Our Bullshit Economy is Doomed.

We are completely, bowleggedly, phillips-head screwed.

Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… ― La Haine

The headline popped onto my screen unasked for, in a notification from google news: Stock Market Hits New Highs on Stimulus Hopes.

Morons, I thought. They still don’t get it. They still think that the stock market (or bitcoin, or housing) is high despite the weakness of the real economy. If it’s doing so well now despite the contraction, imagine how good it will do when mainstreat comes roaring back to life?

But wall street is high because of the weakness of the real economy. If the virus recedes, and if the real economy starts to actually thrive (two big ifs) then the fed — in line with inflation targeting — will have to increase interest rates. New loans will slow, and those who have borrowed to invest need to start increasing their repayments. Suddenly the bear will roar and the cheap-debt fuelled orgy of greed will come to a screeching terrified halt.

Of course some of the companies will benefit from the stimulus induced increase in main-street spending. That will allow them to pay higher dividends, theoretically allowing their shareholders to cover these repayments. But everything would have to line up just right. The minimum wage/tip workers who get re-employed by restaurants, would all have to go out and buy Teslas, or at least the restaurant owners would, assuming Tesla is even able to meet that increased demand, to justify that stock’s rocketing price. Maybe. And maybe Amazon sales will increase, with the shift to online retail proving permanent. But what about Signal Advance? The health care company whose stock price increased by over six thousand percentage points after Elon Musk tweeted about an encrypted chat app of the same name? What about bitcoin? Will it suddenly start paying dividends?

The core attraction of these investments has never been returns, but equity growth. And the thing about equity is you can’t actually spend it, or use it to repay the bank. You have to sell to do that. And that’s fine, so long as there are fresh buyers, but if QE and low interest rates disappear, those buyers won’t be there. And just like that *poof*, all those gains are gone.

Or worse, they aren’t, because interest rates stay low, because the real economy continues to operate under capacity, and the “K shaped recovery” continues, meaning the rich get richer while the middle class stagnates and the underclass precariat grows. Then the correction will end up being of an entirely different, political, rather than economic nature, which could be far more terrifying indeed.

The way things are set up now, it’s wall-street vs main street, and it has been for a while. The combination of austerity thinking and inflation targeting by central banks, introduced in the 80s and 90s respectively, dislocated the already tenuous relationship between the stock market and the real economy.

It works like this: The government pulls back on spending and suppresses wage growth, despite growing productivity, so the economy veers towards a deflationary spiral. In steps the central bank, lowering rates and buying excess debt out of the economy and voila, inflation stays in positive territory. Stocks rise on the back of leveraged investments, cash-poor middle class households convince themselves that they are actually brick-and-mortar millionaires. They let the credit card rip (or borrow against their equity to spend), and for a time, it is good. But larger and larger sections of the population — those who never had a chance to acquire assets- are left further and further behind.

If the government steps in on the fiscal side of things, to boost the spending power of those left behind (and help the middle class with those credit card repayments) then we’ll see real inflationary pressure, and rates -according to the technocratic religion of Independent Central Banks — will go back up, spelling doom for asset markets.

How did we get to this dangerous impasse?

This is to do with the fundamental role of banking and money in the economy. Something mainstream economists, politicians, media and investors studiously ignore.

When interest rates go up, money flows faster out of the economy back into the financial sector, new money needs to flow the other way, in the form of new loans. Our bullshit economy is dependent on ever increasing levels of debt, on an ever greater fool willing to take on that debt.

When the music stops, someone is going to be left holding the bag. The longer that takes, the bigger the bag will be. The more “ma-and-pa” investors get in on the action through gamestonks or smartphone based crypto trading apps, or over-priced investment properties, the bigger their share of the stinky excrement will be.

So if a Biden administration does proceed with the promises made to the Bernie faction of the democratic party, they will be undermining not just their wall street backers but the upper end of the suburban middle class, a core voting block they just won over from the Republicans.

Either way, unless our leaders embrace radical new thinking, the pain is coming.

It might be possible to square the circle and avoid that pain, balancing a slow deflation of asset prices with an increase in incomes and spending, but that would require a government that actually understood the problem. That would, in turn, require a lot of high status people to admit they were wrong and adopt new ideas. And it seems unlikely that will happen until after things go from fraught to catastrophic. Until then it will be a case of “so far so good… so far so good…”

How a Basic Income could Lower Housing Costs.

The inflationary effects of a basic income would allow central banks to raise interest rates, slowing the flow of money from the financial sector into asset bubbles like stocks and, crucially, housing.

One of the most common objections raised to a basic income is that house prices and rents will simply be raised and erase all the income gains, leaving people back where they started. Even if all other factors were held static it seems likely that competition between landlords and home sellers — and with those selling other asset classes — would act as something of a brake on price increases, preventing them from absorbing all of the increase in income.

But other factors won’t be held static. For a start there would be a decoupling of the labour and housing markets which would increase vendor-side competition in the housing market, since there would be a greater number of people who could quit their current job and move where housing is cheaper. This would compliment and overlap with the existing trend towards remote work. The increased spending power and arrival of new customers in country towns would then create more employment opportunities, making them even more attractive relative to the city. It would of course put upward pressure on regional house prices, but across the whole economy the spread of demand would lessen pressure on city markets.

In Australia we’ve recently got a sense of the short term limits of this effect, as the pandemic increased city-to-country transitions, especially along the east coast, causing house prices in regional areas to rise, often pricing out locals. But in the longer term new housing stock could easily be added in these areas — at lower cost than in the cities.

But there are other factors lurking behind those rural price hikes, the same factors which prevented a collapse of house prices in the city, despite the biggest economic contraction on record.

Part of it is the Jobkeeper wage subsidy and increased Jobseeker unemployment payments, and the government allowing people to access up to $20k of their retirement funds, and directly incentivising home building and improvement (my family and I were recently evicted so my landlord could renovate, which the government was incentivising to the tune of $25k).

But the bigger part is simply cheap credit. House prices have remained high for the same reason the stock market has remained high: Because interest rates are effectively below zero. In the US is what’s been called a “fed driven economy”. Cheap money for those who already have assets and/or a good credit rating has sustained and even expanded what was already a huge asset bubble. You can borrow money, buy tech stocks, bitcoin, gold, or some other relatively safe asset -like real estate- and watch the value rise at a rate which far outstrips the interest on your debt.

This wasn’t the goal of central banks but a side effect of them crashing rates, in a desperate attempt to stimulate business activity, and fend off a great-depression-like economic catastrophe. It hasn’t totally failed, or been a huge success. It’s hard to tease out the causality, but my suspicion is that fiscal policy is what has kept the deflationary spiral at bay. Monetary policy has helped by supporting that spending with bond purchases. Low interest rates, on the other hand, have mostly fuelled the credit driven asset bubble — which can never be a good thing in the long term. Sure some businesses might stay afloat that wouldn’t have otherwise, but putting money in consumers hands would have had a much more direct and powerful effect, without increasing the instability in the financial sector. Similarly there are those who have avoided selling their house because interest payments were low — but increasing their incomes instead of lessening these payments would have solved that problem too, without inviting leveraged speculative investment.

A basic income would likely be, overall, (though not exclusively) inflationary. This would allow central banks to raise interest rates from their current record lows. That would increase the cost of borrowing, including mortgages, which would discourage asset speculation, including housing. The higher we make the basic income the more spending power it puts into people’s hands and the less we need to stimulate the economy (and asset pricess) with cheap credit.

The hardest question, as usual, is what do we actually want to do? It seems unfair to punish those in the middle class who have invested heavily in housing as an asset, and who were encouraged to do so by policy makers. But the current situation punishes all those below this stratum, those looking to buy their first home, struggling renters, and finally the housing insecure and homeless.

Perhaps the goal of a catch-up period, where house prices hold steady (in adjusted dollars) while the economy and incomes grow around them is the consensus point we can settle on. We could even aim for modest growth in real terms, so long as growth in incomes and the economy as a whole outpaced this, meaning the percentage of income spent on housing would shrink.

To achieve this balancing act, however, we will need a clear picture of what got us to this point.

Even before the pandemic there had been a long period where overall conditions were predominantly deflationary, with inflation in Australia and many other major economies staying below the target range despite historically low interest rates. Attempts to raise these rates threatened to stall economic growth, so in 2008, then again from 2011 onwards they hit record low after record low.

This year rates dropped to just 0.1 of a percentage point. But even this combined with record government spending is only just enough to keep inflation in positive territory. But that’s just the pandemic right, suppressing spending? Actually not so much. Consumer spending is in fact at record highs in Australia! Especially spending on goods (and housing), rather than services. But with our mostly low case numbers, even restaurants are doing well.

There are deeper, long term trends at play that the pandemic has merely accelerated. Consider the following graphs from the Reserve Bank’s website

Cash Rate Target, RBA
Long Run Inflation RBA

To understand these trends we have to properly understand the role of the banking sector in the economy, something mainstream economists are loath to do. Economists point out that on some level, money doesn’t matter. The point is the stuff it buys. This is of course, on some level, correct. The point of the economy is to make and distribute things, and provide services.

Obviously, however the people at the end of these supply chains need money with which to purchase these goods. So how does the current system -where there is no basic income- get them this money? Primarily through the labour market, which the banking sector and ultimately the central bank stimulates — or tries to — with lending.

But as productivity rises, less and less labour is needed to create the same — or even greater — outputs. This effect has been concentrated so far in the production of goods (rather than the provision of services), where globalisation and automation have combined to drastically reduce the need for labour, and increase productive capacity. There are now fears that automation will come for the service sector, too — but why should we be afraid? Why is having fewer people (and more machines) serving coffee and guiding tourists really such a terrible thing?

We are afraid because without jobs people become destitute. People go needlessly without, while productive capacity stands idle — the obscenity of housing insecurity and homelessness while many houses go unoccupied, for example. But basic income (which recent polling shows 58% of Australian’s already support, and only 18% oppose.) can fix this. Poverty can be abolished.

I don’t propose this strategy as a panacea. If the government got everything else wrong — in terms of public housing policy, the balance of infrastructure and immigration rates, and and so on — house prices and interest rates could rise simultaneously.

The capacity of the political class to fuck things up is inexhaustible. But sometimes, when enough pressure is applied, they can get things right, too. So it’s worth thinking about what that might look like.

We could increase minimum wages, and support unions who fight for higher pay in the private sector. We could increase government spending including both wages and employment numbers in the public sector. And we should do both those things.

But the simplest and best way to get money to people is to give people money.

So what about raising the unemployment payments? Yes. Good. That too.

Often it is assumed that these would be eliminated with the introduction of a basic income. But this need not be the case, these targeted and conditional payments could remain to lessen the income penalty for the involuntarily unemployed, and to incentivise and support (re)-entry to the labour market, so long and to the extent that we as a society think that’s desirable. Similarly student, parenting and disability payments could continue, stacking on top of the universal amount to support and incentivise socially valuable behaviour, and compensate for unfair disadvantage.

This would allow us to ramp the basic income in over time, rather than all at once. Everything else stays the same, and everyone with a Tax File Number and a bank account associated with that number gets a small but non-negligible amount, say $50 a week. Then when the sky doesn’t fall, we ramp it up towards (and maybe even beyond) a livable income while watching the effects on other indicators, like inflation, interest rates, inequality and housing prices, the labour market, adjusting the payment and/or other policy settings as we go.

This gradualist approach would allow us to balance the risks of doing too much against the risk of not doing enough — which is perhaps right now the greater danger.

Nobody is Born Alone

The phrase is a cliche: “We’re born alone, and we die alone”.

Some minority of people may, by mishap, despite our best efforts as a society, die alone. But mostly they are nursed in their deathbeds.

But actually, literally, absolutely no one is ever born alone. Even in the extreme case, the most isolated birth possible, the baby is still not born alone. The mother is, by definition, always there. My sister recently gave birth to twins. So there were three people involved intimately in the event, at the level of direct participation, then a circle around them of professional carers, mixed with family members, who would have willingly ripped their own hearts out to prevent harm to the newborns or their mother, and around them a broader community all emotionally invested in the well being of the family unit. This is all fairly typical.

If we apply the principle of charity and attempt to find the kernel of truth in this statement, we might say that what they are referring to is the uniqueness of our experience. Your mother might be there physically with you, but she remains a separate consciousness, a whole other person, trapped in her own body, from which you have now been expelled, exiled into your own bag of skin. The bitterness in the phrase, then, speaks of an unsatiated desire for an impossible union, a dissolution of multiple selves into one. But would not that simply create a super consciousness, now occupying two bodies, but as alone as ever?

It is the impossible desire to transcend the self and its finitude, without losing it’s unique identity — to assimilate and absorb the ones we love, which would obliterate them.

This phrase is an expression not of reality, but of an ideology of obsessive individualism, in which vulnerability, the need for kindness and love, are taboo, in which we remain infantilised, unable to navigate the boundaries between ourselves and the world, between ourselves and other people — to see them as a seams, rather than as barriers.

The error is similar to that made by those who declare that we cannot have free will, since decisions are merely the results of charge levels and random outcomes in subatomic particles in atoms in the molecules in the cells in our organs in our bodies. But if we believe we are our bodies, then we are those atoms, those charge levels, those random outcomes, and the decisions are ours. Implicit in the position that physicality negates free will is the yearning for some kind of self that is both separate from yet identical to the embodied (and deeply connected) self we experience being each day.

You are not alone. You have choices. Don’t let the booming voice of ideology tell you otherwise.

German Reunification and De-escalating Labour Market Conflict through a Basic Income

So I have been watching the Netflix doco “A Perfect Crime” which focusses on the assisination of Detlev Rohwedder, who was the head of Treuhand, the responsible for reforming the East German economy after reunification.

The context of the crime is the conflict between the needs of labour and the needs of capital. East German industry had been set up to make sure everyone had a job, and that those jobs paid well. But the firms were not efficient or competetive in the global market. Making them competetive meant massive economic pain for ordinary East Germans — wage cuts and, especially, job losses.

Here we have a microcosm of the essential class conflict that had driven much of politics in the developed world since the industrial revolution. Capital wants to cut labour cost, workers want to get paid more. Globalisation and cross border wage competition is one face of this problem, but not the only one. Let’s say automation comes along as some predict, and employing people *anywhere* becomes inefficient. Do we deliberately keep doing things the innefficient way as an excuse to give people money? How can doing more work than is needed really be in the interest of workers as a whole?

The problem is we are asking the labour market to do two things at once: efficiently produce goods and services, and provide incomes to support household consumption and prevent poverty. If the basic income is how we support consumption, and the labour market is just for getting things done, we can have it both ways.

This is what some on the left don’t like about a basic income, it deconflicts the labour market. They are so busy worrying about escalating the conflict and winning the fight, they have forgotten what it is we’re meant to be fighting for: decent lives for ordinary people.

They don’t want a way around the fight, they want some kind of (impossible) final and decisive victory, in which the interests of capital are forever vanquished — but that would mean a loss of the drive for efficiency, economies of scale, and so on — which means, as a whole, more work and less stuff for everyone.

If we solve distribution through a basic income, we can allow capitalists to be as ruthlessly efficient as they like, and all those efficiency gains will allow us to pay a higher basic income before we hit the inflationary limit of too much spending and not enough to spend it on, so productivity growth means greater prosperity for all.

But there will still be a labour market where, and this is what I think the left-opponents of a basic income get wrongest, labour has a stronger hand!

They seem to think that because they aren’t fighting for survival, or because they have lost some moral argument about the need for higher wages, workers will accept shitty pay. That might be true in some areas where people really want to work (media, politics, etc). But I think overall the opposite will be true.

People will need wages less, so they will be in a stronger bargaining position to demand more. Many people will leave the workforce entirely, others will work fewer hours, jobs, or years. The overall supply of labour will be constricted, while the demand for goods and services rises. This will give workers — who collectively have guaranteed strike pay, and as individuals always have the option of walking away — immense bargaining power and the wage share of income relative to profit will increase, not decrease.

Explaining Bullshit Jobs with Monetary Theory

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. — David Graeber

The recently deceased anthropologist David Greaber’s seminal essay, followed soon after by the book, “Bullshit Jobs”, was undoubtedly one of the most impactful intellectual efforts of recent times, being translated into several languages, resonating with people across the globe and becoming a touchstone of political and economic discourse.

Graeber has no trouble identifying the what of the problem — work so frivolous that even the person doing it agrees that it serves no real purpose. He also proposes a somewhat convincing reason why:

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).

This might be part of the story, but whatever the “moral and political” imperatives of employers as a class, there is a strong individual incentive for them to minimise their labour costs. What is the mechanism, the how, by which their supposed collective interest wins out?

Employment is, by definition, work performed for money. Therefore labour (like other resources) moves in the opposite direction to currency. I made a rhyme so it’s easy to remember: From whence money flows, there labour goes.

There are exceptions to this, when money flows up, away from workers -taxes and loan repayments for example- but those are both times when money is flowing out of the real economy.

So from where does the money flow in? Well, actually, the same places: banks and the government.

Banks create money in the form of an account balance when they authorise loans. These accounts are, economic textbooks falsely argue, backed by a reserve of central bank money, created in the same manner. But in reality banks lend first, then top up their reserves after the fact.

Bank lending favours the wealthy and large companies, since banks are more inclined to lend to people and businesses with existing assets and high incomes. This will be important later on.

But first it’s important to note that governments also create money. The government borrows by selling interest paying treasury bonds to investors and banks. Then, as needed, the central bank buys these bonds from those investors and banks with money it creates with keystrokes. So called “modern monetary theory” isn’t just an idea for what should happen, but also a description of what already happens.

There’s more to it, but for the purposes of this post, what matters is that proportion of money entering the economy from one of these sources vs the other changes over time.

The post-war boom was the product of sustained and substantial deficit spending. This government largesse put money in the hands of ordinary people who spent it on products and services -made, sold and delivered by other ordinary people — causing widespread prosperity, like how a whole ecosystem becomes more vibrant after a big rain.

Since the 70’s, though, the fashion in economics generally has been to laud the private sector as “wealth creators” and demonise the public sector and government spending, often by way of the false premise that it must be “paid for” in taxes.

That means the right hand side of the graph above has come to dominate over the left hand side, and pull labour away from things which have direct value to consumers, and towards things which have value to businesses.

So you have experts consulting on tax law to design companies who are contracted by advertising companies who are engaged by companies that make software for lead generation for companies who run corporate team building retreats for law firms who provide patent expertise to venture capitalist firms who invest in blockchain technology companies who provide services to banks who, maybe, lend money to companies that, finally, actually make products for customers to use in the real world. Or not. The real world, after all, is not where the money comes from.

This helps explain how, fuelled by cheap money provided by the Federal Reserve the US stock market has continued to rise even as the real economy has collapsed.

Of course this kind of networked specialisation can be used — in the right macroeconomic conditions — to create an efficiently modular system. Each company doesn’t need it’s own tax experts or designers or whatever but can bring in specialists as needed. These specialists will — by providing services to many different companies — have certain economies of scale. But these aren’t the right macroeconomic conditions.

It’s also true that some of the jobs driven by consumer spending are not worthwhile, or at least not very worthwhile. When consumers don’t have much money, and workers are prepared to work for low wages, people will spend small amounts on low value products at businesses that pay shit wages. If they had more money, they would buy more expensive products and businesses could pay better wages, invest in better equipment and generally be more valuable as enterprises.

We’ve had a hint at what might happen if these low-worth jobs were eliminated during the pandemic. Australia saw GDP contract by 7% over the 2019–2020 financial year, but saw GDP per hour worked rise by 4.1% over the same period. Most of that is accounted for by a particularly dramatic 3.1% increase in a single quarter, between just March and June of this year, as the lockdown kicked in, as roles for receptionists and waitstaff were terminated — but high value jobs continued (leaving aside the question of whether the market is currently valuing things correctly, which it isn’t).

More fundamentally, it’s not even true that all jobs driven by consumer spending are actually driven by consumer spending. A great deal of what we count as consumer spending (transport for commuting, clothes for the office, sandwiches and coffee purchased at the cafe at the bottom of the office building) is actually to do with working which is, in theory at least, about production, not consumption. Having a job is expensive. The most privileged and in demand workers, like a-list engineers working at the big name tech companies, it is worth noting, are not expected to cover these costs. They get free food at work and buses to bring them to the ‘campus’. But the rest of us are not so lucky.

All this work-related expenditure funds what Medium’s editor at large Steve Levine calls the “The Hidden Trillion-Dollar Office Economy”, which, he laments, remote work is “killing”.

He rightly points out that “a massive part of our economy hinges on white-collar workers returning to the office” but fails to consider what that tells us about the fundamentally wasteful nature of our economy. Instead he worries about the fate of food delivery services, dry cleaners, printing and office supply stores, Starbucks, the business wear chain Brooks Brothers, and even real estate. Discussing this final example he asks:

It will save these companies leasing costs and their employees their commutes, but at what cost to the rest of the economy?

But, unless we think work and economic activity are inherently good things, ends in themselves rather than a means to providing people with products and services, then for the economy overall it’s not a cost. It’s a saving.

When making rockets engineers and scientists work hard to minimise and overcome what they call the “Beer Can Problem”. You start with a payload you want to deliver to space — some astronauts who need to get to the space station or whatever. Then you need the fuel to lift them into orbit. Then you need the fuel to lift that fuel. Then you need the fuel to lift the fuel to lift the fuel. And so on. Pretty soon the rocket is like a tall explosive beer can, only heavy when it’s full.

We can imagine the economy facing a similar problem. We need a certain amount of labour to make, transport and provide the stuff and services we actually need, or even want: food, housing, education, healthcare, plumbing, electricity, consumer economics — directly useful stuff. That’s the payload.

Then there’s the labour of management, admin, banking, lawyering and even some amount of sales and marketing, and so on required to support these industries. That’s the fuel that lifts the payload. Then the people performing this labour need office space and transport and electricity and so on to function, which requires more labour. Then that labour needs administrative support and so on, until you have massive city centre office towers filled with paper pushers far removed from the direct production of useful stuff, and 24 lane freeways, which are not need to deliver goods to consumers or let people move around for leisure and consumption, but to handle the commuter rush-hour and get people all to work on time. Then we need concrete suppliers, who need factories, for which we need architects who need accountants who need…

This could be viewed as our economy-wide version of the Beer Can Problem. It is to some extent unavoidable. But it could — especially with increasingly advanced information technology — be minimised.

But we don’t view it as a problem. Instead we view it as a solution; to the problem of not enough work. We don’t seek to mitigate and manage it, we seek to enhance, expand and maximise it. Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

Problems are solutions. Savings are costs. Work is good. Leisure is bad. Production is not a means to achieve consumption — instead consumption is a means to achieve production.

When the ideological blindfold is removed, we can see the fundamental irrationality of our economic system — a huge headless meatware machine, to which we have all become slaves, which lumbers on mindlessly, dragging us towards a future no one really wants.

This helps us understand two things Graeber got wrong. One of these is placing the blame entirely at the feet of a ruling class he apparently sees as fiendishly conspiratorial and disciplined, rather than just mean and stupid. The second is the attempt to say which kind of jobs are bullshit. Just before his untimely death he wrote:

Whole industries (think telemarketers, corporate law, private equity) whole lines of work (middle management, brand strategists, high-level hospital or school administrators, editors of in-house corporate magazines) exist primarily to convince us there is some reason for their existence.

It’s pretty hard to defend telemarketing. But this kind of demand mining activity (of which Facebook and Google’s zillion dollar ad-placement algorithms are further examples) is really just a symptom of a deeper, structural problem. In a sane economy, where people had money to spend and labour was properly priced, demand would drive supply. Companies would be focussed on making and doing stuff, not coaxing and badgering consumers into making purchases.

Fundamentally it’s not specific kinds of jobs, or companies, or industries, or sectors. The whole economy is infused with bullshit. No job is free of it. Even a large portion of the work performed in the health system is just dealing with the damage our sadistic economy does to people.

The fundamental problem is that money enters the economy in the wrong place. That puts banks and investors and the wealthy upstream — and everyone else, what Graeber would call “the 99%”, downstream, at their service.

The only way for us to get even a drop is to come up with something they want. And what do you sell to the man who has everything? Well, it turns out, maybe some caviar, a superyacht or two and a half-shredded Banksy — but mostly financial instruments, tech stocks, and other vehicles for achieving an ever greater economic power and an ever higher net-worth.

So that is what our economy is fundamentally geared towards.

If the money flowed the opposite direction — if it started with the people and flowed into the economy from there everything would change. Everything.

When it comes to a solution, therefore, I think Graeber is correct, but that he doesn’t quite realise just how correct he is. A basic income, he argues, would allow people to decide what to do with their time. But it’s actually much bigger than that. They would spend it on things they really want, not just the things they need to keep their jobs (like uncomfortable shoes, or housing in overpriced cities) and so our whole economy would start to reorient towards both reducing drudgery and producing what people actually desire, rather than increasing the abstract wealth of a tiny minority.

Unfortunately those who understand the macroeconomic dynamics of money creation described at the start of this essay — proponents of MMT — for the most part fail to appreciate the labour market side of the equation. They have fallen into the same trap and view leisure and freedom from the need to work as a problem, and therefore prefer a job guarantee to a basic income. Only the even more obscure school, really just a cluster of thinkers, who advocate what can be called Consumer Monetary Theory (of which I am a proponent) have effectively joined the dots between money creation and a basic income.

In MMT’s defence, there’s something to the argument that the jobs created by a government program like this (which they say should be federally funded but administered by local councils) might be less bullshitty than those created by the dysfunctional, debt driven private sector.

But to the extent that this is true, those jobs can be created by traditional public sector spending, oriented around goals, which are achieved using the minimum, rather than the maximum amount of labour. Anything else is bullshit job creation, by definition.

Measuring the prosperity of a nation by the amount of work performed in it, or the degree of economic activity is like measuring the value of a book by the number of letters it contains, regardless of whether they say something interesting or are jumbled in meaningless garble.

The best economy is not the biggest (or the smallest), but the most pleasing to the people who inhabit it. The first step towards this is the screamingly, obnoxiously obvious step of just giving people money.

Then we can start to untangle the messy knot we have tied ourselves in, and begin to properly enjoy the efficiency and productivity we have already achieved through technology. Once everything and everyone is pulling in roughly the same direction — towards efficiency and prosperity and away from drudgery and scarcity — further efficiency and productivity gains will be made, and they’ll be made in the areas that really matter. This in turn will allow us to pay a higher basic income, and so on, as the virtuous cycle takes off, carrying us forward towards the Star Trek economy that technological progress clearly makes possible — but which our political economy precludes.

The sooner we start dreaming big, the sooner the nightmare can stop.

A democratic alliance to promote human rights

[The following was originally published on Democracy Without Borders]

Recently United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for “a new alliance of democracies” aimed at confronting China. This put democratic globalists in a difficult position. If you want global democracy, then surely an alliance of democracies confronting the lone authoritarian superpower is a good thing? But US imperialism is also an obstacle to a fairer, more equal world order.

Democracy Without Borders has already published one blog about this by Sven Biscop which focuses on this second concern, asking (from an entirely eurocentric perspective) whether this would be an alliance “with the US” or “for the US?”. This is an entirely valid concern, but overall this response is inadequate.

Biscop compares the proposal to the “Coalition of the Willing”, which the US assembled to back it’s invasion of Iraq, outside UN auspices. But this coalition did not require its members to be democracies. The US was, as it usually is, happy to work with dictatorships. Biscop ignores this, and the broader hypocrisy of US foregn policy.

US officials only object to human rights abuses when it suits them, but for Biscop — and much of the global commentariat — it seems that this is too often. Fundamentally, they too support a foreign policy position which is human-rights-agnostic.

At one point Biscop says “China is an authoritarian state … The EU and the US have to speak up for human rights” but his resistance to authoritarianism lasts only one sentence, and is shrugged off in the next, saying “because China is a great power, Europe and America … have little leverage.”

According to this view, it seems, conflict must be avoided at all costs. Trade must be allowed to flow, presumably including goods made by forced labour in the Uiger concentration camps. To the extent his piece is an attack on Pomeo’s cynical proposal, it is correct. To the extent it is a defence of the status quo, and an argument for appeasing authoritarians, tolerating their brutal intolerance, it is profoundly wrong.

Neither Pompeo nor Biscop try to imagine how a genuine a democratic alliance might function. But we can.

First, stop helping dictators

The very first step would not be to challenge, but merely to stop helping, authoritarian oppressors. Many dictatorships depend on the backing of established democracies to gain and maintain power.

For example in 2013 the US could have backed the elected government of Egypt and prevented the coup which brought the military strongman Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. The US supplies vital training and equipment to the Egyptian military, worth over a billion a year, as well as priceless geo-political support. It can not be seen as neutral. Looking for a reliable partner who would not have to justify their foreign policy posture to the Egyptian population, they chose the military strongman over the democratically elected president.

Unfortunately this move, overseen by the supposedly liberal President Barack Obama, is typical of US foreign policy, which goes to great efforts to subvert democracy and install, maintain and preserve dictatorships across the world.

Other elected governments overthrown by the United States or with its unambiguous assistance since the end of the Second World War include such as in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Greece (1967), or Chile (1973).

This is only a partial list, containing some of the most unambiguous historic cases, where unclassified documents show the US was actively working against foreign governments whose electoral legitimacy was clear. Many murkier cases exist, where the legitimacy of the government removed is more questionable, or the US role is less well documented — though it may be confirmed in the future by subsequent declassifications of relevant documents.

The tendency is for the US to back the right against the left which creates an environment where right wing coups can assume US support and diplomatic cover.

Hence the US (and its developed democratic allies) also bear a significant degree of responsibility for the fate of the Honduran government of President Manuel Zelaya, removed from power in 2009 with, at minimum, US acquiescence, the extremely questionable impeachment of Brazillian president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and the fall of Bolivian government of Evo Morales, who resigned in 2019 following demands by the military (with whom the US has significant leverage through training and equipment supply).

As an absolutely prerequisite for the establishment of a credible democratic alliance, this behaviour must stop. The US must adopt, in word and in deed, something like the “progressive baseline” of democracy and human rights promotion proposed by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

Should this occur space would begin to be cleared for a grand democratic alliance to form.

Where to start?

An existing alliance like NATO could make membership conditional on meeting democratic and human rights standards (which would entail, for a start, expelling Turkey) and then expand to include any nation that met those democratic standards (as proposed by the Campaign for a World Democratic Security Community). Or the anti-Huawei “D10” recently proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, of the UK as a way for democratic countries to counter China’s edge in 5G technology (and therefore telecom-espionage), might form the kernel. There are also diplomatic efforts like the Community of Democracies and the Streit Council which explicitly aims for the creation of an “international order of, by and for the people”. Both of these efforts emerge from eastern Europe in the immediate post-soviet era, and perhaps are tainted by an implicit eurocentrism, and an aftertaste of NATO triumphalism. The CoD’s website boasts of US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s involvement in the Community of Democracies, as if this were an uncontroversially good thing, as if she were not famous for saying that the death of half a million Iraqi children was “worth it”, while defending US enforce sanctions on that country.

One initiative that actively seeks to leave this baggage behind, and rescue democracy from the wreckage of US foreign policy is the “Human Union” proposed by Australian activist Lyndon Storey, which calls for a new alliance, and stresses that it need not be western led. Japan, Uruguay and Botswana, for example, could form a loose union that would grow in membership and degree of integration until it became a global union of democratic states. Big, powerful western democracies like the US and UK could still join, but as equals, and on terms set by this broader community (including abandoning their authoritarian allies). The exact nature of this integration should not be laid out in advance, but would be negotiated between the parties along the way, as would the precise preconditions for entry — but the goal should unambiguously be the exclusion of authoritarian human rights abusers.

Whatever the origin of the organisation, it should focus on a long term goal of promoting a global political system based on democracy and human rights, rather than just reacting to the threat posed by one authoritarian actor, such as China.

An economic community of democracies

This alliance could form an economic community, where democracies closing ranks, granting each other preferential market access, and excluding authoritarian nations. The OECD could conceivably form the basis for this, if it became more aggressive in its promotion of democratic values, and helped establish preferential trade access between its members. Part of this reorientation as a bulwark against authoritarianism could be the inclusion of Taiwan.

Contrary to what some may say, such a strategy is extremely viable. In terms of population, democracies make up just less than half of the world. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, full democracies make up 4.5%, flawed democracies (a category which, since 2016 includes the United States) makes up 43.2%. Hybrid regimes make up 16.7% and authoritarian regimes make up 35.6%.

In terms of economic power, though, measured here through by the IMF, the democracies clearly have the upperhand.

This is based on nominal GDP, which measures economies in terms of international dollars. It is thus the correct measure when it comes to international heft, but often in these discussions Purchasing Power Parity is used. This is either a result of ignorance, or a way of overstating Chinese power, understating our capacity -and therefore obligation- to act. In nominal terms the United Statesof America controls 24.5% of World Product. The EU controls 21.4%. The People’s Republic of China controls 16.2%.

Yet China alone is responsible for 61.9% of the economic activity in non-democratic states. Whereas the US only, represents 33.8% of the collective GDP of the democracies.

Democracies are not only stronger, their power is more evenly spread. Should the economic battle lines be drawn, there is no one country the democratic camp would rely on to the extent which the non democracies would rely on China.

We could do it, in other words, without the US. Maybe, if they won’t stop backing military juntas, we should.

Even without this superpower, the democratic nations have substantial leverage, and could use that — rather than military force or covert subterfuge — to promote human rights and democracy worldwide, culminating eventually in a democratic world order. There is no need for violence, and nothing stopping this values driven world order from emerging except a lack of political will.

The Nietzschean Case for a Basic Income

“Until your heart breaks, you are useless” — Unknown

The taxi turned off the freeway onto a lonely exit ramp.

“Don’t worry,” said the driver “he speaks Arabic”

“Give me your bag” said the man in the passenger seat, as he turned, gun in hand.

I looked into his cold, hard eyes and was flooded with relief. There was only one thing to do.

I had been unsure of myself a second before, was I being paranoid, or was the taxi really going the wrong way? Should I make a fuss? Should I argue? Should I open the door as they slowed to take a corner and try to make my escape?

All those options were now closed off. There was no doubt about what I should do. I should give him the fucking bag. So I did. And it was over, and I was left with empty pockets, somewhere in the south of Beirut.

If you’re going to be robbed, it’s best to have it done by professionals. And these guys were. Lebanon has shared taxis, where one car would take multiple passengers heading in similar directions. There had been an old lady in the car along with the two crooks when I got in. They had dropped her home first, then taken me to a quiet spot without streetlights, and turned off the car lights, too, making it impossible for me to read the license plate as they pulled away with my satchel, including some cash, a laptop and a blackberry. It was 2009.

When I think of that night, I often also think of my dad, a year earlier, furiously cleaning out the carport at the back of our house. It had been full of junk for years. My mother had grown up very poor, and, having not had things, could not bring herself to throw things out which might one day prove useful. And so item after item had piled up. They had been there for years, but now, in the week or so immediately after Mum’s death, the need to deal with them became immediate.

They wouldn’t let him back to work yet, his business partner and staff wouldn’t allow it, so he had found something else to do to keep himself busy. This, he insisted, just had to be done. Right now.

What do these two memories have in common? It’s a question I struggled with for a long time. But I think I know the answer now. Both of us were seeking the liberation of unfreedom. In both cases an apparent powerlessness provided as an excuse not to do something we didn’t really have the courage for.

In my case it was confronting the driver and his accomplice, with whom I had been happily chatting until a minute before. The gun raised the stakes to the point where any confrontation was unreasonable, I could justify to myself that I needn’t make a fuss, I should just quietly go along.

In Dad’s case, committing to some time consuming task relieved him of the need to grieve, or comfort me through my grief. The imagined urgency of the task shielded him from autonomy and the pain it would bring.

Freedom is slavery, as Orwell wrote. And slavery is freedom.

The phenomenon I am attempting to describe here is vast, and varied, and as far as I am aware, explored only in the most superficial and uncritical of ways. We all know people, especially men, especially from the working class, who must “keep themselves busy” in retirement, rather than go mad.

Often this is observed with a smile, as if someone being so conditioned by a lifetime of work that they are incapable of leisure were a heartwarming quirk.

But it starts long before then too. By early adulthood, most have already internalised the social compulsion to visibly “earn their keep” through constant industry.

Obviously, it’s not like people really have a choice.

But what if they did?

By asking this question we can begin to give shape to the incoherent terror and rage that the idea of a basic income arouses in some quarters. The “dignity” of work is often invoked, especially by those advocating a job guarantee over a basic income. Including many of the unemployed themselves, who actively want society to provide them, not just with an income, but with the purpose and structure of a job.

I’ve previously discussed how this thinking fits with an instrumental view of human nature. Such a view is usually seen as harsh and unforgiving, and those of us who argue against it seen as the softhearted, kindly ones. But what if the opposite is true?

What if the idea that mere hard work, the ability to suck it up and suffer in silence, can make you a valuable member of society is actually the more generous view, and that those like us, who see mere economic output as insufficient to demonstrate moral virtue, are the truly ruthless ones?

What is it to be a good person? Showing up and doing as you’re told has long been, in practical terms, good enough.

One need not have imagination, empathy, social skills beyond the ability to conform and submit to authority, so long as you aren’t “lazy”.

The ability to tolerate this, and raise your children to be next, is not just treated as a survival mechanism, but as a virtue — and a virtue which can compensate for the absence of other virtues, like kindness, thoughtfulness, and so on.

Men especially, use the need for work, and the accompanying exhaustion, as an excuse to be shit, boring people. Afterall, they have to work. Then once they get home, having worked, how can they be expected to have time for ideas? Politics? Working on relationships?

Well what if they didn’t need to work? What if we, as a society, said, actually, it’s all good. We have hydraulics for the heavy lifting, and clever systems designed by clever people with skinny arms, soft hands, and PHDs, who have made all your “manpower” irrelevant, worthless, unnecessary?

Your willingness to show up and work is worth nothing, nowadays, if you don’t have the capacity to really contribute something original.

By what means would these emotional retards then justify their existence?

Those who can lift heavy things, or busy themselves with the numbers on a spreadsheet, or spend all day stacking shelves, but lack the skills required to do creative, cognitively complex, communicative labour (of the kind which can’t be automated) are exactly the same who struggle to invest in and find meaning in relationships and care work outside the labour market, will have a harder and harder time finding a place in our societies.

There is something, after all, to the largely unarticulated but ubiquitous suspicion that a UBI poses as an egalitarian idea, but is actually elitist, especially as compared to a job guarantee.

Go over there, a UBI it tells these relics of Fordism, keep out of the way, while those of us with the relevant skills make everything actually happen. Here, have a Joe Rogan podcast, chosen for you by the algorithm, and a six pack. Watch some MMA. Fuck off.

If they want to actually contribute, they will have to become much more like the softer, intellectual, gentle creatures they despise. Many will rather kill themselves, either all at once or slowly with alcohol, opioids, and so on.

Of course this is already happening.

Andrew Yang and others like to talk about the epidemic of despair, worst amongst non-college-educated white men, especially those who don’t end up in long term relationships, which is an increasing proportion.

Women, it seems, are sick of them. Previously (as the incels lament) a woman might be dependent on a man as a breadwinner (and as a social validator of her value) and thus compelled to provide him not just with sex, but with the comfort and sense of belonging that comes from being in a (very one sided) relationship. Now they are more likely than working class men to be able to navigate the job market, are not shamed as heavily for their independence, and do not need to accept a lacklustre partner.

We must do better, for these men, Yang says. And there is something to that. But fundamentally they must do better for themselves. The transition will be painful. A basic income can cushion some of that pain, but not all of it.

But the future cannot be held hostage by the insecurities and inadequacies of the past.


Of course it will not really be like this, the availability of jobs will probably increase, for those who want them. Plenty of us, raised with a less instrumental view of our own worth, with the skills to fill out leisure time with conversation, art, music, child care, bushwalking, surfing, coaching kids sports teams, and so on, would be happy to opt-out, or take fewer hours, or work for fewer years, and so on.

Those who still wanted to find work would probably have an easier time of it, and would be able to attract higher wages for it. There will definitely be some change in the skills required, but most people, even most men, will adapt.

Some would find work that is inherently fulfilling, fully utilising their (average or otherwise) capacities. Others would be working only for the economic rewards — a bigger house, a second car, a boat, a holiday to fiji, or whatever.

But they would not be able to pretend they did not have a choice, that doing so is the only way to guarantee their children’s future, or whatever. That’s already all taken care of.

If you’re more interested in stuff than ideas, in things than people, then that’s all on you. And of course that’s fine. But so is the other choice.

The gun of poverty would no longer be pointed at anyone’s head. And like I said at the start, sometimes having a gun at your head makes things easier. Sometimes, therefore, not having a gun at your head makes it harder.

Zizek says the unfairness of capitalism, the arbitrariness of it’s supposed meritocracy, is a feature not a bug. Because it allows people to say well I am only a real estate agent because that’s the way the cookie happened to crumble.

Were it the case that the system were fair, and the roles people ended up in were unambiguously, accurately, the roles they were fit for, it would be intolerable and the system “would explode”. I want this explosion. The increased levels of existential despair a UBI would invoke are, I contend, exactly why it must be done.

To the fantasist who tells himself he has a novel in him, one he will write when he retires, or once the mortgage is paid off, or once the kids are out of school, it says: Go ahead. Face your mediocrity, your irrelevance. Stare into the void, feel it stare back into you. If you do this and survive, then the real work can begin.

Most will flee the field, and realise they are not exceptional. Those who continue to pursue creative or intellectual excellence, not mere careerism, will perhaps begin to get some of the respect and admiration they deserve, instead of the disdain, isolation and sneering, veiled envy which is their current lot.

Beyond MMT: How Banks Create Money And What That Means for Government Spending

Modern Monetary Theory or “MMT” has come of age. Everywhere you look it seems there are explainers for the once controversial theory that makes the case that the government can’t run out of money. The government borrows money by selling debt to big investors in the form of interest bearing bonds. When demand for these bonds starts to wane, the Reserve Bank starts buying them up with money it creates out of nowhere. When the dance is over, the treasury ends up owing money to the Reserve Bank.

This debt, owed as it is by one part of the government to another, is meaningless and consequence free. The head of the Reserve Bank isn’t going to show up at Kirribilli House and break the PMs legs. They aren’t going to send a tow truck driver around to an army barracks to start repossessing tanks, or call the sheriff to evict our elected officials from parliament so they can sell the building. Not only can the government spend any number of dollars it choses, it can do so without raising taxes. As long as there is untapped capacity (unemployed workers, unused buildings and machinery) this spending will stimulate the economy. Even as the debt grows in nominal terms (the number of dollars) it will shrink relative to GDP. But that doesn’t matter anyhow, except psychologically (it only matters if people think it does).

Obviously the government shouldn’t just print and spend infinity billion dollars. The danger of spending too much is not “going broke”, but inflation.

Conversely by printing too little they risk causing deflation. In Australia we just had the most deflationary quarter on record, so run the damn presses, already.

This is all true. But it’s only part of the story. The government is what MMT focuses on, but others in the broader category of “post keynesian” economics, like Australian heterodox economist Steve Keen, point out that the Reserve Bank isn’t the only place that creates money. Private banks do, too. This is actually where the bulk of the money circulating in the real economy comes from, and that creates problems.

When a private bank loans money out it creates money with keystrokes too, creating two values attached to your name. One is a credit — money you can spend, the other is a debt -money you owe, which they charge interest on. If the money you borrowed stays in a savings account, they might pay interest on that too, but at a lower rate than they charge on what you owe.

When you repay a loan, both values fall. The number of dollars you have access to falls, and the number of dollars you owe falls. By the time you pay back the whole loan, the original sum has been created, then destroyed. All that’s left over is the interest which the bank keeps as “profit” — if that’s even the right term. If, overall, more money is being paid back than being borrowed, the total amount of money in the economy shrinks, all other things held equal, this makes money more scarce, and more valuable — pushing prices, and therefore earnings and employment, down.

This is called “debt deflation”. And deficit spending by the government (of the kind we have seen in Australia and elsewhere recently) is the only way to avoid it — even without an external shock like the pandemic.

If the government ran balanced budgets, the banks would be the only way for new money to enter the economy. Since everyone needs to pay back the amount they borrow plus interest the creation of debt needs to constantly accelerate: New loans have to come into the economy fast enough to cover the debt from the old loans. The overall level of debt has to be constantly growing, and growing ever faster. When debt shrinks, the economy contracts, as indicated by this graph from Steve Keen, showing change in debt and the unemployment rate.

So it’s not just that the government can spend more into existence than it taxes, but that to promote the economic well being of its people, it must. Governments actually generally do this, running deficits to prevent collapse when the economy starts to wobble.

But the lack of clarity on this in public discourse prevents them from doing so as aggressively as they should. Debts and deficits are always described as necessary evils. They’re right about the necessary part, but not about the evil.

Consider the explosion of prosperity and technological progress that came out of the second world war. This wasn’t despite the governments involved running huge deficits, it was because of this. There is no reason that we can’t mobilise the economy to a similar degree towards goals other than the destruction of an external enemy; raising living standards and transitioning to sustainable technologies, for example.

Consider also the collapse and depression which preceded that war — a deflationary spiral, the likes of which we risk repeating if we refuse to move beyond a stubbornly stupid and simplistic view of money, debt, and government.

The Deflationary Effects of a Basic Income

The best things in life are free.

It’s increasingly accepted that the government can’t run out of the currency it issues. The true constraint on government spending is not the receipt of tax income or the need to “balance the budget”, but inflation. If the government spends too much money into existence, then the currency will lose value as too much demand (spending) chases too little supply (goods and services to spend it on).

A basic income, it is often claimed, would be an especially dangerous and inflationary kind of government spending, since it would allow people to opt out of productive work, while increasing spending and consumption. Less stuff, more spending. But it’s not so simple.

Having a job is expensive, and requires significant resources. With unearned income to fall back on, people may leave jobs or work fewer hours, and reduce spending and consumption associated with performing those jobs. For example if people commute less, the demand for petrol might fall, causing its price to deflate. Almost all goods require transport, so this cheaper petrol price would lower costs across the board.

We shouldn’t overstate this effect. It may well be that the inflationary pressures win out, and indeed I intuit that this would be the case. But that depends on the way people react — which is impossible to know in advance. Even if we assume this is the case, and the inflationary effects of a basic income would be greater, we still need to think about the extent to which the deflationary effects might dampen this, reducing the net level of inflation. It’s also important to note that not all products and services would move in the same direction. Prices for some might increase in nominal terms, while others decrease.

Let’s start with the example of a particular person: Meet Bob. Bob works in advertising. Three days a week he’s thinking of creative ways to try and make people experience positive emotions when they think about banks. The remaining two days a week he tries to help a new brand of beer break into the Australian market, because you know, we don’t have enough of those. Bob is one of the many people whose job is, by their own estimation, meaningless bullshit. He does it to keep a roof over his children’s heads. Bob makes AUD $100,000 a year ($73,503 after tax). His wife stays home, taking care of the house and the children.

But then a UBI is introduced, based on the Australian Greens “Universal Wellbeing Payment”, it grants a total of $26,000 a year to every adult. If he keeps his job, then his income will go up to $126,000 ($89,363 after tax) and his wife will also end up with $24,084 after tax, bringing the total spending power of the household to $113,447. The family will now have $39,944 more in spending power. This would be inflationary.

But let’s remember, Bob doesn’t like his job. What’s more, it turns out, he doesn’t much like living in Sydney, he’s sick of the high prices, the traffic, and so on. The family decides on a seachange, and moves to a cheaper house in a beach town. Their combined spending power is now $48,168, $25,335 less than before the basic income was introduced. This would be deflationary.

But the family might not be much worse off. They may be better off. Their housing costs might be reduced by a hundred or two per week. Their transport costs might also be drastically reduced — Bob’s daily commute is entirely eliminated, and Bob’s car is available to drop the kids to school and do the shopping so the family doesn’t need a second vehicle. He has time to make his morning coffee and his lunch at home, rather than buy them at a cafe. Freed of the stress of a job he hates, he doesn’t need that second beer after work, so he drinks less, and starts to brew his own. His availability to help with child rearing and tasks around the home means more meals cooked from scratch, rather than bought take away, or semi-prepared. This might all easily save them $500 a week, or $25,000 a year.

They end up with the same discretionary income they had before the basic income was introduced — but Bob gets his life back. The kids get to have their dad around.

And now there’s one more house available in the crowded Sydney market. There’s a car on the market that wasn’t before. There’s two tanks of petrol a week less going through the bowser. There’s less wear on the car they did keep and therefore less mechanical work required. The prices of all these things drop.

Bob’s car is absent from the rush hour grind. The need for an extra lane of freeway is reduced, ever so slightly, which reduces the need for concrete, which reduces the need for the steel to expand the concrete factory, which reduces the need for energy, which reduces the need for workers at the power plant, which means fewer cars are on the road, which reduces the need for an extra lane of freeway…

Bob quitting his job, reducing his transport needs and moving where housing is more available has made the economy more efficient. Greater efficiency means less stuff is needed to provide the same quality of life. Everybody wins.

Everybody, that is, except people who are trying to get advertising made. In fact it turns out Bob was a real Don Draper, and vital to the company’s success. A few other employees also retired sooner than they otherwise would have. Fewer applicants are showing up, and those that are are asking for more money. The company folds. More real estate is suddenly available. An office park that might have been built doesn’t need to be, reducing the need for construction workers and equipment. Power lines and data cables don’t have to be laid. This might lead to some lost wages, but remember, everyone’s incomes just went up $26000.

Everything has, in this simplified hypothetical, gotten cheaper — except advertising, since the surviving companies now have one less competitor and can raise their prices to reflect this (and have to, to keep their staff from buggering off to the countryside). But it’s not just one bank or beer company that faces this higher cost. It’s all of them. Since the main reason they want to advertise is to take market share off each other, the end result will be much the same. Things might have a bit less gloss but consumers won’t be significantly less well informed about the services each bank offers. A similar dynamic plays out with corporate lawyers. It’s an arms race. If the price per missile doubles, then each side can just get half as many. The outcomes of their disputes won’t be half as just.

Of course if the corporate lawyers and advertising creatives all keep their jobs, and just spend their basic income on top of their salaries, and instead it’s the construction workers, steel and car makers and power plant workers who quit, then it’s the cost of these really useful things that will increase. But even this effect will be dampened by the fact that these workers won’t be travelling, or buying meals out (they’ll be cooking them at home instead).

This offset will then be offset, as the remaining steel workers wages have to be increased to stop them from quitting, too, and output drops driving up the price of steel — and whatever the steelworkers spend their extra earnings on.

Or the vital steel and manufacturing industries might just put those who are currently unemployed to work, or pull labour away from the low value, low wage, service sector, which they already pay better than. It might, then, be the price of a cappuccino that goes up, or the number of retail staff that goes down, speeding automation and the roll out of self-checkout stores, or the transition to online shopping. These changes, in the medium and long term, might further increase efficiency, creating further deflationary effect.

My point is not, as I said at the beginning, that a basic income will necessarily be deflationary overall, but that it will have some deflationary effects. These will increase the level of basic income that can be paid before inflation becomes a concern.

The best way to test the theory would be to gradually phase the basic income in, starting with a low payment and increasing it gradually, tracking the effects as we go. If and when inflation does become a concern (currently it’s deflation keeping central bankers up at night), we needn’t immediately stop the increases, but could make adjustments to other policy settings which affect inflation. The most obvious adjustment, but not necessarily the best, would be raising interest rates. More targeted limits on lending and borrowing might be better, or increases to taxes, or decreases in government spending elsewhere. If none of these proved sufficient, or the negative effects of them proved too great, we could halt or reverse these basic income increases.

There’s no good reason for policy makers to resist such an obvious approach. Not unless their true fear is not that it won’t work, but that it might work too well, and the population may get a taste for a life centered on family, leisure, and other activities more fulfilling than toiling to make the masters of the economy ever richer.

Workerism Must Die.

“People can also do horrible things, you know, when they’re working together”

Rutger Bregman

Spoiler/Godwin’s alert: This Blog post contains both spoilers from Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle, and comparisons of my intellectual opponents to Nazis.

There’s been an increasing number of attacks on the institution of work over recent decades. Recently they have begun to build into a quiet little philosophical crescendo.

Usually these critiques focus not on labour generally, but the institution of employment. They come from the left, and attack the usual suspects: capitalism, the ruling class, neoliberalism and commodity fetishism.

But there’s a left wing version of the pro-work position, too. It’s manifest in the idea of a Jobs Guarantee, promises from centre-left parties to “deliver jobs” like they were delicious pizzas, and in defences of the unemployed which depend on the claim that they’re “not lazy” and would prefer to work for money than get it for free.

It’s worth digging a little deeper into the philosophy, usually implicit, that animates and structures these conversations. I contend that when we do so we’ll find anachronistic and confused assumptions that are deeper than the left right divide within politics, and speak to the need for a more profound interrogation of accepted social norms.

Few have done more in this regard than the deeply critical sci-fi author Phillip K Dick. Below is a scene from the Amazon Prime adaptation of his novel The Man In The High Castle, which explores an alternative history where the axis powers won the second world war.

The point being made here, and throughout TMITHC, is not simply that things could have been different in this timeline where the Nazis won, but that they could in many ways be the same. The value set espoused by John Smith in the scene seems compatible both with the Nazi worldview and our own. It’s bad to do things for yourself. It’s good to do things for others.

Taken to its logical conclusion, as it is in the Nazi regime depicted, this line of thinking precludes any intrinsic human value — i.e. the idea we are inherently valuable, by virtue of just being people. Our value instead is extrinsic, or instrumental, and comes from what we can do for others. Yet it’s important not just that we do these things, but that we do them for the right (unselfish) reasons.

Even the satisfaction of a job well done is suspect. “A boy like Randolph” might perform well on the test, or even a task in the workplace, but so what if the only reason he does it is for “his own gratification”?

Then again, you wouldn’t want to say you don’t enjoy serving your family and your country, would you? You can’t win. It’s a trap.

But it’s a convincing, attractive trap, and it totally captures Smith’s son Thomas. Later in the series, upon discovering he suffers from a degenerative disease, which will make him a net-cost to the broader community of the Reich, he calls the authorities. They arrive and take him off to be euthanized, foiling his father’s secret plan to smuggle him to safety.

Of course we don’t kill the chronically unwell or disabled. We even provide them with money to live on — payments we don’t give to the able-bodied idle. The assumption is then, as with payments to the (involuntarily) unemployed, that the person would be working, contributing to the common good, if they could be. Indeed a willingness to work is a formal requirement, which those who receive unemployment payments are required to demonstrate.

And the interrogation of our desires doesn’t stop there. Once at work you must act happy, or at a minimum, grateful, to be there. It’s not enough to show up and do your job. You have to act like you like it, that you’re grateful for the “opportunity”.

You must demonstrate that you’re committed to the company. The fact you’re only doing it for the money is known by all, but rude to point out, like a sex worker saying she’d never fuck a client if he wasn’t paying her.

People do talk about the “emotional labour” workers are increasingly called upon to perform. But this is in regards to dealing with customers and their emotions. The emotional cost of interacting with bosses and co-workers, under the duress of these expectations, is taken for granted. Being a good team player and having a positive attitude isn’t considered part of the job, just part of being a reasonable person. As usual, there is nothing more political than common sense.

One way to understand this is through the work of Michel Foucault. He takes what is in philosophy called a “genealogical” approach. This means tracing an idea back and seeing where it came from, to understand how that idea functions as in society and who it empowers. Foucalt noticed that modern societies were dominated by various institutions — factories, hospitals, schools, and that all these societies shared common structures, even if the content of what they were doing was different. The artisan’s household or workshop, which had once been the site of labour and production, was replaced by the factory. The royal household and court had been replaced, in stages, by the professionalised parliament and institutions of government. Foucault looked for the origins of this institutionalism and found it in prisons and the disciplinary systems of the military.

A soldier must be willing to die to advance the goals of the army as a whole. There is no space for their preferences or emotions in the face of this brutal necessity. Deep, powerful instincts, ones which put the group before the individual, must be mobilised on command, and a science of sorts was developed to this end. Just as the science of metallurgy had been developed over millennia to turn naturally occurring elements into weapons, so the science of military discipline had developed to turn men not just into killing machines, but also into dying machines.

These techniques, it turned out, were fantastically effective in other areas, too, and so crept out gradually and into every element of human life. In the scene above, this process is shortcut, as Obergruppenführer Smith applies the rigid formalism and glib, simplistic morality that work so well for him in the military context, in the intimate setting of the home. His tools for developing his son into a good man are a version of the tools he uses to turn a fresh recruit into a ruthless soldier, torturer, or spy.

And so we too, must be willing, eager even, like a young soldier dreaming of heroism, to sacrifice our lives for the institutions in which we work. Usually this is just one day at a time, but in the age of the Coronavirus, things can get even uglier, with low wage workers especially expected to put themselves at serious risk.

Why This Matters Now

The need for big new economic ideas has probably never been more widely and clearly felt than the current moment. Only two serious and constructive proposals which approach the required scale have come forward: A Basic Income and a Job Guarantee. The former clearly generates more interest among the general public, as the google trends screenshot below demonstrates.

[EDIT: If you compare the acronyms UBI and FJG, the difference is even more extreme.]

But politicians and the wonks of the world, even (or maybe especially) the left leaning ones, seem to favour the latter.

Which side wins the political struggle will depend to some extent at least on the ideological framing we bring to the question of mass unemployment. Is the problem that unemployed people aren’t working, or that they don’t have incomes?

The overwhelming tendency is to rush past this question and conflate the two things. People need money and the right way for them to get it is by working. The labour market isn’t just how we find people to do things, it’s the primary means by which people are meant to guarantee their economic welfare. This is even accepted by many advocates of a Basic Income, who center their arguments on the idea that as automation advances it will be impossible to create enough new jobs for everyone, without really questioning if doing that is even desirable.

This assumption sits squarely and silently behind the Jobs Guarantee proposal. A Jobs Guarantee works like this: The government will offer an unlimited number of decent jobs with decent pay. No one who applies will be turned away. This would force other employers to raise their pay and conditions, since there won’t be a standing reserve of unemployed workers, ready to replace any difficult or demanding employees, so if employers aren’t paying their workers sufficiently or treating them well enough, the workers will switch to the federally funded (“locally administered”) jobs.

There are a myriad of reasons why this wouldn’t work, and would be a bad idea if it did: the near impossible administrative workload involved, the inevitability of people falling through the cracks and missing out and of make-work, the potential for corruption or abuse and the immense opportunity cost to the individual and society of keeping people busy with low value tasks.

The idea is fundamentally unsound. If it’s a job, it cannot be guaranteed, a job is conditional on attendance, performance, workplace behaviour, etc. If it is guaranteed, it’s not a job, it’s adult daycare. I’ve explored all that before.

But let’s assume all those problems away for a moment. What is the philosophical grounding of a Jobs Guarantee? How does this fit with the question of extrinsic vs intrinsic human value?

A Jobs Guarantee has many advocates, including the fictional (and sociopathic) Frank Underwood from House of Cards. But in progressive contexts it mostly is advocated by proponents of a broader theoretical framework called Modern Monetary Theory.

In the MMT narrative, money is, via taxes, intimately linked with labour. By demanding taxes from people in a currency, the government gives it value. Once this value has been established by force or the threat of it, they can then use the currency to raise armies, build public works, purchase goods and services and so on.

One Jobs Guarantee advocate, Rohan Gray, used the example of the british Empire in Africa, trying to get people to collect rubber on its behalf: The British tried to pay people in shillings to collect the rubber, but since the people weren’t part of a monetary economy the shillings had no value to them. So the British imposed a hut tax, “they said we’re going to come burn down your house at the end of the week unless you pay your tax”. Thus compelled, the colonised were forced to perform labour by the colonisers, collecting rubber to earn money to pay their taxes to avoid having their huts destroyed.

The whole monetary economy then, is a huge trap “rooted in hierarchical power, violence”, set up by the rulers to coerce the previously autonomous population into toil and drudgery. Yet MMT does not seek to liberate us from this fundamental coercion, merely to improve the conditions under which it functions, and make it as humane as possible. “Unemployment” (not employment) in the words of Pavlina Tcherneva is “the monetary system’s original sin”. The problem, somehow, is not that everyone was forced to work, but that some could not.

It’s worth contrasting this with a similar narrative put forward by Basic Income advocate Karl Widerquist. He too tells a story about people being brutally forced into the monetary economy. In his telling it’s not taxes, but property rights which, by ending people’s access to common land, created the conditions of unfreedom and deprivation which forced people to perform work for money to survive. The story starts in a slightly different place but comes to the same sad conclusion: Violent authority has cornered us, and forced us into a labor market that is fundamentally unfree. His response though, is to say that we should not accept this coercion. That our right to independent sustenance has been taken and we are therefore owed a living. We are entitled to the freedom to opt out.

Both Widerquist and the Job Guarantee advocates seek to strengthen the hand of workers relative to capital. Both seek to do so by giving the individual worker a position of non-desperation from which to bargain. The MMT crowd, though, locates this position inside the labour market, whereas Widerquist locates it outside the labour market. They see the workers as workers. He sees the workers as people.

The MMT view objectifies workers, seeing them as “human resources” even as they seek to empower them. Bill Mitchell, the most prominent Australian advocate of MMT even compared the idea of a Jobs Guarantee to the “wool floor price scheme”, in which the Australian government bought wool at a fixed price to protect farmers from fluctuations in the global market. Except instead of wool being warehoused till the market turns, it’s human beings.

We can perhaps excuse this on the basis that, whereas Widerquist is a philosopher, they are economists. But hidden in their apparently neutral technocratic thinking, philosophical assumptions lurk. They always do, that’s why we still need philosophers.

Subjectivity, intention, obligation and morality do play an important role in MMT. The problem they are trying to solve, they insist, is “involuntary unemployment”, people who want to work, but can’t. They show no concern at all about the issue of involuntary employment– people who don’t want to work, but have to. For them compelled labour and the loss of autonomy is not a legitimate problem.

The government’s role is to make sure there’s enough different flavours of shit to choose from. Yours is to pick from this menu, say thank you, and eat.

The alternative to this need not be a wild swing in the opposite direction. Our economic system need not say all human value is intrinsic. Some portion of our worth could be considered intrinsic, and recognised with an income sufficient to keep us alive and healthy. Further value could be added by doing things others deem useful and are willing to pay for (especially since everyone would have some money, and therefore some say as to what is useful).

But the workerists of this world, both left and right are committed and dogmatic, and will fiercely resist this. They already do. The taboo must not be breached.

The Gentle Ubermensch

This imposed selflessness facilitates self sacrifice in the workplace but begins before it and extends far beyond it, and is so ingrained we often barely notice ourselves enforcing it.

Before Foucault applied the genealogical techniques to institutions, Friedrich Nietzsche applied it to (European) morality. He saw the dominant morality, even among modern secular thinkers, as emerging from Christianity, which was itself a “slave revolt” against the “master morality” of the classical world. The master morality, espoused by the dominant (slave owning) class in antiquity celebrated power, strength, pride, self assertion, and self love. But this strength was experienced by the majority as oppression. So in response they asserted that “the meek shall inherit the earth”, and collectively imposed a morality of self-denial, restraint, selflessness and sacrifice, on these masters (and themselves). Nietzsche wasn’t advocating a return to the master morality of the ancients, but was (rightly, I contend), arguing that such “self abnegating” thinking acted to a certain extent as a retardant to progress, preventing full realisation of our potential. If we could overcome the limits it imposed we would be one step closer to becoming the ubermensch, or “superman”.

The obligation to work happily, to define one’s own value exclusively by the good one can do for others, rather than for our own gratification, is one expression of this slave morality. But it is not the only one.

The other day I bought burgers for my family. I had unloaded the food on the kitchen counter and started transferring it to the table. My son arrived and surveyed the table, looking for his cheeseburger (with no pickle) which was still on the counter. In a perfectly neutral voice he asked “where’s my burger?”

He wasn’t being impatient. I had asked him an hour ago if he wanted a cheeseburger. We had spent that hour in the car, going to get it. Then he went to wash his hands, and came back to the table but couldn’t find it. He just wanted to know where it was. Where’s the crime?

But my wife and I had both had to stop ourselves from addressing his “tone”. Why wasn’t such a question dressed more respectably, with a “father dearest” at the front and some less direct sentence formation, like “do you happen know where my cheeseburger is?” As if he doesn’t expect me to have thought too hard about it.

On some level we have accepted that it’s rude to directly just say what you want, and people will get angry if you don’t know that. Communication must be torturous. Signal is bad. Noise is good.

This is even true, perhaps especially so, when all you want is to be left alone.

There’s a point at which our society’s push towards selflessness becomes oppressive, and must be balanced by self love — the same self love might let us imagine that we are, before we “earn” it, deserving of a materially decent life, of love, of respect, by the mere virtue of our personhood.

This doesn’t mean a world without obligations — but a world with different obligations. First among these might be the obligation to take care of yourself, to be the best possible version of yourself, on your own terms, and show up to participate only when you feel a genuine interest in the task at hand, or a genuine desire to contribute, driven by generosity rather than desperation, fear and shame.