The old fashioned way: we earn it

I love this twitter thread from Alexandra Erin, whom often writes things I like reading.

One quote from it:

And you know, this is just one of the many things that would be simpler to solve if we had universal cash benefits/universal basic income. Easiest way to make sure everybody we need to run a society is alive and thriving is to make sure everyone is. Cuts out so much overhead.

The whole thing is worth reading.

I’ve unrolled it and put it here, too, because the internet goes away sometimes, and Twitter is especially ephemeral.

So inspired by a comment about how teachers get paid plenty for “less than 200 days of work” (I’ll let teachers speak about how much they actually work, which is a lot), I’m going to talk a bit about the economic benefits of paying for idleness.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you might have noticed that my biggest problem with the profit motive in the free market is: it’s short-sighted. It’s natural for people to seek their own benefit. But destructive to do so poorly.

So with a business culture that puts profit above all, and not just profit but profit growth, and not just growth but infinitely sustained accelerating growth, the incentive is: cut costs. What are we paying for that we could be… not paying for?

Under this incentive, a grocery store or fast food restaurant is staffed according to the algebra of “What is the least number of people we could pay to be working and still get all the work done?”

And it’s often based heavily on “should”, as in, “if we have only two people working till close, they SHOULD be able to serve customers and get everything done and clock out on time every night, because they did on this night and that night.”

They will grudgingly staff more people at known peak times, but they use statistical models to try to figure out when they’ll need more people with the idea that it’s better to have the employees all work at a burnout pace than pay one person for one minute of idleness.

Meanwhile, in all other areas of consumer life, we have been seeing a steady stream of innovation in the area of “always on, always ready, always available”. TVs that don’t take time to warm up. Computers that boot in under a minute. Hot water at the pull of a lever.

And of course once you reach a certain socioeconomic class, business recognize that having people just waiting around ready to serve you at a moment’s notice is a value add for you as the consumer.

To pay a person to be idle is to pay them to be ready, to be available. And there’s a certain fairness to it: *their* needs as an employee don’t vary from week to week based on how busy the store is or isn’t, and the employer isn’t expected to bend for them if they do change.

Relevancy to teaching: even if teachers had absolutely nothing job-related to do during “breaks”, we would still need them to be teachers when the school year started in the front. It would make good economic sense to pay them a salary based on a year’s work.

When you put an attorney on retainer you’re not paying them to do work, you’re investing in their availability. We should be happy to pay to retain our teachers whether they are in the classroom teaching or not, because we’re going to need them to come back.

Look, the people who control the means of production aren’t going to lose the means of production because they pay a living wage and give their employees full employment. All the money they pay out goes in the hands of people who will then spend it. It all winds up at the top.

To the extent that any economy resembles a closed system, EVERY store is the company store.

If entry level places that cater to working to middle class customers would keep peak staffing at more times and “excess capacity” at all times, their customers would get better value *and* their customers would have more money to spend. Because their customers are employees.

Same deal with employing baggers separate from the cashiers and cleaning staff separate from the kitchen staff – the collapsing of different roles into “if you have time to lean” and “everybody pitches in” is about reducing excess capacity and “wasting money on idleness”.

There are very few jobs, and none of them service-oriented, where it *doesn’t* make sense to pay people to stand around. Or sit around. Be there. You need the bodies and brains present and on the spot for when the rush hits.

One way or another the whole thing is going to come crashing down if the capitalists of late capitalism don’t wake up to the fact that the system doesn’t work if their customers have no money and their workers have no means to live.

They could keep the game running longer if they paid their workers a more-than-living wage and made sure everybody had the “benefits” that are actually survival necessities. It’s not my preferred solution, but it’s in their interest to do it.

Because my point about teachers seems to be causing some contention: yes, they should be paid more for what they do because the work is valuable. But whatever annual salary you arrive at that seems fair for that – it also MUST MUST be enough to sustain them for a whole year.

If they work for nine months and we pay them a wage that lets them live for nine months, they still have to live the other three. And if they have to seek alternate income every summer, then every year we will needlessly lose some good teachers forever.

So when we think about how much teachers are paid, we have to consider what it costs to live for a year, regardless of what the school year looks like.

And you know, this is just one of the many things that would be simpler to solve if we had universal cash benefits/universal basic income. Easiest way to make sure everybody we need to run a society is alive and thriving is to make sure everyone is. Cuts out so much overhead.

Because one way or another those teachers are getting through the summer and one way or another those cashiers and fast food cooks are holding body and soul together enough to show up for work, which means one way or another we as a society are paying them to.

But we could make that whole thing a lot simpler and a lot more efficient, with less cost to the economy and more benefit to the people involved, if we just… made sure everyone was taken care of, no questions asked.

That’s my preferred solution.

Right now we do a lot of complicated sleight of hand and obfuscation and requiring people to hurt themselves and put their struggle on display in order to arrive at the point we need them to be at, where they are there and performing a service for us. It’s cruel and expensive.

We could improve things while still maintaining most of the existing social and economic order (for people who have a stake in that) by paying living wages regardless of moment-by-moment “business needs” and changing our culture to see the value in idle readiness.

This, this, this. Like I haven’t elaborated much on this because I figure we all know it, but: you get horrible service when you go to a restaurant or store that is “slammed” (we have a word for it!), and it’s so pointless.

One reason this is on my mind is that in the past week I think we’ve paid ~$20 for food that we didn’t get at different places. And we’re not making a big deal of it because we know the blame would fall on the workers, who are victims of the same bad decisions we were.

The answer would be “It’s their job, they can get 100% of the food made and in the bag other times, there’s no reason they can’t do it now, they just need to focus and try harder.”

But it’s going to affect our spending choices. And while “go when it’s not busy” is sometimes an option… peak hours are peak hours for a reason. They’re the times it makes sense to go.

Tl;dr – businesses treat employees as resources, but they mismanage them as a resource. The same company that pays to keep food under a warming lamp until it gets thrown out *just in case a customer wants it* thinks it is wasteful to have any excess in payroll.

And this has way less to do with any sense of economics than it does with Protestant Work Ethic, which basically requires that working people demonstrate their value at all times or they are leeches.



Possibly Related