. I mean, maybe there are a few. An infinitesimal percentage. But for the most part they are people who are interested in manipulating financial instruments to make money and couldn't care less whether their work contributes to society. Oh, sure, many of them will pay lip service to "helping idle capital find worthwhile investments" to make themselves feel better, but the ones who are honest and don't mind being viewed as self-serving assholes will usually admit that this philosophy has nothing to do with their work and they are just trying to make as much money as they can by whatever means possible.
posted by slkinsey at 8:26 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


American-born robots of European descent, presumably?
posted by pompomtom at 8:26 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Word on the street is that the solution to this problem is, believe it or not, interpretive dance.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:32 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Dammit grumpybear! If there's anything I hate more than reading about greed it's interpretive dance. Strangely I will fight for anyone's right to study, perform, or teach it... just leave me out of the equation.
posted by trif at 8:42 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


the idea that most poor people feel a moral duty to breed their way into long-term food and job insecurity.

What.
posted by byanyothername at 8:44 AM on December 19, 2016 [22 favorites]


Another line of thought to consider is what happened to the US Nursing labor pool. [Transparency: I dated a NP for a year or so] We had a huge 'Nursing Crisis' that lead to 'unacceptably high' wages for a while, in large areas of the country.

Now we're in a glut.

Of course, all the smart nurses transferred laterally into 'case management' to protect their salary band-- and US healthcare providers happily accommodated this (at the gunpoint of US Nursing Unions)-- which is why you now have a personal NP case manager on so many cases with so many large insurers. Which is, at least partially, a factor in the inflation of US healthcare costs.

So you can see, the system 'works' in that 'smart people will game it ruthlessly,' and 'society will pay the costs.'
posted by mrdaneri at 8:51 AM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, that's still "lucky." Not "smart." And not even a great medium-term solution.
posted by byanyothername at 8:56 AM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


You're right that it's likely rare specifically among hedge fund managers but if you expand that to include a broader range of money and financial managers and I'm sure you'd see a much wider range of attitudes. There are a wide range of mutual funds, for instance, with a wide range of goals. Some income funds are designed to provide regular, stable, income for retirees and others that seek to invest in ethically run companies. Surely some of those fund managers do it partially because of what their work contributes to society.
posted by VTX at 9:02 AM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


If physical labour and intellectual labour are automated away, labour with a social/interpersonal component may be the last one to remain; which means that either we'll be paid a basic income, monetary value will become less important and people will help each other out out of social ties. Or, alternatively, there'll be a neo-feudal system, where the oligarchs at the top have armies of humans at their beck and call, down to human bum-wipers standing at attention 24/7 by each gold-plated toilet in their palaces and yachts, their courtiers and senior servants will have their own smaller armies of servants, and it'll radiate outwards, with those outside a specific radius of power relying on machinery (which, in some cases, serves to enforce discipline through total surveillance and quantification, softening the deal with a bit of “fun” gamification).
posted by acb at 9:28 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


acb consider China's innovative social credit system that will doubtlessly make such neo-feudalism relatively easy to build, enforce, and maintain when global environmental forces leads to severe rationing of limited resources.
posted by mrdaneri at 9:41 AM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


consider China's innovative social credit system that will doubtlessly make such neo-feudalism relatively easy to build, enforce, and maintain when global environmental forces leads to severe rationing of limited resources.

If it takes off, I can see countries as diverse as Russia, Iran, Singapore and the UK adopting similar systems. (In the UK, it'd probably be sold as a way to “integrate ethnic minorities living parallel lives”, crack down on “benefits scroungers”, and/or promote “British values”. I can't imagine Theresa May turning it down on principle.)
posted by acb at 9:47 AM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


the people we trust with our money, and in return give us 10 percent returns and growth; those people deserve and earn every penny of their millions in salary and commissions.
The people we trust with our children, and in return give us functional young adults with knowledge and critical thinking skills; those people aren't valued in the least and are considered overpaid at subsistence wages.
The only conclusion is that we value our money more than we value our children.


on the face of it, yes.

But then, what are we doing with that 10-percent return and growth but investing it in our children's future (among other concerns)?

The conclusion I draw here is that, on the whole, capitalism's way of fairly dispersing reward/income for genuinely important work is flawed at best, entirely random way too often. But unfortunately, it seems to be in the DNA of this culture that it's the Best Of All Possible Systems (TM) ... so barring some massive upheaval (which we could already well be in the middle of), I don't see much changing quickly.

I'm from Canada, which contrary to popular belief, is hardly an ideal when it comes to income fairness and distribution (only more ideal than the USA). I mean look further than a place like Alberta which, for many years, had the kind of oil revenues that should've made everyone as rich as they'd ever need to be for generations. Unfortunately, Alberta being a hotbed of free enterprise, most of those revenues went directly into private hands and filtered out of the province, out of the country entirely, so that now that things have crashed somewhat, well let's just say, things are pretty grim.

Meanwhile in Norway ...
posted by philip-random at 9:51 AM on December 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


So what value is this putting on emotional labor?
posted by nicebookrack at 10:49 AM on December 19, 2016


On the Rust Belt angle of Noah Smith's piece that DeLong quotes approvingly from:
Governments -- federal, state and local -- can revitalize the long-suffering Rust Belt. Some locations have already begun this transformation -- Pittsburgh, which is rebuilding a knowledge economy based around Carnegie Mellon University and undertaking various urban renewal projects, provides a great blueprint. Targeted regional development policy can prepare cities in the Midwest for the industries of the future, whatever those may turn out to be. And it can reassure the people living in these areas that their government hasn't forgotten them.
Let me just say as a Pittsburgh resident and Carnegie Mellon employee that we are not necessarily the blueprint you're looking for. I wouldn't have come to the region were it not for CMU, and certainly the region has managed deindustrialization better than some other parts of the Rust Belt, but it looks more to me like these companies are just setting up here to have access to the pipeline of ideas that create wealth for their investors, with very little benefit reaching the local communities.

Mayor Bill Peduto seems to have his heart in the right place, but he's in a delicate balancing act where he wants to attract the tech titans to the city but also talks about wanting to share the wealth. From my point of view, it looks like the arrangement is much better for the companies (and for those of us who work in tech) than the residents here.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:50 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


I would be quick to point that out, tonycpsu. I have, in some roles, recruited and trained teams-- specifically in the middle of the US.

Technology is by no means a panacea. For starters, outside of a few very, very specific industries, the era of 'IBM-style' huge IT departments is dead, dead, dead and gone, gone, gone. Teams are lean to the point of near-absurdity, with outsourcing filling in the many gaps. There's a tiny window of entry for new talent-- you come in as a dev out of college [if you're in the top 25 % of your class] or that's it. The days of companies having a huge QC department where you 'work your way up and out' in to Dev and then maybe PM, and then heck-- you're the director of Software Engineering-- well, the MBA's took care of that ca. 2001. It's all commodity skillsets now.

Seeing these cities banking on tech firms swooping in to revitalize their ailing economies is semi-tragic for those of us who've lived the cycle [some of us, many times].
posted by mrdaneri at 11:18 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think Delong is too worried about something that would only be a brief and small problem during the phase-in period, and would go away within one short year or so.

More likely within the period of the first check received and cashed.
posted by notreally at 11:22 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think in Pittsburgh the robots and such are actually just window-dressing for the real drivers of the city economy which are Pitt and UPMC, both of which have at their foundation a shit-ton of low-paying, and mediocre-to-okay-paying very unsexy job-jobs. So, on the upside, the economy is a bit more diversified than "robots n' Google" but on the downside: UPMC exists.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:37 AM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


robots and such are actually just window-dressing for the real drivers of the city economy which are Pitt and UPMC

Precisely. The idea that business creation/startups are a scalable panacea for 'the economy' is only held by people who never look at the actual numbers.

See, eg, Cambridge, MA, which started that kind of process in the 1970s. They're the quintessential test case for this economic development strategy and you can see that, in terms of volume, it's the big institutions that lead the way.

I don't want to undersell the criticality of entrepreneurship in a regional economy either. All the 'company towns' eventually went extinct because they had the big fish, but no future path. You need both.


In terms of how the market sorts out value and wages, we're SO overdue for a coherent economic theory of power.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 12:20 PM on December 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


and the idea that most poor people feel a moral duty to breed their way into long-term food and job insecurity

I hope to god I am misunderstanding what you are saying here.
posted by she's not there at 2:24 PM on December 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


Of course, all the smart nurses transferred laterally into 'case management' to protect their salary band-- and US healthcare providers happily accommodated this (at the gunpoint of US Nursing Unions)-- which is why you now have a personal NP case manager on so many cases with so many large insurers. Which is, at least partially, a factor in the inflation of US healthcare costs.

I think this is a bit of an odd interpretation of the case management trend in nursing. There is a huge shift in funding toward "population health", due to shifting beliefs about how health care should should be administered, and specifically because Obamacare basically requires this shift, as reimbursement will come not from bodies in beds but from number of patients served. If you want to pin inflation of healthcare costs on nurses (I think this is pretty bogus given how much health care costs are generated by the whole insurance system, but OK), then if anything, the old strategy of paying bedside nurses is much more expensive, as many states have nurse/patient ratios for bedside nurses, but none for case managers.

I know this is a small example but hey, I'm a nurse case manager, so felt I should throw in my two cents.

PS, I'm not sure what you mean by the gunpoint of the nursing unions: yes, our unions do keep us from being arbitrarily fired, but I think if there's any dysfunctional advocacy on the part of the nursing unions, it's to keep hospitals open, a thing that that healthcare companies, with their eyes on their bonuses, recognize is expensive and wasteful and actually bad for patients.
posted by latkes at 2:25 PM on December 19, 2016 [7 favorites]


wishing "to be neither cheaters nor saps."

That's been my stated goal at every job I've had. I don't want to give them anymore than they are giving me.

I have a decent work ethic, so it hasn't worked out completely in my balance, but there were a lot of years when I got away with doing not very much at all.

As a communist in a capitalist world, it's a way.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:35 PM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


the idea that most poor people feel a moral duty to breed their way into long-term food and job insecurity.

best I can guess, here you are referring to well known correlation between extreme poverty and birth rates. Could you explain if that's correct, and if so, what that has to do with the topic?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:58 PM on December 19, 2016


One reminder on economics is always to remember that value (as well as optimal and efficient) are terms of art defined to be mathematically consistent. They have some similarities with the normal human concepts that the words were originally invented for but they are not the same thing.

Using the same word can cross wires. Being paid for value seems fair, but the economic definition of "value" is almost literally what someone will pay for it. It's a tautology*. Once the conversation moves into normative questions, and what should be done, remembering what ordinary humans mean by value is a worthwhile exercise**. Maybe it relates to the skill and care something takes, or maybe the benefit it provides society as a whole. Or maybe a good teacher who reveals the truth is more valuable than an advertiser who obscures it, even if you think a masterful adman is a rare artist and competent teaching is merely a craft.

I have a decent work ethic, so it hasn't worked out completely in my balance, but there were a lot of years when I got away with doing not very much at all.

As a communist in a capitalist world, it's a way.


In point of fact, being paid for nothing is a legitimate capitalist ethic. Capitalism rewards supply and demand (where demand is determined by people who have capital), and has nothing directly to do with effort.

As a communist your comrades would be within their rights to shun you for growing fat of the labors of others in the glorious workers paradise.

*Not exactly, I admit, and if anyone wants to give a more rigorous definition feel free.

**In my experience discussions along these lines with actual economists will lead to them challenging you to come up with an alternate mathematically consistent definition of value. I respect good economists but don't get sucked into a debate about the real world within the tiny confines of their little mathematical models--there's no reason value needs to additive, enumerable, comparable or quantifiable.

posted by mark k at 8:42 PM on December 19, 2016 [2 favorites]


We are caught in the gears between the old model (which never worked that well for everyone) and the new model (which threatens both massive suffering and massive benefit, contingent on a host of factors difficult to define or anticipate).

To me all this noodling about "value" of work misses the point. Either we get a UBI or equivalent at some point, of masses of people starve to death as work that sustained them becomes automated out of existence. The question is which way we go.
posted by emjaybee at 8:57 PM on December 19, 2016 [5 favorites]


While we're talking wishfully about new economics, we need to break our economic dependence on unending population growth, and preferably also greatly reduce the ubiquitous externalization of costs, hopefully while simultaneously diminishing the size of ecological footprint as driver of quality of life, because it would be nice for things to get more stable rather than more brutal.

Our current economics are broken on several levels and are dragging along but don't offer any kind of viable future. (I think a widespread sense of this is part of why UBI is gaining mindshare)
posted by anonymisc at 9:41 PM on December 19, 2016 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: I like where you're going with this, in terms of an inevitable plague of killer drones.

"Of course I get my Monthly Dividend! I'm an American, aren't I? Greatest country in the world. Richest country in the world. We ALL get our Monthly Dividends. That's why everyone else in the world envies us! We're the best ones!"

This is not too far off from a lot of the other benefits we already have, like the strongest military being worshipped by people who don't serve in it, or Medicare received by people no longer working, or hell, the privileges of whiteness being enjoyed by people who did zero to get 'em. It's remarkably easy to convince people they absolutely deserve the thing they're getting, that they're owed it just for being them.


What you say makes all kinds of sense—I don't believe for a second that there would be some kind of society-wide malaise if everyone could live a dignified life regardless of their employment situation. But can the "You deserve your Monthly Dividend" PR campaign beat "A Fair Day's Pay for a Fair Day's Work" or whatever it is the haves come up with in response? Because they won't give up their pool of poor and desperate people without a fight. After "death taxes" and "death panels," this is where I'm less optimistic.
posted by No-sword at 10:26 PM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


To me all this noodling about "value" of work misses the point. Either we get a UBI or equivalent at some point, of masses of people starve to death as work that sustained them becomes automated out of existence. The question is which way we go.

Making sure labor has the power to negotiate better deals with capital, and the social and political power to enforce them can work also. There are many ways to control the distribution of gains from things like automation. I like a lot about the UBI and I understand it is simple to pitch, but it's not like it's the only option.

Personally I've become convinced that more powerful labor (not necessarily "organized labor" but practically that may be all there is) is the next step. Even if you think the UBI is the only way, I don't think you get it without broad labor engagement. You might not get with more assertive labor (which might prefer other priorities and solutions) but without that UBI is tough to pass and impossible to maintain. IMHO.
posted by mark k at 11:08 PM on December 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


But can the "You deserve your Monthly Dividend" PR campaign beat "A Fair Day's Pay for a Fair Day's Work" or whatever it is the haves come up with in response?

You can either have a functioning democracy, or you can have unrestricted marketing, but you can't have both. If you want a democracy to work, there needs to be a common consensus on the factual basis of democratic decisions, which in turn requires the media resistance of the electorate to be higher than the ability of political marketing to create facts from the ether. And you can do that one of two ways: make the education system ensure that nobody comes out of primary school without the ability to consume marketing critically, or regulate political marketing. Implementing the latter in the US would be way cheaper (though I note that the case law around the first amendment means it'd require constitutional changes; it'd still be way cheaper than implementing universal media education though.)

Given that we chose advertising as a prime source of income for the technology industry whose killer drones are perhaps to liberate us from this mess, and that the political discussion (in the US at least) has been thoroughly hijacked by the political marketing industry for the past few decades, and that we've apparently achieved reasonably broad consensus on first-amendment primacy, that political speech is sacrosanct regardless of how much money is behind it, I'm afraid it'll be democracy that has to go.
posted by Vetinari at 11:31 PM on December 19, 2016 [4 favorites]


What you say makes all kinds of sense—I don't believe for a second that there would be some kind of society-wide malaise if everyone could live a dignified life regardless of their employment situation.

That may be true, I'd like to believe it is, but I'm not sure it actually is the case. Just look at the opioid epidemic which has been hitting the much talked about "rust belt" so hard, or the rise in suicides and lowering of life expectation through effects of similar issues. There do seem to be a lot of people who aren't able to deal with having no planned direction to their lives, or who may not have rich inner lives to sustain their imagination without a more direct outside stimulus like work can provide. I'd suggest that any attempt to implement a UBI come with a host of productivity options to provide direction rather than just assuming people will be happy with more free time and cash. I don't think that really is enough for a great many people out there, but I'm not sure what would be an effective replacement for work either given the value sets people claim as their own. Over time, perhaps, people might transition to more acceptance of any new system, but the transition will be rough, and the threat of it someday ending or changing too would be a real worry.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:07 AM on December 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


Along the lines that others have clarified above--I'm wondering how long we have before the US mainstream will begin denouncing the Four Freedoms campaign from the 1940's as decadent Communist propaganda. My personal lean is +/- 5 years.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:23 AM on December 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


You're way more optimistic than I am.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:48 AM on December 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm wondering how long we have before the US mainstream will begin denouncing the Four Freedoms campaign from the 1940's as decadent Communist propaganda. My personal lean is +/- 5 years.

You're 5 years behind.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:34 AM on December 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


And Noah Smith responds with an interesting piece about The Connection Between Work and Dignity (the headline draws attention to the expression it's trying to avoid!).

Economists like to tell a possibly apocryphal story about Milton Friedman. The prophet of free markets, visiting an Asian country in the 1960s, witnessed a public-works project that had people making a road with picks and shovels. When he asked why they didn’t use earth-moving machines instead, a local official responded that the goal was to provide people with jobs. In that case, the economist asked, why didn’t the government just have the workers use spoons instead?

Friedman of course was a prominent advocate of a version of UBI/ Guaranteed Minimum Income approaches.

Smith's remarks on Japan are interesting to me because I went there earlier this year and the issue is right in front of your eyes every time you walk own the street. Older men (obviously that's an angle here) doing jobs that simply aren't done at all in other rich countries - two blokes were often shepherding pedestrians at the entrance to a parking lot. OK they had a job and presumably felt they were contributing, but they're bullshit jobs. Don't they know that? Don't other people? I'm on team "dignity of having money myself", but I have to admit those doing the jobs looked into it.
posted by hawthorne at 7:19 PM on December 21, 2016


Well, I should think there's a huge difference between make-work that involves literal back-breaking labour and make-work that involves hanging around outside and helping other people do stuff.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:54 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


From the perspective of the worker, or some of them anyway, one of the things that makes jobs so desirable is the social component. As people age it becomes more difficult to find social outlets that will provide some diversion from one's own mental activity, which can be monotonous or self destructive if listened to constantly. The need for diversion seems acute, and as a culture we;ve moved from in person social occasions to virtual ones, which, for older people particularly can seem an unsatisfying or even unnatural substitute for direct in person communication. This too might speak to some of the patriarchical structure of society, where men and women sometimes can't find satisfaction with the their counterparts, even within a marriage. That's something I've seen fairly regularly over many years with married couples and with those in the work force, a fairly dramatic difference in communication and some perceptible dissatisfaction when there is no other outlet for socializing.

Over time, perhaps, this will change. Both as people become more accustomed to virtual space interaction and as social needs and communicating outside one's closest group becomes more the norm.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:11 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


There do seem to be a lot of people who aren't able to deal with having no planned direction to their lives...

I think that the problem here is the assumption that work must be the 1st direction a person goes. Like, step 1 of figuring out what you want to do with life is contingent on having a job. The job is the starting line, then you can figure out a direction. If you feel like you need more income before you can plan something and you can't get the income you feel like you need without having a job AND you've given up on the idea of getting a job, then picking a method of slowly killing yourself makes sense.

If, however, you know right now that you will ALWAYS have the income you need to support your basic wants and needs (a modest house with modest modern conveniences and little left over for fun stuff) and society in general stop defining people by their jobs, I think that problem largely goes away. It gets to be a lot easier for people to devote time to hobbies and art or just go out and do stuff, with people even.

The way I see it, you need about 100 people to decide that playing guitar is their jam to get one Jimi Hendrix. The way society works right now, there are maybe 10 people who can actually devote themselves to that pursuit. Introduce UBI and now you get 1,000 people who all devote hours every day to creating music with their guitars. I asked my FIL what he would do with himself if UBI existed and paid well because robots/computers do all the work. He thought about it for a while and decided that he would be a teacher. So you can bet that at least some people would choose to teach guitar to anyone willing to learn. So now you've got 10 legendary guitarists, a big chunk of excellent players, and bunch of other people who just like playing guitar.

The same could be said for just about any subject in art, science, or just about anything else you can think of. Of course, that's an ideal might not be achievable but I think it's a worthy goal and I think it's what human civilization should be striving for. Even getting to a point where only a few people have to work and are a little more well off for it but everyone else lives in basically a Star Trek society, it's still a pretty good place to live.
posted by VTX at 9:27 AM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


would do with himself if UBI existed and paid well because robots/computers do all the work.

As a thought experiment, imagine everyone staying home and collecting their internet purchases with free money, perhaps thousands of shoes and hundreds of gallons of milk to bathe in. The problem is that we assumed no such scarcity to require money. What happens when some people employ the concept of free money as trickle down from the elites, essentially a way to control us? The communists once saw money as the main corruption to any utopia, but valued work and free stuff. But people waited in lines for free stuff. So they brought money back and eventually communism frayed and collapsed because the black market worked better, which wasn't difficult. My point is that it is not impossible to reach your utopian goals, but they might need to begin with a new system, rather than just free money in a world full of drugs and gluttony. Even those who defend the earned income credit do so on the caution of never paying people to quit their jobs, because boredom is real, and inflation is real, and there is no easy line from promising free stuff to enlightened utopia.
posted by Brian B. at 7:24 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Personally, I think UBI is a fantastic progressive end goal, that skips intermediate steps. Along the lines of how Obamacare was 'supposed to be' an 'intermediate step' towards 'single payer healthcare' and now, here we are in 2016-almost-2017 and things are, as they say, in flux.

I think a manageable and discrete target would be some kind of work transition or educational program targeting specific, known sectors of the economy, again with specific, discrete targets of success. ['We will replace 10,000 H1B visas in Oklahoma with 10,000 native Javascript developers in 2018 via this many block grants.']

Of course, I might as well be wishing we'd give NASA 10 % of the Federal Budget. Won't, can't and isn't going to happen.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:52 AM on December 26, 2016


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