THE END OF WORK

One of the objectives of the ideas of Radical Simplicity is to free us from being wage slaves. The book suggests the way to do that is to spend less and save more, so that eventually your savings are enough to live on. I think that part of the book is naive, since for many low- and middle-income families, even the most frugal and efficient spending plan will never get them there.

But the concept got me thinking anew about a very old idea — the guaranteed annual income. The concept of a GAI is that, in a just society, no family should be forced to live below the poverty level. To achieve this, a negative income tax is introduced to increase every family’s income to the poverty level — say $20,000 per adult and $10,000 per child in the family. Let’s set aside for a minute the question of whether we could afford to do this — clearly at present we could not — and ask the question whether you could live a comfortable life at that income level. And if so, whether we could actually allow corporations to become as ‘productive’ as they want to be — employing only the absolute minimum number of people, anywhere in the world, as cheap as they can get them — because no one in North America would have to work.

Here’s a table that shows how the average middle-income American family (1.5 adults and 1.0 children) currently spends its ‘earned’ income, the budget that would be available under a guaranteed annual income scheme, and some of the methods suggested in Radical Simplicity and elsewhere that could make that budget sufficient, even ample, thanks to the additional 40 hours a week you now have available to look after your home and family, instead of paying others to do it for you.

Current Spending GAI Budget How Achieved
Food $9,000 $7,000 Grow some of your own, eat unprocessed
and unpackaged foods, become vegetarian
Clothing 3,000 3,000 Make your own
Rent/Mortgage
Maintenance & Utilities
18,000 18,500 Do your own maintenance & repairs;
Improve energy efficiency; Share tools
Transportation 12,000 4,000 Sell one of your cars, cycle
Recreation 3,000 3,000 Create your own entertainment; swap
Health, Education 4,500 Make it universal and free
Insurance & Savings 6,000 No need
Personal Goods 1,500 1,500
Miscellaneous 3,000 3,000
TOTAL $60,000 $40,000

The key to all of this is that not working as an employee trades income for time, and in some cases that time is worth more than the money we’re trading for it (in financial terms alone, not to mention the social and spiritual value of that recaptured time). The other essential condition is that we need to re-learn self-sufficiency skills that our countries’ pioneers had — sewing, gardening, cooking from scratch. What do you think — is it a model worth considering, a goal for our countries to strive towards as a means of solving a host of social, economic and environmental problems? Or would the average family squander the money on gambling, alcohol and drugs, as conservatives would probably insist?

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16 Responses to THE END OF WORK

  1. Rebecca says:

    Dave I love how you are able to bring fresh perspectives to everything, treat what some might call outlandish ideas as wholly considerable and possible. I always found it hard to give up free time in order to earn a wage, and when I finally felt too caught in the work trap I figured out a way to break out. Changing my finances were a big part of that. Also, I’ve developed skills in self-sufficiency (farming, knitting, plumbing, etc). In the past few years my annual income has been less than 20K, some years under 10K and yet I’ve never felt poor. However, the caveat is that I am a single person with no dependents (other than a cat) and like living in a way that requires me to be flexible and mobile. These things were required for me to even venture into this lifestyle change. (Thought at some point I hope to see how it works when paired up with someone else… :) I think your idea about a guaranteed income is a bit idealistic (but nothing wrong with that!) But it would be great to help people see how they can shift their lives away from being wage-earners regardless. I’ve been daydreaming for a while about writing a book that contains interviews with people who have found sustainable ways to live alternative lifestyles (I don’t think mine is sustainable – I have no savings other than a tiny IRA so I’ll be destitute and homeless when I’m elderly). But for now, when I talk to people about the way I live, they often wish they could find a way to do something similar. They feel trapped by circumstance. If I could collect a wide variety of different paths and show them all, it might allow people to think it’s more possible for themselves. Rural, urban, married with kids, I’d like to investigate all the different methods, tricks, ideas, etc people have used to change their lives. How would I get started on a project like this? Would you want to participate?

  2. Evan says:

    Dave:”I think that part of the book is naive, since for many low- and middle-income families, even the most frugal and efficient spending plan will never get them there.”I won’t dispute that it isn’t applicable to everyone at every income level, but I think you might be surprised just how often it *is* applicable.There’s a series of three books by Amy Dacyczyn called _The Tightwad Gazette_. About five years ago I ran across volume 3 at a used bookstore, picked it up on a lark, and found it interesting enough to seek out volumes 1 and 2 at the library.Now, I had a pretty basic middle-class income–fairly well-off by national standards but considerably below the median for area I live. My wife and I had long wanted to own a house, and had no hope whatsoever that we ever would be able to afford it. But the books inspired us to start paying attention to waste and efficiency in our finances just as I would pay attention to wasted cycles in a piece of software. It was… the only word I can think of is “astonishing”… to find out how much we’d been wasting.Just one example: We spent a weekend visiting every store in town with a notebook, writing down base prices for the foods we ate, so we would always know where was the best place to shop for this item or that, and what was a good sale price. We stopped eating out and buying packaged prepared foods, and instead started cooking from scratch, buying foods that were on sale in bulk quantities to last us until the next sale.Two months later we checked the results and found that our monthly food bill had dropped by a factor of nearly five. Between that and other savings (few as dramatic, but they added up), we had a down payment saved up in less than a year. And if our luck holds–no major illnesses or long-term unemployment–and we keep on the schedule we’re on now, we’ll own our house free and clear in another ten or twelve years–even though we’ve actually eased up on the frugality over the pastfew years. I may indeed be able to retire early, if that’s what I want when the time comes. (I suspect I’d rather start a different career than retire, but we’ll see.)As I said, I’m not by a long shot *poor*. But my income is lower than many millions of people who don’t believe they have a chance at the kind of wealth I have already amassed–and frugality was the key.The most interesting discovery of all of this was that frugality is not (for us, at least) the least bit unpleasant. We ate *better* on $100 a month than we did on $500. More to the point, we found that simply *paying attention* to our finances when we had spent years ignoring them gave us an unexpected kind of spiritual fulfillment–frugality requires just the kind of mindfulness than Buddhists advocate, I think.Rebecca: “I’d like to investigate all the different methods, tricks, ideas, etc people have used to change their lives. How would I get started on a project like this?”I’d suggest starting with the newsgroup misc.consumers.frugal-living.

  3. Kevin says:

    Though I would not consider myself too conservative, I think many people *would* squander their GAI. Not because they need to in order to live, but because they need to be accepted by society. Even without a GAI, the reason so many people who make more than enough to live are so deep in debt, and “squander” their income, is that they need the approval from society, telling them that they are not a looser. They are worth something. They only way to show that is by your income level. For some people, working in low paying jobs, the way to show a higher income level is to buy more stuff than they can afford. Whether you could live a comfortable life involves more than just ones income. In order to live a quality lifestyle with less, one needs to either have societies approval (or at least understanding), or be strong enough to have a “to hell with what you think” attitude. I like to think I have the attitude, but in reality, I am probably only able to down-shift because society sees that I have the opportunity to up-shift if I want to (thanks to the first question everyone asks when meeting for the first time – “what do you do?”). Knowing that I probably have money, my no-brand clothes, and general cheapness are seen as eccentric choices, ones I can even feel some pride about. I can use my lifestyle as a conversation piece, and I can write a book about it. Other’s may look at me and think “I wish I could live like that”.For someone who lives a life similar to mine, yet does so because they were laid-off, or are unable to work because of an illness or injury, it is a totally different story. They are looked upon as lazy, or losers and shunned by society. There is no approval for them, and no one would look to them as an example.Although I would probably be in favor of a guaranteed income, if only because it would help many people who *wouldn’t* squander it, I’m not sure how effective it would be as a whole. It would have to be accompanied by a major attitude overhaul as well.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    I’ve often thought, and sometimes spoken, about something I believe may well come to pass, in this developing-Orwellian world we live in. If there is indeed a continuing push to efficiency *at all costs* by corporations, such that there is indeed an ongoing loss of paid employment, it may come to be seen that being *a good citizen* is work in this new society, work that earns a GAI. By *good citizen* I mean something like obey laws, contribute some form of participation to some form of constructive community-based initiative (as simple as walk neighbourhood dogs once a week, take elderly people out for some fresh air (there will be many many more of us), care for the (dwindling) greenery in many neighbourhoods, and so on).I’m guessing that the *major attittude overhaul* may surprise us with its swiftness in uptake when we begin to see and experience an accelerated compounding of the problems for which current policies are the seedbed.

  5. Marijo says:

    What Kevin said is what I often see out there in the projects when I visit clients. People who are living on AFDC and food stamps will pay exorbitant prices to rent ‘nice’ living room furniture and tv’s, etc., instead of spending very little money to buy used ones. The reasoning? Why shouldn’t we have something nice, too? (And the price looks low when broken down into weekly payments!)They want the room/clothes/jewlery/car that the neighbors are going to see to be the best they can get. Most poor people whom I’ve met have very little understanding of money or nutrition, and many of their problems begin with those two facts. They are prey for the advertising predators who sell them all that garbage. Mix the tobacco/alcohol/drug culture into the recipe and they almost never find their way out of the ghetto. And we have a lottery coming in TN, now; I can hardly wait to see what will happen with that. It’s the tax on people who can’t do math, as they say. Education simply has to improve before anything else will work, as I understand it. It is ignorance, and the vulnerability to bad information which goes with that, not ‘laziness’, which makes these families squander their money.

  6. Marijo says:

    PS– “Our countries’ pioneers”? Heck, my mother could do all of that– she was born into a house with no electricity and a wood stove!

  7. Steve says:

    The path to simplicity is simple. Do something every day or every week to get you closer to your goal. That’s it. Don’t try to convince yourself that you don’t know what it is you need to do; you know. Even baby steps help and patience is a great virtue to exercise. And each day or each week you will also find a new pleasure that is free or nearly so. You see, you will be looking for them, and they aren’t hard to find. Really. ….A guaranteed income without work is a bad idea for anyone. There is much pleasure in earning an income and unearned money spends too damn easy and without satisfaction.

  8. Rebecca says:

    I think most people have some internal drive to be productive in one way or another. I think if a GAI were put in place, a bunch of people would spend a year or two on “vacation” (because after all, most workers in the US don’t ever get much of that at all, so why not revel for a while) and then at some point start looking around for something to do. Without the need to work to for money, people would end up working for other reasons – to educate, to beautify, to create. They would have the opportunity to think about what they really want to be doing and get creative at making it happen. Public projects would start up (facilitated by community groups perhaps) that would find some people being the leaders and some being the followers – maybe the same as a work situation where an employee works to follow the vision of the boss, but instead of money as a goal it would be the betterment of something and the building of community. Some people might decide that all they want to do is paint their kitchen, but no harm in that either.I think one big hurdle is our “cult of celebrity” and the need for material things that our society currently has. The basic question is who prefers time over money?? If a majority of people do prefer time, then the idea is more feasible. But I think lots and lots of people prefer money and what it can buy. Whether they have it or not, they see that as the thing to strive for. So the GAI would be relatively useless in that sort of society. Gee I started out all optimistic and then talked myself out of it….

  9. Adrian says:

    Dave, I agree with what Rebecca said about the fresh perspectives — it’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to your blog. My concern about the GAI isn’t so much that people would squander the money. It’s that in effect we’d be creating a rentier state, the ultimate consumer economy — producing nothing, and dependent on the state’s ability to wheedle money from those offshoring corporations you mention. When work disappears, so does taxation and along with that political representation. Besides, if people practice the frugality program you mention, they are in effect creating their own GAI. And corporate America is none the wiser for it!

  10. k says:

    Steve, no one can argue with that, but I think the spirit of the GAI is not to let people get away with sitting on a couch and watching TV all day, rather to make sure that those who for some reason or other can’t (or have extreme difficulty) providing for the basic needs of their life.As strongly as I believe that many people would use that income to be lazy, I also see that a lot of good and innovation could come of it. If I had the time to implement half of the ideas I have, or to do a quarter of the things I want to to improve the lives of people around me… The only problem is those ideas are not always profitable. So the world will have to live without my contributions for now while I make my client’s crappy shopping-cart to sell some crappy piece of junk to people who don’t need it. (I’ll have to send my kids to school some day ya know)”There is much pleasure in earning an income and unearned money spends too damn easy and without satisfaction.”There is also much pleasure in doing things you believe in regardless of wether or not they earn an income and if we have our priorities straight, we don’t need satisfaction from spending money, wether we earned it or not. Lucky for me, I now find more satisfaction in *not* spending money, no matter how hard I worked to earn it. It’s just too damn hard to find things to spend it on that are not wasteful and unneccesary.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Wow. This is the most *amazing* comment thread. Thanks to you all for your thoughts on this. Jon, I’m intrigued but ambivalent about putting a qualifier on getting the GAI. When my kids were in high school they had a course called ‘mandatory volunteerism’ — they had to spend a certain number of hours in some charitable undertaking (it didn’t matter what) in order to graduate. Rubbed me the wrong way. I do like the idea of giving people a tax credit for hours donated to charity.I’m a big believer in taxing resource consumption and waste instead of income, so I’m not troubled about the loss of tax revenue that a GAI would entail. Marijo is right about the need for education, and it has to start very young. And I’ve seen first hand that something hand-made cheap can elicit as many ‘wows’ as an expensive brand name if you want to ‘show off’.Steve: You’ve nailed my #1 concern about GAI. I think you can get a sense of self-esteem and self-worth from a variety of sources, but the truth is most of us get it from what we earn, and are ‘ashamed’ if our income isn’t earned. Our culture brainwashes us so well that while we hate wage slavery we’re unwilling to wean ourselves off of it even if our economy can easily afford to provide everyone with that sustenance level of income regardless of what they do.

  12. Steve says:

    Dave, I think ‘ashamed’ is too strong. That good feeling, when we have exchanged some of the sweat of our brow, for money to buy our needs — we notice when that good feeling is absent. A few hours in a boat baiting hooks make the fish taste better. We NEED to earn what we consume; I think it’s a basic human need that underlies civilization. I have reduced my need for money to a level few can believe while increasing my enjoyment of life BUT I still get a big kick out of earning the little money I do need.

  13. Jon Husband says:

    Yeah … I’m not crazy about qualifiers either … and it seems that there would need to be some sort of *invitation* to particpate in society in positive ways.After all, I think that a reasonable number of people actually go to work, want to work, because figuring out what to do with lots of free time is definitely not as easy, physically or psychologically, as many people might want to believe.Work and busy-ness are actually very useful as distractions from purposeful living.

  14. Avi Solomon says:

    I have been helped in my journey towards Voluntary Simplicity by the following communities:Simple Living Forum:http://www.simpleliving.net/forums/Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery:http://www.whywork.org

  15. tomrowton says:

    This is an interesting piece, but one line set off my BS-o-meter. “Let’s set aside for a minute the question of whether we could afford to do this — clearly at present we could not ” This is patently false. Look at how much money we spend in foreign aid to places like Israel for a start – we send something on the order of $70,000(seventy thousand dollars) per Israeli citizen to Israel _annually_. We spend billions each year stationing our proud, fighting military in nations that no longer need or want them there. But the biggest potential source of an equalizer is big corporations – nearly none of whom actually pay their income tax. This is the most egregious of tax law manipulations that keep our poor from getting the aid and education they need. And the reason that we should absolutely NOT allow corporations/businesses to do as they see fit to maximize profits. Were they to actually pay the income taxes they owe, I’d be all for the “free market” ideals, but they don’t, and they won’t. Make businesses pay their taxes and we could actually afford to keep all Americans fed, clothed, housed, and cared for above the poverty line.

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Tom:The issue of corporations and taxation is a very complex one. Generally speaking tax codes are designed to avoid so-called ‘double taxation’ by providing dividend tax credits to individual taxpayers equal to the corporate profit taxes. The principle is that the corporation is just a shell, and it’s only when that shell is used to hold profits rather than distribute them through to individual shareholders that corporate taxes are really needed. The same is true for commodity/sales taxes paid at the manufacturer or wholesale level — everyone knows the taxes get passed on to the end consumer anyway, the tax at the corporate level is really just a way of ensuring the commodity tax gets collected and not lost in the ‘underground economy’. I agree with you that, if everything was right with the world, a GAI would be easily affordable. But today, with the massive subsidies to corporations, the profligate spending on defence and the huge cost of interest on the accumulated debt, a GAI would simply sink the economy. Gotta clean up the mess first ;-)

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