SYNDICATED COLUMN: You’re Not Underemployed. You’re Underpaid.

The Case for Shiftlessness

No bank balance. Nothing in your wallet.

“I’m broke,” you say. “I need a job.”


Perhaps you have a job. Then you say:

“I’m broke. I need a better job.”

You’re lying. And you don’t even know it.

You don’t need a job.(Unless you like sitting at a desk. Working on an assembly line. Non-dairy creamer in the break room. In which case I apologize. Freak!)

You don’t need a job. You need money.

We’ve been programmed to believe that the only way to get money is to earn it.

(Unless you’re rich. Then you know about inheritance. In 1997, the last year for which there was solid research done on the subject, 42 percent of the Forbes 400 richest Americans made the list through probate. Disparity of wealth has since increased.)

It’s time to separate income from work.

For two reasons:

It’s moral. No one should starve or sleep outside or suffer sickness or go undereducated simply due to bad luck—being born into a poor family, growing up in an area with high unemployment, failing to impress an interviewer.

It’s sane.

“American workers stay longer at the office, at the factory or on the farm than their counterparts in Europe and most other rich nations, and they produce more over the year,” according to a 2009 U.N. report cited by CBS. Thanks to technological innovations and education, worker productivity—GDP divided by total employment—has increased by leaps and bounds over the years.

U.S. worker productivity has increased 400 percent since 1950. “The conclusion is inescapable: if productivity means anything at all, a worker should be able to earn the same standard of living as a 1950 worker in only 11 hours a week,” according to a MIT study.

Obviously that’s not the case. American workers are toiling longer hours than ever. They’re not being paid more —to the contrary, wages have been stagnant or declining since 1970. Numerous analyses have established that, especially since 1970, the lion’s share of profits from productivity increases have gone to employers.

Workers are working longer hours. But fewer people are working. Only 54 percent of work-eligible adults have jobs—the lowest rate in memory. Which isn’t surprising. Because there are fixed costs associated with employing each individual—administration, workspace, benefits, and so on—it makes sense for a boss to hire as few workers as possible, and to work them long hours.

This witches’ brew—increased productivity coupled with higher fixed costs, particularly healthcare—have led companies to create a society divided into two classes: the jobless and the overworked.

Unemployment is rising. Meanwhile, people “lucky” enough to still have jobs are creating more per hour than ever before and are forced to work longer and harder.


And dangerous. Does anyone seriously believe that an America divided between the haves, have-nots and the stressed-outs will be a better, safer, more politically stable place to live?

Sci-fi writers used to imagine a future in which machines did everything, where people enjoyed their newfound leisure time exploring the world and themselves. We’re not there yet—someone still has to make stuff—but we should be closer to the imagined idyll of zero work than we are now.

If productivity increases year after year after year, employers need fewer and fewer employees to sustain or expand the same level of economic activity. But this sets up a conundrum. If only employees have money, only employees can consume goods and services. As unemployment rises, the pool of consumers shrinks.

The remaining consumers can’t pick up the slack because their wages aren’t going up. So we wind up with a society that produces more stuff than can be sold: Marx’s classic crisis of overproduction. Hello, post-2008 meltdown of global capitalism.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford warns that the Great Recession is just the beginning. In his 2009 book “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” Ford, “argues that technologies such as software automation algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics will result in dramatically increasing unemployment, stagnant or falling consumer demand, and a financial crisis surpassing the Great Depression,” according to a review in The Futurist.

The solution is clear: to guarantee everyone, whether or not he or she holds a job, a minimum salary sufficient to cover housing, transportation, education, medical care and, yes, discretionary income. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in an 18th century mindset. We’re nowhere close to detaching money from work. The Right wants to get rid of the minimum wage. On the Left, advocates for a Universal Living Wage nevertheless stipulate that a decent income should go to those who work a 40-hour week.

Ford proposes a Basic Income Guarantee based on performance of non-work activities; volunteering at a soup kitchen would be considered compensable work. But even this “radical” proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Whatever comes next, revolutionary overthrow or reform of the existing system, Americans are going to have to accept a reality that will be hard for a nation of strivers to take: we’re going to have to start paying people to sit at home.

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is



  • Excellent points. Wasn’t during the Nixon era that the maximum wage proposed?
    As one of the long-term unemployed, I have learned that we can’t count on having a job, we are supposed to have a portfolio of skills which we can transfer at will to other careers. So that’s why so many people end up as consultants, no benefits, not covered by workers’ comp,disability, etc. Independent consultants are out there with no safety net. Shudder the thought that these people come down with a devastating illness or are run over by a bus, then they will have to declare bankruptcy due to medical bills.
    We need a revolution in how we make a living. Who out there is willing to start this, who is able to articulate this need, to counter the bellowings of the business and political elite?

  • alex_the_tired
    March 7, 2012 12:22 PM

    “No” raises the “portfolio of skills” and that many people become “consultants.” I think “No” is pretty solidly correct on the points made, but misses one final conclusion of great importance. “Consultant” is now simply the gussied-up version of “unemployed.”

    The label of “consultant” allows the shifting of the problem that Ted raises. It reinforces a blame-the-victim mindset. Oh, you aren’t unemployed and starving because the economy is terrible; you’re a starving consultant because you must be really bad at what you do. Why should anyone subsidize your lazy, incompetent, free-loading ass? Get a job like the rest of us, etc.

    The “portfolio” is another gimmick used to demoralize the unemployed. The skills you have — unless you genuinely are an idiot — are the skills necessary to perform most or all of your job duties already. No one gets a job as a computer programmer and says on their first day, “Okay. Where do I learn this programming stuff? I’m already a great typist, so this should be easy.”

    Yes, we all need the occasional improvement and upgrade to our skills, but most of us are continuously doing that just by being involved in our profession. The few truly oddball skills that would bring up just your name in a keyword search are, by their nature, unpredictable and unreliable as a method for making a living.

  • last year I told a right-leaning friend that the delicious irony of the t-bagger obsession with Obama’s (ahem) “Marxist” agenda is that nobody living in the good ol’ USA today has even read Marx & Engels, but now all the young people who can’t afford to go to college are gonna be lining up at their local libraries to get ahold of ‘Kapital’ and ‘The Communist Manifesto’ so they can see what the shitstorm is all about.
    oopsie! how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they become their own Liberal Arts Professors?
    I have a 21-yr-old son who would love to move out on his own, but he’s done the math, and between community college and low-paid p/t work, he’s years away from that. I wonder how long it’ll be until some cute hippie chick invites him to come live at the big house she shares with a bunch of other free spirits who share everything, and those who can work at a job do so, and those that don’t have jobs contribute to the commune in any way they can.
    uh oh. did I just say “commune”? ah, ha ha ha!
    and yeah, people are doing that in some cities, and I suspect the crushing inequality of opportunity inherent in late-stage terminal capitalism will drive many young adults into these “collectivist” situations, purely out of practical necessity.
    the Reactionary Right’s Culture War is forcing today’s youth into building their own Radical Left Counterculture, simply because the social(ist) infrastructure enjoyed (and taken for granted) by the boomers has been largely wrecked by the Right’s relentless assaults.
    yep, blowback is a bitch!

  • Sorry, J Bo, this is America (k optional).

    Your community college graduates are all desperate for work, and know that what they read will appear when any prospective employer Googles their name. So they all know that it’s safest never to read anything at all, and even touching a copy of any of Marx’s opera (or trying to read a paragraph on-line) means a life-long blackball that permanently and irrevocably precludes the possibility of gainful employment.

    Safest just to watch Fox News, and be prepared to let the interviewer know that’s all you watch, in the unlikely event that you get an interview.

    Only if there’s a Stalin and/or an Adolph Schicklegrüber Socialist killing the bourgeoisie, and thereby creating a credible threat that the US proletariat might revolt, will the aforementioned bourgeoisie agree to some equalization of incomes, the minimal equalization that will mollify the proletariat just enough to eliminate the threat of a revolution.

    That last happened 70 years ago, so it ain’t happening now, quite the opposite, as inequality of income and assets is rapidly increasing with no one daring to protest.

  • Alex: hell yeah!!!

  • Ok um… wow.
    (1) yes! the simple and obvious solution to unemployment is REDUCE THE FREAKIN WORKWEEK. DUH. DUH. DUH. DUH. WHY IS EVERYONE SO THICK?
    (2) your average american has been trained to be a masochist
    (3) @J Bo — it’s happening. ad-hoc communal situations are all over the place. unfortunately hippie culture being what it is, it will never overthrow any power structure.
    (4) despite all this we can’t complain as much as the poor bastards who spend their teens and 20’s sucking up fumes from soldering together pieces of your i-phone in China, for 12 hours a day, and will be probably crippled from repetitive stress and chemical exposure by the time their in their mid 30’s. (while Apple is now the #1 most valuable company in the world, worth over half a trillion $). Heck of a lot better to live in the 1st world ain’t it. It is they who will be revolting against all of us.
    (5) “I don’t need work, I just need money” . truer words were never spoken.

  • Speaking as a researcher in a robotics lab, this question is one that I think about quite a bit. It drives me nuts when fellow leftists protest the development of automation technologies rather than the larger socioeconomic system that is unfairly distributing the benefits conferred by those technologies. Here’s the deal, as I see it:

    1. If we replaced our system with one that is more rational and fair about how the economic benefits of advances in automation and robotics were distributed, NO ONE would be opposed to replacing a human welder with a manufacturing robot. Honestly, industrial welding is a shitty fucking job – if we weren’t simply casting the displaced welders to the wolves, I doubt there is a single welder alive who wouldn’t be fucking relieved to never have to do that job again.

    2. It would not be possible to halt the progress of automation as a field without completely destroying our system – automation is a cornerstone of the way the system operates.

    3. If you’ve already succeeded at destroying our system, why the hell would you want to pull the plug on automation technology? See #1.

    As Rall observes, our problem is not the new robot that replaced a human worker. Our problem is the shareholder caste that is keeping the entirety of the benefits of the new robot for themselves, and telling the poor bastard it replaced to go crawl into the gutter and die.

  • The proverbial make-work job of digging holes and then filling them in order to receive a subsistence wage accomplishes the objective of the power elite: the many are too busy or too tired to interfere with the business of self governing, and the pursuit of leisure activities of the ruling class.

    Imagine a society that provided a living wage where the many could find the time to interfere with the business of the ruling-leisure class; imagine all of the favorite resort spots of the ruling-leisure class crowded with the rabble freed from laboring under the watchful eyes of their agents of authority; imagine the legislative assemblies occupied by those demanding consideration of the interests of the many; this extension of personal liberty is truly the nightmare scenario the ruling class will avoid at all costs.

  • Our whole system is unsustainable. Who knows how much longer it will last.

    We need to develop alternative systems. Easier said than done, I know, but the time has come for us to organize and live in a different way.

    The system itself is holding us hostage. We live to serve the system, thinking all the while it’s the other way around.

  • @rougy

    Thats the second time in 24 hrs i read a version of that quote…. “We want structures that serve people, not people that serve structures! – Graffiti in Paris, May ‘68” This version was on naked capitalism blog. Anyhow, I must clarify for you all.

    The system does in fact serve people. Just not the same people who serve it.

    So what y’all are really saying is that you don’t want to be servants. Well, boo hoo. You’re a servant. You want a better deal. Gonna have to convince your boss of that somehow.

    Leave the whole “system” thing out of it.

  • alex_the_tired
    March 9, 2012 3:15 PM

    PeteyBee’s comment about servants reminds me of a joke that had a very long circulation in Apartheid South Africa. Basically, the whites are sitting around the dinner table talking about how the blacks are nearing a state of uprising over inequalities. One white dinner guest says something like, “We could all have our throats slit in the night.”

    The hostess, trying to calm the guests, says something like, “Oh, that’s not going to happen. Our servants love us. She calls over the head servant and asks him if he’d slit the white householders’ throats in the night.

    “Oh, no ma’am. We could never slit the throats of our household masters. We’ll all just trade houses one night.”

    The servants, regardless of skin color, gender, etc., are going to finally wake up in the middle of the night eventually. Personally, the only thing I can’t figure out is what the warning signs will be. Perhaps wiser heads can offer some thoughts on that.

  • I suppose we can look back in our history for a glimpse of our future as history does tend to repeat itself. Not exactly of course, as details change.

    We might look back to the time when farmers has 160 acres and a mule. Technology began to assert itself, when some farmers could afford to buy a tractor, or mechanized combine to perform the work of the mules. Henry Ford for one was transforming the Industrial Sector, into a Mass Production Factory.

    We had the “Wild West” mentality of the Stock Market in the 1920’s. It seems to me the attitude was just keep transferring money from one pocket to another, and hopefully each time it was transferred you could make a profit. It reminds me of musical chairs, eventually some one is left standing, and at the end the game one person is left.

    We see an economy today where the 1% no matter how mismanaged they run a company they bear no consequences. At least the Captain of Titanic went down with the ship, not so today. “Golden Parachutes” were not created for the working class.

    White Collar work was transformed also. One of my first jobs was working in a ditto room. A battery of typists produced an original document and we duplicated the copies via the ditto machine. Another group of workers filed these paper documents in folders. Most of these support services are gone now and so are the jobs.

    Amazingly, enough some people who are likely to be left without a chair to sit on, subscribe to Alpha Male Mentality of Wall Street, and it’s political expression in the Democratic and Republican Parties.

    I joined an “Occupy” demonstration, quickly we were being vilified as not working within the system.

    The confidence in our political system as measured by Voter Turn out of age eligible voters was only 57% in 2008, and 38% in 2010. Imagine if you were leading an Army and only 57% or 38% decided the cause was worth fighting for.

  • I’d like to recommend Stanislaw Lem’s “Memoirs of A Space Traveler” – the short story titled “The 24th Voyage” for an even more elegant solution than you propose 🙂

  • This is not working so nicely in Spain, you know.

  • Would a more progressive income tax achieve much of what you are talking about? I’m talking high percentage taxes for the rich and negative percentages (refunds) for the poor.

  • Ted is spot on. The same general idea occurred to me months ago while struggling to see how new jobs could be created; other than in the FDR WPA and CCC. Essentially, we have to “reinvent work”. Productivity destroys jobs. Globalization means production will follow the cheapest labor. Capitalism means that the wealth at the top will increase, and that the increase will accelerate.
    However, global warming, peak oil, vanishing resources, and a destitute world population, means that the whole thing is going to go off the tracks.
    The “leadership” isn’t going to do anything useful. It will have to be “the people”.

  • Ted, I hate to just jump in with something negative. But I’ve been away from home (so sue me).


    I honestly disagree with your statement.

    Our standards of living have changed very dramatically from 1950. My parents had a coal fired furnace in the basement. My mother says she used to go downstairs every morning to shovel coal into it to warm up the house.

    They had a telephone, but not a private line. It was a party line, shared with several other households. Forget long distance phone calls at any price — they didn’t exist.

    And of course, no internet. It was only a dream in the mind of a few science fiction writers, and of course, the department of defense.

    Cell phones are only imagined by the comic strip guy who drew Dick Tracy.

    If we wanted to now (and a few people do) we could live with the standard of living that they had in 1950. But no one wants to.

  • alex_the_tired
    March 19, 2012 5:24 PM

    brucepoppe makes an interesting point but I think there are a few holes in it. For instance, does the phone company even offer party lines anymore? Even POTS (plain old telephone service) costs something like $25 a month. A newspaper subscription can run you you a pretty penny, too. Don’t forget the price of gas has gone up (how does it compete, mile per gallon, to the 1950s cars?), as has car insurance, parking, etc.

    Does anyone have some good stats?

  • alex_the_tired
    March 21, 2012 11:53 AM


    thanks. I will check them out. Right now, I’m evading the writing of a paper which is due in 36 hours. Give me a couple days …

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