Updated: May 16, 2020
The coronavirus (demonstrates more clearly) than ever before that all labor has dignity
Both the headline and the sub-title are by Eugene Sperling, not me, but it stirred me (after my colleague from the U. of Nebraska, Earl Russell, pointed me to it!) to Metaeconomic thinking about what it is all about. The proposition that all labor has dignity, made clear by the essential role played by the front-line workers in the Coronavirus Pandemic, fits nicely within the main proposition from Metaeconomics: We have a shared Other (with others but within our own-self)-interest, especially in matters of public health. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves: Hang on.
Sperling (2020) points to how dealing with the Coronavirus Pandemic has made it abundantly clear “… that the labor of everyone — farmworkers, grocers, delivery drivers, caregivers, nursing assistants — (is) essential to all of our health and well-being.” And, it is also clear, we have the need “… to confront the dissonance between our nation’s labeling of workers as ‘essential’ and ‘heroes’ and their limited wages, benefits and ability to organize.”
Sperling goes on to point out how only slightly more than the minimum wage, many without even basic health care benefits, is being paid many of the front-line workers: “ Forty-seven percent of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides aren’t offered even a single day of paid sick leave. A million front-line health care workers lack their own health coverage. The median pay for the nursing assistants and orderlies now risking their lives in hospitals full of Covid-19 patients is $14.25 an hour.” Also, labor unions have been essentially eliminated, the offset to Power in the labor Markets having been lost. It is about a massive failure of both the Market and the Government to address the front-line situation on the bottom rung of the income and wealth ladder.
It is just more empirical evidence that the extreme inequality of income and wealth in the US has become a public health problem, as well documented by Payne (2018) , with it literally being the case for the deaths of many front-line workers, and the patients they have lost, in the Pandemic. Amazing, really, in this part of the Spaceship Earth, the US. The total wealth, and the total Gross Domestic Product produced very year, is the largest it has ever been for any area on the Spaceship, in all time: So, where is the money?
Metaeconomics points toward three overall considerations. First, look to the empirical reality, the science based empirical reality, as to just who is contributing the Value. It would point to the Instrumental Value V, which actually gets something done, on the front-line of the Coronavirus Pandemic as a case in point. The Price P is not the point, which is clearly too low given the risks involved, as it tends to reflect the excessive Greed coming from only expressions of Self-interest in the Market. The Value V, instead, reflects the shared Other-interest, as in “we are in the Pandemic together” and need to solve it together. Value V would tend to increase the Price P even though the Market would not produce it. The Value V will have to come out of Other Forums, like legislation to require a higher minimum wage; risk payments above the minimum wage; paid sick leave; health insurance; and, help by both the Market and Government in ensuring a balance of power in the labor markets (labor unions; cooperatives; representatives from the front-lines on boards of directors, anyone?).
Second, Metaeconomics points to the moral and ethical dimension of putting people into frontline positions without adequate compensation, sick leave, not even medical insurance, to say nothing of inadequate Personal Protective Equipment. Why? Well, because the Self-interest only Market will always work to keep the lowest paid barely alive, and, if they die from no paid sick leave, no health insurance, and no Personal Protective Equipment, what does it matter? It was their free choice to work in that situation, right? Not necessarily.
And, more on the moral and ethical dimension: A minimum wage and benefits cannot be set by the Market, because the Market driven by Self-interest only will always make it a wage on which a person can barely survive. The more primal excessive Greed takes the Market in that direction, unless it is tempered by the shared Other-interest, the latter coming out of an Empathy based Ethic of fairness and justice. The ethic of the Self-interest only Market is the survival of the fittest, and the fittest are the persons with the most wealth, right? Does it have to be that way? No: If the Market tempers the Self-interest with the shared Other-interest in front-line medical care, the Price P would be much closer to the true Value V. It is about the balance in the Self&Other-interest. And, when the Market fails to do it on its own, even with nudges to do so, it may well be that the Community-at-large, generally represented through the Government, may have to regulate and control. Increased minimum wage (and benefits) anyone?
Third, Metaeconomics points to the fundamental flaw in the counter argument: It is always argued that if too much in the way of wages and benefits is paid at the bottom, fewer will be able to be employed. Raising the minimum wage hurts the low wage earner. Really? Metaeconomics clarifies that it depends only on how much income and wealth is concentrated at the top, and how it is being spent. If more is being spent on wages and benefits at the bottom, it is true there will be less available for luxury goods, multiple homes, expensive automobiles and yachts at the top. And, this also does not mean wealth taxes or any other kinds of re-distribution programs. It does mean, however, paying each person more what they are worth in the sense of the Value V (what they contribute, like in picking the vegetables you eat or installing that tube from the ventilator) rather than what Price P the Market will pay. The Instrumental Value of such work far exceeds the Price Value, so the Price Value needs to be increased to better reflect reality, as well as the ethics.
Metaeconomics points to an optimal inequality in income and wealth, and all the related benefits from having a reasonable level of everything for everyone, understanding it will be unequal. It will be an optimal unequal, not a distorted unequal as shown by the empirical reality for the front-line workers. It is an Empathy based Ethics---walk in the shoes of the other and ask how you would wish to be treated--- about how much people are paid for frontline services in the first place.
Metaeconomics makes clear that the argument against raising the bottom is an argument for excessive Greed at the top. Extreme greed is extremely good? Perhaps not. It needs to be tempered like the Ghosts made clear to Scrooge on Christmas morning. Scrooge re-balanced away from Ego based Self-interest by increasing the emphasis on the Empathy based Other (shared with Cratchitt, but still within Scrooge)-interest. The result was a more humane and happy balance in Self&Other-interest, Market&Community, Market&Government, and, ironically, a move to a true economic efficiency. It is through everyone having a piece of the action, with the Value V reflecting the dignity of every job and every worker, the V influencing P in order to bring it into line, that we build a truly humane and liberal democracy, and a Good Capitalism.
Payne, Keith. The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.
Sperling, G. B. "Economic Dignity for All." Opinion, New York Times (New York), April 26 2020, New York