The Dignity of Work

One of the more interesting phenomena in conservative rhetoric these days is the uneasy coexistence of complaints about the erosion of the work ethic, and demands that work be less remunerative–or at least no more remunerative–for most of the population. This violates the equally uneasy rough political consensus that developed during the 1990s whereby “welfare” was “reformed” by linking public subsidies to work. For a brief moment, conservatives supported initiatives like a refundable earned income tax credit and work-contingent cash and food assistance that made willingness to work a crucial distinction between “good” and “bad” poor people.

As many critics of welfare reform noted at the time, this bargain was predicated on a red-hot labor market that ensured a relatively robust supply of jobs (though never so much at the lower end of the income spectrum). Now, after more than a decade of slack labor markets, chronic high unemployment in some sectors that then spread to much of the economy, and a sharp acceleration of inequality in income (and even more, wealth), the 1990s consensus is largely gone. EITC recipients are more often than not regarded as “lucky duckies” who are not bearing their fair share of the cost of governing. The long-term unemployed who are seeking jobs more than assistance are derided as the economy’s excess baggage. Efforts by workers to improve their lot via collective bargaining are attacked as intolerable burdens on the job-creating Atlases of the business ownership class. And the EITC’s older sibling in the effort to reward work, the minimum wage, is being treated as some sort of socialist trick to redistribute income from the worthy to the unworthy–even as the “work ethic” continues to represent conservatives’ highest economic value.

Paul Kruman in his latest column gets at this disjunction between valuing work rhetorically and materially with his usual clarity and forcefulness:

It’s all very well to talk in the abstract about the dignity of work, but to suggest that workers can have equal dignity despite huge inequality in pay is just silly. In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. Given that kind of disparity, can anyone really believe in the equal dignity of work?

In fact, the people who seem least inclined to respect the efforts of ordinary workers are the winners of the wealth lottery. Over the past few months, we’ve been harangued by a procession of angry billionaires, furious that they’re not receiving the deference, the acknowledgment of their superiority, that they believe is their due. For example, last week the investor Sam Zell went on CNN Money to defend the 1 percent against “envy,” and he asserted that “the 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society.” Dignity for all!

And there’s another group that doesn’t respect workers: Republican politicians. In 2012, Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, infamously marked Labor Day with a Twitter post celebrating … people who start their own businesses. Perhaps Mr. Cantor was chastened by the backlash to that post; at a recent G.O.P. retreat, he reportedly urged his colleagues to show some respect for Americans who don’t own businesses, who work for someone else. The clear implication was that they haven’t shown that kind of respect in the past.

The trouble is, of course, that if you believe the invisible hand of the market infallibly assigns the appropriate material value to various kinds of work, then the inescapable conclusion is that those who don’t earn enough to make a decent living either aren’t working hard enough or possess skills so worthless that they could vanish tomorrow and leave the economy even more “efficient.”

This is not a conclusion, however, that most Americans share, and thus politics often revolve around an irrepressible conflict over “the safety net” that is increasingly a struggle between those who believe it is inadequate and those who believe it should not exist at all.

Krugman asks an unavoidable question:

What would give working Americans more dignity in their lives, despite huge income disparities? How about assuring them that the essentials — health care, opportunity for their children, a minimal income — will be there even if their boss fires them or their jobs are shipped overseas?

The more and more dominant sentiment within one of our two major political parties is that ensuring “the essentials” would produce an economic and moral catastrophe. And that is why all the talk on the Right about the moral value of work is hollow, just like “dignity” without a decent living.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.