Thursday, February 20, 2014

Freedom, Work, Drudgery and Danger

American coal miners

If you won the lottery, would you still work?  No, you’d have the freedom to indulge yourself in worldly pleasures: travelling, socializing, thrill-seeking, etc.  But eventually you would probably find a life of indolence and hedonism unsatisfying, and would long for activity that both engaged your talents and benefitted society.  Without your millions, of course, you would be compelled to work, and the extent that a job gratified your talents would become secondary to the extent that it gratified your need for food and housing.  That is, most people work to survive and only a lucky few find work that’s deeply satisfying.  Does a garbage man find as much satisfaction in his work as an architect?  How about a cafeteria worker or a data entry clerk or a coal miner?  No, most of the work that most people do is drudgery, and most people would happily give it up if not compelled to it by economic necessity.  It’s true that all honest work imparts dignity and there is some satisfaction in simply doing your job well.  And in a society of equal opportunity – something to which our society provides at best a rough approximation – anyone with sufficient talent and determination can become a successful architect or neurosurgeon or musician.  But the great majority of people work not for the satisfaction or the dignity.  They work because survival obligates them to a life of unsatisfying and unforgiving drudgery.  For most people, work is coercion.

But imagine if some of that coercion could be lifted.  Imagine a person working an unsatisfying job only for the health insurance provided by her employer (that’s how most Americans get health insurance).  Maybe she or someone in her family requires expensive medical treatment, or maybe independent medical insurance is prohibitively expensive.  But now imagine a change in the system allows her to get cheap but good health insurance somewhere else.  Now she can afford to quit her job and give up the modest pay.  Maybe she wants to quit so she can stay home with her young children or her aging parent.  Maybe she wants to go back to college or start her own business.  Maybe she wants to retire a few years early.  Or maybe she wants to keep her job and simply work fewer hours and spend more time with her family.  Maybe she’s just happy knowing that her expanded health care options give her more choices and more opportunities, more control over her own life.  Isn’t it a tiny bit like winning the lottery?  That is, aren’t we imagining she has more freedom?

Well, you don’t have to imagine.  According to a report by the non-partisan and broadly respected Congressional Budget Office (CBO) there are millions of people who will work less or not at all because they can now obtain cheap and dependable health insurance through Obamacare.  As Josh Barro explains, “Broadly, one key goal of health policy should be to let people make work decisions without worrying about how those decisions affect their health insurance.”  That wasn’t the central intent of the health care law, but it sure seems like a positive development.  Well, there are many conservatives who adamantly don’t think so.  Welcome to the latest battle in the Obamacare wars.

At first many conservatives, blinded by Obamacare-hatred into abandoning either understanding or scruples, proclaimed that the CBO is reporting that Obamacare will destroy millions of jobs.  Some Republican politicians eagerly misrepresented the issue for electoral gain.  Even the supposedly liberal mainstream press thoughtlessly parroted stories about “lost” jobs.  There are no lost jobs, of course, only defecting workers, as clarified in this exchange between conservative Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan and CBO director Douglas Elmendorf as the latter appeared before the House Budget Committee:

"Just to understand, it is not that employers are laying people off," Ryan said.
"That is right," Elmendorf said.

There is a huge difference between being fired and quitting, as anyone who has actually held a job knows.  As Elmendorf testified:

The reason we don’t use the term “lost jobs” is there is a critical difference between people who like to work and can’t find a job — or have a job that’s lost for reasons beyond their control — and people who choose not to work. If someone comes up to you and says, “The boss says I’m being laid off because we don’t have enough business to pay,” [then] any other person feels bad about that and we sympathize for them having lost their job. If someone says, “I decided to retire or stay home and spend more time with my family and spend more time doing my hobby,” they don’t feel bad about it — they feel good about it. And we don’t sympathize. We say congratulations.

Exactly!  But some conservatives are so sure that no Obamacare news is good news they simply pretend that the “lost jobs” tale hasn’t been thoroughly debunked and persist in their misrepresentations.  Consider the semantically-challenged David Harsanyi:

“Obamacare is inducing labor demand to shrink!” doesn’t have the quite the same punch as “Obamacare is costing us jobs!” though both are accurate.

No, normal English usage compels us to call the first sentence accurate, the second one inaccurate, and Harsanyi’s point ridiculous.

Some conservatives deny that even though Obamacare will let some people quit their jobs, that won’t constitute an increase in their freedom.  Charles C. W. Cooke writes in the National Review Online that whatever else one can say about taxing one person to subsidize another:

one cannot claim that it makes either man “free” — at least not without twisting the word and the concept that it represents beyond all meaningful recognition.

That’s because the need to scramble for survival does not constitute coercion in any sense:

Does the Obama administration really plan to make the case that negative liberty is but a mirage and that, the state of nature’s “forcing” one to work being akin to actual compulsion, the state must step in everywhere to liberate the citizenry from reality’s harsh claims? One suspects not.

Let’s overlook Cooke’s rather slapdash treatment of the theoretical concepts of negative liberty and the state of nature, and rephrase his position in everyday terms: He seems to be saying that the brutish struggle for existence is an unavoidable reality of even a thoroughly free life; alleviating that brutishness does not increase one’s freedom, only one’s comfort.  Every person, every creature, in every situation, must struggle for sustenance and shelter.  This feels intuitively plausible: it seems a little odd to think of the demands of one’s own biology as coercions.  But this argument overlooks two important points.  First, there’s no reason an increase in comfort can’t yield an increase in freedom.  To the extent that it’s actually possible to moderate the struggle for survival such that one’s biological needs don’t consume one’s resources to the same degree, those needs can be coherently thought of as coercive.  If survival didn’t compel one to spend so much time hunting down wooly mammoths or waiting on tables then one would have more options, more control over one’s life, more freedom.  Second, in modern society both the freedoms and constrictions of economic life are not just natural, but social as well; they manifest the rules we’ve agreed to live by.  There is a difference between the hinter-gatherer chasing down prey on the savannah and the worker who through lack of independent means is forced to sell his labor on the open market.  In the modern world economic survival can be made less or more harsh by (among other things) actions of society or the state.  Marginally liberating individuals by subsidizing their health insurance is not like trying to counteract all of “reality’s harsh claims”; it’s not like trying to repeal old age or gravity; it’s more like a hunter-gatherer discovering a grove of abundantly productive fruit trees.  It’s more like winning a lesser lottery ticket.

But, though Cooke’s logic does not convince, it does illuminate.  Misapprehending capitalism, a social institution, as a purely natural phenomenon – like the struggle for survival – is a widespread conservative fallacy.  Perceiving all political and social issues as amenable to black-and-white moralistic solutions is another.  Put the two together and you have conservative economics.  To Cooke, when the state tries to revise the natural workings of the market it commits both arrogance and immorality.  His conservative colleague, writer Michael Goodwin, likewise considers it a sin, and the abetting of sin: Choosing to work less hours because the government subsidizes your health insurance is shameful, if not downright un-American!

In [the old, pre-liberal] America, work, any work, was honorable while being on the dole was cause for shame. Still is.

That is, liberals are blind to the moral nobility of self-sufficiency; that’s probably why they’re always plotting to ensnare people into government bondage:

This anti-job, pro-dependency tilt is the crux of the nation’s polarization. In essence, it pits those who believe in the sanctity of work against those who believe in penalizing wealth and redistributing its fruits.

Sanctity!  Goodwin beats even Cooke in the competition for most abstractly moralistic understanding of labor in the modern world.  Cooke may believe it’s natural but Goodwin actually believes it’s holy!  Goodwin attempts to describe the essence of our national polarization, but instead he embodies it.  Conservatives issue furious sermons about the naturalness and sanctity of the free market while ignoring its actual results.  Liberals actually perceive capitalism’s “harsh realities” – its coercion, its amorality, its inability to deliver universal healthcare – and hope to moderate them in limited and prudential ways that increase individual comfort and freedom.  Moralistic, dogmatic platitudes vs. pragmatic, prudential solutions.  That’s the real crux of our polarization.  Here it pits the absolutist, pre-ordained certainty that the state can’t possibly make anyone freer against the practical reality that sometimes it does just that.

And there’s all the usual handwringing about the evils of redistribution.  As Repair_Man_Jack of puts it:

The freedom to sit on your butt and do nothing at another citizen’s expense is expressly parasitic and malignant.

Well, at least he concedes it’s freedom!  But all social insurance requires redistribution, from Social Security to unemployment insurance to student loans to Medicare and Medicaid.  Every government activity, even the provision of education and highways and the military, includes those who pay who will not benefit and those who benefit who have not paid.  You can’t have anything like universal healthcare without some redistribution; the young, healthy and affluent have to help pay for the old, sick and poor.  And once you subsidize the old, sick and poor they may find less need to hold a job or work so many hours.  To pay for Obamacare you do have to marginally increase someone’s taxes and that does marginally decrease that someone’s freedom.  That is, you’re redistributing not only money, but freedom.  You’re marginally increasing the coercion on the taxed worker so that the Obamacare recipient can work less.  But much of the revenue for Obamacare comes from taxes on the upper economic strata (and much of the rest from hospitals and insurance companies), that is, on those who already have the most freedom.  Even the extravagantly hated individual mandate to buy health insurance is really only a tax on not buying it, and a minor tax at that.  And everyone may someday need government-subsidized healthcare; indeed, every American who lives to 65 qualifies for Medicare, a program even Tea Partiers seem to love.  Why is Obamacare is any less defensible?  If you believe they’re all indefensible and the entire welfare state should be repealed, you’d better be prepared for the quite harsh economic and social conditions that prevailed before its creation.  Would that represent an increase in freedom? The person who worked 14 hours a day in deadly conditions his entire life without hope of retirement might have found some appreciation in the purely abstract freedom of his condition, but it’s doubtful that offset the all-too-real crushing coercions he actually lived under.

But from the perspective of the highly moralized conservative point of view, redistribution is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and it not only cheats Peter, it diminishes Paul.  As Jonathan Chait explains, Obamacare recipients have become the new welfare queens.  To John Podhoretz such recipients risk the loss of self-sufficiency:

This is the classic problem of a government handout: It can become more alluring to those who receive it than the prospect of a life lived without it.

Charles Krauthammer puts it rather less kindly:

In [Obama’s] new opportunity society, you are given the opportunity for idleness while living parasitically off everyone else.

Repair Man Jack gets downright visceral:

So behind all the benevolent language about being free to quit is a call to greater personal dependence instead of responsibility. Why isn’t this relief from responsibility good? It is antipodal to good because it takes a free-minded, productive and independent citizens and turns them into the human equivalent of intestinal parasites. These parasites then degrade and eat out the sustenance of others.

Jack’s fascination with intestine-eating aside, a person who works less or quits their job because of government subsidies is not a parasite.  What have we come to that American workers actually need to be defended against such vile slander?  These are people who have been working or looking for work, not looking for a handout.  Health insurance subsidies do not “turn them into” anything other than healthier, more secure, more autonomous Americans. Are people who retire on Social Security parasites?  What about capable and healthy retirees?  Should Social Security be repealed so they’re forced to get off their lazy butts and go hustle for jobs?  Or consider the G.I. Bill, which provided government-sponsored mortgages, business loans and college tuition for servicemen and women returning from World War II – did it turn them into parasites?  And just because Obamacare allows a person to quit her job doesn’t mean she has stopped working (especially if she is merely working fewer hours).  A person who stays home to take care of her children or her parents or her home is still working and still contributing to society.

But, though government assistance need not transform one into a parasite, you need not be a raving hysteric to appreciate that it might weaken one’s self-sufficiency, it might weaken one’s work ethic; indeed, it might weaken everyone’s.  Andrew Sullivan almost agrees with Goodwin about the crux of our polarization:

It’s struck me that there is an underlying anxiety to several of our current debates on economic and social issues. That anxiety is that the American work ethic – unparalleled in the developed world – is under threat. That’s the real critique of Obamacare

Though it’s not clear he’s on Goodwin’s side of that polarization:

The Protestant work ethic we have, for example, is the imperative for industrious striving, self-advancement and material gain. It is emphatically not about being happy. And at some point, if those two values are not easily compatible, something will give.

The Puritan work ethic has, to a great extent, served us well, though it does have the downsides that Sullivan touches upon.  But that work ethic doesn’t seem dead just yet.  There is an ongoing tension in American public life between the pragmatic need to ameliorate the excesses of capitalism and a political folk culture that worships self-sufficiency, and that tension is not about to ease any time soon.  And even if the liberal view of capitalism came to dominate it would not necessarily mean the death of the work ethic.  One of liberalism’s fondest dreams is that working people be fairly rewarded for their labor.  Second-guessing capitalist outcomes looks like an attack on the work ethic only if you believe the harshness of the market is a necessary corrective to the enervating human desire for sponsored comfort.  To conservatives, the unforgiving necessity for hard work is positively beneficial in that it polices a naturally weak and unambitious populace.  But American workers want just what liberals want for them: to work hard and to reap the benefits, one of which might be working fewer hours because of a health insurance subsidy.  Should we really fear that when the workers in question leave their jobs they will so casually fall into inactivity, despondency and sloth?  At base, the fierce conservative attack on the welfare state is about the Puritanical dread of corrupting, lazy irresponsibility.  They’re convinced the freed man won’t feel the need for work, the urge to create and produce and contribute we ascribed to the lottery winner; instead he’ll embrace indolence, hedonism and immorality.  So the workforce must be kept hungry; not because hungry workers will work for less (though the investor class does not object), but because hunger keeps them busy, it keeps them honest.

We see the political forces arrayed against freedom for the American worker:  There is an ideological worldview that sees exemption from wage labor as unnatural and morally debilitating, a culture that equates moral value with economic value and freedom with self-sufficiency.  There is the warped version of the work ethic that’s convinced that inside each worker is a welfare cheat just aching to jump out.  And there is the ferocity of a partisan movement in the grip of these mythologies, righteous in its insistence that moralistic absolutes override the bread-and-butter concerns of people’s actual lives.  And, most fundamentally there are the ideological blinders that prevent the clear apprehension of the coercion that plays such a large part in the lives of working people.  Cooke finds:

a great deal of truth in The Economist’s observation that “a job is an economic transaction between a seller and a buyer of labour, and can be ‘destroyed’ if either seller or buyer walks away.”

It may seem here that Cooke is toying with the pretense of some of his less scrupulous conservative colleagues that the CBO report proves Obamacare is destroying jobs.  But it’s not mendacity that tempts him to support the Economist’s laughable “observation”, it’s the constrictions of his own ideology.  In real life, no job is destroyed when a worker walks away; there is always a line of people eagerly waiting to take his place (especially during a weak recovery).  A job is a thing an employer dispenses; it cannot be destroyed by a seller of labor.  Labor is a buyer’s market; in the real lives of most people, the employer holds the power.  CBO Director Elmendorf reminds us how we pity the man who’s been fired, but congratulate the man who quits.  That’s because the quitting man has acquired the economic power to meet the boss as an equal, as one who is free of the boss’s power.  Such a man has shed one of life’s coercions.

But there is no room in conservative ideology to address that coercion; that’s why conservatives have been so exercised by a provocative tweet from the Huffington Post’s Congressional reporter, Michael McAuliff:

There's an irony in the GOP complaining that ACA lets people quit jobs. I mean, what's wrong with freedom?

Conservatives can’t imagine a subsidy recipient has been freed from a compulsion whose existence they can’t even perceive!  In their worldview it’s not only acceptable, but essential that families mold individuals, schools indoctrinate them, religion restrain them, mores chasten them, and the market allocate them.  But interference from the federal government is the darkest tyranny!  What’s actually wrong with freedom – actual individual freedom – in the conservative mind is that it dis-empowers families, schools, religion, mores and the market.  The freedom that conservatives genuinely value is the unconstrained power of those institutions to exert their traditional moral authority over their charges, to manage them.

To be fair, there is another side to such freedom that conservatives value at least as much: the individual self-sufficiency those institutions are charged with instilling and enforcing.  To a conservative, individual freedom without individual responsibility is no freedom at all.  Overlooking the semantic confusion, liberals value their version of freedom because it allows individuals to pursue their own goals and develop their individual talents and personalities.  Conservatives value their version of freedom because it produces righteous and responsible providers and protectors (yes, it still includes a profoundly male tone).  But it’s a strange sort of freedom that requires ongoing and overpowering direction and enforcement from social institutions like the church and the market.  Once again, it’s not clear how much conservatives trust truly free individuals to make their own choices.  To a liberal, if a subsidy allows an individual to develop herself more, then she simply is more free, regardless of the financial source for the subsidy.  To a conservative she has forgone her freedom, her autonomy, for a gilded cage.

Comprehensive freedom from work is, of course, both impossible and undesirable, while comprehensive freedom from drudgery is merely impossible.  The struggle for existence and the capitalist need for wage labor are, obviously, the most important and most inescapable enemies of freedom from drudgery.  But if we can allow workers to work marginally less and in such a way that it barely affects either the economy or the social fabric, then what is so wrong with that?  At bottom, conservatives reject the notion that such workers are more free because they’ve confused freedom with responsibility.  Freedom seems to be merely their word for the arrangement of interlocking, constraining institutions that punish irresponsibility and thereby enforce morality.  The conservative sensibility, with its overwrought Puritan anxieties, can’t seem to escape the fear that real freedom – freedom to say “No” to the boss or the patriarch or the minister – is dangerous.  That’s because real freedom means the redistribution of power – the power to quit without starving, power over your own time and energy – and that threatens traditional authority and the view of moral order it represents.  That’s what’s wrong with freedom, as far as conservatives are concerned.  But given the overwhelming necessity of work and the coercion it entails, respect for the labor of our fellow Americans should prevent us from begrudging them the small slivers of power and freedom we might provide.  Their respite from drudgery represents a small victory for everyone who labors.  Let’s trust them to enjoy it and cultivate it and profit from it as they will.