A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Foolish

18 Nov

The Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto made headlines this week with Making it Work, a report from the Centre’s Task Force on Employment Insurance. The Task Force convened in Spring 2010 and, through a program of “consultations” with policy experts, government officials, employers, workers, and the public, arrived at a set of final recommendations for transforming Canada’s system of support for unemployed people.

The overarching conclusion of the report is that EI isn’t working, because it wasn’t designed to operate in the economic and labour market context we find ourselves in now.

1875 - Library and Archives Canada / PA-147565

Compared to the average Canadian in 1976, today’s average Canadian is three times as likely to hold multiple jobs. S/he is 55% more likely to work part-time, and 29% more likely to be self-employed. (Before you conclude that self-employment is a sign of increased industriousness, note that Statistics Canada tracks reasons for self-employment, and the reason is increasingly “because I couldn’t find a job.” These folks aren’t tycoons.) Today’s world of work is characterized by churn – people move in and out of jobs and in and out of employment. It’s enough to make you sea-sick.

Our EI system was designed to fit the 1976 world, where people were more likely to work a single, permanent, full-time job for an employer. Even then, it didn’t quite address the realities of unemployment. It didn’t do much to help workers whose industries collapsed, who needed to completely re-train in order to avoid being tossed aside like so much industrial waste. Nevertheless, our EI system is a product of its time.

1943 - Library and Archives Canada / PA-108048

Accordingly, the Mowat Centre report recommends bringing it more in line with today’s challenges. The recession is one of them – but it’s temporary. Temporary too is the EI fund’s deficit. When the economy recovers, the fund will be restored to a surplus. So the report recommends a combination of short- and long-term reforms. One of them caught my eye: they advocate the expansion of the government’s ‘Work-Sharing’ program.

If you’re reading this, you might be thinking what I was thinking when I read that recommendation: ‘Canada has a work-sharing program?’

Indeed, we do, and it functions very simply. Say we have an employer – we’ll call her Jane. Jane has a cupcake business like every other urbanite, and she employs two guys – Tom and Bill. Jane’s business is in a slump, because people just aren’t buying cupcakes because they can’t afford $5 cupcakes anymore. In turn, Jane can’t afford to pay both Tom and Bill’s salaries. Instead of laying them off, as long as Jane can show that the slump is temporary, she can go to Service Canada and HRSDC and ask them to pay Tom and Bill’s wages for 1-2 days per week. Tom and Bill only have to work 4-5 days a week now, but they don’t lose any wages. Cupcake production slows. Demand eventually returns, Tom and Bill are back to their old schedules, and the government steps out of the picture. Everybody wins.

Other countries have implemented this in a more widespread fashion. It’s how Germany managed to keep its unemployment rate rather low when the s*** hit the fan there. But, as this ILO report asserts, it can only work in the short-term, as a way to “avoid mass layoffs, [allowing] businesses to retain skilled workforces, thus minimizing firing and (re)hiring costs, preserving functioning plants, and bolstering staff morale during difficult times.” Indeed,

“From the perspective of the unemployment insurance, investments in work-sharing schemes to maintain employment are only rational if the loss of work is temporary and not due to structural deficits of the affected industries.”

The Mowat Centre acknowledges this, and provides a list of other, long-term recommendations, such as reducing the 2-week waiting period for special benefits (the kind we offer to people whose loved ones die, or who quit their jobs to care for terminally ill person), and reducing the number of hours a person has to have worked a job in order to claim benefits when they lose it.

1944 - Library and Archives Canada / PA-108043

The recommendation for work-sharing raises an interesting philosophical perspective that resurfaces now and again but, in my opinion, never gets its due.

That centuries-old perspective is one that views productive activity – work – as a right and a resource like any other, to which each person is entitled his or her “share.” Under this view, if we only have so many jobs to go around, we are impelled to divvy them up into smaller portions and spread them, and their rewards, between more people.

Looking around, it is clear that we don’t see things this way. Instead, we’ve got a system where every part of the formula above is completely out of whack. Some people work way more than their share of work hours but receive way less than their share of work’s rewards, some people don’t really ‘work’ at all (I’m looking at you, Kardashians) but have enough money to literally eat gold, and still others have no work and nothing to eat. As Bertrand Russell incredulously pointed out in 1932,

“Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.”

Russell knew this was a ridiculous scenario in his time. And it was even at the front of Canadian political consciousness forty years ago. As a few of my research participants recalled, and this vintage news report substantiates, in the early 1970s, people thought technological advancements were going to vastly increase the average person’s leisure time, because work in and outside the home could be completed with minimal human input. While we don’t all have robots folding our laundry now, we have certainly automated a lot of our productive activity, and we’ve shaved off the time it used to take to, say, mail a letter. But we’ve simply increased our expectations about productivity in tandem. As Russell put it in his time, “Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines.” He continued: “in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”

1942 - Library and Archives Canada / PA-160561

But a funny thing happened on the way to foolish.

We lost our imaginations. We lost our ability to envision a different way of organizing, rewarding, encouraging and sustaining the work we do. We lost, as historian James Livingston wrote around this time last year, the desire to even think about “how to detach the receipt of income from the creation of value.”

As Livingston put it, in his admirably fiery and profane way, we – those of us who believe that no one among us should starve – have only been able to muster the argument that inequality isn’t morally right. That may well be the case, but it’s not going to invoke any change from the people who believe they benefit from inequality, who believe that we need inequality as an incentive for people to reach higher (to lift themselves out of mediocrity, as Lululemon and Ayn Rand want them to do), or who simply want tomorrow to be the same as today.

What might convince these folks, and which we’ve failed to show, is that inequality isn’t necessary for the preservation of a capitalist system, nor is it economically beneficial in the long run to anyone – even the Kardashians. This point has been made repeatedly over the last year, by economists from the CCPA and even the normally-not-incredibly-progressive IMF, and it’s my hope that the tens of thousands of people marching on and occupying the Bay Streets and Wall Streets of the world will eventually make it impossible to ignore.

There is, of course, the additional and looming challenge of reviving the collective imagination so it’s ready to embrace a different tomorrow, possibly before today collapses completely. A different tomorrow could be a reformed EI system, but it could also go so much further. We could start talking seriously about detaching income from productivity, even just a little, with a Basic Income scheme where everyone gets a bit of money just for being here. We could ask what’s really stopping us from capping incomes through aggressive taxation, such that no one could eat gold-flecked pudding so long as others, “living” just steps away, are eating cat food.

I think we’d be ashamed of the answer.

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