Ethical Dimensions of Capital

This module will examine two modern perspectives on money as an expression of ethics in the policy. One comes from the problem that nearly half of America’s work jobs that they themselves describe as unimportant or worthless, yet they are still expected to perform as if the work and standards matter. The other article will examine collective commitments to a hospitable society and public infrastructure, with a focus on the implications for taxation and ownership. As with anything we read, the goal is not for you to agree with the perspectives we read but instead to understand a new point of view. We are examining these writings to build your sophistication and understanding of capitalism, corporate/organizational responsibility, and community ethics. Michael McCarthy is a utilitarian in his essay “Don’t the Rich Deserve to Keep their Money?” (2016). Whereas some claim that “taxation of earnings from labor is on par with forced labor,” McCarthy calls this perspective naive and a “bookkeeping trick.” If the liberal credo is “do your fair share” and the libertarian credo is “taxation is theft,” McCarthy claims liberals fall for the same trick libertarians fall for, which is that liberals think of wages as something they simply earn (and give up as taxes for the common good). Instead, McCarthy sees this as a bookkeeping trick, because wages are never something we simply “earn” on our own without public aid. If you have a job, everything from the education you’ve received to the roads you drove in on is paid for by someone else. On a larger scale, every business in a capitalist economy requires a basic level of infrastructure, and a government shoring up labor markets and money markets to keep the system in motion. So McCarthy says it is naive to think that my wages are simply “mine”; society helped create the conditions and infrastructure you use every day. After explaining tax policy, he invokes a theorist named Isaiah Berlin to describe Negative Freedom and Positive Freedom. Americans tend to think of freedom only in negative categories (“freedom from” coercion, force, etc.), and we are less likely to think of “freedom to…” as positive (access to free education even at college level, healthcare, family leave, etc.). David Graeber is an anthropologist and anarchist who has spent much of his career thinking about debt, bureaucracy, and the ethics of demeaning work. His recent book Bullshit Jobs: a Theory is an expansion of the article you will read in this module (and I highly recommend the book!). Graeber ended up commissioning research that demonstrates about 40% of Americas believe their job is “bullshit”—not so much hard or bad as much as it is literally worthless either way. And if we add up hard jobs that actually do contribute something but contribute for a useless job/corporation (such as janitors who do real work for a business that perhaps shouldn’t exist), then we might say that more than half of all workers are doing work that need not be done—contributing nothing even though (ironically enough) the jobs that get paid the most often contribute fairly little. I hope you will think about what this means for how we discipline, surveil, make demands, and follow through on expectations in the workplace! In both of these reading selections, business responsibility ends up being a way to think about ethics writ large: what is the community’s responsibility to the individual (and vice versa).

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