Sunday 19 January 2014

Do what you love: but worry about the economics

A friend just posted this article from Slate, and invited comments: Stop Saying “Do What You Love, Love What You Do.” It Devalues Actual Work. While trying to fit my response into the comment box I realised I had a blog post on my hands.

I believe the author’s argument is at best wrong, at worst dangerous. She argues that doing what you love is the privilege of the rich, and devalues the contribution of the sewage sifters and telephone sanitisers who keep our society functioning through the drudge of their daily lives, allowing the select few to love their jobs.

The author’s solution to this problem is to recognise the vital role that people in low-paid jobs perform, and for people in jobs they ‘love’ to admit that, actually, they’re still working pretty hard.

Let’s stop and think about this.

So firstly, people who sift sewage for a living can be encouraged to be satisfied doing that for the rest of their lives, and secondly, people in great jobs that the sewage sifter ought to be aspiring to, can say: “Ah, it’s pretty tough working in my bright, open-plan office, sitting on a beanbag and munching on artisanal toast while I run my tech start-up. You wouldn’t like it.”

This is a solution?

A major, major problem for society at the moment is the great gulf between rich and poor. It’s one of the greatest problems facing economics today.

There’s some vicious skirmishing going on between economists on the complexities of the subject, but the problem basically is this: technology is moving so fast that people who own that technology (the capitalists) get super, super rich, while labourers fight for a diminishing pool of jobs and, as a result, are paid a pittance. Love your job or hate it, if it doesn’t involve owning capital, it won’t be well paid. There’s simply too much labour.

Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t be curbing technological progress, nor indeed throwing the capitalists to the lions, tempting though that may be. But when the income distribution looks like this, we know something’s gone pear-shaped:

From the video 'Wealth Inequality in America' - there's one for the UK too but the narrator has a super-patronising voice

Confusingly, at this point in her argument the author does an about-turn and points out, quite rightly, that many people who ‘love’ their jobs get screwed for the pleasure. Too right: I’ve spent the last two years being screwed. As a reporter I worked overtime on a daily basis without pay, and my salary was pretty puny to start with. When I mentioned this to managers I was met with blank incomprehension. Eventually I walked out the door, but not everyone has that option.

If anything, the problem of labour over-supply is worse for those who ‘love’ their job, because there are even more hopefuls looking to leap into their still-warm shoes.

But the problem is one of economics, not of whether we preach about how great/terrible-but-worthy our jobs are. Labour is being exploited, but attacking people for being proud of “doing what they love” is a red herring. If we can do something about the inequality, then everyone will be able to do what they love, at least some of the time. And we should all aspire to that.

Partly for this reason, I’m sympathetic to the idea of a basic income – that is, paying everyone a reasonable amount to live on, whether they’re rich or poor, in or out of work. The great thing about technology is that it allows us to produce tons of stuff – probably enough for us all to live pretty comfortably. But the wealth needs to be distributed more equitably.

Try telling that to the capitalists, though. More here:


  1. Great post. I'm a bit on the writer's side though. I abhor the whole 'do what you love' saying, I find it awfully smug, as if we all have a choice. No regrets, but I am doing what I love, working really hard, and getting relentlessly screwed myself (so I have to agree with a lot of what she says re fashion and the arts). But I appreciate that this route takes an awful lot of optimism, intellect and tenacity. And maybe even a little bit of luck a few supportive individuals in your life. So unfortunately not everyone has these tools to break out of their banal jobs, and I suppose their roles shouldn't be devalued.

  2. You're right, it certainly sounds smug, and it's easy for me to say, coming from a background where the odds have always been stacked in my favour. But I hate the idea that people should be satisfied with their lot, even if their lot is a crap job they hate. I feel there's this dangerous form of groupthink, perhaps a remnant of the 'olden days' when things were much tougher, that everyone just has to knuckle down and get on with their dull jobs. I don't think that's true of many people anymore, and the less we think it's true, the less it will be true.

    Perhaps I'm just being naive, I don't know.

  3. Regarding Basic Minimum Income, I promised to summarize a debate from elsewhere on Facebook. I haven't used names, since I didn't get permission to quote. Sorry for the long comment.

    The debate started with this article:

    I responded with this:

    "There are two really cool ideas here, but I think the linking of the two is unhelpful. One is giving one-off grants to the very poor - what GiveDirectly and others do - for which the evidence of effectiveness is very solid.

    The second is a basic minimum income for the relatively poor. That's intriguing, and the studies cited are exciting, but it's not proven. I think the article attempts to deal with two points, and isn't quite convincing: laziness, and funding.

    On laziness, the article cites working hours dropping by only 9% overall. That's a decent result, but I'd like to see a couple more breakdowns to prove that the economy can function with a minimum income in place. What happens to productivity? (i.e. are people just turning up to work to hang out with their mates?) And are dirty, dull but necessary jobs - such as rubbish collection - still able to recruit sufficient staff?

    And as L rightly says, the funding is difficult. This is by far the weakest part of the author's argument, full of false equivalences and rhetorical flaws. For instance, the fact that the poverty line is $1300/month does not imply that that's what the basic income should be - most people already earn some money, which is why the Bruenig objective of getting people *over* that line is more useful. Likewise, the fact that the government already controls 50% of GDP provides no guidance whatsoever as to whether it should control an additional 30%. The promised savings from eliminating other programmes only stand if you give the income to everyone - if you only give it to poor people then you still have to monitor it. The author doesn't make much effort to engage with the complexities of the economics - with whether making everyone richer will increase prices, or with whether a significant increase to the tax burden will damage output.

    I really want this to be a concept that works, but that's what I'd like to see to be convinced."

    Several commenters focused on the costs of poverty, which go well beyond paying benefits. P said:

    "There are a lot of other costs you can save, particularly if you can get someone off drugs, or stop them committing crimes to support themselves and their dependants. Aside from the cost of policing, prosecution and sentencing, it costs around £40k a year to keep someone in prison in the UK. That's an awful lot of money to save, even before you take into account the social cost."

    E added in the same vein:

    "I think it's partially paid for by replacing the systems we have now. it costs a lot to administer things like all the different benefit schemes, for example. A system without assessors, job centres, means testing - just £1000 showing up monthly in your account - is far sleeker.

    Furthermore, supporting people through crisis situations costs a lot. For example, people in poverty cost the state a lot in terms of healthcare. If they have worse diets, for example, they'll be more vulnerable to ills. More stress means worse mental health, perhaps to alcohol problems, or obesity - expensive things to try and fix. If you're working two jobs, you're more likely to become unwell through exhaustion. If you don't have time to visit a GP, or your employer is a shit who might fire you for asking for time off, then your health problems will snowball - something your GP could have sorted out with a pill for a week is ignored until it becomes a Medical Emergency, and emergencies are more expensive to deal with."

  4. And part 2 of 2:

    Another commenter emphasized the social benefits of BasMinIn:

    "One off giving or grants to the poor has the unfortunate side affect of keeping those outside of the working environment in a state of forelock tugging indebtedness. It may well have a beneficial effect on the giver's feeling of noblesse oblige but it can also reinforce the feeling of low self esteem in the recipient. Who likes to receive charity? As for Basic Income I think that has a lot more potential. To implement it calls for the wholesale scrapping of the welfare system. It isn't about welfare, it is about a right to live a basic life purely arising from citizenship. There are a lot of these rights being acknowledged informally and in a very piecemeal way. What Basic Income says is that each qualifying citizen shall have the right to a minimum salary but that they will be responsible for how they spend it. There would be no welfare system other than that needed for those with special needs. In determining the level however we hit the biggest problem. With high house prices and rents it is simply impossible to have a reasonably low minimum income. So it has to be in conjunction with a social housing program. Would it then cost a lot? Difficult to say. The present benefits, by and large, would be scrapped. The poverty trap would disappear. Would it encourage a nation of scroungers? Ask yourself, would you prefer not to work and have no prospect of improving your lot or would you still do something so you could buy a big house, new car, etc.? If you judge than people are basically bone idle then you will not support Basic Income. If on the other hand you believe that it would allow people to try new things - like the arts - or volunteer in society, then you will support it. If you believe it would be no more than a safety net and that we will always seek to improve ourselves, you will support it. Remember, it replaces the current system of benefits. It removes stigma and improves mental health for those "at the bottom". Some argue that it costs no more than the present system and yet it is far simpler to administer which brings savings. You might prefer to think of it as negative taxation and a simple redistribution of wealth."

    Finally I (yes, me again) linked this to the idea being kicked around by the Shadow Cabinet of predistribution, noted the value of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Minimum Income Standard project, which tries to calculate how much money one needs to achieve a decent standard of living today: , and made a point about competing and balancing constituencies in political economy:

    "One area I haven't seen mentioned is constituency power. At the moment, we have two constituencies campaigning on benefits - claimants and fiscal conservatives, with their associated Westminster allies. Clearly I think they are out of balance at the moment, but at least in theory they balance each other out - one pushes for higher benefits, the other for lower, and we end up with a sensible compromise. If we get a genuinely universal benefit like this, then the entire population forms one massive constituency in favour of it getting ever-higher - and I don't suppose any of us have much faith in political leaders' ability to resist that for long, or to educate the population on the economic risks."

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