Almost everything I need to know about the economy, I learned while working as a security guard.
About ten years ago, like many people in yet another ‘jobless recovery’ (an oxymoron if ever I heard one), I was reduced to survival-level employment. I was working in security for a major Swiss investment bank. The opulent surroundings broadcasted to the world that times were indeed good — for the people who mattered, anyway.
But, walking my five miles a day worth of patrols, I saw some interesting things behind the scenes. I saw them contracting out every function other than sales. I saw how heavily they relied on unpaid intern labor. I saw their huge art collection being quietly dismantled for sale. I saw the IT department staffed almost entirely by H-1B visa holders, while thousands of new computer-science grads flooded the job market.
This company — this financial giant, one of the drivers of the modern economy — knew that economy to be a house of cards. It cannot stand for long. We slave away at our jobs, watching our companies try to do more with less every year, knowing our 401(k) plans will evaporate along with the company sooner or later, but unable to do anything about it. In fact, our survival now depends on our helping along its eventual collapse.
A major element of the Green New Deal is an end to economic injustice. In America, many people live under conditions that we might associate with the Third World, while a handful enjoy so much luxury as would make a sultan blush. How does one fix that, especially while the political process is controlled by that handful of the wealthy?
I have an idea. And I won’t even make you buy a book to hear about it.
Our present economy is based upon two conflicting principles. First, scarcity: the rarer a thing is, the greater the cost. And as resources deplete, eventually even the necessities of life are put out of reach of common people. Secondly, though, is the demand for infinite growth — the company must do more, earn more, get bigger, and dominate its market, at all costs.
What if we threw all that out and started again? What if we replaced ‘more’ with ‘enough’? We can achieve both sustainability and economic justice by basing the unit of exchange on the only thing that really matters — an hour of labor.
Some things cost more to make than others: there is the harvesting and refinement of materials, the manufacture of the base components, their assembly, the finishing and packaging of the product, and then transportation and distribution. The common thread in all these processes is labor.
Therefore I suggest that the only appropriate price to pay for a thing is the cost of that thing — expressed as the total number of labor hours spent on its creation, divided by the total number of units. Finally, an hour of the security guard’s labor is of equal value to that of the CEO. An hour of an athlete’s performance is equal in value to that of the guy who makes his shoes.
Some people would call that communism, but it isn’t. Private ownership is preserved. Choice is preserved. Efficiency gains are preserved. The state isn’t setting production goals or controlling distribution. The difference is that a thing will finally cost what it actually costs, for everyone.
An hour of mental labor, such as teaching a college course or even studying it, would be of equal value to an hour of physical labor. Maintaining a home and family would be a valid career choice at last. One could do volunteer work to bank additional hours, and community service to pay taxes. Child labor? Outsourcing and offshoring? Done away with; no incentive to use them. And, with value set by natural forces rather than the drive for growth at all costs, manufacturing and industry could be slowed to realistically sustainable levels.
This idea would need some refining; obviously I cannot have come up with the answer to every detailed question or contingency. Resistance from the wealthy would be fierce, which means that implementation would rely on a strong mandate from the people and a fairly heavy hand from the chief executive. No solution is perfect.
But hopefully you see the basic sense of the idea: this could be the economic vehicle that allows us to implement a sustainable and just society. It all hinges on our ability to appreciate the meaning of enough.