During recent political seasons, much has been discussed about the need to replace Capitalism with something else. I have not been paying too close attention to this debate and as a result I don’t see it as being any different from the debate I tried harder to participate in in the last 1970s and early 1980s. I never got any respect for my arguments and one big reason for that is that I never really understood what the debate was about.
I didn’t see any real difference who was in control of capital, a corporation or a state. There is a claim that when the state controls the economy people lose the incentive to work more with the goal of getting ahead. I never saw why that would be necessarily the case. There are states that claim to be socialistic and have poor economies despite an educated workforce and access to raw materials and transportation networks. There are similarly failed states that have operated in more of a free market capitalism.
To be fair, I never really dug too deep into the specifics, maybe one on balance is more prone to fail than the other. For some reason, I never got too engaged into the argument because I didn’t understand what the argument was about, or exactly how this affects the lives of individuals, myself in particular.
Lately I have been thinking about the conditions of employment and compensation. What are the conditions for being employed in a particular job, and what justifies the compensation?
I think back in times when we made firm distinctions between categories of workers using terms like blue collar or white collar, or terms like hourly or salary workers. We still use these terms today but they seem to have lost most of their original meaning. Clearly, some jobs are salary and other jobs are hourly. Although they are evaluated differently both require keeping time sheets and usually adhering to set working hours. Paychecks get distributed on similar intervals and both types are roughly equally at risk of layoffs when work dries up. I imagine that salary positions once had more job security then they do today but that is not true today. In many fields, the salary positions are more easily reduced than the hourly positions. Some of that is a consequence of labor laws where another word for salary position is exempt (as in exempt from labor laws).
Going back a couple centuries that included slavery and indentured servitude as well as other variations of servitude, there were more variety of working arrangements. As times progressed, these other forms of work disappeared and were replaced with an employment model. The benefit of the employment model is that it is voluntary. People can choose whether to work or to leave work at any time, subject perhaps to a short notice period. Similarly, the employer can choose to release a worker at any time, subject to various constraints and conditions of labor laws. This is considered to be superior to the older models that had less flexibility, especially for the workers.
Although workers volunteer to work or to continue to work, this is often not really a choice. People in general need to work to attain or maintain a desired life style, often not very extravagant. They want to live in particular areas that are important to them due to friends or family connections. They may alternatively choose areas that are more attractive such as offering more amenities or fewer problems such as pollution or crime. In most cases, each place has a limited number of potential employers, and among them only a few if not just one would be interested in hiring a particular person. Once hired, there is little in the way of the job being voluntary.
Returning back to the question of something is not working any more, I wonder whether that something is employment rather than capitalism. We used to have more variety in forms of ways to work for compensation. Unfortunately, most of those discarded forms have names that are dismissed as an evil we’re glad to see gone. While there were undoubtedly abuses of older options, there is one distinction that I think is lost.
Speaking in general terms, there is a difference of expectations between employment and servitude.
For the modern form of employment, the worker is expected to deliver some value. The compensation for the worker is related to the value added and the competition of others qualified for the same job. The qualifications may be specialized skills or it may be physical fitness and stamina to get through a particular assignment. At the end of the day, the worker has to deliver something that otherwise would not be delivered if the worker wasn’t there. In addition, the quality and quantity of that work had to meet some objective measurable goal.
In the employment model, we evaluate workers impersonally. While we may recognize their individuality and may appreciate their company in the work place, the choice of hiring, keeping, or promoting an individual is based on comparison of skills and competencies compared to objective standards for the position as well as how the person’s capabilities compare with his competitors.
In contrast, the servitude model probably worked differently. The inevitability of the servant relationship came with the inevitability of compensating the servant. Even when that compensation was non-monetary, there was a commitment to provide basic shelter, clothing, food, health care, and accommodations during periods of illness or old age.
There was an expectation for the servant to do the assigned work. That work was usually under much closer supervision than what occurs in employment scenarios. In other words, there was less expectations for the worker to work independently. The servant would do a good job only when provided good instructions and supervision. While the servant may receive some reprimand for failing to complete a task or to do it properly, the responsibility ultimately resides on the supervisor to give better instruction and better supervision. In addition, the supervisor had a responsibility to set expectations of what work can be expected given the servant’s limitation.
It would be counter productive to expect more from a servant than he can possibly accomplish. At the same time, the least desired option was to release the servant. There is an incentive to work hard to find a role for the servant to perform some work of significance.
Ultimately, the distinction between employment and servitude is that the employment lasts as long as the employee’s skills and competencies remain relevant, while the servant’s role is perpetual because he can be assigned any task that can be properly instructed and supervised.
From my experience, I very much appreciate the employment model. I like the feeling of importance afforded by my competence and skills. I like being free to work independently and strive to do my best work to keep most of my work as independent as possible.
Even from my successful experience, I find some downsides to employment. Those related to the having inter-personal relationships that only work when we are working together on the same job. When the job-requirements change, the teams are dismantled, bosses change, subordinates change, and all those relationships cease to have any reason to continue. There may be some lingering personal connection with on-going friendships but the major dynamic for the relationship was the web of inter-relationships with an entire team that had to work together. Without that web, the individual relationships lose most of their value.
The employment model results robs the workers of long lasting relationship webs, particularly those where we subconsciously support each other. It is unstated but it is very noticeable when the job ends and everyone scatters to different jobs.
Another disadvantage of employment model is how it must deal with people who need more supervision and instruction than the job description requires. The employment model requires a person to deliver an objective value. If that value is lacking, there is some form of remediation including replacing that person. The employment model demands a certain level of competence for continuation of the relationship. It offers little accommodation to the fact that the person is well liked within the group and that everyone recognizes is doing as good as he can do. Objectively, the person is not meeting the job requirements and requires remediation or reassignment.
At the start of my working life, there were many jobs still that allowed for hiring an individual where the responsibility was on the supervisor to give proper instruction and supervision. Those jobs rapidly disappeared. We often blame this on automation, but I think equal blame goes to the expectation that such jobs are inherently bad or evil. There is an impression that a moral modern society would only have employment type jobs of prerequisite skills and competencies where supervision and instruction is minimized if needed at all.
In any event, the current working environment almost excludes the opportunities for highly supervised and instructed work. In addition, the environment makes impossible a perpetual working relationship where the worker’s capabilities will be tolerated through close supervision and instruction.
When I think about the system being broken, I think about the breaking down of lasting relationships of people who work together as a unit and adapt over time as challenges change and as they as individuals change. The interpersonal relations within work are unique and valuable whether that relationship is with peers or with managers or with subordinates.
Within the human nature is a desire to build and maintain lasting relationships. Obviously this occurs within families or extended families. Something very similar involves developed relationships with people completely unrelated to each other and with very different personal attributes.
I think we inherently are drawn to other people based on shared circumstances or challenges. We want to make personal commitments to each other, especially if we like each other at some level. Even when with the means to do some task ourselves with no expense, some people appreciate having someone else do the same task for them, and they want to continue that relationship through compensation to relieve that person from having to go elsewhere for sustenance.
Some people enjoy performing some task for the satisfaction of others, even if they can’t do the job perfectly nor independently. Similarly, some people enjoy having someone make that effort and tolerate even disappointments despite the instructions and supervision. Such relationships may have very uncomfortable moments and yet these heal over time with a deeper appreciation of the continued relationship.
Thinking back on the recent political discussions about the failures of capitalism, I keep hearing about remedies such as minimum wage meeting some livable wage standard, or some direct government entitlement such as free health insurance, student loan payoffs that are currently expected to come from earned wages. There is even talk about a universal basic income. One side of the debate says this is a remedy to a failing capitalism, while the other side says this is socialism.
As I look at it, it is really a remedy to employment. All of the above may be presented as a need to fund some acceptable living standard without regard to employable skills. People who will benefit from these options will make different life choices than they would to pursue employment. I believe many will use that opportunity to build relationships with others either as a supervised worker or as the supervisor of that work. These may be very unconventional working relationships in modern terms.
One way to achieve this may be to reinvigorate the old ideas of a household of unrelated dependents. The head of household uses his income to support dependents who exchange their supervised assistance for things provided to them outside of the normal rules of employment compensation.
Currently we hate this model. We describe examples of this with words like patriarchy that clearly are considered bad. One stereotypical model is of the mid-20th century boss approaching the young lady at the front desk and asking her to make him some fresh coffee, something that clearly is something he can do himself. I look at this a different way, the young lady at the front desk may have some basic skills at greeting visitors, answering the phone, occasionally typing a letter, or ordering office supplies. She in fact has a full time steady job where most of the day she is doing nothing but waiting for something to do. We currently describe the boss as being some insensitive misogynist for making such a servant-like request.
I wonder though if there is something deeper that may be occurring on both sides. The lady may wish she can do more to show her appreciation for the job, especially during times of idleness. The boss may recognize this and realizing that this is about the only job he can ask her at the moment that she can do without supervision. In many cases, this may actually be satisfying for both and the exception is the one who would loudly object in that circumstances.
We no longer do things like that, but that position no longer exists either. The lowest level office job is an office manager that all but requires at least an associate’s degree and probably some certification of office management.
We have professionalized every work scenario where unqualified people need not apply. If you want a job, you have to professionalize yourself and then be judged on the standards of your profession. Compared to the past, there are far fewer opportunities for people to earn something for just making themselves available to do work at the bidding and supervision of someone else.
I could be wrong. Maybe almost no one wants to exchange anything of themselves for universal basic income, college loan forgiveness, and minimum wage at a livable wage standard for any working opportunity.