July 15, 2020

Work 15 hours a week «We have not stopped inventing works that are useless since the 80s»


Rutger Bregman believes that economist John M. Keynes was right, that since 1930 we were destined to work less and less, and at some point in the 80s, things went wrong and we have not yet straightened them out. According to Bregman (Renesse, The Netherlands, 1988), it was then that we began to invent positions that did not make any sense until we reached the current situation: if 25% of the workers went on strike tomorrow, nobody would notice. In his book "Utopia for Realists" (Salamandra editorial), this young historian defends Universal Basic Income as the best way for all of us to do what we like while paying the bills. Of course it sounds more utopian than realistic, although it has opened an interesting debate that gives a return to the concept of personal fulfillment.

– Universal Basic Income (RBU), 15-hour work week, open borders … Are you an optimist?

– Well, more than optimism, I think it's about hope.

– What accounts do you make that basic income sustainable in a country like Spain?

– The basis of what I propose has to do with whether or not we have faith in humanity. There are many skeptics with this from the RBU because they believe that if you guarantee people a minimum income they will spend it on drugs or alcohol, they will throw away the money and they will not want to work anymore. I try to prove otherwise. The vast majority of human beings is quite creative and scientific evidence shows that a basic income encourages creativity and makes people take risks and dare to undertake, change jobs, start a business, etc. In addition, it is an investment. The cost of poverty is extraordinarily high and what I propose is not so expensive. To the US, child poverty costs about 500,000 million dollars per year each year. How much would the RBU cost? Cheaper, about 315,000 million.

– How much are we talking about a month?

– Enough to be able to live. Eat, have a roof, clothes … Nothing luxury but the minimum to live with dignity and build something from there. In any case, most of the experiments I talk about are about a guaranteed basic income, which means that when someone goes below the poverty line, they complete the rent. The universal is much more radical because everyone receives a basic income, whoever it is. We must take into account what it also implies from the point of view of the net redistribution of wealth. If in a country like Holland, where 10 million people live, give each one 10,000 euros a year would be 100,000 million a year. Can we afford it? If you think about it slowly, there will also be more tax collection, so the net effect will be around 6,000 or 7,000 million per year. These are the real figures and not those presented by the media.

– But if one does not work to ensure their survival or improve their living conditions, where does motivation come from?

– Psychologists make a clear distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. If you take a look at the history of the twentieth century, the struggle between capitalism and communism, the capitalists say you have to work to make money and the communists that if you do not cut your head, basically. Both concepts are based on extrinsic motivation, which is outside of you. The intrinsic one is very different. If you do something it is because you want to do it, you are motivated, you like it, it gives you energy or whatever the reason is. In the long term it is much more powerful. We also know now by different psychological studies that when we focus too much on the extrinsic we lose the internal one, we only work for money and we forget why we do what we do. I think basic income would help people make decisions, take risks, work on other things that really excite them, instead of sitting in an office all day writing reports that nobody is going to read or look at Facebook. It's about adding meaning to what we do.

– You assume that everyone has a passion and I do not have it so clear.

– We can all learn to have it. Our educational system is only focused on getting people to get as soon as possible in the labor market and earn as much as possible. The intrinsic motivations are left aside. In my opinion, we should awaken people's curiosity, find their passion.

– Your calculation of 15 hours a week where does it come from?

– It is a reference to a study that the British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930, "Economic possibilities for our grandchildren". He made two predictions: that we were going to become much richer and that we were going to use all that accumulated wealth to work less and less each time. The interesting thing is that until the decades of the 60s and 70s all economists believed that, effectively, the workday would shrink. However, from the 80's on, the opposite happened. More and more work.

– And why?

– First I thought it was due to the increase in consumption, but then I realized that most of what we buy is not produced in the western world but in the third world. So, what do we do sitting here all day at the office? What are we producing? What has happened is that since the 1980s we have not stopped inventing jobs that should not exist.

– As which?

– This happens especially in rich countries. In Sweden, for example, I just saw it. The richer a country is, the more bullshit can be allowed. Japan is another excellent example. It is a super rich country, super developed and robotized but when you walk around Tokyo you realize all the jobs that are left over. Work has become an ideology. They interviewed me and around me there were 50 people taking notes, pretending they were working.

– Maybe there is no work for all of us.

– Sure, it's what happens if it becomes something else. The robots arrive and you end up inventing jobs even though they are not necessary. Two months ago a study was published by the University of Rotterdam according to which about 25% of workers doubt the value of their professional performance. We are not talking about teachers, nurses, or garbage collectors. In fact, the sensation of having an absurd job is four times bigger in the private sector than in the public sector. Many of these people have big CVs, excellent LinkedIn profiles and good salaries, but at the end of the day and with a couple of beers, they recognize that it does not make any sense what they do and that if they went on strike nobody would notice. It's a change of perspective. We always talk about the unemployed being a burden because the system has to take care of them, and we do not take into account a much larger class that technically has a job but does not contribute anything. It is as if they lived a bit of the story.

– Man, they pay taxes.

– Okay, but if you have a job as an accountant or tax advisor in a country like mine, Holland, which works as a tax haven and whose banking sector is highly developed, you do not produce wealth, quite the contrary. They have a lot of money and, in agreement, they pay their taxes, but it's a bit like being a pirate and saying that you contribute to the common good because you are up to date with the Treasury. Like a seventeenth century corsair who returns with the booty and says that he has created a great wealth to contribute to society.

– But who determines what jobs are left over and what are they really?

– The American anthropologist David Graeber is of the opinion that you have to let people decide for themselves. There will be people who believe that their work as a journalist or mine as a writer is bullshit.

– No doubt about it.

– Sure, but that's not the way it works. The important thing is what each one creates. If someone says that their work is useless, it is probably true because he is the expert.

– Already, but if you ask, for example, someone who works in banking if it makes sense what he does, he will probably say yes.

– You would be surprised at the result.

– Have you asked them?

– Nobody says it to the first ones of change nor to voice in shout but it does not know the amount of messages that I receive from people that occupy similar positions and that have left the work after reading my book.

– What a responsibility is yours, and now how do they earn their living?

– Lately we read many stories about 50-year-old people who suddenly quit their jobs and paint because that is what they always wanted to do and they look like heroes, people with courage. We must be very bad when we feel brave those who do what they want. It should be the maximum, not the exception. They have wasted their life 40 years on something they do not care about! I advocate a society in which people work on what they want to work and that is normal.

– That sounds very good although I do not see where people will get the money from then. Something we have to produce, what to sell, or not?

– And what is production?

– In the case of Spain, for example, we produce services. We sell tourism and vacations.

– If it is true that between 20 and 25% of the population of developed countries believe that if they go on strike, nobody will know, they should not be producing anything beyond reports that nobody reads or financial products that do not generate wealth or algorithms so that we click on ads that will lead us to buy things we do not need to impress people we do not even like. It is very deceptive to look only at the monetary side of things, we have to look at the side of the real economy. There are people who make a lot of money and pay a lot of taxes and do not contribute anything. Then there are others very poorly paid with little fiscal burden but whose work is essential for all and without which we are lost. We all depend on them. We have to stop believing that all wealth is generated at the top.

– If there was a Universal Basic Income, who would want to do the most ungrateful jobs?

– What is going to happen is that this RBU is also a great strike fund. You can always stop and pull that basic income, which means that employers will have to pay more to their employees. If you are a cleaner or a garbage man you can plant yourself if you consider that you are not well paid even if you see that your work is important. And I think they would be right and that is called justice. We will start paying what they deserve to those who do important work.

– You also defend open borders for immigrants. How can that be compatible with an RBU?

– We have had to face this question for a long time, when should immigrants have access to Health, to the right to vote? My position is that we should not give them access quickly. Now it's all or nothing. Either you put them in the system or you tell them to leave. Maybe the middle term would work. You can work when you arrive, earn money but not enjoy all the rights. There will be people who say that this will create second class citizens and I can agree but now they are third class so we would improve.

– Would you say that your proposal is socialist?

– Most of the ideas in my book go beyond the traditional difference between right and left. There are some clearly right or liberal arguments that favor my thesis of pushing people to change cities, start a new business … Risk, in short, which is what I think capitalism is after all . Give people the opportunity to fail and start over. There are many entrepreneurs who have clearly expressed in favor of the RBU. What I want is to generate a movement around this idea that is inclusive; if I only use the language of the left, I would be limited. You have to make coalitions, convince more and more people and leave your bubble. I'm much more interested in results than ideology.

– What is happening to the left in Europe?

– I can tell you that I have found a strong opposition to my ideas on the part of social democrats and I think it is because of a left-wing vision, paternalistic. They want to help the underprivileged always under their conditions, as if they knew better what to do or what suits the world. I am totally against it. I'm not paternalistic. It seems to me that poor people are the ones who know the most about poverty, they know what they need and why.

– I get the impression that he has great confidence in the human being.

– Without a doubt. In fact, in the next book I will try to demonstrate that precisely.

I think the majority is worthy of trust; There is growing evidence that confirms this from psychology, biology, anthropology … The human being has evolved towards compassion and kindness. I think the media in that regard brainwash us by showing only exceptions. The news is that by definition, what goes wrong, the exceptional, corruption, terrorism … People who watch the news often become cynical and have less confidence in their future and in the human being. They are not a neutral product.

– In the end, journalists are to blame.

– Obviously I'm not in Donald Trump's line that the media is to blame for everything. However, it is important that they realize that if they focus all the time on what goes wrong, a kind of knowledge is generated that, in the long term, makes people a bit stupid. I'm not saying everything is good news, there you have climate change for example. Global warming should be on the front page every day. Recently there was a big poll that asked about extreme poverty and its course in the last 20 or 30 years. The vast majority said that it had increased a lot. The reality is that it has fallen by 15%. So people are very wrong. They have no idea what is happening in the world and those who are most connected are the most wrong. This should make us ask ourselves what kind of information we are giving to people.

– Tell me a country that meets the conditions that it defends or, at least, that approaches.

– We can learn a lot from the Scandinavian countries when it comes to social trust or the Welfare State. On basic income it would not hurt to remember that not so long ago, in the 60s and 70s, it almost came to be implemented in North America, in the US and Canada. One of the most important messages is that: in the short term it is easier to be pessimistic, to complain about how bad everything is, that nothing is going to change, that politicians are all the same … In the long term I think that politicians they are not important. New ideas emerge at the margins and then go to the center. It is what is happening with the basic income. Five years ago there was hardly any talk about it and now the World Economic Forum is addressing the issue. Politicians are only interested in adding votes, so until the vast majority do not get excited about any idea they do not start talking about it. Almost nothing novel or exciting in History has started from politics.

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