Posts Tagged ‘labor’

Ambrose Bierce

LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

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–from The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce

Benjamin Tucker

“A just distribution of the products of labor is to be obtained by destroying all sources of income except labor. These sources may be summed up in one word — usury; and the three principal forms of usury are interest, rent, and profit. These all rest upon legal privilege, and the way to destroy them is to destroy legal privilege and monopoly.”

–Benjamin Tucker, Instead of a Book

Preliminary Comments

Every time a politician or pundit tells you that there’s simply “not enough money” to pay for some obvious public good, they’re lying. The problem is not lack of money. It’s the incredible waste and inefficiency in both the economy and government spending. That waste and inefficiency also means that we produce far more than we need; add in the gross maldistribution of wealth and income in this country, and it’s very obvious that we’re slaving our lives away for no good reason.

Recap of Previous Posts in the Series

In Part I (distribution of wealth and income), we saw that the distribution of income and, especially, wealth in the U.S. is extremely inequitable, with the top 1% owning 42% of financial (nonhome) wealth, with the top .1% owning as much as the bottom 90% combined, and that the bottom 50% of the population owns essentially nothing. As well, since total wealth in the U.S. is currently $81.5 trillion, average (not median–which is half above, half below) per capita wealth comes to over $250,000 Yet distribution of wealth is so lopsided that most people have almost no net worth.

We also saw that American workers–who have one of the longest average work weeks in the world, 47 hours–have seen their real wages decline nearly 10% since 1973, while productivity per hour worked increased by, on average, over 1.75% per year during the same period; compounded, that works out to an over 80% increase in productivity. So, American working people are producing far more than we did four decades ago, and are being paid less. To maintain the same average standard of living as in 1973, we should (assuming a 40-hour work week then) only be working 22 hours per week, had wage increases merely kept pace with productivity.

In Part II (taxation), we saw that working and “middle class” people (an increasingly quaint concept) pay higher taxes than the top 1%. There are two primary reasons for this: 1) Capital gains income is taxed at a far lower rate (15%)  than a good majority of earned (through work) income (with a rate of 28% starting at $37,000); and 2) Other taxes (sales, property, social security, gas, “sin”) hit average people, who spend almost all of their income, far harder than those in the top income brackets, who don’t. It works out that a single worker earning $10 an hour pays taxes amounting to roughly 40% of his or her income, while a nonworker in the top .1% only pays about 30%.

Eliminate that difference in tax rates, reduce the average tax rate to what the top .1% pay, and the average worker would take home 17% more income–or could work 17% fewer hours to maintain his or her standard of living. (The 10% tax reduction on before-taxes pay would equal a 17% increase in take-home pay.) Adding that to the 18 hours of work per week that should have been eliminated over the last four decades, and it means that the average work week should now only be about 15 hours.

In Part III (wasteful government spending), we saw that a huge amount of tax money is wasted. The U.S. spends as much on its military as the next eight to ten countries combined (depending on which recent year you look at; as well, estimates of China’s military spending vary considerably), and the U.S. spends at least three (maybe four or even five) times the amount of the next highest-spending country, China. Taking the highest estimate of China’s military spending, that means that if the U.S. simply matched China’s expenditures, it’s now wasting approximately $400 billion annually (out of an annual military budget of approximately $600 billion). That $400 billion in excess military spending comes to $1200 for every man, woman and child in the country. And that doesn’t even include “black budget” spending or interest on military spending-incurred debt.

We also saw that the U.S. through its sky-high–by far the highest in the world–incarceration rate and the “war on drugs,” is wasting at least $50 billion per year (probably considerably more), and that this is not keeping us safe, with the U.S. having the highest murder rate and the fourth highest rape rate in the industrial world.

As well, we saw that the government gives tax breaks amounting to over $1.2 trillion annually, with almost all of the breaks going to corporations and the wealthy, and it also gives direct subsidies to them coming to tens of billions of dollars annually. This works out to total taxpayer subsidies to corporations and the wealthy of approximately $4,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.

In Part IV (the inefficiency of capitalism), we saw that  under capitalism a huge amount of work is useless or harmful. We dealt with ten of capitalism’s inefficiencies in Part IV. Here, we’ll only mention what we consider the most important of them:

Cost-shifting, the shifting of costs from businesses to the public, is rampant.  An immediate, blatant example of cost-shifting is the cost of cleaning up mining and toxic industrial sites. Private companies in many cases made massive amounts of money while those sites operated; when they quit being profitable, the private owners walked away leaving the public to pay the oftentimes massive cleanup costs.

Unsold wasted goods. Huge amounts of unsold goods are wasted, simply thrown away in the U.S. and other developed countries. The most flagrant, and maddening, example of this is waste of edible food. A 2012 estimate in the Washington Post placed the amount of edible food wasted in the U.S. at 40% of the total, or $165 billion worth annually. The USDA reports that 30% to 40% of edible food is wasted in this country.

Planned obsolescence is difficult to quantify, but very real. Going beyond such things as Apple cultists standing in line overnight to buy the newest must-have versions of their gadgets, you have such things as auto manufacturers deliberately making their vehicles very difficult for shade-tree mechanics to work on, and thus uneconomical to keep running over the long haul.

Parasitic jobs comprise a higher percentage of the total than most people realize. We can define them as “jobs” that do nothing to produce goods or services that meet human needs. Lawyers provide one example. There are 1.3 million lawyers in this country, and the average pay for lawyers is over $114 thousand a year. Then there are stock traders, stock brokers, and hedge fund managers who produce nothing, yet receive vast amounts of money, in some cases over a billion dollars a year. In contrast, those doing the dirtiest, most necessary work–farm workers, sanitation, healthcare workers–are among the lowest paid. Under capitalism, parasites make the most money, and those doing the most necessary work make the least.

Systemic unemployment. The current unemployment rate is 5.3%, but that 5.3% refers only to those currently working or actively seeking work, and doesn’t include those working part time who want full-time work but can’t find it, nor “discouraged workers” who want to work but have given up on finding it. Estimates place the real unemployment rate between 10.7% and 14.2%, and the percentage of the working-age population without a job (voluntarily or involuntarily)  is far higher than that. Participation in the labor force is currently only 62.6% of working age adults.

This represents a huge waste of potentially useful labor. It means the nation is producing far less than it could; it means those of us doing useful work are carrying a disproportionate share of the work load; and it means that the huge “reserve army of the unemployed” holds down wages, which benefits only corporations and the wealthy–not those of us doing useful work.


Taking everything into account, how much work would be required to maintain the average standard of living if all of the above problems were addressed? If wages per hour worked had merely kept pace with productivity increases over the last four decades, workers would make as much in 22 hours today as they did for working 40 hours in 1972/1973 (the high point of real wages). Instead, real wages have not only not kept up with productivity, they’ve dropped by approximately 10% since 1972/1973.

Low and middle income workers pay considerably higher taxes as a percentage of income than upper income individuals. Unearned income (basically capital gains) is taxed at about half the rate of earned (through work) income.  Taxation is a very complex subject with many variables, but it’s fair to say that if tax rates for the rich and poor were merely equal–not even tilted against the rich–low and middle income people would save roughly 10% more of their gross income. That translates to nearly seven hours per week of work. (This is a somewhat fuzzy part of the equation, so we’ll ignore it in the estimate below.)

Then eliminate grossly wasteful military spending (above that of the next-highest military spender), the utter waste of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and government tax subsidies and direct subsidies to corporations, and you end up with per capita savings of well over $5,000 annually. Since the average worker’s income is roughly $32,000, this equates to about six hours per week. (This is the fuzziest part of the equation, so even though it’s very real, we’ll ignore it in the following estimate.)

Then consider that only five out of eight working age adults actually work. Even taking out the under 10% of the working age population who are disabled, that still leaves 27% of the working age population who could work, but don’t. If they all worked, and were as productive as the average worker, that would create a 40% productivity increase overnight, which in turn equates to another twelve hours that could be lopped off the average work week.

So, how long should the average work week be to maintain the same average standard of living? Even without redistribution of wealth and income, even without taking into account tax inequities and wasteful spending, even without taking into account the difficult to quantify but very real inherent inefficiencies of capitalism,  the average work week should be no more than about ten hours a week.

Dummy 3 flat 72-small
(From The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, scheduled for October 2015. This Cookbook will contain dozens of tasty vegan recipes, recipes for social change, and accurate information on anarchism. The following is from the “Recipes for Social Change: Approaches We Do Not Recommend” section of the book.)


Business Unions

Contrary to wishful thinking among progressives, the AFL-CIO unions are not a means to fundamental social and political change. Rather, they’re an obstacle to it. Their very nature ensures this, and their history amply demonstrates it. They’re hierarchical organizations with entrenched, often highly paid bureaucracies that are in the business of selling their members’ labor for top dollar (unless their hierarchies are only concerned with harvesting dues from their members, as sometimes happens).

The business unions have never challenged capitalism (or the state); rather they have always attempted to make themselves an integral part of it, ensuring “labor peace.” One needs only to look at the history of the American labor movement to confirm this. In the World War I and post-World War I period, when the largest genuinely revolutionary union in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World, was being viciously persecuted and thousands of its members imprisoned (for opposing U.S. participation in the war, or for “criminal syndicalism”), the AFL unions sat on their hands. This complacent attitude was exemplified in a well known photo of AFL founder Samuel Gompers in formal attire dining at a banquet with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Over the coming decades, the business unions continued to sell out their members. One infamous example of this was AFL-CIO head George Meany’s support for the Vietnam War, which pointlessly killed over 50,000 working class Americans and several million Southeast Asians. A famous Meany statement from the period perfectly exemplifies the reactionary attitude of the business unions: “Why should we organize the unorganized?”

Today, AFL-CIO leaders mouth more progressive rhetoric, but the zebra hasn’t changed its stripes. The business unions are still hierarchically organized with well paid, out-of-touch executives, many are outright undemocratic, and they still are in the business of selling their members’ labor.

And they’re increasingly ineffective at even that. In 1940, 34% of the private sector workforce was organized; more than one in three workers belonged to unions. Things are different today: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 the percentage of unionized private-sector workers was down to 6.6%–one in 15.

Where the business unions are effective is in serving as bad examples. Most people think that the oft-times corrupt, hierarchical, undemocratic, accommodationist, uninspiring AFL-CIO unions are the only type possible, even the only type that ever existed. And so they look down on and are resistant to joining unions of any type. (And, yes, other types are possible. See the piece on Labor in the “Approaches We Recommend” section of the book.)

We’d be better off without the business unions. Don’t waste your time and energy on these dinosaurs.

Alexander Berkman“The law says that your employer does not steal anything from you, because it is done with your consent. You have agreed to work for your boss for certain pay, he to have all that you produce. Because you consented to it, the law says that he does not steal anything from you.

“But did you really consent?

“When the highwayman holds his gun to your head, you turn your valuables over to him. You “consent” all right…

“Are you not compelled to work for an employer? Your need compels you, just as the highwayman’s gun,

–Alexander Berkman, What Is Anarchism?

WAGE LABOR, n. 1) Death on the installment plan; 2) The process by which those who work enrich those who don’t.

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–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary, the best modern successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary

“[T]here must be human work before any article of wealth can be produced, and, in a natural state of things, the man who toiled honestly and well would be the rich man, and he who did not work would be poor. We have so reversed the order of nature that we are accustomed to think of a working man as a poor man.”

–Henry George, The Crime of Poverty

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Quoted in The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations

Front cover of "The Heretic's Handbook of Quotations