Abandon the Protestant Work Ethic

By Rinaldo Brutoco   |   July 2, 2020

I’ve been thinking lately about all the money that’s been flowing into the economy from the CARES Act. The $500+ billion that went to big corporations has been in the news lately – mostly because of the brouhaha over Treasury Secretary Mnuchin refusing to tell the Congress how much he gave, to whom he gave it, for what, and with what conditions (if any). Transparency is the least of the issues here. Unbelievable corruption is clearly on the table. That’s what always follows from hundreds of billions of dollars being thrown around in secret. No one knows who got that money. One day, however, the truth will come out and I predict with great confidence it won’t be pretty.

The portion of the relief bill that really interests me, however, is the $400+ billion that was intended to go directly to Americans all over the country in the form of direct payments. This amount, together with the $600 per week of enhanced unemployment payments paid by the Federal Government, is what has kept the American economy afloat for the past few months. It’s the only thing that is keeping vast numbers of Americans, millions of Americans, from falling into desperate poverty. And, fortunately, it’s the smartest investment we can make for the immediate present to keep the economy alive, and as a bridge to a better tomorrow.

As recent experiments in direct monetary relief show, a small amount of monthly cash given directly to people who need it is the most effective anti-poverty strategy ever imagined. The reality is that everyone in the bottom 75 percent of American’s wealth structure spends most everything they have as soon as they can, primarily for necessities. That’s what makes our consumer-based economy work. No matter how many yachts the uber rich buy, it doesn’t help us because a) it represents an infinitesimally small amount of total dollars, and b) the yacht was almost certainly built in some other country!

The current cash support programs are set to expire sequentially in July, August, and September, we have to ask: How will the economy stay afloat going forward? Has the Federal government become the “EMPLOYER OF LAST RESORT”? Should it be? And if not, how do we address the multiple challenges of fewer workers needed in manufacturing as robots invade the shop floor, our groceries are checked out by a computer, and an 18-wheeler can get to Miami from Los Angeles without a driver? The simple truth is that we won’t have enough 40 hour per week jobs for everyone who wants one. We’ll end up with unemployment at year end in the ten to 15 percent range if we are lucky! That totals 20,000,000 to 28,000,000 people! Currently we have no plan for all that excess labor in certain white collar fields. Simultaneously we have a total undersupply of labor in activities like farm worker, housemaid, janitor, and other perceived to be “less desirable” blue collar jobs. How to resolve?

First, for the toughest jobs Americans don’t want, we should immediately set up a vigorous Guest Worker Program that will permit foreign nationals the opportunity to come to work for a set period of time up to nine months (although entry for periods as short as one season or three months should always be allowed so the Guest Worker can maintain a “real life” in their country of origin). These Guest Workers would receive a livable wage, contribute into our income tax and SSI systems, and enjoy the full protection of the law for all health, safety, and regulatory matters. That’s easy to set up, completely benign, and would be both good for the U.S. and for the Guest Workers themselves who would no longer be harassed crossing the border, or abused by improper labor practices.
With regard to our own citizens, it is clear we have to be much more creative and courageous. We need to figure out how to employ the tens of millions of people that will not have a job available for them on January 1st, 2021. We’re just going to have to look for innovative ways to lower our unemployment rate.

Let’s start by agreeing to totally reconstruct our collapsing national infrastructure. Let’s rebuild the 55 percent of all bridges that are unsafe to drive on. Let’s build high-speed inter- and intra-urban rail systems that will move people and “goods” more efficiently and economically. It is stunning to realize that the U.S. invented economic long-distance rail and now has a worse rail system than every other modern industrial nation. We also have to rebuild all of our fossil fuel-based energy systems to create energy that is “green,” sustainable, and far more affordable than our current mess of tangled monopolies, oligopolies, and compromised political leaders.
Interest rates are almost zero, the economy is in the tank. We have to look at copying Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s idea for the Civil Conservation Corp (the “CCC”)? We could begin repairing all those bridges and building those grand new public spaces with CCC labor. Have you been to Yosemite and seen the grand Lodge, or to Mt. Hood to see that mountain top retreat? Those gorgeous buildings were built by the CCC which in its nine-year history employed over 3,000,000 single, unemployed men on Federal land until the Depression ended.

We also ought to reduce the average work week from the 50+ hours down to 35 hours and redefine 35 hours as full time. Whatever you were making at 40 hours per week you’d be paid for 35 instead! That alone would create over three million new jobs and would leave us more personal time to remember what makes us “human” in the first place. We shouldn’t feel guilty to want to work fewer hours – we should think of ourselves as very forward-looking. For those of you thinking we couldn’t pay for such an “extravagance,” drop me an email and I’ll explain how the entire program would actually pay for itself just as the current 40 hour per week set up does.

Tragically, the biggest thing holding us back from the foregoing practical solutions to our current economic crisis is our inappropriate clinging to the Protestant Work Ethic.

The Protestant Work Ethic is the belief that hard work justifies our existence, and everyone should be made to work hard as a way to “earn their keep.” Interesting how billionaires and mega-millionaires never seem to be worried about the Protestant Work Ethic, because if you’re rich enough, it doesn’t apply to you! They live off their dividends, tax breaks, tax shelters, and other forms of “passive” income. They don’t use the “sweat of their brow” so they hold society captive to a level of unconscionable “benign neglect” for the poor. The rich fail to see why everyone doesn’t drive a Mercedes. If the poor worked hard enough, surely they would have a Mercedes in their driveway too! We all know that is totally absurd. The disadvantages that start at birth, and are multiplied as a young adult from a disadvantaged background squirms his way through a mostly broken public education system and ultimately finds himself on the bottom rung of society’s economic ladder.

The plain truth is that by helping each other up from our humblest origins to whatever plateau our talent can take us is a true hero’s journey. As almost every emigrant knows, it is the essence of the true “American Story.” It is what we have done for 400 years in the U.S.: risen from what the sweat of our brow could produce (the Puritan Ethic) to what the creative ingenuity of our consciousness freed from survival thinking could create.


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