Saturday, September 09, 2017

Must be nice

The expression "they took our jobs" evokes, what, that South Park episode? Nativist resentment? That's assuming the "they" in question are immigrants. What if "they" refers elsewhere?

Twice recently on Twitter - once antagonistically, once not - I've seen this topic pop up. What interests me is the question itself, which is when someone should or shouldn't take a prestigious internship, or fellowship funding for a creative pursuit, or for a grad program, or... you get the idea. When is a job not just a job, but economic redistribution?

Because the answer clearly isn't never. Sometimes, money of that nature does or should take need into account. College scholarships come to mind. Specific jobs programs. Beyond this, though?

As appealing as it might be to aim for need-based employment - in spirit, if not in practice, because how on earth would this be enforced* - it seems like it would invite any number of unwanted consequences. If the truly independently wealthy - people who've inherited or been given so much money that they don't need to work - did the honorable thing and either didn't apply for internships/fellowships/grants or - because surely even the fancy are allowed ambitions - handed back any money they won, then... great? (Would they, though? Are the independently wealthy handing their far more substantial corporate salaries, in full, over to charities?)

It gets much trickier when you get into this other caste of supposed rich people with no need to work: adults currently - or potentially - dependent on their parents or partners. Compared with adults who have neither option, these are... adults with options. But what are those options? The parents scenario can involve things like - to give a not-that-uncommon example - not coming out because if you did, your parents would cut you off. Or parents who want to give and give and give, and do, but really shouldn't, because they're not actually rich enough to support their 30-year-old child's journey through a fourth graduate program.

The partner one has its own issues. There's the extreme (but, again, not-uncommon) case of people staying in abusive relationships for financial reasons. But there's also the precariousness angle - a partner could leave, or lose their job, and then what? Is this gendered? Sure can be! The notion that a woman with a higher-earning male partner doesn't need to work is bad news. Deeply bad news, in that it extends not just to women who do in fact have partners who fit that description, but also, as an assumption, to women as a caste. If women are viewed as people who do/should/surely must have rich husbands, why pay women an equal amount? Why pay women at all?

Point being: There are the people - and this would be most adults - who need to work to live and it's that simple. Then there are the handful who don't - how nice for them. Then there's this not-insignificant group of people who could - under temporary or precarious conditions - not work, but who would be risking something in giving up on employability. And I'm not keen on the implications of declaring that set part and parcel of The Privileged, and announcing, for example, that a stay-at-home mom is entitled for seeking a return to the paid workforce.

*As in, how would anyone force rich people not to take jobs (whereas the state can, in theory, force rich people to pay higher taxes, which is the way this should actually be dealt with), but also as in, how would employers measure need? Or how would that happen in a non-exploitative way? Employers can and sometimes do exploit desperation, but will, in other situations, reward the already-posh. But this notion that redistribution is going to come from employers seems mighty unrealistic.


Miss Self-Important said...

Is there any economic theory behind the suggestion that it would be good for the rich, or anyone actually, to voluntarily refrain from working? Would it make anyone more productive, or wealthier? Or is the thought based on the assumption that the economy only contains a fixed (and permanently insufficient) number of jobs, such that taking one means that someone else is permanently denied work?

If anything, we should advise the rich to use their "privilege" to start businesses, since that creates jobs, rather than telling the people with the most capital (of every kind) to withdraw from the labor market altogether.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The Twitter discussions I'm alluding to here weren't about asking the rich not to work, but rather asking them not to take the paltry stipends available to students/artists without family money. Reason being, they can just pursue their dreams stipend-free. (One was inspired by [this article]( I'm not sure anyone is arguing that the rich shouldn't work.

But... yes. Whether via higher taxes, starting business (or, to keep this arts-centric, funding publications, etc.) or both, if the aim is finding ways for the rich to make it so that everyone has more, suggesting they just sort of disappear doesn't really add up. I think, though, this gets back to the question of who the rich people are in this scenario. Someone rich enough to take a low-paid internship without needing to wait tables at night to pay for this is likely not able to swoop in and buy the politics-and-culture journal of their choice.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, ok, I did read that article. But this woman in particular, aside from her personal financial viability as a spouse of a high-earning husband, can't pursue her dreams internship-free b/c you need to make connections and edit and write stuff to succeed in journalism, which no one will let you do from your couch unless you've already achieved your dreams.

I think we discussed a version of this argument back in the day of the Great Unpaid Internship Controversy, and the conclusion then remains true: work merits pay. To demand that the rich (artist) should work without pay so that the poor (artist) can get some extra crumbs is just as harmful as expecting the young and/or poor (recent college grad) to work without pay for the sake of "networking" and "experience" and other intangible and often nonexistent rewards. In a liberal democracy, everyone - rich and poor - should expect to both work and be paid for it. I suspect that most exemptions to this rule will only end up harming the poor, even if they appear initially to help them, since they will demean the moral value of work and pay as something that only the poor need, while the rich can get by without it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yeah - we're in agreement here, and have for sure been down this bloggy road before. (I even mention that WWPD post in my book!) *I* don't think even the richest most privileged person should be obliged to work for free, or to stay out of the workforce. To give back in other ways, yes. By not working/not taking pay? No. (The financier who takes a dollar salary or whatever - how could that possibly, possibly, apply in a case like that of the stay-at-home mom? Her husband works, so she's entitled if she does as well? And that's presenting itself as a *progressive* argument? It was one of the oddest things I've seen argued on Twitter which is saying something...)

The only *slight* fuzziness here is in the notion of certain compensation being more in the need-based grant category. As in, it makes sense when college scholarships are need-based, and the existence of need-based scholarships doesn't somehow make light of the work done by students whose parents can and will pay in full. But... I don't think this extends to the workforce. I don't see how it could.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, so long as no one is arguing that college is like work and students *deserve* to be paid for their efforts, the scholarship question remains categorically different. Scholarships can be endowed for all kinds of reasons - need, academic ability, athletic ability, trombone-playing ability, size of nose, etc. Scholarships are free gifts, not earned wages.