Fixing economics

Now, before I go ahead and start trying to fix economics, I feel it only fair to point out that I know almost nothing about economics. Kevin tells me that most economic theory is dependent on the assumption that the planet’s resources will never run out, enabling economic growth to continue ad infinitum. That sounds like nonsense, to me, but what do I know? I’m no economist. What follows is an unscientific economic proposal, based on almost no cited evidence whatsoever. It’s foundation, instead, is largely the floaty stuff in the back of my head, which I don’t really remember reading, but must have picked up from somewhere. Caveat over.

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the multi-generationally unemployed, and other long-term benefit-dependent groups, who have had a lot of negative media attention, recently, on the back of (I think it’s on the back of, not resulting in, though one can’t always tell) equally negative political attention.

It’s not new rhetoric. They talk ceaselessly about people who “won’t” work, rather than can’t, how unacceptable it is for people to live on benefits if it’s remotely possible for them to do otherwise, about “making work pay” (a phrase they find much easier to say than to do, it seems), about obliging parents to leave ever-younger children in child-care while they work. And the media dutifully regurgitate it all, emphasising the exceptional cases to make scrounging look like a norm, creating an underclass of “other” for us all to resent.

I have a lot of problems with this, which you possibly detected, perceptive creature that you are, from the tone of the previous paragraph. But it has lately occurred to me that the imagined solution to these imagined problems is going to solve nothing.

The government agencies working in this area, and, indeed, lots of the non-government agencies, are fixated with the idea that getting people jobs is the ultimate goal. That with jobs, people will have independence from the state, freedom from poverty, and will generally become the sorts of people we can approve of. Their children will achieve more at school, get jobs of their own, and all will be set on an upward trajectory of joy.

The problem, as I see it, is that jobs do not give independence. Very few jobs of ANY sort give independence, but the sort of low-paid jobs for which most of the long-term unemployed would be destined, so much less so. It’s a straight swap – instead of going to government, or, perhaps, charity, and hoping to able to jump through sufficient hoops for a handout that will enable them to survive until the next handout, they are going to an employer, hoping that they, rather than the next person, will be offered the job, so that they can jump through a different set of hoops, to get a wage with which to survive until the next one.

It’s not actually any different. The hoops are different – an employer’s hoops will have more to do with the requirements of a business, presumably, and less to do with bureaucracy and appearing to deserve the money in some way, but ultimately, it’s the same. If anything, it’s more precarious – employers, particularly employers of the low-paid, are rather more likely to dismiss on a whim, and rather more likely to get away with it. Fire a rich person without due process, and expect to get sued. Fire a poor person, and expect no noticeable repercussions at all.

My point is, that the government is trying to solve the wrong problem. The problem is not joblessness. The problem is a culture of dependence. Changing on whom people depend is just moving deckchairs around on the Titanic. People will have a much better chance of raising THEMSELVES out of poverty if they are in control of the process. Being raised by someone else will always lack the commitment and investment of the individual concerned, which is, at best, a shocking waste of an obvious resource of effort. At worst, it’s doomed to failure. Today, someone pointed me towards this blog post by Kester Brewin, and this line caught my eye:

They simply await their welfare payment, and that’s it, and the huge amount of charitable money that has been put into this demographic group has done little to really change the core problem of zero positive engagement with education or labour.

Because money IS poured into trying to get poor people to get jobs, and it doesn’t work. It’s money down the drain. The defining principle behind all this financial investment is the goal of getting people into jobs. But jobs don’t pay much more, they are even less dependable than the benefits system, and most importantly, they don’t offer any direct connection between the performance of the individual and the amount of money in their pocket at the end of the day. A cleaner or a checkout assistant only has to achieve enough to avoid being fired. If by cleaning harder, or smiling at customers more, they manage to increase the profits of the organisation, they’re never going to see the benefit of that. There is a disconnect between the quality of their work, and the reward.

The two key exceptions to this rule which occur to me, are the self-employed, and members of the John Lewis Partnership. Self-employment reconnects the link between the work and profits. It also, as an aside, offers direct control of what the work is like – work for yourself, and you get to decide what is worth doing, and what isn’t. How far you will travel, which jobs are too dirty, which hours are too unsocial – when you’re in direct control, you’re more able to make choices. It’s empowering. It’s the opposite of dependence.

The John Lewis Partnership takes this concept to a mammoth scale. Every member of staff is a partner, and partners get an annual bonus which is a share of the profits. They are directly invested in the success of the business, because they are directly rewarded out of that success. Some of that disconnect presumably remains – it’s such a large organisation, it must make it harder to make the direct link between the size of the profits, and the quality of one person’s work. But it still seems to work – John Lewis continue to make money, to expand, to build massive new shops, even as other retailers are going to the wall. The concept of the workers’ co-operative is much less exceptional in parts of the US, and their experience, too, is that staff are personally invested, so work harder, causing the business to do better.

So my proposition is that, if we are going to pour gazillions of pounds into getting poor people into a situation of financial independence, let’s do it properly. Let’s ACTUALLY work towards helping them be independent. Let’s stop mandatory training on how to get through a job interview, and replace it with proper support for the starting of small businesses, of partnerships, of workers’ co-operatives.

Let’s stop trying to generate fodder for the existing captains of industry, so they can carry on getting richer. Let’s start giving people the chance to make their own money.

2 thoughts on “Fixing economics

  1. I have taken some time to have a think about this. It seems to me that employment comes in two distinct types. The first is the “do as you are told” type, where a person is paid to do whatever is demanded of them. They are mostly labouring and unthinking jobs where you are given a procedure and are expected to follow it without any input as to how the job may be improved. Your comments apply to this type very clearly.

    The second type is the “here is the problem, find a solution” type. These jobs tend to pay better, demand more qualifications, and frequently are perceived as “management” jobs. The down side is that once you have found an enduring solution the job may convert itself into the other type, and/or you can easily work yourself out of the job. In fairness, such work could well be done as a consultant and freelance – which may well support your case.

  2. I think you’re essentially right. I think that the vast majority of jobs are destined to become “do as you’re told” jobs, eventually. You can bumble along having quite a nice time, doing creative, problem-solving type tasks, but sooner or later, you hit a point where you, in your professional wisdom and experience, want to go in one direction, and the boss/organisation won’t let you. At which point you either have to resign on principle (which many more people fantasise about than actually do it), or shut up and do as you’re told.

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