hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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the ruminant economy 3 – (un)employment

Our image that accompanies unemployment is always about the jobs that have disappeared yesterday and the developments that have led to that situation. It is the employment policy of yesterday that politics and labour unions often are protecting. Yes, jobs disappear, but are also created and the world of labour and jobs can absorb huge numbers of people. Administrations used to have many typists to process the information and communication; now they need people for the call centers. Publishers and newspapers had their own typesetting department; now they use the services of self-employed graphic designers and web developers. Assembly lines for cars are now for a big part the domain of robots, and a big part of the former workers is doing quality control and process monitoring in the factory. And on the sunny side: is not a car body assembly line with only robots equally disturbing or enjoyable as an empty coal mine? The big caveat is of course that the shift in jobs often actually means a serious lowering of wages for the jobs that come as replacements.

Unemployment is the big issue for the social dialogue and is especially an issue when it is high and persistent. Technological developments have as a side effect temporary unemployment when new technologies take over. Economic crisis can lead to more persistent unemployment. In general, unemployment is sign of a mismatch between the jobs employers make available and the skills and capacities employees have to offer. It is about the relationship employers and employees have with each other, and it is hard to blame unemployment generically on one of the sides of this relationship.

So why do we fight unemployment? For the unemployed, it takes away the basic human dignity of being able to provide for one’s living oneself, and it communicates that one is redundant. I get the impression that in discussions about the restructuring of the welfare system it is often forgotten how debilitating unemployment is for those whom it affects. The image of the worker as basically an ‘entrepreneur’ closes our eyes for the negative aspects of unemployment.

For the government I can think of roughly three reasons that unemployment is not wanted: 1) it leaves people’s skills and knowledge unused; 2) it is a disinvestment of money spent in education; 3) it is a cost for the social welfare budget which is to be avoided. Unemployment policies are based on a generally felt duty to provide for the citizens, and have the cost of unemployment benefits weight in as little as possible on the general budget. As a result of the social dialogue there is a reasonably fixed bottom to these benefits. ‘We’, the collective electorate with our social partners, want a definite minimum welfare and government cannot make cuts at will.

When extreme cuts cannot be ‘sold’ to the public, especially in times of mass unemployment, one move is to individualize the problem, making the individual responsible for his or her (un)employment. There are several strategies at work currently. The first is a seemingly ignorant strategy called ‘life long learning’. Employees are told that they have to keep themselves employable and thus have to develop their skills or change their skills in accordance to what is asked for by ‘the labour market’. The employers, the ‘buyers’ on the labour market, apparently do not have to worry about the employability of their employees, and do not have to invest in their employees. The costs of acquiring adequate skills is the burden of society via the school system on the one hand, and the employee who has to indulge in life long learning on the other hand. The future of labour is thus the individual concern of the employee. As a counterpart to this strategy, the idea develops that the unemployed are themselves to blame for their ‘unemployability’.

Another strategy is demanding a reimbursement by the welfare recipient in the form of some work for a public service, such as park maintenance, sweeping the streets, etc. As it is your fault that you are not sufficiently employable, we can just as well use you to do some jobs for which we cannot find people (because we don’t want to pay for these jobs …) and ‘we’ pay your welfare anyway, so you owe us one!

An attractive proposal to circumvent these issues is the idea of a basic income: give people enough to live, and they can decide themselves whether they want to work extra in order to be able to spend more. Sooner or later, there is an utterly defeatism in these proposals: somewhere in the argument, the claim is made that there are not, and will not be, enough jobs for all, so let’s better not try to achieve the impossible. Our jobs are being replaced by computers or relocated to low wage countries anyway. It is an argument in Rutger Bregman’s Gratis geld voor iedereen which later on was published as Utopia for realists (2017).[*]  This claim is highly questionable, as we have seen above (when I discussed non-standard employment).

One argument for a basic income is thus based on the expectancy that jobs will disappear. Another starts from a reverse point: people do all kind of work and jobs that are to the benefit of society, but they are not paid for that. Why not attach a monetary value to these jobs and count them in some way as contributions with which we qualify for a basic income. This is the idea of a Tätigkeitsgesellschaft, or as I would translate it a bit pejoratively ‘handy-man-society’. A paid job is just one possible activity one can do that is important for society. This idea in fact monetarizes all volunteer social activity, from riding your kids football team to an out game, to caring for your parents when they suffer from dementia. Thus we can calculate the contribution in money that volunteers of churches make to society, as was done in Rotterdam in 2008 – it saves on a yearly basis €130 million. Only work that has a € or $-price attached counts as valuable for society.

This idea of a basic income denies the inherent desire of people to earn their living and work for their living. And, there is a relational aspect in labour: you paying me for a job I have done. A basic income violates this relational aspect by replacing the interpersonal transaction with a purely administrative transfer — via the income tax office as is often the proposal.


[*] I cannot check at the moment whether Utopia for Realists is just a translation of ‘Gratis geld’ or that it is a newly edited text. I refer to what is written in the Dutch original.

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