Why aren’t people paid according to their social contribution?

by Emrys Westacott

What should we do with our leisure? In his Politics, Aristotle identifies this as a fundamental philosophical question. Leisure, here, means freedom from necessary labor. If we have to spend much of our time working, or recuperating in order to work more, the question hardly arises. But if we are free from the yoke of necessity, how we answer the question will say much about our conception of the good life for a human being.

It is to be hoped that the question will one day become the primary question confronting humanity. This hope rests on the prospect of a world in which technological progress has advanced to such a degree that no one needs to work more than a few hours per week in order to enjoy a reasonably comfortable and secure existence. Before the industrial revolution such an idea was a mere fantasy; but given the rate of technological progress over the past two hundred years–and particularly in light of the recent digital revolution and the advent of what has been called “the second machine age”–the prospect of a much more leisurely life for those who want it is at least conceivable.

The fifteen-hour work week envisaged by John Maynard Keynes in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (1930) is hardly just around the corner, though. One problem, of course, is that there are some kinds of work that are not easily automated. Consider home care for the disabled, sick, and elderly. Machines are capable of cognitive tasks far beyond the ability of humans, yet many of the basic manual tasks caregivers perform are still very difficult for robots to replicate. Beyond that, though, caregivers also provide human contact and companionship. For machines to offer an adequate substitute for this takes us well into the realm of science fiction (which is not say into the realm of impossibility).

The deeper problem, though, is political rather than technological.

Again, take the case of home care work. Everyone agrees that caregivers are needed and that what they do is valuable; yet due to the dismal rate of pay (the typical rate in New York State in 2022 is $13.20 per hour), there is a chronic shortage of such workers. In 2019, one in four people in New York who needed home care was unable to get it because the home care agencies were short staffed. It is anticipated that in New York alone over the next 20 years there will be a million job openings in this field.[1] So much for the “end of work” proclaimed by some futurists.

Thus, for the abundance of leisure to become a happy problem, there will have to be some fairly radical political and social changes. Most obviously, there will need to be a major redistribution of wealth, so that that, instead of being hoovered up by the one percent, the wealth generated by constant improvements in productivity is spread more equitably. This will make possible a redistribution of work, allowing people the option of working less while living comfortably enough. In this more rational society, care workers would be paid more; so they could work fewer hours (which would also make the job pleasanter); but there would be more of them, so the need for them would be more easily met.

To state the obvious, we’re not there yet. The Covid pandemic appeared at first to give rise to a fresh appreciation of how important a contribution to everyone’s wellbeing is made by poorly paid workers, not just in health care but in other “frontline” areas such as retail and delivery. This might have led, in turn, to a fresh commitment to the idea that pay rates should reflect a person’s social contribution. And this, in turn, would help to combat the growing inequality that has characterized the US and other economies for the last few decades. Sadly, this does not seem to have happened. A Pew Research Center report issued in Sept. 2021 states:

With the impact on the median earnings of low-wage workers being of limited duration, the pandemic also does not seem to have left a lasting imprint on income inequality. In 2019, the median earnings of low-wage workers were about 20% of the median earnings of high-wage workers. Among employed workers, this ratio budged little through the recession and in the period since, with low-wage workers earning 22% as much as high-wage workers in the second quarter of 2021.

Two major obstacles stand in the way of the sort of shift toward a distribution of wealth and income that would be both fairer and the precondition for enabling most people to enjoy more leisure: ideology and interests.

The ideology in question revolves around the idea that wages, like the price of any other commodity,” should be determined by market forces. Some present this argument on moral grounds. They argue that laws controlling wages–for example, a law dictating that the highest paid person in an organization may not receive more than five times the wage of the lowest paid employee–violate the basic rights of individual employers and employees to settle such matters between themselves. The problem, of course, is that in arriving at their “settlement,” the employer typically has the whip hand. Jeff Bezos can survive longer on a reduced income than an impoverished family threatened with eviction.

The other standard argument is that the free market is an efficient mechanism for satisfying society’s needs and wants. To which the rather obvious answer is: in some areas it is, and in some areas it isn’t. Why, for instance, is there a chronic shortage of care workers in New York? And more generally, why in a country containing as much wealth as the US, are over 37 million people living below the poverty line?[2] Why are there over two million people in prison?[3] Why are there hundreds of thousands  homeless people and millions of empty homes? How is any of this this “efficient”?

The ideology in question, that the market knows best, finds expression in various ways. It is very often the subtext underlying the clarion cries of “freedom” and “liberty” that accompany right wing movements. It was at the back of Brexit. And it informs hostility to government even from those who are clearly benefiting from government programs (“I just want the feds to keep their hands off my Medicare!”)

The interests that block progress towards a more rational and equitable distribution of wealth and income are not exactly hard to identify. Witness the ferocity with which companies like Amazon and Wallmart resist all attempts to unionize their workforce. (In their failed attempt to thwart the recent unionization drive at their New Jersey warehouse led by Christian Smalls, Amazon reportedly spent $4.3 million.[4]) Not surprisingly, big business has many politicians in its pocket–or, one might just as well say, on its payroll. Last week all the Republican senators and three Democrats blocked the nomination of David Weil to head to Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. (Weil held the position under Obama, and is generally viewed as supportive of labor.) The three Democrats in question were the usual suspects, Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Krysten Sinema (Arizona), and Mark Kelly (Arizona). In 2021 they also opposed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which had already been passed by the House of Representatives. Explaining his position, Kelly claimed that he has “heard from a lot of business owners”,[5] which tells you all you need to know about whose interests he prioritizes.

In the present climate, a sudden sea change in political thinking and calculations seems unlikely. But one never knows. The dire shortage of care workers may soon be just one of many crises in different sectors. If a similar problem reaches unmanageable proportions in health care, teaching, social work, transportation, and other fields, the need for an entirely different approach to how we distribute wealth–one that recognizes what our society truly needs, and what a worker truly contributes–might start to seem more rational to almost everyone.






[1] These details about care work in New York are taken from Ai-jen Poo and Llana Berger, “Many of us want to age at home. But that option is fading fast.” New York Times, March 30, 2022.

[2] US Census, Income and poverty in the United Sates: 2020.

[3] Statista

[4] Reported in the New Yok Times, April 2, 2022

[5] Timothy Noah, “David Weil’s defeat on the Senate floor is an outrage.” Politico, March 31, 2022.