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It Looks the Same but Something Has Changed

Painting Workers (photo: Archer10)

There aren’t enough jobs. That is the stark conclusion of Jim Clifton, the CEO of the polling company Gallup:

Of the 7 billion people on Earth, there are 5 billion adults aged 15 and older. Of these 5 billion, 3 billion tell Gallup they work or want to work. Most of these people need a full-time formal job. The problem is that there are currently only 1.2 billion full-time, formal jobs in the world. This is a potentially devastating global shortfall of about 1.8 billion good jobs.

Clifton thinks this fact is going to generate terrible social stress. Mayor Michael Bloomberg agrees that unless we figure out the solution to this problem, we could see riots in the US.

Capitalism won’t solve this problem. It only creates jobs under duress, when there is demand for goods and services that can’t be filled by a machine. Capital has declared war on jobs. It wants as few of them as possible, even at the expense of demand. That explains the jobless recoveries that are the new normal, and it explains the recent growth in capital expenditures by businesses, one of the only positive factors in the economy. As John Maynard Keynes showed, it is perfectly possible to reach an equilibrium point in a capitalist economy that is far short of full employment. We are headed that way.

At the same time the contradictions in capitalist thought are reaching the surface. Look at health care. The elites in the US persuaded the majority of citizens that health care was a capitalist enterprise, designed for the purpose of making profits. That might have led to some economies of scale, but the road took us to our current situation, where only those with government or private insurance or lots of money have a reasonable chance of getting good health care. The crowds yelling “let him die” in reference to a 30 year old with no health insurance at a recent Republican Debate are the ugly side of the picture. The people who don’t care that millions are uninsured, and who are unwilling to pay taxes or increased insurance premiums because those unemployed people can’t pay for crucial health care are another.

The last people we should consult for solutions are economists, all of whom are wed to the current system. It is obvious how to tweak things so that people can have meaningful lives in the short-term. Government hires them and put them to work doing the useful things we need done, infrastructure construction and maintenance, care for the old, the sick and others in need, teaching the young, cleaning up the environment, and moving towards renewable energy. Corporatist economists will say this won’t work, but screw them. They haven’t been right yet, and not one of them has paid the capitalist price of being fired and run into penury.

Whether we do something or nothing, the long term problem is the same. There aren’t enough jobs. What kind of society can we have if 60% of people can’t find a job? Maybe part of the problem lies in our definition of the term.

A good job is a job with a paycheck from an employer and steady work that averages 30+ hours per week. Global labor economists refer to these as formal jobs.

In other words, a job is something done to please someone who has money to pay for it. There are all sorts of things that need to be done but that don’t fit that definition: raising children is just the first thing that comes to mind. There are a lot of things that government hires people to do that don’t fit that definition, things like taking care of people with mental illness, curating museums and forcing electrical utilities to build lines out to rural areas.

So one solution is to have government hire people and put them to work doing those things that need to be done, even if rich people can’t figure out how to make a lot of money doing them. You could think of it as reverse privatization.

Alternatively, we could decide that those formal jobs are rewards for being smart and capable. If you have one of those jobs and you do it well, you get to keep it for up to, say, 15 years. You don’t make a lot of money, because the job is the reward. Everyone else does the things that no one will pay for, and in exchange, they get to consume some of the production from the formal jobs. I think we’ll also need some transition rules to deal with accumulated wealth.

Things aren’t going to be like they were before. We’d better start thinking about the way things could be, because rich people plan to remain in control, and that means misery for 1.8 billion people, who might take it personally.

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