By Gavin R Putland
Some else wants to do your job. So why does it matter if you do it?
In a logical world, if you don’t do your day job, your idleness imposes a loss on the rest of us. In the real world – where the official involuntary unemployment rate is rarely less than 5 percent, and where the real rate is more like twice the official rate, with a similar number involuntarily underemployed – if you don’t do your day job, you create a much-needed vacancy for someone else.
In a logical world, you do your job in order to be a maker and not a taker. In the real world, where there are five or more jobseekers for every available job, you can’t be a maker without being the taker of someone else’s opportunity.
In a logical world, you do your job in order to get it done. In the real world, you do your job in order to stop someone else from getting the pay cheque.
In a logical world, you do your job in order to be a lifter and not a leaner. In the real world, you can’t be a lifter without forcing someone else to be a leaner – as if it were somehow more virtuous to make someone else do your leaning for you, and to blame him or her for doing it, rather than do it yourself.
In a logical world, jobseekers offer to get more work done. In the real world, jobseekers try to take work from you and your kids, keeping downward pressure on your pay and your kids’ pay. And the more brutally politicians make those jobseekers try harder to take your job and your kids’ jobs, putting more downward pressure on your pay and your kids’ pay, the more likely you are to vote for them!
In a logical world, you submit to the obligation to work because you are not more important than other people. In the real world, in order to justify your submission, you must believe that you are more important- to the extent that you should get one of the limited number of opportunities while other people miss out.
In a logical world, your work ethic is an expression of your humility and your sense of duty. In the real world, what passes for your work ethic is an expression of your vanity and your sense of entitlement.
In a logical world, what you do for a living is a major determinant of your legacy. In the real world, what you do for a living will probably get done whether you do it or not, in which case your legacy is determined by what you do in your unpaid time, and what you do for a living is relevant only in so far as it effects your supply of “spare” time and money with which to do something that won’t otherwise get done.
In a logical world, the market value of your work is an important measure of your legacy. In the real world, your legacy probably consists in what the market values at nought, and in what the current political correctness regards as a shirking of responsibilities.
I write precisely four years after David Graeber went viral with his article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. He complained:
Huge swathes of people… spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.
But I tell you that not merely “huge swathes” of workers, but nearly all workers, do not merely “secretly believe”, but know with certainty – and are forcibly reminded every day – that if they don’t do their jobs, someone else will be grateful for the opportunity; that whether their work needs to be done or not, getting it done does not depend on them; that even if their jobs are not disposable, they themselves still are; that even if the work itself is not bullshit, the official reason for doing it still is. What shall we say of the “moral and spiritual damage” that comes from that?
Employers seem to think they benefit from this arrangement. They even make it worse by inflating the qualifications and minimizing the remuneration of advertised jobs, so as to pretend that the shortage of jobs is the opposite: a “skills shortage“, providing an excuse to bring in more jobseekers from overseas. It does not seem to occur to employers that:
- An undersupply of workers is equivalent to an oversupply of customers;
- If workers are scarce, employers will seldom be sued for discrimination, because the whole concept of discrimination in employment is based on the assumption that employers get to choose between competing job applicants, not the other way around;
- If workers are scarce, employers will seldom be sued for unjust dismissal, because the whole concept of unjust dismissal is based on the assumption that jobs are scarce;
- If workers are scarce, employers can advertise a real job without being swamped by more applications than they have time to assess; and
- High unemployment squeezes profits and increases business failures as workers try to escape job insecurity by starting their own businesses in competition with established employers. Such is their optimism that the failure rate of new businesses is always higher than the unemployment rate. Thus the overwhelming majority of workers who start their own businesses do not add to the supply of opportunities, but merely graduate from one system of enforced failure to another.
Let us, therefore, consider how we might create the “logical” arrangement, in which jobs are oversupplied and doing them actually makes a difference.
A nation cannot tax itself to full employment if the taxes fall on private production. But there are two other things that a nation can tax: first, the causes of unemployment; and second, the benefits of government action.
Concerning the first: If there is to be full employment, the employers must be able to pay for business accommodation, and the workers must be able to pay for housing within commuting distance of the premises (plus the cost of commuting) on wages that the employers can pay (together with the cost of business premises). Therefore, anything that raises the cost of accommodation reduces employment. As vacant lots and unoccupied buildings raise the cost of accommodation by artificially reducing supply, they should be subject to a punitive tax.
The higher the vacancy tax, the lower the rents that owners will accept in order to keep their land occupied and avoid the tax. If the tax is apportioned to the land value, it forces land into use in the most usable (most valuable) locations; land that cannot be used – e.g. because it is in green belts – either is exempt, or has no economic value and therefore pays no tax. A vacancy tax is designed to be avoided rather than paid. But it raises revenue indirectly because “avoidance” initiates economic activity that expands the bases of other taxes: broader bases allow lower rates, so that the rest of us get a tax cut.
Concerning the second: If you tax something that private entities do, you get less of it. If you tax something that nature does, you get neither more nor less of it, because nature does not respond to such incentives. But if you tax something that the taxing government does, you get more of it, because the government wants the revenue. One job-creating activity that governments can do is to build infrastructure, of which the benefits (net of user charges) are shown as uplifts in land values in the serviced locations. So, if the government gets a share of such uplifts, it has an incentive to build more infrastructure – and only of the sort that actually delivers the benefits! Such infrastructure generates employment not only during the construction phase, but also in the long term – by permanently reducing transaction costs, including the costs of commuting (see above).
Taxes on private production should, therefore, be replaced, as far as possible, by a tax on uplifts in land value – e.g. a “capital-gains” tax on property. The affected property owners, far from being victims of this reform, would be the biggest beneficiaries, because they would get more “capital gains” due to more infrastructure projects, and would not pay the tax unless they actually got a gain.
Among the taxes to be abolished, the first to go should be other property taxes that discourage construction or fail to capture uplifts in land values; these include conveyancing stamp duty, and local rates on “capital-improved value” or its annualized equivalent. That is yet another benefit to property owners. Next to go – if we want full employment – should be taxes that cause the cost of hiring a worker to exceed the worker’s take-home pay; that category includes payroll tax, anything else that resembles a payroll tax (including Australia’s superannuation guarantee), and income tax on wages – especially entry-level wages, for which the damage to employment is greatest.
Besides, what sort of work ethic imposes a higher rate of tax on the wages of labour than on the unearned benefits of land speculation?
If there is a new tax on uplifts in land values, infrastructure is funded by the increase in the base of that tax due to the infrastructure itself; the existing base is available to replace the revenue from other, abolished taxes. The expansion of the base is a growth dividend – an example of tax reform not only dividing the cake differently, but also making a bigger cake.
Notwithstanding the proliferation of labour-saving technology, we all have unsatisfied wants that can only be satisfied by work. The work isn’t done, not because it isn’t needed, but because the cost of getting it done is artificially inflated by taxes on labour and by speculative waste of land on which the labourers must live and work.
Wherever we go, we see a need for new or improved infrastructure which can only be provided by work, and which would lower the cost of other work. The infrastructure isn’t built, not because the cost exceeds the benefit, but because the existing tax system is no good at recycling the benefit in order to cover the cost.
The solution is to stop taxing labour, start punishing speculative waste of land, and get serious about taxing unearned uplifts in land values. Only then will workers cease to be disposable. Only then will the work ethic cease to be bullshit.
(Against the odds, the author has occasionally had jobs that wouldn’t have got done if he hadn’t done them. Between appointments, he writes stuff that wouldn’t get written if he didn’t write it.)