An Honest Day’s Work: Capitalism and Ethics; Bob Greenwell, Program Director

I think Marx was premature. Not Marx as a thinker. He accomplished about as much as one person possibly can. He penetrated to the underside of capitalism. But revolution was premature. The idea that Marx had said it all, and, therefore, that massive action could proceed, was premature. The world is still recoiling from that.

In contrast, our Ethical Culture movement has been cautious and slow to fix its seal of approval on any concrete economic plan. This has been perhaps the better part of wisdom and valor. But it is in our tradition to take an ethical stance toward economic realities, and toward the system as a whole. My effort today is to contribute to this tradition, and to our ethical stance.

The first song we heard speaks about revolution. The next song takes us back to verse from the Old Testament, as a historical document, to remind us that human suffering at the hands of other humans goes way back, antedating even capitalism.

Only in the last 30 years or so have anthropologists, building on all the prior work of excavation, dating, measuring brain sizes, and categorizing artifacts, been able to start drawing conclusions about the quality of life of our distant ancestors. Homo sapiens, our species, emerged about 300,000 years ago. These ancestors of ours, people like us, used to have to work for their survival a total of 2 to 3 hours a day. The rest of their time was spent inculture, that is, in relating to other people, in storytelling and listening, in music and song, in carving and painting, in drumming, physical movement, and dance. Today we hardly have time to squeeze in a movie. Fathers are routinely castigated for being absent from their families. Both parents work — 40, 60, 80 hours a week, counting work at home. Two months ago my daughter called to make anappointment with me to have lunch for my birthday. She called a monthahead of time!

Our ancestors lived qualitatively better lives.

How did we get into this fix? Broadly speaking, it’s a story of changes in ownership. To understand capitalism, we have to know the story of ownership. This is a big part of the story of the human race.

In the beginning, the world belonged to everyone, and everyone belonged to the world. It was a culture of universal ownership. If you took something from the land, you had to use it to promote life. If you killed an animal, you had to carry out a ritual of compensation. These things taken had not beenyours to simply do with as you wished, arbitrarily. This culture of ownership lasted, amonghomo sapiens, about 300,000 years. Then came the crucial shift. It was probably inevitable. Population growth and overcrowding in the most bountiful areas led tocompetition among bands of people. The earth seemed less bountiful and mothering. Other peoples seemed less like kin.Security of food became more urgent than leisureliness of life, and agriculture and settling in one place was begrudgingly adopted. Ownership became a matter of Us versus Them, and Us versus It. Universal ownership shrank to common ownership. Among ourselves, we hold things in common, butwe no longer belong to earth and nature. We own bits of it.Our tribe owns this land and these animals, and your tribedoesn’t. Our religions rewrite our myths to tell us we have dominion over the earth and the right to war against peoples with other gods. So we will go to war with you andtake your land and your animals, and claim them as our own.

The next big shift in ownership was to centralized ownership. It was a natural progression. If the tribe owned everything in common, it was convenient to localize the ownership in a person who symbolically represented the tribe — an elder or shaman or chief. In time, the tribe’s ownership became invested in the person who actuallycontrolled the tribe — the warrior-king. The pharaoh. The monarch. The quality of life of the people then became determined not only by the long hours of back-breaking agricultural labor to survive, but also by whether their ruler was benevolent or tyrannical. This centralized ownership, or ruler-ownership, became the dominant pattern all over the world. It’s the King’s land, the King’s highway. You use them by his leave. It’s the King’s harvest. You get what’s left over. The golden rule prevails. He who rules owns the gold.

Then in Western Europe, in Medieval times, there began another shift. Up to now, ownership primarily referred to land — and to the buildings, crops, animals, and peopleon that land. Buttrade was growing more important. It was increasingly possible to accumulate wealth without land. For example, a tent and a wagon and a horse to travel to a fair in a foreign land might be all you needed to accumulate gold or other valuables. Certainly a sailing ship. All of these things acquired a new name: capital. Capital is simply anything except human labor itself that helps in producing a good or service. The traders, who used capital but not land, wanted free and clear title to their profit, but there was little law to back them up. Law was all tied up with land ownership.

Meanwhile, the landed aristocracy was going through its own struggle to change the law. The Magna Carta was a sign of the times. In the year 1215, King John of England was forced by a group of barons under him to sign a document that, in effect, handed over some of his ultimate ownership to them. From now on, ultimate say over some properties would belong to the barons, not to the king. Ownership became distributed, but it was still “ruler ownership.” There were simply more rulers per land than one king. I call it “distributed-rule ownership,” or “multi-ruler ownership.”

The nobles, to justify their claims to this ownership, generally used universal language, language that meant thatany man could have ultimate ownership of property or capital, and to the produce, or profit, from that capital. This was the kind of legal language that traders needed. Within a few centuries, a new culture of ownership had arisen. Priests and poets of the new culture called it individual ownership or private property, but it truth it was still ownership by the few. You no longer had to be a noble, lord, or aristocrat to have a share of the king’s former ownership. You could be a merchant, a businessman. But the identical shape of ownership continued, with the few owning all the land and capital, and the many struggling to survive, whether as serfs, as conscripted soldiers, or increasingly as paid laborers. One-ruler ownership had become multi-ruler ownership. Capitalism is a multi-ruler system of economic ownership. I like to call it “multiplicitous monarchy.”

The next major development in the story of ownership was that some social philosophers saw through the myth of individual ownership. They saw the underlying power relations. And they thought that the antidote was to take ownership from the controlling elite and give it to the state, which would manage the capital and labor of the country in the name of the people and for the people. This was state ownership. The one all-out experiment along these lines, the U.S.S.R., failed — whether for intrinsic or extrinsic, relevant or irrelevant reasons. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world is undergoing another major shift in ownership — from state-ownership to private ownership.

Jeff Gates writes in a recent issue of The Humanist, “We live in the midst of the most dramatic shift in ownership in history.” [July-August 1998, p.9] Ninety-five different nations are in the throes of shifting from state ownership to private ownership. Yet, just like the kings of old, they are not transferring ownership from the state to the people, in equal shares, even though the ideology was that they were holding ownership for the people. Instead, they are basically selling industries to the highest bidder — i.e., to those already high up in ownership holdings. We are strengthening and consolidating the multi-ruler system of ownership. In politics, we have a government in every nation. In economics, we have a king on every corner, and the rest of us working for them.

Ten years ago, only 1 billion people lived in capitalist or market economies. Today,five billion people do so. The President of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, points out that more than 3 billion of them live on less than two dollars a day. He warns that if we do not achieveinclusion of all people in this global ownership shift, we are heading toward a world of extremes. In his 1997 book,The Challenge of Inclusion, he writes:

One does not have to spend long in Bosnia or Gaza or the Lakes District of Africa to know that without economic hope we will not have peace. Without equity we will not have stability. Without a better sense of social justice, our cities will not be safe…Without inclusion, too many of us will be condemned to live separate, armed, and frightened lives.

The world is being turned over to capitalism, a multi-ruler system of ownership. End of the story of ownership, so far.

Ownership is a matter of values, and a matter of agreements, and a matter of enforcements. I want to share with you a personal experience with ownership. When I was 19 years old, I joined a monastery. I took the 3 vows that every monk must take: the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows are deemed to besacrifices that one must make for the sake of the religious life. Chastity means giving up sex. Obedience means giving up personal freedom. And poverty means giving upownership. But let me tell you what the vow of poverty really meant, in practical terms. It meant that I would never have to worry about money again for the rest of my life! It was a blessing in disguise. Similarly, the vow of obedience meant that I would never have to worry about finding a job again. Job and career — all that would be assigned to me by people in my religious community who knew me probably better than I knew myself, who could give me a life-work well-suited to bringing out my best. Another blessing in disguise. As for the third vow, chastity — well, I’ll admit, thatdid have some bite.

I lived there for two years. In that idyllic world, no one’s worth was determined by their income. And no one’s income was determined by market forces measuring some narrow aspect of their contribution to the community. Instead, each person was granted intrinsic worth. We worked the same number of hours as each other, prayed and played the same number of hours, took meals together and slept at the same time. This equalitarian infrastructure — equal hours of work, and equality of intrinsic worth — enabled each of us to be completely individual. There was no lack of motivation to be innovative or creative, to push one’s own boundaries toward higher levels of excellence. It wasn’t paradise; there were plenty of interpersonal conflicts, plenty of power plays. Money is not the root ofall evil. But neither is money the root of all motivation to be innovative or to take risks. People don’t need the lure of money to want to do well in the eyes of each other, or to risk failure in the hope of seeing some cherished conception of theirs get born into the real world.

Five years later, my life had radically changed. I was the unmarried father of two children, about halfway through a Ph.D. program, and working in restaurants to help support my daughters. Their mother scratched out a meagre subsistence for herself and her children through her confused and intimidated dependence on the welfare system. Inthis world I was keenly aware that a person’s worth was proportional to his income or wealth. It was an affront to me that my daughters should be regarded as having inferior worth because of their near-poverty status.

I have worked in many restaurants, and one common refrain I hear among waiters is “At least we put in an honest day’s work.” There’s pride in that statement. It means, “I may have a low-status job, but I am proud that I work hard for my money.” There’s an intuitive sense of working as hard as any human being ought to work, or maybe harder, so that we have done our share, or more than our share, of the work that needs to be done. Maybe it’s working so closely with people and food that brings up this intuition in waiters. Maybe it’s some remnant from our ancestors’ culture of universal ownership. It’s archetypal: we go get food, you eat.

An honest day’s work — what would that be? A narrow answer is that it is doing the amount of work agreed to in your contract. But that is an artificially defined meaning, at least partially colored by unequal power relations. We want to know what is fair, universally speaking. So let’s look at the earth as a whole. There are 6 billion people on earth, and let’s say there are 2 billion who are of working age and health. How much total work would need to be done each day by those 2 billion people in order to provide a good life for everyone on the planet? If we take that amount of work and divide it by 2 billion people, wouldn’t that give us an honest day’s work for each person?

Some analysts of the future predict that in 50 years machines by themselves, with zero workforce, will have the capacity to produce all the goods and services we need for an affluent lifestyle for all!

Sometimes, though, I have the feeling that our economic system is this huge apparatus that is designed toprevent affluence for all in order to keep itself going. For if machines were producing everything, and workers were superfluous, how would workers get the money they need to buy the things the machines produced? And if there was no one to buy the products, why would the owners keep the production lines running? If we simply made everyone contentedly affluent, the system would crash.

Why? Because our system as currently structured is fueled by competition. It’s not every man against the other. But it is every king and his fiefdom (owner and his company) against every other. A company can go out of business for being too generous with its employees. This sentence practically says it all. A company can go out of business for being too generous with its employees.

Suppose we have two companies producing basically the same product. One of these companies, Nice Guys Inc., decides to give a $1 an hour raise to its 2000 hourly wage employees. That’s over 4 million a year. Where’s this extra money going to come from? If Nice Guys raises the price of its product, consumers will switch to the competitor, Self-Interest, Inc. Soon, Nice Guys is going out of business. Another way to cover the raise is to lower the pay of its top executives. So you cut your CEO’s pay from 3 million to 2 million a year, making it easy for Self-Interest Inc. to pick him up for the bargain price of only 2 _ million. Assuming that your CEO was really the most talented person you had for the job, you’re left with less talented people running your business, and performance declines. You might be lucky and your executives-in-waiting turn out to be just as talented as the ones you lost,and share your ideals of having a higher paid workforce, thus resisting offers from outside companies trying to lure them away. But don’t count on it.

Nice Guys could also cover the raise with the money reserved for depreciation costs. Trouble is: equipment starts to wear down or become outdated, and product quality declines.

Finally, another way for Nice Guys to cover this raise is for the workers to be so appreciative that their work improves, the product improves, market share grows, and the increased income covers the raise.

Can this happen? Sometimes itdoes happen. Unfortunately, it’s usually only a short-term effect. People become habituated to their new pay; their work effort falls back to a more natural rhythm, market shares equalize, and Nice Guys has to reduce the hourly wage back to where it started. And it could be worse. Nice Guys could become excited by its initial increase in market share and decide to increase production, hire more workers, or start construction on a new plant. Then when productivity returns to normal, it finds itself overextended, and it may simply collapse or be eaten up in a hostile takeover.

To sum all this up: Companiesmust treat employees competitively. To compete, to survive, they must increase productivity, and they must pay workers as little as possible. What is “as little as possible?” Companies learn that they’re paying their workers too little when they quit, when they’d rather not work at all than work for that wage. When does this happen? When what you pay is not enough for them and their families to simplysurvive. Why work if the amount earned is not enough to survive on anyway? Workers will endurehorrendous conditions if they can thereby eke out an existence, if no better means of existence are at hand.

So the force that determines what a company pays its lowest-paid workers is competition and company survival. It has nothing to do with any humane or ethical considerations. It has nothing to do with any feelings of empathy an owner might have. It has nothing to do with any intrinsic worth on the part of the laborers. It’s solely set by survival. How much does it take to barely survive? That’s the amount you’ll get.

What if you have so many workers that you need some people to manage them? Can you just ask a few of them to manage the others, at the same pay? No, because it takes more hours to manage than to simply work. Your bottom-level laborers are already living at the edge of survival, and most of them are probably scrambling to make a few extra bucks on the side, when not on the job. A worker who becomes a manager and works longer hours loses some of his opportunity to make extra bucks on the side, so he has to be compensated. Managers, then, are paid more than the workers they manage, but, on the whole, are equally living at the point of survival.

When do you get above this survival mode? Generally, never. Each time you move to a higher income level, you raise the bar of survival. Only now it’s not a matter of physical survival. It’s a matter of survival aswho youare. Each higher level of income requires you tobe in a different way. You may have to start wearing suits and ties. You may have to wear suits and ties that are in fashion. You may have to wearnew suits and ties every year, or every season. You may have to buy insurance, then all kinds of insurance, then lots of all kinds of insurance. You may have to go to school — literally or figuratively — to learn proper etiquette for you level of survival. You have to live in the right kind of neighborhood and send your kids to the right kind of schools for your level. Otherwise, you do not survive as who and what you are. It’s a matter of survival, for most people, all the way up.

Where’s the joy in all of this!

An anxiety of slipping back to an inferior level haunts us. Capitalism, in a static analysis, is the system of multi-ruler ownership. But in a dynamic analysis, capitalism is the system of economic production based on stringing people out on the edge of survival.

Exceptions abound. A given company, or a whole industry in a given land, can sometimes hold off the requirement to pay workers as little as possible. Workers can start to feel secure, hopeful, prosperous, worthwhile — as when the Big 3 American auto-makers monopolized the market. But an underlying relentless pressure erodes away this good fortune. Workers in other nations become competitors for jobs. Labor unions become weaker. Conditions change. The edge of survival returns.

This means adrenalin stays at higher levels in our bodies than they were biologically designed for. It means operating by fear, operating by anxiety, operating by inhibition and restriction. Depression, not a natural phenomenon, occurs in some 20% of our population. On the edge of survival as who we are, we live under the constant threat of self-worthlessness.

The threat takes its toll. Depression. Weariness. Anger. Sadness. Poor physical vitality. Escape by way of drugs or artificial excitement. Escape by way of passive entertainment. Or finally, escape by buying into the win-lose mentality of capitalism and playing it as a game.

To sum up so far: Capitalism, as we currently have it, is a system of ownership by a few, each of whom is like a monarch in his own domain. This system is now spreading like wildfire all over the world. Dynamically speaking, the system requires its lowest-paid workers to be paid at bare subsistence levels, while it induces a psychological mentality of anxious survival even at higher levels of pay. We are close to being able to produce affluence for every person in the world, but the system does not allow it. Qualitatively, our lives are far from what human lives ought to be, potentially and ethically.

What is to be done?

The first thing to do is to staunch the flow of blood. That is, find ways to alleviate the worst effects of capitalism — the worst inequalities, the worst drudgeries, the most dehumanizing conditions of work. A study of the 1998 book by economist James Kenneth Galbraith,Created Unequal, could help us here. He argues powerfully that the increased inequality in our own country in the past 20 years, and the loss of community that follows inequality, has been caused by a change in national policy. We need to return to a national goal of full employment, aided by low interest rates, instead of using high interest rates to fight inflation and protect the wealthy.

The second thing to do is to realize that multi-ruler ownership is not necessarily the final chapter in the story of ownership. Pathways to a more humane system of ownership have already been developed by some pragmatic thinkers, and have already been implemented by some lawmakers and some companies. Here the 1998 book by Jeff Gates,The Ownership Solution: Toward a Shared Capitalism for the 21st Century, is worth study. The idea here is to achievedemocratic ownership — that is, ownership by every person of some capital. The saying goes, that capitalism has been good at creating capital, but not good at creating capitalists. Ninety-eight per cent of us living in capitalism aren’t capitalists — that is, owners of capital. The next step in the story of ownership could be democratic ownership. ESOP’s, or Employee Stock Ownership Programs, are one excellent way to help this along.

Third, we can begin to develop an ethical attitude about our economic systems and set a national and worldwide goal, such as: Democratically ordered economies based on ethical values elaborated by elected representatives in a non-corrupt electoral system.

Fourth, we can be more keenly aware of how overpopulation is a root cause of the culture of competition that drives our current systems, and more vigorously push for programs to stop human population growth.

Fifth, we can begin to develop ethical principles of fairness. For example, fairness can be regarded as the outward expression and manifestation of the inner principle of intrinsic worth. For example, each person’suniqueness is of equal worth to every other person’s uniqueness. Having a particular skill is no reason to have a higher share of desirable goods and services than anyone else. Having a particular skill is a blessing in itself; and its exercise and development is something to be grateful for. Skills are for exercising, not for elevating oneself over others. Leadership is needed in any group endeavor, but leadership is a set of skills that are to be regarded as any skills — as talents to be exercised, not to be used for self-promotion. Conversely, leaders should be chosen on the basis of their skills, not appointed or forced by virtue of ownership position.

Sixth, after full debate and discussion, we can begin to assert more specific ethical economic guidelines. Perhaps they would sound something like the following:

  • There should be aworldwide minimum wage, one that puts peopleabove bare-survival level.
  • There should be a worldwide maximum income.
  • There should be a worldwide maximum workweek — probably starting at 35 hours per week and eventually going down to as few as technologically possible, perhaps 10 hours per week.
  • There should be a worldwide minimum individual ownership share. And a worldwide maximum ownership share.
  • Ownership share should be at least partly a function of proximity and use. E.g., people who live in a house on a street, walk on the street, pick up paper in the street, drive on the street, and look at the street, should own the street more than people who only drive on the street. Another application of this would be for those people who live in areas of greatest environmental impact by the activities of a company should own the greatest percentage of that company and have most power in decisions about what the company does and how it does it.

Other ideas for practical action will present themselves as we commit ourselves to the goal of understanding, influencing, and then transforming our economic system to a more fully humane one. Thank you.