In “Utopia for Realists”, Rutger Bregman reminds us about the New York garbage strike of 1968, and then compares it to the bank strike in Ireland. Basically, it took six months to resolve the bank strike, and while there were certainly difficulties, people found a way to operate and they generally worked out alternative credit systems like writing cheques. Strangely though, while the Irish were able to soldier on for half a year, the New Yorkers found it rather harder to deal with rotting trash; in spite of Mayor Lindsay insisting that the strike was illegal and he wouldn’t give in on principle, the strike lasted less than a fortnight.
Being a “garbo” may not have the status of being a bank manager, but it’s pretty clear which one we notice when they’ve stopped working.
Bregman goes on to mention Dave Graeber and the whole nature of “bullshit jobs”. He points out that there are large number of people who are working at things that we just don’t need. Ok, the person working there needs to have a job, but if we reduced the number of telemarketers, how long would it be before you said, “Gee, nobody’s rung me in the middle of dinner to discuss funeral insurance”?
There are all sorts of jobs which may actually make a difference. Doubling the number of health workers – as opposed to hospital administrators – could make a noticeable difference and cut down waiting times. Increasing the number of people answering the phone at Centrelink would free up thousands of lost hours for the people waiting on the line. More counsellors and support staff in schools may be a factor in helping to prevent problems later on. I’m sure that you can add to the list.
However, we have a strangely perverse way of rewarding people where many of the well-paid jobs involve activities that only involve moving money from one person’s bank account to another. Short-term trading on money markets, for example, as well as many of the day-to-day share transactions on the stock exchange. How the value of Telstra can fluctuate by a few percent over a week with no announcements or even rumours makes no sense to me, but as with all shares, movements up and down are primarily based on speculating about future movements. Yet many of the people doing things like this will be more substantially rewarded than a Nobel prize winner.
Just as Scott Morrison is trying to divide debt into “bad” debt and “we can make big announcements and not have anyone ask how we’re going to pay for it” debt, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the world can survive with people working fewer hours than ever before and it’s time to start restructuring the economy so that we don’t simply have the “I’m overworked” and “Get off your backside, you lazy bludger” categories. While we’ve all had fun with the Liberals “jobs and growth” mantra, it may be time to actually question whether we’ve reached a point in human history where we need to consider what jobs are necessary and, if the jobs isn’t absolutely necessary, is it still worth doing? Maybe it’s time we sat back and asked why Keynes’ vision of people working a fifteen hour week thanks to technology hasn’t come to pass, and why it’s considered a good thing to aim for growth and for people to work longer and harder, rather than saying with a little bit of reorganisation, there’d be more opportunity for the unemployed and some of the workers would have more time to smell the roses.
Or even grow them!
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