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A Future Without Work

oil painting of man chopping wood

Some prominent voices suggest implementing a type of universal basic income (UBI) in order to curb the future negative impacts of AI on employment prospects. While UBI policies can vary depending on context, any UBI plan involves the governmental distribution of universal cash payments to citizens on a predictable basis. Importantly, UBI payments are not earned, but rather they are granted merely in virtue of one’s status as a citizen or resident of a certain political jurisdiction. While there have been a number of UBI advocates throughout history, the concept has never received widespread support in the American context. However, many are softening to the idea in recent years due to the seismic changes in the employment market that are on the horizon. Debate over the merits of UBI even played a prominent role in the latest presidential election cycle, as presidential hopeful Andrew Yang advocated for a Freedom Dividend to help shield Americans from the risks of employment precarity caused by advancing technology.

While there are of course a whole host of questions pertaining to the economic feasibility of such an approach to remedying the impacts of AI, there are also underlying philosophical questions. Whether or not UBI will fix the problems it’s intended to fix is not only an economic, sociological, and political question, but also a philosophical one. Clearly, one of the most obvious roles of work in peoples’ lives is to supply them with the instrumental good of money, a role that instituting a UBI could plausibly fill. However, it is clear that work tends to play other vital roles as well.

Whether or not UBI is an advisable path forward in response to the impact of evolving technology remains an open question until we address some foundational questions about the relationship between work and what it means to be human.

While there are a multitude of ways in which one can approach the intersection of work and human flourishing, I will focus on a few of the most obvious ways in which work is integral to our lives. The first is as a source of personal identity. One of the primary ways in which people derive a concrete sense of themselves in relation to others is via their vocational choices and endeavors, with over one-third of Americans claiming their work is “extremely or very important to their overall identity.” The pursuit of excellence in one’s profession and the possession of a very particular kind of expertise can anchor one’s image and sense of self-worth as they navigate through life. Different jobs provide us with different scripts about who we are and about what kind of role we play in our communities. While there are of course other sources of personal identity beyond one’s chosen profession, the fact  remains that work constitutes a major source of identity for many.

The second way in which work is integral to our lives, is that it tends to offer us a community of people with which to interact. Given the vanishing of many of our shared social spaces, work plays an even more central role in providing people with necessary social connections than in generations prior. As opposed to older generations, younger people are less likely to have relationships with their neighbors, more likely to purchase food to go as opposed to dining in communal spaces, and less likely to grow up with ties to a religious community. The bottom line is that — on average — people are interacting face-to-face less often than they once did. Of course, in the work-from-home era, this trend has also spilled heavily into the workplace.

The complete elimination of the workplace for a large segment of the population threatens to take with it certain key social benefits. People frequently meet their spouse in the workplace, and the majority of American workers also report relationships with their co-workers as the most satisfying part of their job.

If these work communities are to be entirely lost for a number of individuals, other types of communities will have to fill this void in order to circumvent a host of negative social ramifications.

The third and final role played by work that I will consider here, is that of work’s ability to provide structure to our daily lives. Whether we like it or not, our jobs are what force many of us out of bed in the morning, and they also are what we plan our vacations, holidays, and other personal commitments around. The standard 9-to-5 American workday provides a clear structure to many peoples’ lives, as it interjects at least a minimal amount of routine into one’s day. Since there are demonstrated mental health benefits to keeping a daily routine, there might be at least some reason to view the way work tends to structure our lives as a net positive. Of course, there are also downsides to the way in which work commitments can constrain us or stifle out the pursuit of other goods, with such concerns prompting a number of cultural movements, including ones to shorten the 9-to-5 workday. Despite these legitimate concerns about work structuring too much of our lives, the point still stands that humans tend to do best with some amount of daily structure and routine. If work responsibilities are to be completely wiped away for a sizable portion of the population, it is plausible that establishing other sources of structure will become necessary for the sake of many peoples’ mental health and ability to thrive on a daily basis.

Noting these trends towards a rapidly changing economy and employment landscape, valuable philosophical resources have sprung up in recent years to help us think better about the roles work does and should play in our lives. Such resources include 80,000 Hours and Notre Dame’s Ethics at Work project. Demand for these kinds of projects will only grow in the coming months and years, as speculation over the future impact of AI and other technologies on the nature and structure of the  economy proliferates. The introduction of these advancements into the marketplace pushes us towards a deeper understanding of the role work plays in the experience of being human.

While work is about securing economic security, it is not only about securing economic security. Even if UBI turns out to be a politically and economically feasible solution to the impact of AI on the employment market, it can’t be the only fix we pursue to the problem of vanishing work. While monthly pay checks will help fill the economic void left by a collapsing employment market, it will do little to nothing to fill the other voids left by a lack of work. Thus, in addition to more research on the efficacy of instituting UBI, we should simultaneously pursue research into how to remedy the other inevitable societal impacts of a shrinking workforce.

Virtual Work and the Ethics of Outsourcing

photograph of Freshii storefornt

Like a lot of people over the past two years, I’ve been conducting most of my work virtually. Interactions with colleagues, researchers, and other people I’ve talked to have taken place almost exclusively via Zoom, and I even have some colleagues I’ve yet to meet in person. There are pros and cons to the arrangement, and much has been written about how to make the most out of virtual working.

A recent event involving Canadian outlets of restraint chain Freshii, however, has raised some ethical questions about a certain kind of virtual working arrangement, namely the use of virtual cashiers called “Percy.” Here’s how it works: instead of an in-the-flesh cashier to help you with your purchase, a screen will show you a person working remotely, ostensibly adding a personal touch to what might otherwise feel like an impersonal dining experience. The company that created Percy explains their business model as follows:

Unlike a kiosk or a pre-ordering app, which removes human jobs entirely, Percy allows for the face-to-face customer experience, that restaurant owners and operators want to provide their guests, by mobilizing a global and eager workforce.

It is exactly this “global and eager workforce” that has landed Freshii in hot water: it has recently been reported that Freshii is using workers who are living in Nicaragua and are paid a mere $3.75 an hour. In Canada, several ministers and labor critics have harshly criticized the practice, with some calling for new legislation to prevent other companies from doing the same thing.

Of course, outsourcing is nothing new: for years, companies have hired overseas contractors to do work that can be done remotely, and at a fraction of the cost of domestic workers. At least in Canada, companies are not obligated to pay outsourced employees a wage that meets the minimum standards of Canadian wage laws; indeed, the company that produces Percy has maintained that they are not doing anything illegal.

There are many worries one could have with the practice of outsourcing in general, primarily among them: that they take away job opportunities for domestic employees, and that they treat foreign employees unfairly by paying them below minimum wage (at least by the standards of the country where the business is located).

There are also some arguments in favor of the practice: in an op-ed written in response to the controversy, the argument is made that while $3.75 is very little to those living in Canada and the U.S., it is more significant for many people living in Nicaragua. What’s more, with automation risking many jobs regardless, wouldn’t it be better to at least pay someone for this work, as opposed to just giving it to a robot? Of course, this argument risks presenting a false dichotomy – one could, after all, choose to pay workers in Nicaragua a fair wage by Canadian or U.S. standards. But the point is still that such jobs provide income for people who need it.

If arguments about outsourcing are old news, then why all the new outrage? There does seem to be something particularly odd about the virtual cashier. Is it simply that we don’t want to be faced with a controversial issue that we know exists, but would rather ignore, or is there something more going on?

I think discomfort is definitely part of the problem – it is easier to ignore potentially problematic business practices when we are not staring them in the virtual face. But there is perhaps an additional part of the explanation, one that raises metaphysical questions about the nature of virtual work: when you work virtually, where are you?

There is a sense in which the answer to this question is obvious: you are wherever your physical body is. If I’m working remotely and on a Zoom call, the place I am would be in Toronto (seeing as that’s where I live) while my colleagues will be in whatever province or country they happen to be physically present in at the time.

When we are all occupying the same Zoom call, however, we are also in another sense in the same space. Consider the following. In this time of transition between COVID and (hopefully) post-COVID times, many in-person events have become hybrid affairs: some people will attend in-person, and some people will appear virtually on a screen. For instance, many conferences are being held in hybrid formats, as are government hearings, trials, etc.

Let’s say that I give a presentation at such a conference, that I’m one of these virtual attendees, and that I participate while sitting in the comfort of my own apartment. I am physically located in one place, but also attending the conference: I might not be able to be there in person, but there’s a sense in which I am still there, if only virtually.

It’s this virtual there-ness that I think makes a case like Percy feel more troubling. Although a Canadian cashier who worked at Freshii would occupy the physical space of a Freshii restaurant in Canada, a virtual cashier would do much of the same work, interact with the same customers, and see and hear most of the same things. In some sense, they are occupying the same space: the only relevant thing that differentiates them from their local counterpart is that they are not occupying it physically.

What virtual work has taught us, though, is that one’s physical presence really isn’t an important factor in a lot of jobs (excluding jobs that require physical labor, in-person contact, and work that is location-specific, of course). If the work of a Freshii cashier does not require physical presence, then it hardly seems fair that one be compensated at a much lower rate than one’s colleagues for simply not being there. After all, if two employees were physically in the same space, working the same job, we would think they should be compensated the same. Why, then, should it matter if one is there physically, and the other virtually?

Again, this kind of unfairness is present in many different kinds of outsourced work, and whether physical distance has ever been a justification for different rates of pay is up for debate. But with physical presence feeling less and less necessary for so many jobs, new working possibilities call into question the ethics of past practices.

Should At-Home Workers Be Taxed?

overhead photograph of hands on laptop on dinner table surrounded by food and beverages

Deutsche Bank recently released a report titled “What We Must Do to Rebuild” which contains a number of policy proposals. One of the more noteworthy suggestions concerns a 5% daily tax on employees who choose to work from home. Since “WFH offers direct financial savings on expenses such as travel, lunch, clothes, and cleaning,” it seems that “remote workers are contributing less to the infrastructure of the society whilst still receiving its benefits.” As such, “Those who are lucky enough to be in a position to ‘disconnect’ themselves from the face-to-face economy owe it to [those who can’t].”

But there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of this argument. Some of these reasons have to do with how we define “disconnect”; others have to do with our conception of fairness and who owes what to whom.

First, the study seems to assume that incomes have stayed the same, but nearly half of all American households saw a reduction in income due to COVID-19. More importantly, the study assumes that the money not spent on commutes, take-out lunches, and dry cleaning are not being pumped back into the economy in other ways. In general, most Americans spend all or more than they earn. And spending trends during COVID-19 might be down in some areas, but they are up in others. Amazon profits soared during the pandemic. Americans are pumping more money into home improvement during the pandemic. And Americans who aren’t spending are paying down debt, which still counts as cash going into the economy. In fact, Americans (with means) are spending more in a lot of areas including, pets, education, home improvement, food and dining, shopping, gifts and charitable donations.

Now one issue might be with respect to where at-home workers are spending their money. Amazon, Home Depot, and paying credit card debt all push money out of the local economy. But the areas hit hardest are home to large mega-corporations that push money out of the local economy too. If the moral solution to preserving a local economy is to tax those who benefit from the economy but are sending their earnings out, we should start with broad federal policies aimed at the biggest fish. Amazon would be a good place to start.

16.5% of American households earn 50,000-75,000 a year. There are approximately 128,000,000 households in the US. Let’s assume 40% of those are work-from-home with an average of 50,000/year. A 5% tax increase would generate about $125 billion. But look at how the corporate tax rate has fallen since the 50’s when it hovered around 50%. It’s now down to 21%. And in 2018 60 Fortune 500 companies paid zero on income taxes at all. Raising the corporate tax rate and ensuring that top companies actually pay it would generate more than what you would likely get from squeezing it out of the average American stay-at-home worker.

The one area in which at-home workers might be pulling money out of the economy is when they save their money instead of spending it. But it seems that the tax penalty here should not be on people who suddenly have more money to save, it should be on anyone who chooses to save their money rather than spend it. Again, corporations are also hoarding cash. In 2019 Apple and Alpha had approximately $100 billion in cash each. At the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, The Fortune 500 companies had a total of $325 billion cash on hand just sitting there.

This is not a soak the rich argument; I have taken no position on whether we should tax anyone. This is a soak them first if we’re going to soak anyone argument. The same reasons used to justify taxing at-home workers apply just as well (if not better) to taxing larger corporations.

Fast Fashion and the Ethics Behind Your T-shirt

A Photo of fashion design mannequins in an empty warehouse.

Can ethics and economics ever work together? This question captures the essence of the sweatshop issue that dominated the majority of media in 2013, especially highlighting Bangladesh. In 2013, according to the Guardian, a garment factory located from the fourth floor to the seventh floor of Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,135 people.This was not a natural disaster in any way, but rather was purely man-made. The workers apparently noticed a crack on Tuesday and reported to their manager, which resulted in a supposed Wednesday off for inspection. However, for some reason the building was declared safe to work in later on, and hesitant yet voiceless workers were called back to work, as CNN explains. Unfortunately, the Rana Plaza incident was not the first incident related to garment factories that occurred in Bangladesh. Previously in 2005, reports indicate that there were 70-plus deaths in a garment factory in the same area. Additionally, in 2012 another garment factory fire has already killed more than a hundred people in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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Workers’ Rights in the “Gig Economy”

Working an inflexible nine-to-five schedule is often not conducive to the demands of ordinary life.  Parents find themselves missing events at their children’s schools that occur during the day.  Cautious workers manage their sick days conservatively, not knowing what health challenges the year might bring.  Taking a day to care for personal psychological health strikes many as an impractical luxury.  

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