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Column: Work means everything to us — and hereafter it can’t

Editor’s Note: The first Making Sen$e excerpt from Jim Livingston’s new book, “No More Work,” embodied the book’s premise and voice: “there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills — unless, of course, you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”

It ended by proposing a guaranteed income for all in place of work and suggested two ways of financing it for starters: raising the earnings lid on the Social Security tax — it stands at $113,700 this year; all earnings above that amount are free from the Social Security tax — and hiking taxes on corporate income. In this second installment, Livingston suggests how a corporate tax hike could be accomplished, why and how irrelevant corporations have become to the creation of work.

Paul Solman, Making Sen$e Correspondent

Let’s work backward. Corporations have been multinational for quite some time. In the 1970s and 1980s, before Reagan’s signature tax cuts took effect, approximately 60 percent of manufactured imported goods were produced offshore, overseas, by U.S. companies. That percentage has risen since then, but not by much.

Chinese workers aren’t the problem — the homeless, aimless idiocy of corporate accounting is. That is why the Citizens United decision of 2010 is hilarious. Money isn’t speech, not any more than noise is. The Supreme Court has conjured a living being, a new person, from the remains of the common law, creating a real world more frightening than its cinematic equivalent in say “Frankenstein,” “Blade Runner” or, more recently, “Transformers.”

But the bottom line is this: most jobs aren’t created by private, corporate investment, so raising taxes on corporate income won’t affect employment. You heard me right. Since the 1920s, economic growth has happened even though net private investment has atrophied. What does that mean? It means that profits are pointless except as a way of announcing to your stockholders (and hostile takeover specialists) that your company is a going concern, a thriving business. You don’t need profits to reinvest, to finance the expansion of your company’s workforce or output, as the recent history of Apple and most other corporations has amply demonstrated.

So investment decisions by CEOs have only a marginal effect on employment. Taxing the profits of corporations to finance a welfare state that permits us to love our neighbors and to be our brother’s keeper is not an economic problem. It’s something else — it’s an intellectual issue, a moral conundrum.

READ MORE: Column: Why we need to say goodbye to work

When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labor market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And there’s the rub: they do go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills and present reward. When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, of durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by “durable” I don’t mean just material things), I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.

When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America) or buying votes in Congress (all of the above) — just business as usual on Wall Street — while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realize that my participation in the labor market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.

We’ve placed so many bets on the social, cultural and ethical import of work that when the labor market fails, we’re at a loss to explain what happened or to orient ourselves to a different set of meanings for work and for markets.

And by “we” I mean pretty much all of us, left to right, because everybody wants to put Americans back to work, one way or another — full employment is the goal of right-wing politicians no less than left-wing economists. The differences between them are over means, not ends, and those ends include intangibles like the acquisition of character.

Which is to say that everybody has doubled down on the benefits of work just as it reaches a vanishing point. “Full employment” has become a bipartisan goal at the very moment it has become impossible, unnecessary and unfairly rewarded.

READ MORE: Column: I’m predicting an economic recession in 2017. Are you ready?

By now we must know that the valuation of ourselves that entails the principle of productivity — from each according to his abilities, to each according to his creation of real value through work — commits us to the inane idea that we’re worth only as much as the market can register. By now we must also know that this principle plots a certain course to endless growth and, with a high degree of likelihood, its faithful attendant, environmental degradation.

The principle of productivity has functioned as the reality principle that made the American Dream seem plausible. “Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead,” or “You get what you pay for, you make your own way, you rightly receive what you’ve honestly earned” — such homilies and exhortations used to make sense of the world. At any rate they didn’t sound delusional. They do now.

And that’s a big problem. A Nobel Prize-winning economist explained anomalous mortality rates among white people in the Bible Belt by claiming they’ve “lost the narrative of their lives,” suggesting they’ve lost faith in the American Dream. For them, the work ethic is a death sentence because they can’t live by it.

So the impending end of work raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. To begin with, what purposes could we choose if the job — economic necessity — didn’t consume most of our waking hours and creative energies? What evident yet unknown possibilities would then appear? How would human nature itself change if the ancient, aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of human beings as such?

Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the essential ingredients of healthy human being. Of course he was right. But can love survive the end of work as the willing partner of the good life? Can we let people get something for nothing and still treat them as our brothers and sisters — as members of a beloved community? Can you imagine the moment when you’ve just met an attractive stranger at a party or you’re online looking for someone, anyone, but you don’t ask, “So, what do you do?”

We won’t have any answers until we acknowledge that work now means everything to us — and that hereafter it can’t.

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