Sacred Economics: Chapter 14, The Social Dividend

The following chapter is from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. Return to the Sacred Economics content page here.

Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now. –Henry David Thoreau

Clearly the most unfortunate people are those who must do the same thing over and over again, every minute, or perhaps twenty to the minute. They deserve the shortest hours and the highest pay. –John Kenneth Galbraith

The Paradox of Leisure

In large part, the history of technology is the history of labor-saving devices. A diesel backhoe can do the work of five hundred men with shovels. A bulldozer can do the work of five hundred lumberjacks with axes. A computer can do the work of five hundred old-time accountants with pens and paper. After centuries of technological advances, why do we find ourselves working just as much as ever? Why do most people on earth still live in a daily experience of scarcity? For centuries, futurists have predicted an imminent age of leisure. Why has it never happened?

The reason is that, at every opportunity, we have chosen to produce more rather than to work less. We have been helpless to choose otherwise.

Under the current system, growth in leisure is impossible without some kind of wealth redistribution. Imagine what would happen if, all of a sudden, a magical technology were found that could double the productivity of every worker. Now the same amount of goods is available with half the labor. If (as in a steady-state or degrowth economy) demand does not increase, then half the workers are now superfluous. To stay competitive, firms must fire half their workers, make them part-time, or pay them less. Aggregate wages will fall by half since no one will pay workers more than the revenues they are generating for the employer. The laid-off workers no longer have the money to buy the products, even though they are about 50 percent cheaper. In the end, despite more goods being available with less effort, the money to buy those goods doesn’t get to the people who could use them. Leisure has increased all right; it is called “unemployment” — and the results are catastrophic: a rapid concentration of wealth, deflation, bankruptcies, and so on as described in Chapter 6.

The ensuing socioeconomic calamity can be averted in two ways: wealth redistribution or growth. To accomplish the former, we could simply take money away from the employed and give it to the unemployed, subsidize firms in keeping superfluous employees, or pay everyone a social wage regardless of whether they work or not. These redistributive policies diminish the relative wealth and power of the holders of money. The other solution, in the above scenario, would be to double demand so as to keep everyone employed.

Since, generally speaking, the rich are in control of things and don’t want their wealth to be redistributed, the traditional solution to the problem of overproduction and underemployment is to somehow generate economic growth, which means increasing demand for new goods and services. One way to do that is through exports; obviously, this solution cannot work for the planet as a whole. Another way to increase demand is, as I have abundantly described, to colonize the nonmonetary realm-to make people buy what was once free. Finally, we can simply destroy excess production through war and waste. All of these measures keep everyone hard at work when natural demand has been sated.

The ideology of growth, the story of Ascent, says that natural demand can never be sated, that it is infinitely (upwardly) elastic. It assumes an endless supply of new markets, new needs, and new desires. But as I have observed, the only object of desire that knows no satiety is money. The assumption of limitless needs and therefore limitless demand drives the insanity we see today-and the economic logic that justifies it. (1)

In the past we always had a choice of what to do with gains in efficiency: work less or consume more. Compelled by a growth-dependent money system, we consistently chose the latter. Instead of working less hard to meet existing needs more easily, we have constantly created new needs to meet or, more often, transferred needs from the gift into the money realm or sought to fulfill infinite needs with finite things. Such has driven our ascent, the development of our gifts of hand and mind. Though the cost to nature, culture, spirit, and humanity has been high, this development is not without its rightful purpose. Today, as the natural and cultural commonwealth is exhausted, the context of our choice — work less or consume more — is changing. The age of ascent is winding to a close, and we seek to apply the gifts we have developed toward their true purpose in a new relationship to Earth. The age of growth is over. John Maynard Keynes expressed a premonition of this epochal shift in Economic Consequences of the Peace:

On the one hand the laboring classes accepted … a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and Nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce. And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of “saving” became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion. There grew round the nonconsumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated. Individuals would be exhorted not so much to abstain as to defer, and to cultivate the pleasures of security and anticipation. Saving was for old age or for your children; but this was only in theory-the virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you. (2)

On the collective level, not consuming the cake means choosing growth over leisure. More efficient production technology allows us either to work less or to work just as hard and produce more stuff. Our economic system requires and embodies the latter choice. But despite today’s association of “Keynesian” economics with fiscal stimulus, Keynes himself never saw stimulus as a permanent solution. As a society, we have been artificially stimulating demand now for seventy years, through military spending, highway construction, and subsidies for accelerating extraction, construction, consumption, and imperialism. Attempting to uphold economic growth and keep the marginal efficiency of capital ahead of interest, we have trapped ourselves in a pattern of more and more production, whether we need it or not. Adapting to this trap, economic theory, with its assumption of infinite wants, says we will always “need it,” always need to produce more and more, if not in one industry then in another. I have described this process differently: as a depletion of first one realm and then another of natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital. Keynes did not state it so explicitly, living as he did in the ideological context of Ascent, but he clearly intuited it. His use of the past tense in the above passage suggests, at least to me, that one day it would be time to eat the cake: to choose less work over more stuff.

A positive risk-free interest rate is the economic aspect of the “exhortation” Keynes described to “cultivate the pleasures of security and anticipation” or, in my language, to mortgage the present moment to the future, to choose security, or a semblance thereof, over freedom. You see, the economic logic I have described has a personal dimension as well. For the past age, we have had an incentive to choose work over leisure, even when we didn’t need the money, because interest promises that our money will be able to buy even more leisure in the future. By abstaining from pleasure and leisure-and indeed, all too often, from our best impulses-we might even attain the economic version of heaven: early retirement. But as often with religion, the promise of heaven only serves to keep us in chains. The time of our servitude, though, is over. The condition of the planet now urgently demands that we turn our attention away from “growing the cake.”

The Obsolescence of “Jobs”

Ever since the dawn of the industrial era, we have borne an ever-present anxiety that we will be replaced by machines. And indeed this has come to pass for many, as machines take over functions once performed by humans. The only way to maintain full employment has been through growth, and yet here I am calling for an end to growth and an end to full employment (for money) as well. So, given that our age-old anxiety is upon us, let us examine what, exactly, it means for our labor to be replaced by a machine.

To be taken over by a machine, the job one is doing must have been mechanical to begin with. As society as a whole became more mechanized, more and more jobs took on the machine’s characteristics of uniformity, routine, and standardization. This was unavoidable when these jobs were to operate machines or otherwise plug into machine-dominated processes. Herein lies a much deeper source of our anxiety: not that we will be replaced by machines, but that we will become machines, that we will live and work like machines.

The most famous antimachine movement, the Luddites of the early nineteenth century, were aware of this. According to researcher Kirkpatrick Sale, theirs was not a blind, superstitious hatred of machinery; they thought machinery had its proper place. They were outraged not only by their loss of livelihood but by the shoddy products, numbing tedium, constant danger, and dehumanizing conditions of the factories. They were resisting the mechanization of labor. The replacement of highly skilled, autonomous production with degrading, dangerous factory work is an affront to the human spirit.

The goal of a compassionate economy, therefore, is not to provide “jobs,” as most liberal politicians seem to think. Once work has become mechanical, it is in a sense too late — inhuman work might as well be done by machines. I cannot help but remark on the inanity of economic programs that seek to make more “jobs,” as if we needed more goods and more services. Why do we want to create more jobs? It is so people have money to live. For that purpose, they might as well dig holes in the ground and fill them up again, as Keynes famously quipped. Present economic policies attempt just that: witness the current efforts to reignite housing construction at a time when there are 19 million vacant housing units in the United States! (3)  Wouldn’t it be better to pay people to do nothing at all, and free up their creative energy to meet the urgent needs of the world?

Clearly, we possess the means and face the necessity to grow less, to work less, and to turn our energies toward other things. It is time to redeem the age-old promise of industry: that technology will allow a dramatic reduction in the workweek and usher in an “age of leisure.” Unfortunately, the term leisure carries connotations of frivolity and dissipation that are inconsistent with the urgent needs of the planet and its people as the age turns. There is a vast amount of important work to be done, work that is consistent with degrowth because it won’t necessarily produce salable product. There are forests to replant, sick people to care for, an entire planet to be healed. I think we are going to be very busy. We are going to work hard doing deeply meaningful things that no longer must fight upstream against the flow of money, the imperative of growth. Yet I also believe we will have more true leisure — the experience of the abundance of time — than we do today. The scarcity of time is one reason we overconsume, attempting to compensate for the loss of this most primal of all wealth. Time is life. To be truly rich is to have sovereignty over our own time.

So far I have described a system that shifts financial incentives toward the preservation and expansion of the ecosystem and the rest of the commons, allowing money to flow to those who need it in the absence of growth. But there is an even more radical way to end the principle of “money shall go to those who will generate even more of it” upon which modern banking is based. Why not just give people money? Everyone? (4) This is the idea of a “social dividend” or “social wage,” advocated in the 1920s by Major Douglas, founder of the social credit movement.

The idea has both an economic and a moral rationale. Douglas, a British engineer, observed the same thing Marx did — that workers receive a shrinking share of revenues as industry becomes less labor-intensive and more capital-intensive — eventually leading to poverty, polarization of wealth, and economic depression due to falling demand. As a remedy, he proposed issuing fiat money in an amount sufficient for all citizens to purchase the products of their own labor, both as a direct per-capita payment and as a rebate on purchases-a negative sales tax. This proposal is not as far outside the economic mainstream as you may think-the stimulus checks sent out to all U.S. households in 2008 were a dilute form of a social dividend and were intended to have precisely the effect Douglas envisioned: to bring money to those who will spend it and counter economic depression. (5) These were not welfare checks given only to the poor. They were stimulus checks given to everyone.

The leisure-and-redistribution alternative to growth is gaining credibility as the economic downturn persists. In Germany, the Kurzarbeit, or “short work,” program subsidizes shorter workweeks in order to forestall unemployment, in flagrant denial of the so-called lump-of-labor fallacy (see note 1). Instead of laying off 20 percent of its workforce, a firm shortens everyone’s workweek by 20 percent. Most of each employee’s pay cut is reimbursed to the employee by the government. Employees can keep their jobs, working 20 percent less with only a 4- or 8-percent pay cut. (6) The results have been impressive: German unemployment stayed lower than expected through the recession, and the auto industry, where the policy was implemented most vigorously, did not lose a single full-time manufacturing job in the first half of 2009. (7)  The Kurzarbeit program is akin to a social dividend on a limited scale, and bears a similar economic and humanitarian motivation.

There is also a philosophical or moral rationale for a social dividend that I became aware of as a teenager when I read a story by Philip Jose Farmer titled, “Riders of the Purple Wage.” Echoing Douglas, Farmer reasoned that industrial technology has given humanity access to such vast, nearly effortless wealth that it shouldn’t be necessary for anyone to work very hard to receive the necessities of life. The easy affluence made possible by technology, and by the natural wealth of the earth, is the collective treasure of the entire human race; merely by being born, each person is entitled to a share of it. Certainly no person has more right than any other to benefit from, say, the inventions of Robert Boyle or Thomas Edison, much less the vast cultural context that made their work possible. You or I have no more right to this cultural endowment than we have to the land or the genome. It comes to us as the gift of humanity as a whole; it is the gift of our ancestors, just as the land is the gift of Earth, Nature, or the Creator.

Let us not be quick to accept the glib phrase I passed off above: “the easy affluence made possible by technology.” This phrase buys into the ideology of Ascent, which as I have described is bound up with the ideology of endless economic growth. Somehow, despite centuries of labor-saving technologies, we have no more leisure than did hunter-gatherers, Neolithic villagers, or Medieval peasants. The reason is the overproduction and overconsumption of those things that technology can produce and the underproduction and underconsumption of those things it cannot. Usually, those latter things are precisely those that defy the homogenizing, depersonalizing rule of money: all that is unique, intimate, and personal. I will return to this theme later; for now, simply observe that in the realm of those needs that do admit to quantification, our needs are easily met. We should not need to work very much to procure the physical necessities of life: food, clothing, and shelter. Certainly we should have to work no more than the average twenty hours that the Kalahari aborigines spent on subsistence, in a harsh desert with Stone Age tools, in 1970. Certainly, we should feel no less secure, and no more anxious about “making a living,” than the high Medieval peasants with their 150 saint’s days off.

The Will to Work

What insanity would rather have us build more unnecessary houses than, say, save sea turtle eggs from oil spills? It ultimately comes down to the depletion of the commons being profitable, and its restoration a matter of altruism. The proposals in this book reverse this dynamic. Internalization of costs redirects the flow of money, and the flow of human activity, away from consumption and toward the sacred. Negative interest money allows investment to go to uses that don’t generate even more money than went in and ends the discounting of the future. However, these measures alone may not be enough because some of the work necessary for the healing of the world is fundamentally uneconomic. (8)

The question, then, is how to create conditions that allow people to do important work that does not generate an economic return. As with redistribution of wealth, there are essentially two ways. One is the social dividend I have described, which exists today in dilute form as stimulus checks, tax credits, welfare payments, and so forth. This gives people the economic freedom to pursue activities that no one will hire them to do (because they won’t generate income for an employer) and that produce nothing salable.

The second way to foster noneconomic work is for the government (or other entity) to pay people to do the beautiful and necessary things that we have come to value. We saw a harbinger of this during the New Deal, when we hired millions of the unemployed not only to build infrastructure that would one day generate a positive economic return but also to do such things as compile and preserve folk music and create recreational areas. Extended further, this is essentially the vision of state socialism. However, central planning often misses important needs, invites totalitarian abuse of power, and fails to engage the creativity of individuals and grass-roots organizations. With the social dividend, we are trusting that, unconstrained by economic necessity, people will naturally choose good and necessary work. These free, unconstrained choices-the outgrowth of unfettered desire-will help identify what work is sacred.

At stake are two competing visions of human nature, and therefore two visions of how to run society. One says, “Free people from economic exigency, and they will do beautiful work.” The other says, “Provide beautiful work, and use economic exigency to induce people to do it.” The first trusts people’s natural desire to create and their capacity to self-organize; the second puts the decision of how to allocate human labor into the hands of policy makers. I think that both will have a place for a long time to come, and that eventually, as political processes become more inclusive, grass-roots, and self-organizing, the two will merge into one.

One objection to a social dividend or equivalent entitlements is that people would have no motivation to work. We think, “If people weren’t under some sort of pressure to work, they would do nothing at all. They need some sort of incentive.” Why work if your basic needs are met without working? In this view, scarcity, even artificial scarcity, is a positive good because it counteracts the inborn laziness of the human being. This logic taps in once again to the logic of control, domination, and the war against the self. But is it really human nature to want to do nothing productive? Do we really need rewards to cajole us into labor and penalties to punish indolence?

Or, put in another way, is it human nature to desire never to give, but only to take?

I think not. Perhaps you can identify with my own experience, that some of the most painful times of my life were when I was unfulfilled in my work, when I was not applying my gifts toward a purpose I believed in. I remember quite well a meeting with a software company in Taiwan, where I worked as a translator and business consultant in my twenties. We were discussing some new technology, 3D sound or something like that, and everyone in the room seemed avidly concerned about its implications for their product. I had a moment of incredulity: “Wait a minute, you mean you people actually care about this? Because I don’t care at all whether this or any other product has 3D sound.” The next feeling was bleak despair because I realized I only cared because I was paid to care, and I couldn’t imagine a realistic alternative to that. “Do I ever get to do something that I care about for real?” I thought. “When do I get to live my life, not the one I’m paid to live?”

A fundamental premise of this book is that human beings naturally desire to give. We are born into gratitude: the knowledge we have received and the desire to give in turn. Far from nudging reluctant people to give unto others against their lazy impulses, today’s economy pressures us to deny our innate generosity and channel our gifts instead toward the perpetuation of a system that serves almost no one. A sacred economy is one that liberates our desire to work, our desire to give. Everybody I know has so much to give, and most of them feel they cannot because there is no money in it. Yet that is not because their gifts are unwanted. There is much beautiful work to be done. Money as we know it fails to connect gifts and needs. Why does everyone have to work so hard just to survive when (whether thanks to technology or not) such needs could easily be met with a tiny fraction of human labor? It is because of the scarcity-inducing nature of money.

The assumption that people do not want to work runs very deep in economics and taps into a yet deeper source: the story of the separate self. If more for you is less for me, if your well-being is irrelevant or inimical to my own, why should I desire to give anything to anyone? The “selfish gene” of biology, seeking to maximize its reproductive self-interest, is congruent to the “rational actor” of economics, seeking to maximize its financial self-interest. We supposedly don’t want to do any work that contributes to the benefit of others unless there is something in it for us. We don’t really desire to give; we must be forced to, paid to.

Economics textbooks speak of the “disutility” of work, assuming that if not “compensated” with wages, people will naturally prefer to … prefer to do what? Prefer to consume? Prefer to do nothing? To be entertained? The justification for a scarcity-based economic system is built into its premises, which include deep prejudices about human nature. This book assumes a different human nature: that we are fundamentally divine, creative, generous beings; that to give and to create are among our deepest desires. To embody this understanding in the money system, we must find ways to richly reward gifts to society, without those rewards becoming a form of pressure or slavery.

Not only is the experience of scarcity an artifact of our money system, but the laziness we view as human nature is a valid response to the kind of work that system engenders. If you find yourself being lazy, procrastinating, doing slipshod work, showing up late, not concentrating, and so on, then perhaps the problem isn’t your character after all: perhaps it is a soul’s rebellion against work that you don’t really want to do. It is a message that says, “It is time to find your true work: that through which you can apply your gifts toward something meaningful.” Ignore that message, and your unconscious will enforce it through depression, self-sabotage, illness, or accident, disabling you from living any more a life not aligned with your generosity.

In a sacred economy, people will still work hard — not because they have to, but because they want to. Have you ever wanted to give your time or labor to a good cause but refrained from doing so because you couldn’t “afford to”? A social dividend frees gifts to flow toward needs and aligns our labor with our passion, our generosity, and our art.

Many people will work at paying jobs anyway, either to supplement the social dividend (which would probably be at bare subsistence level) or because they like those jobs on their own merits. But it would be a choice, not a necessity. In the absence of the coercive mechanism of “making a living,” there would be little market for degrading or tedious jobs. To attract workers, employers will have to provide jobs that are meaningful and work conditions that respect human dignity. Many such jobs will exist because so much of the work financed by a commons-based money system will be by nature meaningful (because of financial incentives to conserve and restore).

Tellingly, even without a social dividend, people do enormous amounts of uncompensated work anyway. The entire internet is built mostly by volunteer labor, from open-source server software to free content. Entire organizations are staffed by hard-working volunteers. We do not need financial incentives to work, and in fact we do our best work when money is not an issue. (9) What would the world be like if people were supported in doing the beautiful things they must struggle against economic necessity to do today?

Sacred Economics envisions a world where people do things for love, not money. What would you be doing in such an economy? Would you be reclaiming a toxic waste dump? Being a “big sister” to troubled adolescents? Creating sanctuaries for victims of human trafficking? Reintroducing threatened species into the wild? Installing gardens in inner-city neighborhoods? Putting on public performances? Helping decommissioned veterans adjust to civilian life? What would you do, freed from slavery to money? What does your own life, your true life, look like? Underneath the substitute lives we are paid to live, there is a real life, your life.

To be fully alive is to accept the guidance of the question, “What am I here for?” Most jobs today deny that feeling, since we are evidently not here to work on an assembly line or to push product or to do anything complicit in human impoverishment or ecological destruction. No one really wants to do such work, and someday, no one shall.

Who Shall Remove the Garbage?

Is that a realistic pronouncement? Let me share with you a little rumination I wrote last spring.

A Slave World

I am writing at this moment in a large airport. Thousands of people work at jobs associated with this airport, and few of the jobs actually befit a human being.

I traveled to the airport in a hotel shuttle. On the way I told the driver, a Peruvian immigrant, about the talk I had given this weekend and about my vision of a more beautiful world, and at one point, by way of illustration, I said, “Here you are driving back and forth to the airport all day — surely you must have moments when you think, ‘I was not put here on earth to do this.'”

“Yeah, that’s for sure,” he said.

I can’t help but think the same as I watch the cashier at the airport kiosk, typing in purchase items and handing out change and saying, “Thank you sir, have a nice day,” and the man going from trash can to trash can, emptying them into his cart and changing the plastic bag, silent and sullen, wooden-faced. What kind of world have we created, that a human being spends all day doing such tasks? What have we become, that we are not outraged by it?

The men and women at the ticket counters and gate counters have slightly more stimulating work, work that might take a few days or weeks to master, rather than a few hours, but still, their work falls far short of engaging the ability and creativity of a human being (although it might be satisfying for other reasons, like service to others, making people happy, meeting people, etc.). The same goes for the flight attendants. Only the pilots, air traffic controllers, and mechanics do work that might reasonably occupy the learning capacities of the human mind for more than a few months.

Strange it is to me, that the very worst, most brutal of all these jobs also receive the lowest pay. I understand the economics of it, but something in me rebels against that logic and wants the baggage handlers, drivers, and cashiers to be paid more, not less, than the pilots.

Without these menial workers, this airport and this society would not run in its current form. My travel depends on their labor, labor for which they are paid barely enough to survive.

And why do they consent to such work? Certainly not because of any aspiration to spend their lives doing it. If you can ask one of them why they do it, they will tell you, if they are not too insulted to speak, “I have to do it. I have to make a living, and this is the best work I could find.”

So my trip today is only happening because people are doing jobs they don’t want to do, for the sake of their survival. That’s what “making a living” means. A threat to survival is, essentially, a gun to the head. If I force you to labor for me under threat of death, then you are my slave. To the extent we live in a world that runs on the labor of many people doing jobs that are beneath human dignity, not just in airports of course, but in factories, sweatshops, plantations, and nearly everywhere else, we live in a slave world. Anything we obtain from the labor of slaves comes at an insupportable spiritual cost: a painful void or disintegrity deep within that makes us ashamed to look people in the eye.

Can we bear to shrug this away and resign ourselves to living in a slave world? I want to be able to look every man and woman in the eye, knowing that I do not benefit from their indignity.

* * * *

I have a more selfish motive, too, for not wanting to live in a slave world: the products of slave labor embody the spirit that goes into them. Who but a conscript would produce the crappy, dispirited, toxic, ugly, cheap objects and buildings that surround us today? Who but a slave would be so resentful and unpleasant in providing services? (10) The vast majority of our “goods and services” are made by people who only do so for the money, who only do their work because they “have to.” I want to live in a world of beautiful things created by people who love what they do.

Anyone indoctrinated with the prejudice that work is something objectionable will think me naive to propose a system where no one is forced to work. Who would grow the food? Remove the garbage? Sweep the streets? Work in the factories? I do not suggest that unpleasant work will be eliminated any time soon; just that there will be less and less of it. Already, despite our politicians’ best efforts to create more of it in the form of jobs, and despite our best efforts to keep consumption growing, there are fewer “jobs” available.

But who will remove the garbage? Must we resign ourselves to a society where the worst jobs are left to the least fortunate? Must we resign ourselves to a society in which some people must do work that is beneath them, coerced into it by money-based survival pressure? When we agree that some degrading jobs are necessary, and when we agree that we must have an economy that forces some people to do those jobs (or go homeless and hungry), then we are essentially agreeing to slavery: “Do it or die.” So, is it possible to have a modern economy, with its fine division of labor, that doesn’t necessitate careers as toilet scrubbers and garbage collectors? Let us consider the matter in some detail, applied to that epitome of degrading labor, garbage collection. (11)

Why do we need garbage collectors in the first place? Why is there so much garbage to collect? It is because we consume so much throwaway junk, because we don’t compost food scraps, and because we use so much packaging that is not reused or recycled. Throwaway products and packaging are possible because they are artificially cheap. Most of the costs of resource extraction and industrial processing to make the packaging are externalized, as is the cost of disposal in landfills and incinerators. When, as proposed in Chapter 12, these costs are internalized, throwaway production will become much less economical, and such things as refillable containers will gain an economic logic to reinforce their environmental logic. Similar considerations apply to composting food scraps, as home gardening will gain an economic motivation with the removal of hidden subsidies (transport, water, chemicals, etc.) for distant mega-agriculture. There is really no reason why we should produce so much trash. (12)

The evolution of trash collection will be different in its details from the evolution of factory work, janitorial services, supermarket cashier work, or any of the often unpleasant and degrading occupations that make the world go ’round today. Each will be reduced or eliminated in a different way. Small, multicrop farms eliminate much of the drudgery of stoop labor. Small inns, bread-and-breakfasts, and couch-surfing reduce the need for professional hotel maids. Technology, mechanization, and robotics will continue to obviate assembly-line labor. Incentives to produce fewer but more durable goods reduce manufacturing and increase maintenance and repair work, which is far less routine and more fulfilling. Industrial design will gain a new incentive to minimize tedium rather than cost since jobs will be filled by desire rather than necessity.

Few people will willingly work on an assembly line for eight hours, pick endless rows of tomatoes, or clean toilets all day unless they feel they have no alternative. We will give everyone an alternative; therefore, the economy will have to evolve to eliminate such roles. We won’t need to eliminate them completely. Dishwashing, toilet cleaning, and stoop labor are tedious and degrading only if we do them too long. I have worked on my brother’s small organic farm and with a small construction outfit. None of that work was oppressive because we worked on a small scale doing a variety of tasks. Sure, there are tedious chores, such as digging three rows of potatoes or cutting slots into two hundred struts, but these weren’t multiday ordeals, and were usually accompanied with banter or afforded an opportunity for reflection. A season or two collecting garbage a few hours a day, or washing dishes, flipping burgers, or cleaning hotel rooms, isn’t so oppressive. Indeed, there are times in life when we want to rest into some routine labor. I have had such times myself, when routine physical labor was a balm to the spirit.

The vast reduction in what goes by the name of “work” today is not going to leave us idle, to dissipate our time in vapid pleasures. I stated above that human needs are finite, but we do have certain needs that are in a sense infinite. The need for connection to nature, the need to love, play, and create, the need to know and be known — none can be satisfied by buying more things. We are attempting to satisfy our need for the infinite through an accumulation of more and more of the finite. It is like trying to build a tower to heaven.

The nonmonetary realm properly includes all that cannot be quantified. Today we live in an overabundance of the quantifiable and a paucity of the unquantifiable: huge but ugly buildings, copious but empty calories, ubiquitous but trashy entertainment. Do you not agree that a shrinking of the money realm would be a refreshing change?

A finite need — calories, shelter, clothing, and so on — is a quantifiable need and thus fits naturally into the realm of commodity and therefore of money. We meet them easily, and indeed, thanks to technology, more and more easily. (13) It stands to reason that we should have to work less and less hard to meet our finite needs and that a greater and greater proportion of human time and energy could be spent on the infinite: art, love, knowledge, science, beauty. Accordingly, it also stands to reason that a smaller and smaller proportion of human activity be in the money realm, the job realm.

Up until now, we have instead sought to make the infinite finite, and thereby debased art, love, knowledge, science, and beauty all. We have sold them out. When commercial application guides science, we end up not with science but with its counterfeit: pseudoscience in service of profit. When art bows to money, we get “art” instead of art, a self-conscious self-caricature. Similar perversions result when knowledge is subordinated to power, when beauty is used to sell product, and when wealth tries to buy love or love is turned toward gaining wealth. But the age of the sellout is over.

The long ascent of the monetized realm is drawing to a close, and its role in our work and our lives is changing so as to upend long-held intuitions, fears, and limitations. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, money has been, increasingly, both a universal means and a universal end, the object of limitless desire. No longer. Its retreat has begun, and we will devote more and more of our energy to those areas that money cannot reach. The growth of leisure, or, more accurately, the growth of labor done for love, goes hand in hand with the degrowth of the money economy. Humanity is entering its adulthood, a time when physical growth ends and we turn our attention to that which we want to give.

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1. Infinitely elastic demand, for example, justifies eternal deferment of a leisure economy based on the so-called lump-of-labor fallacy. I shall rename this the “lump-of-labor-fallacy fallacy,” because this specious “fallacy” says that the amount of labor needed by the economy can always grow; therefore, improvements in technology won’t allow us a shorter workweek or less time devoted to production.
A similar argument, Jevon’s paradox, rests upon the same foundational assumption. Jevon’s paradox says that improvements in efficiency don’t lead to less resource use (including labor), but rather to more. For example, if lighting becomes cheaper, we will use more of it. If we switch to compact fluorescent bulbs that use one-fifth the electricity, we’ll install five times more of them. Since they are so cheap, maybe I’ll install some new ones in my backyard in case we have a party next summer. Applied to the degrowth factors I described above, Jevon’s paradox says that cheaper advertising will mean even more of it. But this, again, assumes an infinite upward elasticity of demand. It assumes that our capacity to use lighting, advertising, and so on is infinite. A more sophisticated version of this argument would say that even if demand is fully saturated in one area, any improvements in efficiency will free up money that will be applied toward some other area. So the assumption is that overall needs are infinite. Accompanying that assumption is another: that there is no limit to the amount of nature, culture, and so on that we can bring into the money realm. In earlier times, it indeed seemed as though nature’s resources were unlimited, but today the limits are obvious.
The economically educated reader can apply a parallel logic to other concepts of classical economics, such as Say’s law, the broken window fallacy, and so on. All partake of the story of Ascent: that our rise to dominion over nature will continue forever.

2. Keynes, J. Maynard. Economic Consequences of the Peace, 20; emphasis mine. I was alerted to this passage by

3. Moreover, millions more houses are far larger than necessary. In some countries, thirty people live quite happily in the space that an upper-middle-class American family inhabits. Interestingly, the economic depression is beginning to reverse this trend toward isolation and the atomization of family as grown children are forced to move back in with their parents or vice versa.

4. This would not entail permanent inflation unless the total money supply increased. However, in the system outlined herein, there are many ways to reduce the monetary base to allow a money-supply-neutral social dividend. Besides traditional methods such as taxation and central bank open market operations, the redemption of resource-backed currency could also be employed to control the money supply. Finally, decaying currency and negative interest on bank reserves reduce the money supply by the demurrage rate. Give the current money stock and a demurrage (negative interest) rate of 5 percent, this would allow a money-supply-neutral annual payment of $1,000 per household. If large amounts of other debt instruments are monetized in bailouts, as may become necessary to rescue the financial infrastructure, the revenue from demurrage could easily be ten times that.

5. Of course, at the same time much larger amounts of public money were being lavished on the very financial institutions that were complicit in the crisis to begin with.

6. Hassett, Kevin. “U.S. Should Try Germany’s Unemployment Medicine.Bloomberg. November 9, 2009.

7. James, Frank. “Unemployment Cure Could Lie in German-Style Job Sharing.” December 3, 2009.

8. By uneconomic I mean that it generates a negative financial return on investment, less even than the demurrage rate. One could make an economic argument that if all costs were internalized, and all effects on society and the ecosystem quantified, then all beneficial activity would become economic. However, the quantification of everything is part of the problem. It is better to leave some of the world unquantified and in the realm of the gift.

9. According to a number of studies by social psychologists and economists, money is only an effective motivator in routine, mindless tasks. For anything requiring creativity and conceptual thinking, the introduction of monetary incentives can actually impede performance. This seems quite obvious, since they would distract from the task at hand. See the work of Dan Pink for more information on this topic.

10. The fact that people are often friendly and pleasant even in such jobs is testament to the unquenchable nobility of the human spirit.

11. Degrading, that is, in our perception. Any work that isn’t violent to others can be performed with dignity, playfulness, or love.

12. The very phenomenon of trash is relatively recent. My ex-wife, growing up in rural Taiwan in the early 1970s, remembers that there was no such thing as a garbage truck in her village. Everything was reused, recycled, composted, or burned. Even today, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, without much infrastructure to support recycling and reuse, my household garbage production is about one-fourth that of my neighbors. So I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect that in a generation, we will need perhaps one-tenth the trash collection that we have today.

13. The fact that billions of people today are in want of the bare necessities of life isn’t because we can’t meet their needs; it is because we don’t meet their needs (see Chapter 2). The reason is an economic system that induces artificial scarcity and misdirects the flow of labor and resources.

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