Rebuild, Clean, Serve, Connect: What we talk about when we talk about jobs
I get very frustrated by our discourse around jobs. Part of that is because both parties insist that they are very concerned with job creation while pushing policies that produce unemployment. That’s really frustrating. Part of it us because each side accuses of the other of not caring about jobs while not doing much about jobs. That’s also really frustrating.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I dislike it when people talk about job creation without foregrounding what work needs doing. Why intone “we need jobs” instead of “we have work to do”? And we have lots of work that needs doing. There is no need for make work.
I mean, sure all else being equal, any jobs are better than no jobs. I also think just cutting checks should be in the mix, and no matter how many jobs you create not everyone can work, and so those people are going to need checks. But we’ll save that for another post. Because the central fact of our economy, the central fact of capitalism, is that a small number of people, by virtue of owning things, get to have others work for them, and the overwhelming majority do not own much and must work for others in order to make a living. So a jobless future is an absolute disaster unless you find a way to get money in the hands of the latter group. (This isn’t difficult either but the idea that it can be done without options that sounds “socialist” is ridiculous, unless you don’t mind dystopias.)
But the people and neighborhoods that need jobs need work done too. And people deserve to have their needs met. Jobs are a means to that. Sometimes–not all of them meet our needs. And jobs are not the only means. But what needs doing?
Rebuild – Roads and bridges are crumbling. The former is a problem, the latter is a crisis. People should be able to move about the country without fearing that debris will fall on them as they travel or that a bridge will collapse. Schools are crumbling, especially those that serve the poorest students. Sewer systems are a mess, as the situations in Detroit and Flint have dramatically shown. Good roads, schools and sewer systems are not the sort of things anyone should have to do without.
Clean – Many years of allowing the pursuit of profit to trump concern for human lives or environmental impact has taken a toll. Formerly industrialized cities that have been victim of capital flight are one place where we see this acutely. Companies used up the land and the people in those places and then left dirty sites behind. Or think of a place like West Virginia, where the entire state has revolved around the coal industry, which has poisoned the air, land and water. We should be hiring people in those places hurt most by the loss of jobs to clean up after those industries to improve their own communities.
Serve – The vast expansion in our productive capacities over centuries has ensured that producing enough goods for everyone is no longer a challenge for us. But (even leaving distributional questions aside) that doesn’t mean people’s needs are being met. Health care is an obvious issue here. Despite the expansion of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, many remain without insurance and others have insurance and cannot afford to get care. Far too many people employed in the health care industry have administrative jobs rather than ones geared toward patient care. In education, we’ve seem a massive shedding of teaching jobs large class sizes, more and more cuts to essential schools personnel like counselors, libraries, and nurses. Schools which serve poor students and students of color have been the most significant targets of these cuts (and were already underfunded anyway) although they are certainly not limited to them. And as our population ages we have increasing needs for elder care, not to mention care for the disabled. We should be hiring people to do this essential care work.
Connect – Being a full member of society entails being able to connect with the world, to move about and communicate. Public transit is essential here, for those who cannot drive, or for whom driving is impracticable. It is also great for moving people around in dense cities where driving is frustrating, not the mention the benefits in terms of reduced pollution. People need to be connected via the Post Office, which is under assault. It could be very financially sound if it were to adopt postal banking, connecting people with the basic financial services they need to operate in society. And some cities have made efforts to connect people online with public wi-fi. Given how essential the internet has become making access depend not he ability to pay makes no sense. We should be hiring more people to build and maintain public transit and public wi-fi, to operate public transit, and to staff the Post Office.
Focusing on jobs themselves rather than the work that needs to be done leads to another problem. It strips away the main point of work, which is to achieve social outcomes. Our goal shouldn’t be more work. I’d like work to be more equitably distributed, directed toward necessary things not bad things, and in the process to reduce the hours of work in the day or the week. We should lower the retirement age, mandate that jobs provide family and medical leave and vacation time, and expand disability. As Kathi Weeks has argued, if some people are working too many hours and others need work, that’s not two problems–each is the solution to the other.
If something needs doing, government should hire people to do it. Alternatively, government can help secure the funding by insuring the risk, but if that’s the case, the enterprise shouldn’t be for profit because the entire justification for profit is that it’s a reward for taking on risk. No need for Rube Goldberg schemes of tax incentives to get businesses to hire people whatever will make businesses profit (never mind that the evidence suggests those schemes don’t work). Put people to work doing what needs doing, and don’t worry about it if all that work gets done and some people aren’t employed. Just cut those people checks. Then our needs at a social level and an individual level will be met, and work won’t end up engulfing our entirely life.