[This is the fifth in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]
In my last essay I suggested that the growing constituency of people aligning with “socialism” ought to be able to answer the question: In your better economy what determines how much income we each receive. While current activism rightly focuses on climate disasters, the Green New Deal, health, militarism, racism, and much else, we nonetheless need longer term vision to combat the widespread demobilizing belief that all efforts at change will dissolve back into the ills of the present, and, even beyond instilling hope, to provide positive direction and goals toward which our current actions can lead so they steadily enhance our prospects for comprehensive and lasting gains.
I also suggested an answer to the equity question: Income ought to be for how long we work, for how hard we work, and for the onerousness of the conditions under which we work, as long we are producing socially valued product. But before we can proceed to other issues about which advocates of socialism ought to have answers, we have to acknowledge that many who hear our income formulation will doubt or even strongly reject the approach. What are their reasons? I have heard the following and if you have heard or you yourself have another doubt, please enter it as a comment beneath this article.
1. The equity approach punishes anyone who can’t work, whether for age or health reasons. If you can’t have duration, intensity, or onerous conditions of work, you have no basis for getting an income, which is unacceptable.
2. The equity approach doesn’t materially incentivize people to use their inborn talents and so fails to elicit potential output. We may share the social pie equitably, but the pie will shrink horribly, which is unacceptable.
3. The equity approach doesn’t reward acquired skills. Why would I go to school to become a doctor if I can earn the same income per hour of my work time for doing jobs that require much less preparation? The approach will not yield enough doctors, or extended education for any purpose, and therefore again impose massive, unacceptable pie shrinkage.
4. The equity approach doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to elicit desired effort/output from each worker. This is another version of the same problem. We will have pie shrinkage so severe it undercuts our more fairly sharing what pie there is.
5. The equity approach doesn’t provide sufficient incentives to elicit innovation. Why develop new technologies and techniques if you don’t benefit from doing so? This causes yet more long-term pie shrinkage.
6. In any event, even if the above problems have answers, which is to say even if the social product would not unduly shrink due to equitably sharing it, the final criticism of our equity approach is that no one can measure duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, so it is an unimplementable aim.
Let’s consider the criticisms in turn.
The first is only a misunderstanding due to incomplete exposition on my part. Of course, in a worthy economy if you are too young, too old, or otherwise unable to work you get a full adult or child income free, and of course all medical care is free. No one is left out of equity.
The second concern has in mind someone with great inborn talent for some type of work. A potential pianist, mathematician, architect, athlete, or whatever else. The idea is that the equity approach doesn’t give such a person a material reason to pursue a path utilizing their talent. If you could be a great surgeon, but only a good cook, but you loved cooking, this approach would not give you an income-related reason to forego competent cooking and pursue superior surgery. The observation is true. My reply is threefold.
First, almost everyone with exceptional talents inclines toward using them and would, indeed, have to be coercively prevented from doing so even if using their talent would yield them less income than not using it. Think artists, athletes, scientists, and so on. Second, the equity approach does include an incentive to utilize one’s talents in the form of the admiration, respect, self satisfaction, and self fulfillment that accrues to superior rather than only competent actions. And third, if you don’t feel a drive to utilize your inborn talents it is presumably because you don’t enjoy them and you more strongly incline toward some other pursuit sufficiently that you would forego the accolades that superior activity would bring. In that case isn’t it actually appropriate and perhaps even more productive that you make the preferred choice?
The third concern has two parts. First why would anyone pay to go to school to learn new skills instead of immediately earning an income out of school, since continuing in school won’t earn you more later. And second, why would anyone want to become, say, a doctor when you can do something requiring less training, and earn the same? The answer is that in a future equitable economy and society, schooling, for example to become a doctor, is not only free, but you receive pay while in school as it is considered work since you are producing the learning and skills you will later utilize and thereby adding to the social product. And then, beyond the issue of time in school, if being a doctor doesn’t give you a greater rate of income than other jobs, why do it? To heal, to contribute, to utilize your talents. We are are more than financial beings. Imagine, even in our current society you are in high school. You want to be a doctor, and you know that it means you will have to go to college, and then medical school, and then be an intern, and only then be a full doctor, or, if you prefer, an engineer, lawyer, scientist, accountant, or whatever else that takes lots of training. You are suddenly told that there will no longer be massive income differentials in society. You will not wind up earning $500,000 a year as a doctor, while a coal miner earns, $75,000. Instead you will earn much less, though you will start to get paid it as soon as you begin your special training. How low do I have to set your doctor income for you to decide that you will forego four years of college, three years of graduate work, and some heavier than normal on the job training for a couple of years as well, all at your new salary level, for you to instead chose lifetime employment in the coal mine?
I have done this thought experiment with a great many medical students who, at the outset, were aggressively ridiculing the equitable income approach on grounds that with it in place, neither they nor anyone else would opt to become a doctor. Then, however, as I lowered doctor salaries from $500 000 to $400,000 to $300,000, and so on, each step of the way asking if it was now so low that they were going to forego doctor training and being a doctor to instead work in a coal mine at $75,000 a year, they kept saying no, they wouldn’t. And I would get to $75,000 and finally each would say something like, I don’t know how low an income I could live on and still survive as a doctor, but you’d have to go below that for me to switch. The upshot is people need and deserve income for sacrifices, but not for being their most fully and freely expressed selves.
The fourth concern is due to miseducation by intrination. In fact, our equity approach provides incentives correctly. Paying someone high income cannot cause them to have a different genetic endowment. There is also no incentive effect on our DNA. … and likewise for better tools or workmates. In fact, if you are working, the things you can yourself affect that impact the amount of product you generate are how long and how hard you work, and also your enduring harsh conditions if it is necessary for the work to get done. And these are exactly what the equitable income approach incentivizes, and properly so.
The fifth concern is that society can benefit greatly from innovation. So, very often, pursuing innovations is highly desirable. Since equitable income means individuals don’t get to take most of the gain from innovations – unlike owners taking it as profit – that kind of pressure for innovation (as well as for unlimited growth and endless accumulation) disappears. To see why and how a new desirable economy pursues desirable innovations that benefit everyone, whether materially or otherwise, and avoids undesirable innovations that may benefit a few but hurt the rest much more, has to wait further exploration of new relations in coming essays. For now, hopefully the above brief reactions to criticisms are enough to suggest that a new approach can work, and will, when we see how a whole new system can operate.
But what about the practicality of measuring duration, intensity, and onerousness of conditions to determine incomes? After all, the critics are correct that if we can’t do it, then advocating the equitable income approach is irrelevant to future prospects and plans. My answer is that duration is of course easy to measure. Intensity of useful effort is revealed partly by output, but is also known to and collectively agreed by workmates. And for onerousness, the same holds… but the main thing to realize is that as we proceed and see new ways of organizing work and making decisions, matters of measuring will become much simpler and more collective. So again, to more fully address this concern, some patience is needed.
Regarding patience, a simple observation that bears on this whole undertaking is that a tenth of a bridge, even a half or nine tenths of a bridge, can’t get you across a river. Nonetheless if it is part of a whole bridge it can help. So our real question should be is there a whole good society, a whole socialism if you will, that our equitable income can be a workable and effective part of? And that is why this essay is part of a series of essays.
Now you might say, sure, nice dodge, but that’s asking for a lot of reading and thinking. And you are right, it is. Then again, we are talking about whether a new world is desirable, possible, workable, and attainable. Is there something more important to determine?
Last point: As we proceed with trying to arrive at ways to answer convincingly what socialism or a good society can or even ought to look like, we have to not only make a case for aims, but also describe how they can be implemented. And that’s another task we have to tackle later, once groundwork is laid.