Essay (with valuable links): Economics, social attitudes toward FLO public goods, and "care work"


I just listened to this excellent podcast episode:[1]

This matched my experience reading Jaron Lanier’s books. The podcast is well worth listening to for his outstanding, clear diagnosis and descriptions of problems. But he’s mediocre at prescribing solutions.

In the interview, Lanier insightfully compared the economics of FLO public goods (which he describes as the “information should be free” attitude) to the traditional under-valuing of “women’s work”, i.e.:

The tensions around care work are described excellently and accessibly by David Graeber in his newest book:

In essence, work from which people take deep intinsic meaning is, in some senses, more liable to exploitation in that people will more readily accept being underpaid (or more broadly, struggling economically) if they at least have intrinsic rewards from their work. This leads to a perversion where people who sell their souls doing bullshit or otherwise uninspiring work feel that they are giving up intrinsic meaning to get paid — so they resent the idea that others could ask for both economic satisfaction and intrinsic meaning. As Graeber puts in his original essay:

…but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?

Back to the podcast, Lanier takes a stance against FLO public goods using an argument that amounts to saying that women’s care work should be brought up to speed with the rest of the normal economy, should be given more dollars. Or rather, knowledge work (journalism, coding, art, etc.) should have some enforced micropayment, monetization system.

I grant Lanier’s point that a complex charge system would be less crazy than today’s insanely complicated targeted ad-tech behavior-modification infrastructure that’s destroying our society.

But the direction of pricing care work seems to me among the worst, potentially destructive, solutions. So, women are underpaid, caring work is undervalued, FLO public goods get exploited and lack funding… and thus we should commodify everything? Put a price on each mother’s hug or figure out standardized ways to measure every aspect of teaching so that we can force these things into the dominant economic model?

Using some widely-misunderstood political language: Lanier argues that things like care work and art that do not naturally fit into Capitalism should be forced to fit it. He doesn’t seem interested in questioning the Capitalist assumptions, and he ends up taking the wrong side in the battle of peer to peer communism vs the client-server state:

(that talk covers this whole issue excellently and clarifies terms very accessibly)

We need to treat more of our world as care work (or as lowercase-c communism, as David Graeber would say). We need to enable more engagement in profound, human practical wisdom. For all the non-economic considerations, it was wonderful to see music decommodified. While great art needs economic support, capitalist systems don’t deliver it without undermining the art’s integrity. The same goes for even more normal market products. Consider, for example, much of what’s wrong in the housing market and how much more meaningful homes and communities can be when driven by the passions of the residents rather than the profits of developers.

We need economic systems that support caring work in its natural state. We want more interactions on a human social level rather than in a market level or a big-data technical level. And where we do use algorithms, they should be values-based, not behavior-based:

We don’t want an outcome where we most fund the musical equivalents of clickbait and outrage porn. We want to fund art that people truly value, not just what happens to capture their attention.

As a private music teacher, I don’t give grades or fill out forms. I get to focus on being the best guide and coach I can for each student, including all the care work and not just as a medium for technical information. The part of my career I hate the most is setting prices and the rest of what goes with that. I never regret when I push away from business-focus and instead connect to students in a deeper human way.

What we need are solutions to support people economically while freeing them to invest fully in care work without corrupting its core human nature.[2] and crowdmatching aim to give people economic stability while they work naturally on inspired, creative public goods — not to price such work by the commit, word, or minute.

  1. at 1.6x speed via the excellent FLO AntennaPod app (installed via F-Droid). ↩︎

  2. Graeber endorses efforts toward Universal Basic Income (UBI) as the one existing strong movement compatible with his theses around bullshit jobs and meaningful life. But he takes pains to explicitly emphasize (unlike Lanier) that his work is really only about the diagnosis and that he only offers a potential solution grudgingly. Note that UBI remains controversial; and done best it should replace only means-tested welfare systems (which are a big source of the bullshit jobs Graeber describes) and not replace other universal welfare systems (like universal health care, education, access to clean water, and so on) which should be enhanced ideally. If a UBI were used as an excuse to reduce those programs, it could be very destructive in the end. On another side-note: I'd like to connect to Graeber more to get his support for eventually… ↩︎

Issues with referencing or validating known people or institutions in today's dysfunctional online world

This post is excellent and I have nothing really to add. Care to post it on Snowdrift’s blog?