Money for nothing

JESSICA IRVINE WROTE ON the subject of 'weaning' the nation off the coronavirus support Jobkeeper. It is less economic thought, which is her specialty, than Methodism, which is a school of economic moral order.

Because JobKeeper, as a public policy, is not a keeper. A policy that pays some people to do nothing is not a long-term plan, despite what advocates of a Universal Basic Income might say.

This is exactly wrong. It's not even about creating UBI or Citizen's Income, In fact our society pays many people very well to do nothing, for good and bad reasons, and has done, without protests or disagreement, for a long time.

Sometimes it's extremely good, and deliberate. The aged pension (low as it is) is one of the great innovations of modern life, perhaps the greatest. Old people shouldn't be working, or starving, or dependent; that's only civilised. Sometimes the money we pay as a society isn't for people to do nothing, but to do something else that's more important: parents on maternity/parenting leave are hardly expected to 'do nothing', but we all agree that parenting an infant is worth more than any possible profitable work. Sometimes it's just exclusive: the point of sick leave isn't only humane acceptance that sick people can't work, it's to avoid the kind of communal infection we're all very familiar with these days.

Sometimes it's a deferral and an investment. We all pay taxes, as a society, to keep young people in schools and universities, where they're productive at improving themselves and each other, but earn nothing. Partly that's about making a down payment on a better future, with more educated young people, but it's also about keeping those same young people out of the full-time workforce. Nobody wants to be the jobseeker competing against a child, or wants to live in that kind of society.

Sometimes it's bad, and we just accept the status quo. Returns on capital investment are precisely money for doing nothing; it is the money itself that has done the work, reproducing itself in the unique way that capital does. When an owner of an investment—whether that's a bond, or a term deposit, or an inheritance, copyright on someone else's pop song, or a rented-out house—gets their regular payment, no work has necessarily occurred, and that work that does (repairs, account fees) is incidental. Rents don't exist without policy, or a system of law and regulation to enforce them; a society of landlords and rentiers is precisely one where some people are paid, by expectation of the government and public, to do nothing.

Anyway, don't take my word for all of the above, take Bertrand Russell's, who said it all far better:

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

We all saw, at the height of anxiety in March and April, an opening of possibilities and immediate action on things that we'd been told were impossible. Tortuous, degrading, and pointless 'mutual obligation' requirements from Centrelink and JobSearch providers were removed. The rate of Newstart was lifted. We won free childcare. Many workplaces, especially white-collar ones, became much more flexible in their arrangements for working from home. Suddenly, we didn't have to get a medical certificate to prove we had the flu to claim sick leave. And most of all we were presented with the necessity of rethinking, at least for a bit, which occupations were truly necessary and which were luxuries—the heroes of the day were the cleaners, the garbage collectors, truck and forklift drivers, supermarket cashiers, posties, childcare workers and teachers, as well as the nurses, doctors, and medical staff.

Irvine gets to the point of the just-so story further on:

But, if government is to step in when needed, it must also step out when not required. That is the ultimate goal, after all: an economy which can largely stand on its own two feet.

But economies never stand on their own two feet, and governments don't step out—to continue the metaphor, their policies and assumptions and regulations are the bones on which the muscles of flesh move. A better metaphor would be that the Government steps behind the curtain, where ideology obscures it. Someone has to enforce tenancy rules. Someone has to decide when old people are allowed to access the pension. Someone has to decide what's taxed and what isn't.

When the crisis recedes—if the crisis recedes—we will get to choose what's a 'keeper' and what's not. Who will we continue to allow to get money to do nothing?

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