Back to Work? Or Forward to Justice?
Demanding that everyone work full-time, when it's not possible, and not even necessary given tons of surplus, is nuts. Now's the time to fix that.
August 5, 2020
Jeffery J. Smith

People who don’t have to #work—unless you call giving one’s opinion in the media “work”—express worry that too many citizens are not working, using the #shutdown of the economy as an excuse.

Is Full Employment Ethical?

Let’s set aside the critics’s Protestant Work “Ethic” for a moment and get real. If the economy is still producing what everyone needs without everyone working, then why should everyone be working?

And doesn’t everyone include the rich? They don’t work, not in the sense of adding value, producing food, clothes, shelter, medicine, transportation, etc. Especially if they inherited wealth. Those people never work a day in their lives. If everyone should be working, then the Rockefellers should be picking up litter in Rockefeller Center.

If only those who work, eat, how can so many rich be fat? Those critics who want all to be working—except the rich—you think any of them would stoop to perform the #jobs they’d impose on others? I seriously doubt it.

Is a Shrunken Workweek Feasible?

Turn from ethics to efficiency. That the economy hums along with such high #unemployment is no accident. In reality, only so much work is needed.

  • In the Stone Age, people’s #workweek did not exceed our full-time 40 hours, did not equal it, but cut it in half, equaling our part-time.
  • In the Middle Ages, after the Black Plague killed so many people—estimates range from a third to a half of the total population—there was so much good land unavoidably available that surviving peasants could use it and produce enough so that all they had to work was 14 hours per week.
  • During the last half of the last century, a Harvard researcher applied the annual productivity rate to shrinking the workweek instead of letting it, as we do, enrich the already rich (who, as noted, don’t work). Her math showed that during the career of the average Baby Boomer, the workweek would shrink to 6.5 hours (and figures don’t lie!).
  • Buckminster Fuller tabulated all the hours needed to produce all the basic essentials we all consume, then divided it by the workforce. His calculation came to two hours per week. At that amount, even I could do my share. Even if he misplaced the decimal point, 20 hours sure beats 40, and gets us back to caveman’s burden.
  • J. W. Smith in his World’s Wasted Wealth catalogued all the many, many jobs people perform that produce no value for others. That is, those jobs are merely conformist jobs, that qualify one to receive money, but don’t do any other good. Indeed, they do bad, by wasting resources, worsening rush hour traffic, doing deeds that get in the way of people who’re doing real work that produces real wealth.

If critics would stoop to doing those jobs, they’d have room to talk. If not, go away. Stop trying to waste the lives of others.

Non-Job Generators

If not jobs, then how could we all get an #income? Start up a business. Win the lottery. Get on welfare, whether regular or corporate. Beg. Rob. Inherit, as the rich do. Stay a child, dependent on others. Etc. To that list, add another, one that’d take time to make happen.

Labor is not the only classical factor in production to qualify for income. Capital—such as savings or investments—obviously can bring in money, too. And Land, owning or controlling land, generates revenue. But most of us don’t have enough capital or land to provide a livable income for ourselves and our families. We’re not rich.

Presently it’s mostly owners and lenders who collect the value of land, via leases and mortgages. We moderns go by the custom of: having land means deserving its value. Like having children means deserving their income. Oops, no, we lost that second custom long ago, but it used to be normal. And the first custom about owning land has not always been normal.

Land is an interesting case. It has value not due to an individual owner. It has value due to nature—view, fertile soil, deep harbor, underground minerals, etc. And it has value due to society—proximity to a dense downtown, low crime, high ambient income, a user-friendly government, etc. Hence land value is a social #surplus.

Universal Extra Income

Were a critical mass to relearn that society has the only legit claim to location value, they might gather and share that natural, social value. Some places go against the modern norm. Alaska pays an oil dividend. Aspen CO uses land value to fund housing. Singapore even pays a straight cash dividend.

Land is not the only source of social value. #Privileges like patents, franchises, limited liability, etc, also have value due to government granting those monopolies. Added to land value, they’d double the amount of social surplus.

With income from one’s regional land and government-granted privileges, then any faltering in income from one’s labor would not be a crisis. Minus money worries, at least that particular stress would not enervate our immune systems, viruses beware. People's share, per capita, would be enough to make jobs look as silly as they already are.

Ironically, material security would make jobs chase workers instead of workers chase jobs, so workers could negotiate higher wages. And once liberated, humans could embrace the Polynesian Play Ethic in our job-crazy America. Better than critique non-rich non-workers, critics could work for justice, for a Citizens Dividend, a universal share of that social surplus.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at