Good Jobs

What exactly is a “good job?”

Here is another concept that is not new, but has recently popped up in my reading enough times that it begs some inspection.

What is a “good job,” and in particular, is it in any way better than just having the equivalent income with no strings attached?

I don’t think there is any firm answer here, ultimately. I suspect that “good jobs” are like “the American dream,” or “free market,” i.e. terms so vague in use that they are immune to obsolescence. “Good jobs” are not a mathematical calculation you can disprove, nor are they an ISO standard or defined by the dictionary. The concept only has meaning because, and as, people choose to believe it does. Regardless of what component ideas a critical study may strip away, the terms live on through a combination of other components that are still valid, plus widespread readiness to pretend that the false components are still true.

I feel like picking at this a bit, anyway. Why do so many people choose to believe that this is a meaningful, and important, object?

It seems like a “good job” must include some basic common elements, however much the full details vary. I presume it pays enough “to live on, comfortably,” which is of course quite vague as well. Something close to median income, at least? I suppose that deep into the bottom half of the wage scale is not the first place I would go looking for “good jobs.”

Probably benefits also, even though logically most of these could be funded with more money instead. This is not always possible at a one-to-one cost ratio, owing to things like group rate insurance, but I’m guessing that benefits have a deeper significance to “good jobs.”

Paid vacation, also part of “good jobs” if my impressions are accurate, presents similar points of interest. “Paid vacation” is basically an accounting trick, at least within the framework of any kind of capitalist labor market; employees are paid for the value they provide and in most cases, pursuing personal interests outside the office provides no direct value to an employer. Again, though, there are reasons (besides delusion) for people to desire paid vacation. Within the context of work as a job, taking time away from business hours for one’s self is rolled up in all kinds of complications, and paid vacation seems to help smooth out some of them.

The combination of job and paid vacation also offers a potentially significant contrast with hourly work. One reads often about how low-wage employees are often burdened almost as much by unpredictable schedules, determined and revised on the fly entirely for employers’ benefit, as by modest total income. This is certainly not part of a “good job.”

I think that, in fact, predictability and security are a big part of “good jobs.” People can purchase their own benefits, but may prefer provided benefits even if their net financial outcome is the same or a bit worse, because some sort of group commitment is backing up the promise of those bennies. Predictable working hours and income are preferred to being on-call as-needed, probably even if the latter offers good odds of higher income. Overall “job security” seems like it must be part of a “good job” as well, certainly. I don’t know if “good jobs” still require some kind of traditional pension, or if this point has been ceded in the face of sustained assault; it’s probably still on an ideal wish list, though, given its fit with themes emerging so far…

I feel like this list so far pretty well covers the core of “good jobs,” if one exists. Add in basic non-awfulness, i.e. not injurious to physical or mental well-being, and I believe we’re mostly there. One can go on and on—I’m not sure that I have a definition of “good jobs” but if I do there’s more to it than this—but my instinct is that these features are more or less what “good jobs” mean to people who use the term as a kind of societal goal.

Basically, I think “good jobs” means freedom through security and predictability. Enough cash income to be free from need and serious want, yes, but significantly the bulk of “good jobs” seems to be about guarantees rather than market activity. While making some allowance for financially illiterate belief that job benefits are “free,” I think that the more valid feature of reducing risk and variability is they key to any logical meaning for this concept.

A format that keeps income, as well as amount and schedule of free time, predictable week to week. A “steady job” that precludes a sudden income drop-off. Employer-provided benefits that mean multiple interests on the line, so that greedy insurance company will have to take into account more than one person’s wrath when they think about screwing you. Plus, at least ideally, defined-benefit pensions.

This seems persuasive to me, as a concept. It hangs together, so while I could well be projecting my own biases, I don’t notice any big internal flaws in the picture. On this basis, then, returning to my secondary question: is there a reason to demand “good jobs” rather than simply money?

The answer to this probably lies at a messy intersection of credibility and affinity. First, despite believing in things like “paid vacation,” most people are reluctant to believe in free income without some kind of qualifier. It’s okay for some people, as long as certain rules are adhered to, but belief remains powerful that the average working age person must be “working” (yet another problematic concept) for continued production of desired goods and services. For the time being, there is still much truth to this; meanwhile I think that independent of economic reality, belief remains about as strong that “you have to earn your crust,” just because. Able, working age people should work, not only out of societal need or even fairness, exactly, so much as virtue.

Regardless of whether or not it’s possible, most people seem averse to believing themselves to be a “sponge.” Certainly in American culture. Rich and poor alike pride themselves on the idea that they are earning their way…

…despite the fact that most people—rich, poor and in between—also seem to want substantial insulation from the realities of genuinely “earning your way” in a competitive market economy. The rich want laws and regulations and treaties to tilt the market in their business’s favor, even as they crow about innovation and bemoan big government. The working class, meanwhile, seems to want individual achievement and “earning” in theory, but paternalistic socialism in practice. Market capitalism, yes!—so long as the jobs are “good jobs” without unpredictable variation and setbacks. Like, y’know, occurs in markets.

To a great extent, I have no problem with this. While I find myself questioning more and more the feasibility of incremental change from within the system, at present my economic prescriptions are, in practice, not all that different from the “feel-good capitalism” ascribed to e.g. Hillary Clinton. Essentially, “markets are the best solution… except where they fail… which is a lot of places… but so be it, for the time being starting with market forces and then attempting to channel them with manifold, massive redistributions and other regulatory interventions is probably still the best path to pursue.”

The difficulty seems to be that people often don’t like this.

Economists and analytic personalities like myself tend to believe, in general outline, in encouraging flexible and dynamic markets, with taxes to curb negative output paying for subsidy of public goods. (In general outline.) Don’t impose protectionism; encourage free trade and tax the winners to compensate the losers. Don’t direct industry’s response to climate change, just tax pollution and let the market determine which cuts are most efficient. Don’t push employers to guarantee jobs, or wages, or pension benefits, just collect taxes to fund generous welfare programs. This leaves plenty to argue over but there’s some kind of coherent theory here.

As we have discovered, however, much of the public seems to find this unpalatable. To paraphrase the informative Mr. Steinglass, “people generally prefer rules telling them [or their employer] something is [obligatory or] not allowed, rather than [wealth transfers to subsidize its purchase in the market or] charges making them pay for it, even if the latter are clearly more efficient at maximising social value.”

The only real addition I can offer is to emphasize that people still seem to like believing in an “earn your own way” market, also. Why any of this should be, I’m not sure. Cultural inertia, perhaps? Are people—again, Americans in particular—just used to basing much of their self-worth on the notion of “earning” what they have that finding some new sense of self is just too scary to confront? Leaving kludgy, often tedious and increasingly transparent illusions of earning-through-labor preferable to deeper reexamination?

This would offer some further insight into the appeal of “good jobs,” if so. I can imagine reasons why a “good job” might be preferable to equivalent income and benefits, even if one sets aside practicality. But I think most of these lead back to the possibility that lots of people just don’t know who they are, or what activity offers meaning for their lives, without a job’s reassurances. A “good job” could provide social engagement, purpose, a sense of status and basic identity. Even if it does, a job does not feel necessary to me for any of these things. But, obviously, I am used to holding minority opinions.

Again, I suspect that any real answer is the product of multiple reinforcing phenomena. People want material security, but they like to feel that they are earning their way in a market because…

  • reluctance to believe in a technical possibility of a “free lunch”
  • traditional associations with virtue, pride and even sense of self
  • the overall outcome of 20th century experiments with centrally planned economies left people reluctant to endorse anything that doesn’t come with some pretense to being “market-based,” however flimsy it may be

Plus, especially relevant to why people may prefer employer benefits to welfare programs, there is reluctance to believe even a technically feasible “free snack” will benefit them instead of benefiting “those people.”

It’s an article of faith among contemporary American liberals that racial resentment is a big part of working class conservatism. In European countries that are more ethnically homogeneous, it’s easier for citizens to believe that welfare spending is helping people “like them” and therefore trustworthy. Whereas America’s white working class, in particular, has long been convinced that transfer programs inevitably take their money and “waste it” on populations, primarily African Americans, who “don’t want to work.”

More than ample experience persuades me that this attitude remains popular. I suspect that the inevitable remoteness of a central authority in any big society also plays a role, alongside ethnic mistrust, though this is difficult to evaluate because more ethnically homogeneous states also tend to be rather small. In any event, in contrast, even large companies probably offer people an easier time trusting that beneficiaries of “market interventions” are not cheating. By definition, everyone at a given place of employment is employed, even if some minority of the payroll is inevitably regarded by others as nonproductive. Maybe it’s reassuring that everyone pretty much has to do as they are told by a non-elected chain of command… even many advanced nations seem to persist in respect for an authority “above politics,” even in affairs of state, so why shouldn’t the same dynamic function in the private workplace.

Hm. Obviously this post has wandered an awful lot. Other than organizing my thoughts I’m not sure what I have achieved. I suppose that maybe I have mainly reaffirmed my view that people mostly: 1) like the idea of personal responsibility, 2) believe that they should nonetheless have as much a guarantee as possible for themselves, but 3) distrust that a guarantee “for all” won’t be abused. So, guaranteed outcomes for all are out, and at the same time “here are the rules for everyone, you’re all free to work out your own response individually” is out because it’s scary.

And I suppose that, boys and girls, is how “second-best solutions” are born.

P.S. 9/11/15, this mess manages to illustrate nearly every point I have made here. Ugggh.

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